Saturday, December 31, 2005

My 27th wedding anniversary was yesterday and my wife and I went to the movies, as is our habit.

Our batting average has been rather good unless of course we follow a recommendation from our good friend Mr. X. My wife still hasn’t trusted one of his picks since the time he swore Dumb and Dumber was a GREAT film.

We were the ones who were dumb and dumber to actually believe him.

(Our problem with the film was that it wasn’t dumb enough. It didn’t have the courage to be truly idiotic but had to include a romance that was suppose to add a dimension to the character played by Jim Carrey. Ecch!)

Anyway, we saw a stinker yesterday all on our own unaided by Mr. X. Because we love Asian cinema and because we love Ziyi Zhang and Michelle Yeoh we saw Memoirs of a Geisha.

It was a beautifully designed, well-acted, brilliantly photographed story of child abuse, teen abuse and young woman abuse that has a pay-off tinged with the heady scent of pedophilia.

We knew it was not going to be a comedy. We knew that it wasn’t going to be some 90-minute film. But I knew it was not going to be a hit with my wife when after all sorts of terrible plot twists there wasn’t a need for tissue.

Generally if my wife cries at a movie I know she has liked it.

This one generated not a single tear – just a sore behind.

The movie’s pay-off is so frickin’ twisted that I was sincerely amazed.


Our heroine has endured a life-time of pain and suffering just to be near the one person who has shown her a kindness – he bought her a snow cone when she was nine-years-old – and when she finally gets the chance as a 30 year-old woman to express her feelings to him (she loves him of course) she finds out that he was so moved by her at age nine he orchestrated her geisha training.

Naturally he’s in love with her. Naturally he’s married and they can’t ever be together.

Now I’m used to unhappy endings in Chinese movies (if it’s a love story, you know someone is going to die), but this was just too much for us to process.

We would probably have had a better time at Cheaper by the Dozen II, a film that I hope never to have to see.

Back at home, though, I watched a new Michelle Yeoh DVD that seemed like a steps backwards for her. Being in a film such as Geisha – a prestige picture – that one doesn’t expect that she would have never consented to star in Silver Hawk, a blissfully nonsensical comic book movie.

She co-produced the film in which she stars as Lou Lou, rich lady by day and Silver Hawk, high tech kung fu-ing superhero by night.

Jingle Ma’s direction rolls right over any of the gaping plot holes. I didn’t care if the film had the feel of a 1988 Hong Kong production with 2004 (when it was made) techniques. The silliness felt good.

Hey, Michelle is kicking ass while wearing silver hot pants and a slitted duster to match. And she rescues pandas! BABY PANDAS!

Hong Kong fans will probably like this film for its throwback sensibilities, although I’m sure that many other viewers might not be so open-minded.

I picked up my copy for $14 at Best Buy. Worth every nickel I make working for THE MAN.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

As a reporter, you may not get much respect or much pay, but you can have some fun. In the late 1990s I wrote for a local monthly publication titled VMag, published by my friend Steve Murphy. I had written a piece on the strip club industry for Steve (under a pen name as I was working for a college at the time and it would have probably cost me my job) and Steve asked me to do the following story, which never made its way to print until now.

By "Judge" G. Michael Dobbs

With the ads announcing this year's Miss Nude New England Pageant at Anthony’s, I couldn't help but remember when the editor of this fine publication wanted me to cover it.

It was the dream assignment for any red-blooded American freelance writer. "Dobbs, I want you to be a judge at the Miss Nude New England Pageant at Anthony's, " said my editor in the gravest of tones." And I want you to write about it for VMAG." He paused. "By the way, you'll get two free drinks a night."

Not only was this potentially another great clip for the scrapbook, it was another notation on the resume. I was so proud as my friends and colleagues offered their congratulations and I began thinking about how my robes should look.

For the uninitiated, the exotic dance industry is highly structured. Dancers who work regularly at a club are known as "house dancers." House dancers in most situations work only for tips they receive from grateful audience members. There's no salary, no benefits, and in fact, the dancers often must give a percentage to the disc jockey and wait staff. If these women wish to graduate to a more lucrative position, they have to become a" feature," a dancer who travels around the country and can command up to $5,000 a booking because of who she is or what she does.

There are three kinds of features. Because a large percentage of exotic dance clubs in the country are topless only, a number of women fall into the "breast act" category. These women, in consultation with plastic surgeons and structural engineers, buy the largest fake breasts their bodies and budgets can handle and go on the road with names such as "Twin Peaks," "Nikki Knockers," or "Wendi Whoppers."

The second classification is porn stars who use their 15 minutes of notoriety to separate cash from the guys who want to see Nina Hartley or Jenna Jamison up close and personal.

The third group is the women who do pictorials in men's magazines, posters, and calendars, but won't have sex on camera. They use their appearances in print as their claim to fame.

A title can help propel a house dancer into a larger tax bracket. That's why a group of young women assembled at Anthony's in South Hadley the week of May 17. If you are the reigning "Miss Nude New England" that denotes to a discriminating audience member that you are a cut above. While much as changed in adult entertainment since the relatively innocent days of Gypsy Rose Lee, one rule remains the same - "you've got to have a gimmick."

A house dancer can make decent money ($200 to $500) a night by feigning an interest in patrons, having a drink with them, and introducing them to the promised (but never delivered) pleasures of the table dance room. To be a successful feature, you must to something on stage besides whirl around a bit and reveal all for a dollar. You have to have an act.

A pageant such as this one at Anthony's serves two purposes. It gives dancers a chance to introduce or hone an act, and it gives the club the chance to hike up the cover charge a few bucks.

As someone who has seen dozens of feature acts and interviewed many people in the exotic dance industry, I felt uniquely qualified to act as a judge. I was happy to meet my other distinguished jurists on the first night. The doorman brought me over to the special judge seating and introduced me to Judge Chuck and Judge Wayne-o, both fine gentlemen.

The rest of the seats were empty and I soon learned that judging such a contest had a democratic tradition. Members of the audience could also be judges. Unlike Chuck, Wayne-o and myself, these judges obtained their commissions by being the highest bidder in an auction. One gentleman so wanted the honor (plus a calendar, a tee shirt and two free drinks) that he bid $65. His top bid also bought him a vintage Star Wars collectible doll. Free alcohol, close proximity to beautiful nude women, and a doll that could fetch big money on e-Bay – life is seldom better than this!

The club was charged with excitement each of the three nights I attended. Well, perhaps not Tuesday night when there were stretches in which there were more dancers and their boyfriends than patrons. But on Thursday night the place was packed with feature and house dancers, club owners, photographers, booking agents, boy friends, and patrons.

Our charge was to give a score of 1 to 10 to each contestant in the following categories: facial beauty, body, personality, talent, and beauty queen image. The last category was a puzzler because with the exception of Vanessa Williams, no beauty queen I've heard of has showed off her privates in public. However we carried on.

Judges Chuck and Wayne-o struggled as I did in establishing some sort of criteria in judging. Judge Chuck quickly determined he wanted polkas to be played as the accompanying music. Jimmy Sturr polkas to be precise, and he was quite disappointed when the deejay insisted on playing rock and roll.

My standards also evolved quickly. I wanted to see old-time show business. There are lots of beautiful dancers who can get naked on stage, but I wanted to reward someone who actually had an act, who was trying to raise the bar a bit.

Two women immediately led the way. Eva Nicole pulled out all the stops in one act, which concluded, with her sitting in a huge champagne glass mixing a giant margarita. Aside from the nudity, it was something legendary Busby Berkeley might have done with Carmen Miranda fifty years ago.

The winner on my scorecard was Leah Lei, a gymnastic blonde dancer, who clearly put great thought into what she was doing. Her best act was one in which she popped out of a garbage can in a hobo cat outfit to a set of songs about cats. Very attractive and with a sense of humor, she reminded me of the kind of burlesque act I've read about from the golden years of the business.

I wasn't around for the crowning of the winner. After three nights, I had learned that too much is sometimes enough.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Several years ago I had the opportunity of running the Too Much Coffee Man comic strip in one of our publications and I wish I had the budget to run it in our weeklies. When I learned that Shannon Wheeler had a new collection out I wanted to give him some press. The following is the story:

With a skin-tight suit with the letters "TMCM" emblazoned on the chest and a headpiece - or head - shaped liked a coffee mug, one might assume that Too Much Coffee Man is a superhero of sorts.

Despite the costume - and the large coffee mug head - Too Much Coffee Man doesn't have any super powers and he doesn't fight super villains. He muddles through life like most of us do, questioning just why he is here and what's going on.

Too Much Coffee man is the star of a weekly syndicated comic strip by Portland, Ore., cartoonist Shannon Wheeler. Wheeler's new collection, How to be Happy: Too Much Coffee Man is now available through books stores and Wheeler's website

The current collection is sarcastically described as a self-help book, but in reality Wheeler's cartoons take a biting look at human behavior, American society and Bush Administration politics.

Wheeler explained to Reminder Publications that he has writing and drawing the Too Much Coffee man strip for over ten years.

"I'm built to do it," he said with a laugh.

Originally presented in a mini-comic format - an eight-page format - Wheeler admitted that his creation had far less to do as a parody of superheroes and far more the result of a search for something that would appeal to people who hang out in coffee shops.

Although many of his cartoons are very political, Wheeler who grew up in Berkeley, Ca., doesn't consider himself as political as the residents of his hometown. He is a self-described "news junkie."

He said that by following the news every day, he gets angry and that the anger leads to astonishment. He expects to rise up in protest and start a revolution, he added.

"It's the best soap opera around," he said with a laugh.

Don't expect a lot of caricatures of the president and senators in his strips, though. Wheeler uses more subtle visual representations, such as a little boy with over-sized hands to represent George W. Bush.

Wheeler's strips frequently cause a reader to question himself. Among his favorite themes are rampant consumerism and how Christmas can depress people.

When asked if he hates Christmas, Wheeler laughed.

"I actually enjoy it," he said. What he doesn't like is the "inordinate pressure to consume" the holiday brings with it.

"My family was not all that materialistic. It wasn't a major consumer holiday for us," he added.

Too Much Coffee Man has been joined over the years by a number of regular supporting characters including Espresso Guy, a curmudgeon who has a demitasse cup strapped to his head. Wheeler said that many people pressured him to create a "Too Much Tea Guy" and "Too Much Hershey Man." He said they just didn't understand what he was doing.

So, he brought in Espresso Guy "just to shut people up," and the character has worked out well as a foil to Too Much Coffee Man.

One strip has Espresso Guy coming up with the ultimate moneymaking scam - he has copyrighted the copyright symbol: ©.
"Now when someone uses a © they have to pay me a royalty," he declared.

In response, Too Much Coffee Man said, " I flip between hating him and wishing I had though of it first."

Wheeler said that one of his main inspirations has been underground cartoonist Gilbert Shelton, the creator of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. Shelton's artistic sensibility of his blending political commentary with humor was one lesson Wheeler learned from him.

Another was selling the same material two to three times. Originally Wheeler put his characters in comic books. For the past few years, he has syndicated his strip into newspapers and then released collections.

Wheeler also started a magazine, which collected other comic strips, essays and articles on popular culture and coffee.
When Wheeler started publishing his comics, there were a number of distributors that serviced comic book shops. Today there is one major distributor and Wheeler has diversified to make sure not all of his eggs are in one basket.

He said that the comic book market, especially for novices, is "real tough."

"I see other people starting out and it's hard," he added.

Fans can read Too Much Coffee Man on his website, if a newspaper in their area doesn't carry it. And Wheeler's magazine, which is available in bookstores, also carried the strip.

His website also features a number of Too Much Coffee Man products, from tee shirts to a lunch box.

Wheeler has put the magazine on hiatus while he returns to comic books with two non-Coffee Man projects, but he will start it back up at some point as he enjoyed working with his contributors.

Although Wheeler has made Too Much Coffee Man available to different audiences, there's one who probably never sees it: television audiences. Wheeler said that companies wanting to make an animated version of his strip have approached him.

Each one has offered a treatment in which Too Much Coffee Man uses coffee like Popeye used spinach. That's not what the strip is about.

"It's [an offer] has come an gone three times," he said.

Maybe those guys have been drinking too much espresso.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Sorry about taking a few days off, but it’s been the holidays.

I saw King Kong recently and have to first admit that I was predisposed to like it as I think Peter Jackson is a marvelous director. I especially wanted to see the film after I viewed the extras on the 1933 Kong DVD in which Jackson had his crew recreate the original stop motion animation as an exercise to further their understanding and appreciation of the work they were about to adapt.

I wish I could join the chorus of admirers of this new version, but I can’t. While the animation is marvelous, the attitude toward the original film is clearly one of love and respect and the production values are lavish, I can’t help but feel that Jackson missed the boat on several key points.

Movies are documents of their time. I can accept the plot shortcuts of the first film because of the time in which it was produced. I can’t accept them in this edition.

With a three-hour running time, Jackson made some curious and unfortunate choices about which material to present on the screen.

While I liked the build-up to the arrival of Skull Island very much and thought it was well paced, once we are on the island, the plot develops problems.

Simply put, Jackson clearly couldn’t tear himself away from that part of the film. The brontosaurus stampede sequence went on way too far and I had problem that stubby Carl Denham carrying his camera could actually dodge being trampled by one set of beasts or eaten by another.

The fight between Kong and the T Rexes also dragged because of Jackson’s continually upping the ante. One T Rex isn’t enough we have to have three. Throwing them into the crevice isn’t good enough, we have to have them fighting while hanging.

As an animation fan, I loved what was happening on screen for art, but those two sequences actually stopped the narrative dead because of their length.

Jackson also chose to build up secondary characters at the expense of the pace of the film. I’m still not sure why there was so much time allotted to some of the crewmembers of The Venture.

In fact, I’m confused just how many crewmembers were on that ship considering that 17 of them were killed on the island!

It’s interesting that the producer of the original Kong cut the famed “spider pit” sequence because it stalled the narrative. It does in this film as well. It’s a nice creepy sequence whose only story purpose is to eliminate more crewmembers.

And having Kong attacked by the vampire bats that live in the cave that clearly he frequents makes no sense at all. Kong isn’t stupid. He wouldn’t be hanging out enjoying the sunset on a regular basis if he knew hundreds of blood-sucking bats were going to try to eat him!

Perhaps my biggest problem was that Jackson avoided showing exactly what Cooper and O’Brien avoided in their production: just how Denham and company managed to transport Kong back to New York. With a three hour running time, I thought that some of it would be dedicated to this glossed-over plot point, but it wasn’t.

As my friends Mark and Jeannie Martin pointed out, if the crew of The Venture had to lighten the ship to get it away from the rocks of Skull Island how could they have put a zillion ton ape on board?

Once back in New York, the recreation of Depression era city was impressive, as was the realization of just what a Kong Broadway show was like, however this part of the film was not without its problems.

If you set out as a filmmaker to create a real as fantasy as possible (and clearly that was Jackson’s intent) then you can’t pick and chose what is “real.” While it’s marvelous to make Kong as life-like as technically possible, you still need to acknowledge that Ann Darrow couldn’t possibly spend a winter’s night rushing around with Kong wearing next to nothing.

Also it was difficult to take that there are no winds blowing about at the top of the Empire State Building.

Perhaps the biggest problem I had with the conclusion of the film. Jackson wants audiences to identify with Kong in a far deeper way than what was attempted in the first film. Ann and Kong have a true relationship. Jackson makes the point that they are both alone in the world and adds the dimension of communication between them.

So when Kong is killed I thought we see Carl Denham get his come-uppance. We don’t’ and that struck me as particularly stupid.

Robert Armstong’s Carl Denham was a slight caricature of the 1920-‘30s adventurer. Armstrong’s character was egotistical and greedy, but he wasn’t malicious. He operated in an era that put animals in steel and concrete zoo cages and believed that was humane and state of the art.

Re-making a 1930s film for a 2005 audience cannot be done without the contemporary audience bringing a 2005 perspective to the material. We know that what was done to Kong was criminal. By making Kong a far more sympathetic character the wrongs done to him seem worse than those presented in the original.

Therefore we need a punch line. We need to see Carl Denham led away by the cops. Jackson avoids all of this and it is counter to his own vision of the character. As played by Jack Black, Denham is more than just a white hunter type, he is a villain. He is a cheater, a liar and a kidnapper. He causes the deaths of dozens of people. He puts into motion the death of Kong. Unlike the Armstrong character he is truly malicious.

And malicious characters need their punishment. Did Jackson think that audiences truly care about Darrow and Driscoll making up? No. We care about Kong and, frankly, I doubt that I’m alone in wanting to Denham to have something very bad happen to him.

It’s interesting to note that in Son of Kong, Armstrong’s character is seen fleeing New York because of the havoc he created.

The new King Kong is not a bad movie, but it is not a satisfying film given its resources and length.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

With the record-setting cold snap, this Christmas season will be long remembered – at least as long as it takes us to finish paying our heating bills.

It will also be remembered as the year that the line was drawn in the sand in the so-called “cultural wars.” Various Christians have taken a stand that the phrase “Merry Christmas” should not just be a salutation of the holidays, but a battle cry as well.

I find it grimly interesting that the celebration of the birth of the Messiah should be used to advance what is actually a political agenda. The culture war involves issues such as abortion, capital punishment, homosexual marriage, and what is called “secularism” in general. Whether or not to say “Merry Christmas” is a seasonal part of this conflict.

I wish how I could figure out how to post a cartoon from the front page of the Dec. 24, 1896 edition of the old Life magazine, a humor and commentary publication that preceded by decades the Life most of us know. It shows Santa in the stocks with a caption from the records from Mass General Court, May 11, 1659: “For preventing disorders arising in several places within this jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other communities, to the great dishonor of God and offense of others: it is therefore ordered by this Court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offense five shillings as a fine to the county.”

As you can see, Christmas has long been a source of controversy.

In the same issue there is cartoon that has Santa retiring as the turn-of-the-century children were too jaded and sophisticated for him.

In a Christmas issue of Life from 1922, there are pieces about over-spending at Christmas and the true meaning of the holiday. Ads use Saint Nick as a shill for Michelin tires and Murad cigarettes.

I always thought Santa was a pipe man.

My point is that Christmas has long carried with it a mixed blessing of genuine good will and religious observation with commercialism and social obligation.

And there have been at certain times in American history when the observation of Christmas was frowned upon and even illegal.

The historians at Old Sturbridge Village have reminded us for years that in New England in the 1830s no up-standing Protestant celebrated Christmas in the manner of those decadent European Catholics with their Christmas trees, gift-giving and tales of St. Nicholas.

So why do we have to continue this strife? Why can’t we all be comfortable with our own celebration of our faith and traditions? Why do we need to say things and do things that betray the most essential meaning of Christ’s birth?

I’m all in favor of putting the Christ back in Christmas. I support minimizing the commercial frenzy. But I will not support using a greeting that is designed to show caring as a weapon.

Merry Christmas and Season’s Greetings.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

I was thinking the other day of just how many classic cartoons ARE NOT on DVD, except for those shorts that have fallen into the public domain.

Here's a partial list:
The Fleischer Betty Boops and Popeyes
The work of Walter Lantz
The work of Tex Avery at MGM
Terrytoons in general
The work of UPA during its heyday of the 1950s

About the only two studio well represented are Disney and Warners.

Considering the merchandising money generated by Betty Boop, one would think someone would have already put that collection out. The VHS collection did very well.

And Tex Avery, nearly every cartoon fan I know loves Tex. Again, his VHS releases did very well (and are still available).

Woody Woodpecker still has name recognition and the Terrytoons might attract some attention as well.

So why not put these out?

My theory is that the people who are in charge of making these kind of decisions may not know enough about animation to understand the potential of these properties. If you're a 32 year-old exec looking over a catalog of films and determining which should go out on DVD, what is your decision-making process like?

I get DVDs every week to review and I shake my head on wonder at the choices someone has made. Do they really think another Charlton Heston western will sell? Or the 1950s musical of Lil Abner?

It's difficult to become a fan of classic animation when the pickings are so slim.

Friday, December 16, 2005

I just received Richard Fleischer’s memoir about his father Max and devoured it over a two-day period.

I’m going to do a more in depth review of it, but I have to say I was surprised at what Richard did and didn’t do.

I know for a fact that Richard has a deep respect and love for his father and for his father’s accomplishments. This book is a love letter to his dad – that’s not a criticism – but it falls quite short of a comprehensive look at his father’s career and the output of Fleischer Studios.

So I do feel that there is room for my book out there.

One section might surprise some readers – it did me – in which Richard writes that his father created Betty Boop and that Grim Natwick’s assertion that he was the Boopster’s creator were false.

Richard reported that Max gave credit to the many key animators/directors who defined the character, including my friend Myron Waldman who directed more of the Boop shorts than anyone else and created Betty’s dog Pudgey who has figured so prominently in the merchandising.

In all of the time that I researched Max’s life and career I have never uncovered anyone saying that Max designed the character.

In fact, the division of labor at the studio seemed to be quite clear. Max was in charge of the business side while Dave was in charge of production.

Ruth Kneitel, Max’s daughter, did show me a script of a proposed cartoon about mermaids that max had annotated extensively. He had written suggestions for the title and the script contained quite a number of notes. Max came from a cartooning background and I imagine that at times he must have felt an urge to contribute to a cartoon.

Richard wrote that Natwick never made the claim that he had created Betty Boop while Max was alive and only started doing so when Max had passed. I know that when I interviewed Natwick that he felt the should receive some of the profits from the merchandising of the character.

Natwick is no longer around to debate the point.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

From 1982 to 1987 I was the afternoon drive-time talk show host over what was then the only all-talk station in our market.

I always loved radio and for me it was a dream job, except for the pay that was pathetic – $5 an hour! I also earned 75 cents for every live commercial I did. That’s right, every person has his price and mine wasn’t even a buck!

I spoke to a lot of interesting people an as I was the station’s liberal, I received the most creative hate mail.

There’s lots of talk on the radio these days, although precious little is local and that is a shame.

And of course, most of it is conservative, which I find, depending upon my mood, either sad or hateful.

The liberal talkers are a little better although I can’t stand most of the people on AirAmerica because either they are simply bad broadcasters or boring.

The only shining star is Rachel Maddow who has left her early morning news show for a new assignment: a two hour show that will debut in January from 7 to 9 a.m.

I’ve interviewed Rachel twice since she has a strong connection to our area. Here is a piece I ran earlier this year.

NEW YORK CITY – At 8:30 a.m., Rachel Maddow’s workday is done and she admits that she is ready for bed.

Maddow, the former Pioneer Valley radio personality who left the area to co-host the nationally syndicated talk program Unfiltered on Air America, has a new program that started in mid-April, The Rachel Maddow Show. It airs from 5 to 6 a.m. and Maddow admits the adjustment has been a challenge.

"You know I’m not yet adjusted at all. I’m completely out of my mind and I could go to bed right now," she told Reminder Publications with a laugh in a recent telephone interview.

Unfiltered was replaced former television shock host Jerry Springer’s new talk program and Maddow was given a new show and a new time slot.

She described it as being "the front page for Air America." It is the first show of the day offered on the progressive talk network’s schedule and the format is heavy on news reporting and analysis.

Originally, Maddow thought she could arrive at the studio at 3 a.m. to prepare the show, but discovered that she had to arrive at work about 12:15 a.m. to get ready for the program.

She explained that the newspapers on the East Coast put their editions online at midnight so she prepares 11 to 16 stories for her broadcast. She gathers sound bites from major stories as well. She said the work is doing for her new program is "more highly structure" than for Unfiltered.

Maddow’s style is to mix straight news reporting along with commentary.
"We got a good show for your day: a sudden growth of a spine, which is good news, in unexpected quarters of the Democratic Party," Maddow announced in the opening of her May 5th program.

At this point, she is not scheduling guests, but is concentrating on a "rapid fire template" for "people who care about news."

The only element of Unfiltered that carried over to the new show is the commentary on the news by comedian Kent Jones.

Maddow said that low ratings were not the cause for Unfiltered’s demise, rather it was Springer’s availability as a talk show host and his selection of the 9 a.m. to noon Unfiltered time slot that caused the cancellation.

Maddow explained that many affiliate stations immediately picked up the Springer show in order to capitalize on his television notoriety. Springer’s radio show is nothing like his television show. Instead it is a serious liberal talk show.

"I don’t have any regrets," Maddow said. "It was easy to sell the Springer show and really happy to have my own show."

Unfiltered was co-hosted by Maddow, comedian Liz Winstead, and rapper Chuck D and featured numerous interviews with newsmakers, authors and commentators each day.

Saying that the show had an "incredibly loyal" fanbase, Maddow added, "The people who liked us, really liked us."

She noted that the show’s format of having three hosts was different than most talk radio.

"We had an ensemble that was very diverse: a straight black rapper, a feminist comedian and an unknown lesbian activist. We did a great job," she said.

She said she is grateful for the opportunity to continue with the network, but she still has figured out if she should maintain her work-week sleeping schedule through the weekend.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

I'm currently completing a book that collects my non-Fleischer animation writings and presents them in a context to explain what happened to animation in the 1990s– how it went from being considered a children's medium to being one that could be aimed to capture older demographics.

If all goes well it will be out some time next year.

I taking the articles I wrote and up-dating them to show also how things have progressed in the last six or seven years.

Some of the material will be from Animato and Animation Planet, and some will be new to readers. Thoday's entry is one of the new pieces: an interview I did with Joe Dante after the release of his Looney Tunes movies.

Needless to say the following is copyright © 2006 by G. Michael Dobbs.

You know them and you love them. They taught you the great themes of classical music. They showed you that anything marked "Acme" wouldn't work. They even introduced you to your first cross-dresser.

The Warner Brothers cartoon characters - Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Elmer Fudd, Wile E. Coyote and company - are finally back in a vehicle that matches their happily subversive personalities.

The irony about the Warner Brothers cartoon stars is that they are among the most popular animated figures in the world, but until Looney Tunes Back in Action was released, no one really understood how to showcase them in a new movie.

The classic WB cartoons have entertained three generations of kids and adults, but until now efforts to create new cartoons worthy of carrying the torch of the classics have been disappointing. Space Jam? It was nothing but a glorified sneaker commercial starring a basketball player with Bugs and Daffy as support.

Sure this new movie features plenty of flesh and blood stars such as Brendan Fraser, Jenna Elfman and Steve Martin, but the animated characters have someone in their corner, a director who is as subversive as they are.

And that evil genius is Joe Dante.

Dante's newest film shows that even when assigned to shepherding the prize moneymakers of the Warner Brothers merchandising machine the director brings the same sensibilities as seen in the two Gremlins movies, Small Soldiers, and Matinee among others.

If you haven't seen the film, then run out and see it pronto. The plot brings many of the characterizations and situations created by classical cartoon directors Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng and Bob Clampett up to date. Like those three directors, the humor is for both adults and kids and Dante doesn't mind sending up the most sacred cows of today's film industry.

The plot involves Warner Brothers security guard DJ (Brendan Fraser) stumbling upon the fact that his movie star father Damien Drake (Timothy Dalton), who is renowned for playing a James Bondish-like hero, is actually a spy. This revelation takes place on the day he is fired from his job by a Warner VP Kate Houghton (Jenna Elfman) who blames him for not escorting Daffy Duck off the premises whom she has also fired. When the Warner Brothers decide they need Daffy back, they tell her to find him, but Daffy has already taken off with DJ to Las Vegas to find out what has happened to DJ's father.

It seems that Drake was trying to secure a gemstone known as the Blue Monkey that can change people into a monkey and back. It is coveted by the chairman of the evil Acme Corporation (Steve Martin) who plans to turn humanity into monkeys to work in his factories and then back to humans to buy the goods they just made.

Along the way we are treated to a barrage of gags that demands repeated viewings. You have to love a scene in which Porky Pig and Speedy Gonzales discuss their lack of political correctness.

Dante is a rarity in the business. He's a movie nut fan boy who went from seeing as many movies as he could to writing about them to working in the business. Landing a job with legendary low-budget movie producer Roger Corman in the 1970s, Dante created many of the trailers for Corman's New World Pictures. He got his chance to direct when fellow Corman-ite Jon Davison made a bet with Corman that Davison couldn't produce a feature-length film in a week for a reported $50,000.

Davison tagged Dante and Allan Arkush to direct Hollywood Boulevard, a very entertaining drive-in picture. Dante's first solo effort, Piranha - a film Corman described as his version of Jaws - followed and was a huge hit for Corman. Dante's next film, The Howling, a landmark werewolf movie, got the attention of audiences and critics.

Perhaps best known for his two Gremlins films, Dante told The Journal/Bravo in a telephone interview that he has been typecast a bit by the success of his "family fantasies" which is how he became associated with his new film.

Besides his sense of humor, Dante said he brought a technical proficiency to the director's chairs because of so many of his films that featured various special effects. The ability to understand the latest film technology was crucial with this film. Dante explained that within the year and a half production period technology that they had used at the beginning of the shoot had been supplanted by newer hardware and software by the end.

Script went through many changes

He explained that Looney Tunes Back in Action is the culmination of much effort to develop a follow-up film to Space Jam that was released in 1996. Dante said that one script even had Bugs teaming up with action star Jackie Chan.

Finally writer Larry Doyle sold Warner brass on a script in which the characters are going around the world and was broken down into a series of inter-related seven -minute shorts.

Once the production was approved, though, there were still many changes made to the script and Dante said that over the year and a half it took to make the movie, there were "couple of drafts."

He readily admitted that the fact the script wasn't finished that production became "a little scary."

He explained that in the case of this film, Warner Brothers had an open hole on his fall release schedule that had been the place of the next Harry Potter film. Studio execs told Dante that the film had to be finished by that date and so he said they "worked backwards."

The result was an intensive year of filmmaking with six months of shooting the live action scenes and a year of creating the animation. Dante noted that for the amount of animation and the level of quality that had to be met normally the work would have taken two years.

"They [the animation crew] did a great job," he said. "Everyone worked seven days a week."
Dante worked with animation director Eric Goldberg, a Disney veteran who animated the Genie in Aladdin among other accomplishments. Although in most films that marry animation and live action the live action is shot well-before the animation begins, in this film the live action production overlapped with the animation because of the film's quick production schedule.
Both Dante and Goldberg directed the vocal performers. Joe Alaskey performed most of the roles originated by the late Mel Blanc, including Bugs and Daffy. Billy West, the lead vocal performer on the Futurama series and the original Ren and Stimpy shorts, performed Elmer Fudd. Springfield [MA] native June Foray reprised her role of Granny she has been performing since 1955. Dante had high praise for all of the voice performers, especially Alaskey.

"It's a very tedious process," Dante explained of the voice recording and said that Alaskey had to do some takes 10 to 12 times to make sure he sounded as much like Mel Blanc as he could.

Performing the voices took talent and patience, as did acting in front of the cameras with characters that weren't on the set. "It takes a specific talent to look into space," said Dante of his live action cast. Dante added that "actors like to get something back" and that a lack of reaction from a co-star who is yet to be drawn makes the job tougher.

He said male lead Brendan Fraser was a "standalone candidate" for his role because he has had experience acting in special effects-heavy films such as The Mummy movies and Monkeybone. His being attractive to women and a good actor didn't hurt him either.

The cast also includes many performers who are members of the Dante stock company including Mary Woronov, Robert Picardo, and naturally Dick Miller. Miller, a highly recognizable character actor who has appeared literally in hundreds of movies and television shows, has been in every one of Dante's films and there's a rumor that Dante will rejects scripts if there isn't a part for Miller in it.

He rejected that notion with a laugh and explained that he grew up watching Miller in films and when he started with Corman he was introduced to him and started using him in his films whenever possible.

Movie lampoons corporate filmmaking

The irony about the film is that it satirizes the corporate mindset of the motion picture industry - a mindset that was quite apparent in this production. There was a lot riding on this film - it was the studio's Thanksgiving family release with a reported $100 million budget and starred characters that have generated millions of dollars in licensing money.

Dante said there were "many many voices" from studio executives on the film's story and gags.

"This was a difficult production," he admitted.

With this kind of film, Dante didn't have the luxury of reviewing complete sequences as they were made because the animation wasn't complete.

"You can't even look at what you have," he said.

Studio execs and test audiences were shown cuts of the film that lacked finished animation that didn't result in truly informed opinions.

"When all the animation was done it was a revelation," he said.

Because of the film was post-production for a year, there were many alterations to it. Dante said he would second guess himself on whether a gag was funny enough to make a final cut and said there was actually "a tremendous amount of improv" resulting from the editing.

The result is that Dante and company crammed as many gags into the film as they could. Dante explained that as a "child of Mad Magazine, who read the jokes in the margins," he has been "over-stuffing" his movies for years.

Originally the film was two hours in length and Dante had to cut it down to a more reasonable running time for a family film and to pick up the pace.

One part of the film which has thrilled horror and science fiction fans almost didn't make the final cut. Bugs, Daffy, DJ and Kate are taken to Area 52 where various alien monsters are kept. Area 51 by the way is just for the tourists!

There, Mother (played by Joan Cusack) oversees the internment of infamous creatures from B-movies of the past including the mutant from This Island Earth, the brain from Fiend Without a Face, the Ro-Man from Robot Monster and the Daleks from the Dr. Who television series. Marvin the Martian is among those being kept in over-sized Mason jars.

The sequence is funny and nostalgic, but Dante said that some people viewing the test prints thought the monsters were "corny" and instead an animated sequence with Pepe Le Pew was used.

Thankfully, Dante prevailed and the witty scene was restored to the film, although some of the footage did remain out of the film. Dante has just completed working on the supplemental materials for the DVD release and said that 28 minutes of unseen footage will be featured on the disc, although more could have been included.

What's up Joe?

With the film completed, Dante stood back and watched how the production was promoted and released. For reasons he couldn't fathom, the studio did not push the film as much as it could have, and it has not been the box office smash it could have been.

Dante said that he usually is thinking about his next picture while he is finishing a film, but because this shoot took so long and was so involved, he paid complete attention to Looney Tunes. He is not sure what the next project will be but he is sure it won't be another fantasy film for families.

Postscript: Although Joe's career was derailed for a while by the film's failure at the box office, he has received great reviews for his contribution to the Showtime special series Masters of Horror.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Here's a story I wrote for this week's papers. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles proved that one can never tell what the next pop culture hit might be or where it might come from.

Do you ever think that there’s nothing on television to watch? Jeff Jubinville did, but then he did something about it – the Granby resident wrote his own television series and is in the process of getting produced.

A junior at Western New England College, the political science major created Spirit Warriors, an animated series involving four characters at a supernatural martial arts school.

Jubinville said the show works on several levels and has both action and humor.

Jubinville started writing the show a year ago and has contracted with a Utah-based animation studio to produce a three and half-minute presentation reel.

Jubinville and Uprising Motion Studios plan to introduce the program at the National Association of Television Programming Executives annual convention in Las Vegas on Jan. 24 through 26. He is hoping that show’s preview reel and concept attracts the attention of a network or syndication executive who would like to produce the program.

Jubinville and his parents are financing the show’s pilot themselves.

“My parents definitely support me. They are very generous,” he said.

Jubinville said that he was “not really into TV until I started writing.” He was not an animation fan, either.

He explained that he began analyzing what was on and what people were watching to determine the direction of a new show.

He was attracted to animation because of the freedom the medium allowed him.

So far, Jubinville has over 800 pages of material written and said he was well within a second season of the series. The show has the look and feel of anime – Japanese animation – and Jubinville said the show is aimed at a teenage audience.

“It’s definitely not a kid’s show,” he said.

He added that his 14 year-old brother loves the show’s concept and is eager to read each script as Jubinville finishes one.

He has sent scripst to the animation studios, along with character sketches. The studio has done final versions of the characters and has assembled a storyboard for the preview reel. He has also flown to Utah several times to consult with the studio on his project.

When asked how a career in show business matches his political science major, Jubinville admitted, “To be honest, I probably should have switched my major.”

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Sorry for not posting every day, folks. I was reminded of this by my buddy Steve "I Write My Blog Every Day" Bissette. I hang my head in shame.

By the way, I deeply appreciate the warm response to this blog and my re-entry into the rec.arts.animation newsgroup.

So, here's the completed column I previewed on Wednesday:

We get a lot of interesting press releases here at the Reminder Publications headquarters for world domination and as regular readers might know I like to share some of them with you from time to time.
Here's one the came the other day:

"Local radio show host and Pastor, Tom Crouse announced plans to conduct the first Mr. Heterosexual Contest. In response to the 'Mr. Gay 2005' contest held recently in San Diego, California, the Mr. Heterosexual Contest will celebrate the many positive factors God's design of heterosexual men. The contest will be held Saturday, February 4th at the Sturbridge Host Hotel and Conference Center in Sturbridge Massachusetts. For more information, please visit or contact Tom Crouse at 413-668-8147.

"Despite what this may look like on the surface, I see this as a celebration of God's design for mankind," said Tom Crouse, Event Organizer and Promoter. "This isn't about attacking the gay community. It's about letting men and boys know it's OK to be heterosexual. Though the politically correct among us may lead us to believe otherwise, touting your heterosexuality is a good thing. It's the way God made us and intended for us to be.

"Tickets to attend this premier event are now available online at for just $10 each, $5 for children under 12. Prospective contestants can apply online at the web site. Only 20 contestants will be chosen and notified before the event. Each chosen contestant will pay a $20 entrance registration fee.

"Contestants will judged by a 5-member panel (4 women and 1 man) on 5 different critical disciplines necessary to be a true heterosexual man:
* Strength: The number of Oprah magazines they can tear in half with their bare hands at one time;
* Taste: Are they able to decipher different brands of sodas and potato chips and clearly identify them;
* Application of Duct Tape: Each contestant will be asked to present a one-minute dissertation of his best use of duct tape;
* Talent: Any talent they want to display in a 3-minute time frame will be judged for its uniqueness and appreciative value;
* Quick Wit: Each contestant will be judged on his ability to answer open-ended question posed by Tom Crouse.

"In addition to sharing the spotlight and tremendous honor of competing in the first-ever Mr. Hetero Contest, each of the top 3 winners will receive a handsome cash prize of $100. $50, and $25 depending upon their placing. In addition, winners can expect a wave of publicity that precedes the typical talk-show circuit following such a public event. They may even be interviewed on Tom's radio show "Engaging Your World," if time allows. Who wouldn't want to be known as the top heterosexual male in their area? The perks alone make it all worth the while.

"Due to the already tremendous response to the Sturbridge event, Tom Crouse has already begun plans to conduct additional event in each state across America.

"Our wish is to conduct contests in every state and then conduct a national event," added Crouse. "The message is good [It's OK to be Heterosexual]. It's God's Word."

Stay tuned for announcement of future events.

"Tom Crouse is Senior Pastor at the Holland Congregational Church in Holland, Massachusetts. He has spoken to audiences throughout the U.S. and internationally in Haiti, Colombia, South America, Trinidad, and Africa. He is a 1993 graduate of Seminary of the East, with a M.Div Equiv.

"In addition to his pastoral duties, Tom now also hosts his own talk show, Engaging Your World, heard every weekday afternoon on 760 AM WVNE, based in Worcester, Massachusetts. He is married and has three children. To learn more about the Mr. Heterosexual contest, please visit "

This was pretty intriguing, so I called Crouse, who is a native of Springfield and whose first assignment as a pastor was at the Faith Bible Church in Agawam from1990 to 1993.

Crouse said the genesis of the idea came from his talk show and comments he made about a Mr. Gay 2005 contest. At first, he said his comments were tongue in check, but then he thought a Mr. Hetero contest would be funny and a way to celebrate "how God made us."

"This is not gay-bashing," he emphasized to me. "This is really about God's design."

The goal is to have an "entertaining evening," he said. "I don't want this to be taken the wrong way."

He added that the contest is not about presenting good hetero role models. He said that he does believe there is a lack of people saying they happy being heterosexual.

The event is also not intended to open a dialogue about homosexuality, either. Crouse said that homosexuality is a sin and only be addressed through Jesus Christ.

He described the sexual orientation as a "perversion of God's design," and a former homosexual who is now straight because of his faith will be at the event.

Crouse was scheduled to appear on Tucker Carlson's The Situation on MSNBC on Thursday night. He said media outlets in this country and others about the contest have interviewed him.

So far, though, no one has signed up for the event, although Crouse said that there are people who have said they would participate.

Crouse said that other contests in New York and Kentucky are being planned, but that he wants to supervise them as he doesn't want his non-gay-bashing format changed.

Crouse said that many gay people say they are seeking tolerance. He's interested in seeing how tolerant they are of his contest.

Do we really need such an event to shore up the institution of heterosexuality? Drop me a line and let me know what you think.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Almost every week I run a DVD column in our 'papers and I thought to stir up some comment I'd share some on this blog.

The most daunting part of this assignment is finding the time to watch the films. Sometimes I just don't want to watch something for work, and beleive me, sitting through some of the tripe I have to watch is no damn fun.

By the way, I spoke to Pastor Tom Crouss about his Mr. Hetero Contest and that piece will be up tomorrow night. it was an interesting conversation.

The Lenny Bruce Performance Film

No one paid quite the price for his comedy as did Lenny Bruce. The pioneer in plain speaking died a broken and shunned man, drained of his earnings from years in show business from his legal battles over obscenity.

Before Richard Pryor and George Carlin became known for their use of profanity, Bruce was blazing that trail. Unlike those two comedians, Bruce never saw the acceptance of his brand of comedy.

Bruce wasn't a "blue" comic like Red Foxx. Bruce used profanity to make a point. I have to admit that his stream of consciousness form of story telling is not among my favorite and this performance film shows Bruce at a low point of his life certainly not the best time for his creativity.

Shot with a single camera in black and white in a San Francisco nightclub in 1965, Bruce discusses at length his legal problems with a sympathetic audience. He rambles at times and frequently looks away from the camera and audience. I got the impression that at times he was speaking more to himself.

The next year he would be found dead.

The one extra on the disc is a cartoon of one of Bruce's most famous bits about the Lone Ranger. It's pretty funny and quite adult. The print quality is quite good on the cartoon and acceptable on the feature.

For more information, log onto

Margaret Cho: Assassin

Margaret Cho's fans like to compare her with Lenny Bruce and say that she is some sort of spiritual child of his. While I find Bruce incomprehensible at times, Cho is just plain boring.

Cho seems to feel that her profanity-laden political humor is somehow making a difference in American discourse. In one of the disc's extras, a documentary on Cho's comedy tour, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show is described as being "owned" by Viacom, the corporation that owns Comedy Central. Cho, on the other hand, is characterized as a comic that is truly free to say anything.

It's this sanctimonious self-promotion that ruins what few laughs there are on this disc.

The job of the comic is to be funny. You can be controversial and political, but you've got to be funny. Making obscene references to George and Laura Bush isn't funny. It's playing to a like-minded crowd.

Other extras include a short documentary about a gay Asian-Canadian man, a look at Cho's hobby of belly dancing and a poorly animated music video.


For reason beyond my understanding, if you must have more information, log onto


I liked this dumb western re-telling of The Taming of the Shrew when I was a kid. Of course, the crush I had on Maureen O' Hara undoubtedly was a factor.

As part of Paramount's John Wayne collection, McLintock is the recipient of the full DVD treatment. There are great interviews with O'Hara and Stephanie Powers; commentaries with other cast members and director Andrew McLagen; several documentaries on the making of the film and the career of producer Michael Wayne; a photo gallery; and the original trailer.

But how does this film play now? It really doesn't have much of a plot other than Wayne's cattle baron character reconciling with his estranged wife. He does this with doses of understanding followed by argument. Ultimately he publicly spanks her with a coal shovel and chases her around the town, much to the amusement of the residents.

To say that this film isn't politically correct is an understatement. Although a dark comedy such as The War of the Roses can actually portray domestic violence in a humorous way, the violence in McLintock is far more problematic. Unlike War, this is not a dark film at all. In fact, it's about the only truly overt comedy Wayne ever did.

So how do you reconcile the spanking and humiliation? Well, you can either take this film as a silly comedy made at a less sensitive time or you can be offended by it.

It's your call.

I have to say that it does have one of the finest collections of character actors assembled for a western. I have to like any film just a little bit that puts two of the screen's finest geezers, Chill Wills and Edgar Buchanan, in the same production.

I'm sorry. I love a good geezer.

For more information, log onto

The Kingdom: Series One

Imagine a television mini-series that is a cross between ER, a daytime soap opera, and one of the best ghost stories ever committed to film that's The Kingdom.

Now if you remember an American version of this production a terrible cup of weak tea called Kingdom Hospital please don't hold it against the original. Danish director and writer Lars Von Trier created something so singular that no adaptation could have captured its unique blend of satire, humor and chills.

The Kingdom is the name of a large hospital which is haunted by both ghosts and a very live and vindictive doctor from Sweden. He has been banned from practicing medicine there and hates the fact that he is forced to live in Denmark. Between his medical incompetence and the supernatural events taking place, being a patient at The Kingdom is a daunting proposition.

This disc has a great little documentary and commentary by the director. It's unrated, but probably would warrant an "R" rating. It's not for kids.

It's so involving that you might be tempted to watch all four and a half hours of it in one sitting. I did.

For more information, log onto

The Sixties: The Years That Shaped a Generation

This fine documentary is a little mis-leading. This isn't a look at the Beatles or the rise of the hippies or the Kennedy presidency. It's not a nostalgic film at all.

Instead, this two-hour production is about the political turmoil of the late 1960s and into the Nixon presidency. It shows just how social and cultural events of the latter half of the decade made a very real impact on the government and how history was altered.

It's a great film to show kids who think hippies were quaint or that the music and fashion of the era were "retro."

Packed with archival footage and contemporary interviews with people who were part of the revolution that took place, The Sixties is history at its most involving.

For more information, log onto

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

I get a lot of goofy press releases every day, but the following one takes the cake. Please read on:

Local radio show host and Pastor, Tom Crouse announced
plans to conduct the first Mr. Heterosexual Contest. In response to the "Mr. Gay 2005 “ contest held recently in San Diego, California, the Mr. Heterosexual Contest will celebrate the many positive factors God' s design of heterosexual men. The contest will be held Saturday, February 4th at the Sturbridge Host Hotel and Conference Center in Sturbridge Massachusetts. For more information, please visit or contact Tom Crouse at 413-668-8147.

“Despite what this may look like on the surface, I see this as a celebration of God’s design for mankind, " said Tom Crouse, Event Organizer and Promoter. " This isn't about attacking the gay community. It 's about letting men and boys know it 's OK to be heterosexual. Though the politically correct among us may lead us to believe otherwise, touting your heterosexuality is a good thing. It's the way God made us and intended for us to be. "

Event Logistics ...

Tickets to attend this premier event are now available online at for just $10 each, $5 for children under 12. Prospective contestants can apply online at the website. Only 20 contestants will be chosen and notified before the event. Each chosen contestant will pay a $20 entrance registration fee.

Contestants will judged by a 5-member panel (4 women and 1 man) on 5 different critical disciplines necessary to be a true heterosexual man:

Strength: The number of Oprah magazines they can tear in half with their bare hands at one time;

Taste: Are they able to decipher different brands of sodas and potato chips and clearly identify them;

Application of Duct Tape: Each contestant will be asked to present a one-minute dissertation of the their best use of duct tape;

Talent: Any talent they want to display in a 3-minute time frame will be judged for its uniqueness and appreciative value;

Quick Wit: Each contestant will be judged on his ability to answer open-ended question posed by Tom Crouse.

And the Winner ...

In addition to sharing the spotlight and tremendous honor of competing in the first-ever Mr. Hetero Contest, each of the top 3 winners will receive a handsome cash prize of $100. $50, and $25, depending upon their placing. In addition, winners can expect a wave of publicity that precedes the typical talk-show circuit following such a public event. They may even be interviewed on Tom's radio show " Engaging Your World, " if time allows. Who wouldn’t’ t want to be known as the top heterosexual male in their area? The perks alone make it all worth the while.

The Future ...

Due to the already tremendous response to the Sturbridge event, Tom Crouse has already begun plans to conduct additional event in each state across America.

" Our wish is to conduct contests in every state and then conduct a national
event, “ added Crouse. " The message is good [It ' s OK to be Heterosexual]. It ' s God [sic] Word. " Stay tuned for announcement of future events.

About Tom Crouse ...
Tom Crouse is Senior Pastor at the Holland Congregational Church in Holland, Massachusetts. He has spoken to audiences throughout the U.S. and internationally in Haiti, Colombia, South America, Trinidad, and Africa. He is a 1993 graduate of Seminary of the East, with a M.Div Equiv In addition to his pastoral duties, Tom now also hosts his own talk show, Engaging Your World, heard every weekday afternoon on 760 AM WVNE, based in Worcester, Massachusetts. He is married and has three children. To learn more about the Mr. Heterosexual contest, please visit To learn more about Tom Crouses’ radio show, please visit To learn more about the church please visit

Now, I’m going to call this guy tomorrow in order to find out if he is serious (I suspect he is) and why he believes that heterosexual men need the kind of affirmation that he believes his planned event would give them.

Check back for a report on my interview.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Your childhood does mark you.

I loved Popeye as a kid and I wound up being an animation nut. So much so that I edited and publoished two magaines on the subject and started researching the life and career of animator and inventor Max Fleischer for a book that has proven to be my Holy Grail.

Non-fiction writers, especially reporter types such as me, aren't suppoed to be artists. One of my journalism professor argued that journalism itself is not a "profession" such as law, medicine and enginneering. Journalists, he said, were artisans turning out pots. Some are better looking than others, but if you follow the rules of construction each pot will be adequate. They, like a properly written story, will serve their purpose.

Now I don't go along with this theory, but I do know that over the years the words "creative" and "reporter" seldom go together in many people's minds. They do in mind, but I'm prejudiced.

Therefore I do not have any of the usual artistic excuses that I've heard about why my book on Max hasn't seen print.

Recently I put together the following essay as an explaination about the book. It's a cautionary tale about the nature of trying to get something in print.

Several of the reporters on my staff recently had some time on their hands while they were waiting for calls back from interview subjects and they did what many people now do for giggles – Google their own names and the names of people they know.
When they Googled my name, “G. Michael Dobbs,” they were surprised at one of the results – a posting on a classic animation forum by a fellow Fleischer named Ray Pointer about my activities as a writer authorized by Richard Fleischer to put together a biography of his father, the animation pioneer Max Fleischer.
Pointer closed the section of the post that dealt with me with the statement, “According to the Fleischer Estate, they never heard of ‘G.’ Michael Dobbs.”
Wow. What a neat and tidy way to negate all of the work I’ve done and marginalize my efforts to put the Fleischer Studio into the historical context it deserves. I wonder why Pointer felt it necessary to do so?
And what was the business about the quotation marks around my first initial?
The statements Pointer made were borderline libelous as they imply that I somehow misrepresented myself. Therefore I believe it be necessary to explain my relationship with Richard Fleischer and this project.

The important disclaimer
Let me begin this posting with a simple statement: I have nothing against Richard Fleischer and I will be ordering his book on his father. It’s his father’s story and he has a right to tell it.
Richard gave me a shot. I did my best under the circumstances and despite the fact that I haven’t made a dime on Max Fleischer, I regret nothing. I’ve spent thousands of my own dollars and it’s been worth it.
And I’ve begun once again to work with the material and have about 10,000 words of a book about the Fleischer cartoons and their creators – not an authorized biography.
Working on this project gave me the opportunity to meet people whose work made a major impact on me as a kid. My friendship with animation director Myron Waldman and his wife Rosalie is one that I will treasure the rest of my life.
Through my magazines Animato! and Animation Planet I told part of what I had learned in several well-received articles. The Betty Boop issue was the single-best selling issue of Animato! published by my former partner and me and the Popeye issue generated a nice mention on Entertainment Tonight by Leonard Maltin and a major story in the Fort Worth Telegram by Michael H. Price that was syndicated by other dailies.
Of course by then I had long stopped calling myself the “authorized” biographer, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The innocence of youth

While I was in college (University of Massachusetts, class of 1976) my love for the classic Fleischer cartoons re-asserted itself when I attended a screening of a compilation film released by a company named Crystal Pictures in 1975. The Fleischer Popeyes and Superman cartoons played a prominent role in my childhood memories.
Little had been written about the Fleischers and I decided to undertake a book on them. Ah, the innocence of youth!
I had sent a letter to Dave Fleischer in June of 1976 and in August I found an address for Max’s widow and wrote her how I would like her permission to write a book on her husband and his brother Dave.
Dave replied first saying he was too busy to speak with me about a project as he was preparing a new animated feature based on the myth of Pandora’s Box.
Richard’s son, Mark, wrote back on Sept. 5, 1976, giving me a green light and I was elated. Mark suggested that I contact Vera Coleman, Max’s long-time secretary, as his grandmother had not been feeling well.
“She also feels that she doesn’t remember enough about the business and sequence of events to be of much help,” he wrote.
I forwarded an outline that I had assembled based on my knowledge up until that point to Coleman.
However a letter that came to me on March 1, 1977 that at first caught me off guard.
“Dear Mr. Dobbs,
“Your letter to Mrs. Vera Coleman has just been turned over to me. I’m sorry for the delay in answering but I have been in England until just a few days ago and Mrs. Coleman was waiting for my return.
“As you probably realize we receive many requests for the kind of cooperation you are seeking from people interested in writing a book about the Fleischer family. We have never cooperated for several reasons, the main one being in all cases the lack of professional writing ability. A perfect example of this is the Leslie Carbaga book…The unfortunate outcome, however, was that Carbaga went ahead with his book but without the cooperation of the Max Fleischer family, which is ninety percent of the story, the book turned out to be a completely distorted and lopsided affair full of inaccuracies and slanted so as to denigrate my father. It is interesting to note that Carbaga has subsequently realized his error and wishes he could rewrite the book.
“Another reason we have not cooperated thus far has always been the idea that either my sister [Ruth Kneitel] or myself would one day write the story. More and more this seems increasingly remoter and we have just about given up that idea.
“I have read over your material and your outline carefully and I feel that perhaps you are the most qualified person I’ve heard from to take on this assignment. I would be able to make available to you a vast amount of material that has never been seen or utilized in any biographical study. However, I think it would be proper that if a book such as you contemplate writing with out cooperation should be published there should be a profit participation for us.
“Please let me know how and if you wish to proceed.”
It was signed by Max’s son, Richard Fleischer.
Needless to say I was over the moon. It looked as if I was given the green light by a guy whose work I admired – I’m still of the opinion that Richard Fleischer is a very under-rated director – on a dream project.

The nitty gritty

Still there were details to discuss and in a letter dated April 20, 1977, Richard made it clear that the project he would authorize would be a biography of his father and not a book that would present Max and Dave as equals. He also wanted a fifty-fifty spilt on the profits from the project.
I wrote back that my intent was to feature Max and that the split was fine. I was in no position to bargain and again, it was his family’s story, not mine.
On May 10, 1977, Richard wrote back saying he was “much relieved” by the contents of my letter and answered some questions I had posed about the whereabouts about various people who had worked at the studio.
He also sent a “to whom it might concern” letter stating that I was authorized by the Max Fleischer family to write a biography.
I subsequently made an appointment with Ruth Kneitel who lived in New York. She was very gracious and talked about her father and showed me a wide variety of artifacts, which she allowed me to photograph. She also gave me information about Myron Waldman and how I should contact him.
After our meeting, Ruth looked over my outline and made some factual corrections.

I take the plunge

I was working in a department store at the time by day and writing freelance articles at night – a full-time journalism job hadn’t come my way as yet. However I chased down people as best I could for telephone interviews and spoke with animator Grim Natwick in April, 1977. I interviewed composer Sammy Timburg during this early period as well as singer Lanny Ross who provided the singing voice for the prince in Gulliver’s Travels.
I wrote British director Richard Williams about the Fleischer Raggedy Ann short ¬ William has finished his own feature on the classic children’s story and wrote back in a letter dated Jan. 20, 1977:
“When we started ‘Raggedy Ann,’ we bought a print of the Fleischer colour short from 1940 and ran it at our first animation conference with Art Babbitt, Emery Hawkins, Tissa David, John Kimball and Corneilius Cole. We were appalled and although we may not have been altogether successful in getting Raggedy Ann as we wanted her, I hope to God we did better that they did! I must say I do like a lot of Fleischer’s work but he really missed on Ann. Here’s hoping we don’t.”
I took my slides of Ruth’s memorabilia and put together a presentation which made its debut at the late Phil Seuling’s – the father of all comic book conventions – Tenth Annual Comic Art Convention in July of 1977 in Philadelphia. The reception was excellent and I felt that I was on my way. I organized several screenings of Fleischer films and spoke about my research.
When the chance came to work for a company that provided reader teachers for private schools, I took it, thinking this was a way to be closer to the New York area. I exploited the locations of my three assignments in New York City, Baltimore, and Annapolis in the period of Oct. 1977 through April 1978 as best I could.
During this time I interviewed Popeye’s voice Jack Mercer, long-time Fleischer employee Edith Vernick, animator John “Wally” Walworth, and director Myron Waldman. I went to the Library of Congress, while in Maryland and the Lincoln Center library when in New York.
To a person, everyone was pleased to speak with me. The fact that Richard has given me his blessing opened many doors.

Fifty ways to say “no”

I started sending out my outline and quickly found that publishers in the late 1970s and early ‘80s could care less about Max Fleischer and his role in animation history. And I knew that I needed to do serious interviews with Richard and Ruth.
Ruth replied to my request in April of 1979 and stated that she didn’t give interviews any longer, and although I pleaded with Richard – I still have a Western Union “Mailgram” from the summer of 1979 I sent to him ¬– there was no interview forthcoming from him.
I got the impression that until I got a serious bite from a publisher Richard wasn’t going to give me the time I needed. Although irksome, I rationalized it as a by-product of dealing with a guy who was jetting around the world making movies.
So, I continued on with interviews with people such as Hal Seeger who worked at the studio as a teen to Alden Getz, who played a role in the bitter strike. I also met with animators Shamus Culhane and Joe Oriolo and spoke on the phone with Al Eugster.
And I kept sending out the outline, which I would revise periodically for the next nine years. Interestingly enough, one re-occurring theme in the rejection notices was that editors wanted a book on Popeye and Betty Boop and not on Max.
There were also several false starts from smaller publishing companies that initially accepted the book and then backed out.

The end…or not?

My career had taken an interesting course. After the teaching job, I sold ads for a local daily newspaper and then landed a reporter’s job at another daily. That led to an editor’s job at another daily. I then spent five years on local talk radio as an evening drive time host. A gig as the program supervisor for a historic house museum followed. When the city cut the funding for the job, I was hired as the manager of a new independent first-run theater in our area.
I continued to write freelance articles and columns on my Fleischer research.
Through 1988 I continued my research. I had stopped communicating with Richard as I didn’t see the point unless I had good news. In September of 1988 I learned that Richard was working with Layla Productions on a book. The book packaging company was seeking a writer and I wrote a long letter to Richard asking for the chance to work on the project.
“You certainly have been tenacious about the Max Fleischer book and I certainly commend you for that. But I’m sure you will understand when I tell you that ten years without attracting a publisher doesn’t exactly instill confidence in the future of your project,” he wrote back on Sept, 12, 1988.
Ouch! But he did give me another chance. Lori Stein, president of Layla Productions wrote me on Oct. 13, 1988, that Stanley Handman had given her my letter to Richard and that she was interested in collaborating with me. I set up an appointment to see her in New York.
She had worked on a book on the Warner Brothers cartoons and wanted to do something similar for the Betty Boop cartoons. She had a very impressive mock-up of some laid out pages, but I dropped a bomb that she hadn’t considered. She wanted to do an opulent full-color book and I told her only one Betty Boop cartoon had been in color.
The book never went forward.
My last efforts were an exchange with a publisher in 1989 as well as a meeting with a literary agent who wanted me to write the book in a narrative style. At that time, I was tired of rejection, tired of people asking me when the book was coming out and tired of people wondering who was Max Fleischer.
So, I gave up. I never wrote Richard Fleischer. I’m sure he figured it out.
When my former partner and I bought Animato! in 1992, I though that this would be the vehicle for sharing some of my research. As I said before, the articles I wrote were well received and that was quite gratifying.
When I folded Animation Planet – because of the dwindling ad base and increasingly unfavorable distribution deals – I had planned another lengthy Fleischer piece.
A book on the rise of adult animation I had planned with a writing partner almost got a contract at St. Martin’s in 2000. A change in editors doomed that project. It would have had substantial material on the Fleischer shorts.
So here we are in 2005 and I really want to write this book. I’m the managing editor of a group of weekly newspapers serving over 120,000 readers in the Springfield, MA, area. I write about animation every chance I get – I did a lengthy interview piece with Joe Dante on the Loony Tunes movie and another on Bill Plympton.
But the Fleischer material still calls to me. It needs to be written. It will be written. It won’t be the book I envisioned in 1976, but it will be entertaining and informative. Thanks to e-publishing I know it will be in print.

Now what about the “G?”
So Ray Pointer, with whom I exchanged research material, takes exception to my name. Well, the “G” stands for my first name “Gordon.” I have always gone by my middle name and since there was already a very good writer named “Michael Dobbs,” I went by “G. Michael.”
Now, Ray I think it’s time for a nice contrite apology because I deserve one.
All the best to everyone else reading this post – I’d love to “talk Fleischer” with anyone.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

What to write about, what to write about...

I suppose I should do the time-honored post that explains the real reasons behind yet another blog... ego and profit.

For quite a few years in the 1990s I edited and published two magazines on animation...Animato! and Animation Planet. When market forces forced me to stop publishing Animation Planet – a declining ad base and the death of many magazine distributors – I went cyber with a e-mail newsletter that I sent to people and posted on various spots on the web.

If you use the Google news group search engine you will find quite a number of them still out there wherever newsgroups live.

When I accepted a job editing a weekly newspaper I continued to publish the newsletter for another six months or so, but on a continuingly sporadic schedule. I realized that my new gig – which had turned into the managing editor positions of four publications – was eating up my time and I dropped my newsletter.

So, according to the posting of one writer on an animation website I "fell off the earth."

I'm now compiling a book of my animation writings – except for my work on Max Fleischer (see tomorrow's posting about that project. Each article will be updated and there are several new pieces as well.

Once there is a publication date set, there will be a web site to publicize it, take advance orders, etc.

In the meantime, because I had to sign up for this E-Blog service in order to post comments to other blogs, I thought that more of my ramblings need to be out there.

Here's my most recent column from the 'papers:

took some time off last week and actually made it to a movie theater not once, but twice. I seldom get to go as often as I would like as my movie watching tends to be dominated by the DVDs I need to review.

My wife and I saw Walk the Line, the bio-pic on Johnny Cash and June Carter and it was outstanding.

The other film was also a depiction of real events, Good Night and Good Luck. The films tells the story of how in 1954 television journalist Edward R. Murrow stood up to Senator Joseph McCarthy who was leading a movement in this country that called everyone's beliefs and patriotism into question.

McCarthy believed that Communists had infiltrated a significant portion of American industry, business and government. He was not alone in his convictions and, in the wake of the revelation that the secrets of the atomic bomb had been given to the Soviet Union, many Americans also believed the country was in danger from an invisible enemy among us.

The problem with McCarthy's attack was that he didn't seem to have the facts to go along with his accusations. While he claimed there were hundreds of "card-carrying" Communists in the State Department, he didn't name names.

While there was no doubt there was Soviet espionage in this country, McCarthy never really rooted it out. He did do one thing that undoubtedly pleased the Soviet leadership at the time: he created a hysteria that divided and terrified this nation.

The film shows how Murrow, with this weekly news program See it Now, took on McCarthy and was able, by using film of the senator's own speeches and investigations, to show America how wrong he was.

George Clooney, who directed, co-wrote and co-starred in the film, re-created Murrow's broadcasts and used the actual McCarthy footage that Murrow had used. The result is the film has a documentary feel.

Clooney spends little time introducing Murrow and there isn't a tremendous amount of screen time spend on story elements outside of the broadcasts. The film has immediacy to it because of this treatment.

The director also condenses the aftermath of the McCarthy shows and perhaps does a slight disservice to CBS Chairman William Paley.

For people who weren't around at the time and for non-journalists, the film does little to establish Murrow's role in both radio and television journalism. This is the guy who transformed television news in the early 1950s from an announcer reading headlines from behind a desk to filmed reports from the scene of a story. This is the reporter who actually succeeded for a time in preserving the autonomy of the news department as a separate organization which answered to its own standards and its viewers.

There are people who say this film is little more than an attack on the Bush administration and its policies. I'm sure the case could be made that the timing of this film carries a political implication.

What Murrow did was to question the conventional wisdom that Commies are everywhere that was spread by McCarthy and others. Murrow demanded proof to back up those claims. All McCarthy wanted to give Murrow and his other critics was a new set of accusations about their patriotism.

With McCarthy, asking questions or expressing a dissenting viewpoint was either the act of a patsy or of a traitor. This sort of sounds familiar, doesn't it?

I wonder how Murrow would report on this administration. How would he look at the war on terror, the teetering economy or the response to Hurricane Katrina? Would he accept the speeches or the answers at press conferences as fact? Would he push his network to report longer and more in-depth on issues and save the fluff as he did for shows other than the nightly news broadcast?

Well, there are few television news operations that operate today as Murrow did over 50 years ago. Today, the shows have to be done as cheaply as possible to maximize profits, and contain elements that guarantee an audience sex, celebrity and crime.

If anything, Clooney's film should make us ask ourselves as audiences what we are willing to accept as news on television. Perhaps we should be asking for more.

Yes, these are my opinions alone. Want to learn more on Murrow? Read Bob Edwards's book Edward R. Murrow and the Birth of Broadcast Journalism. Send me your thoughts at or to 280 N. Main St. East Longmeadow, MA 01028.
Love to hear from you. Post a comment. Thanks.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Okay...why another blog? Well, people might say that I have plenty of opportunity of expressing myself since I am the managing editor for four weekly newspapers and write stories and columns every week.

That's true. So why a blog. Part of it is ego, of course. Part of it is having an place on the web outside of my work for the 'paper.

There are also things I just want to write about which don't have a place in the 'papers.

Also, of course, the blog will be used to help preview my book on animation that will be published next year.

So here goes...