Wednesday, June 29, 2011

As some people might remember – old people – I was a radio talk show host on the late WREB in Holyoke in the pre-Limbaugh era. It was a time in the industry when local hosts prevailed and there were few national syndicated shows, if any. The dismantling of the Fairness Doctrine helped ensure the rise of the syndicated show, which was often offered free to station in exchange for advertising time, and the demise of the local host.

I loved being on the air as I am a ham at heart and would do it again if offered a job with a realistic salary. From 1982 to 1987, I earned $5 and hour as a talk host and was paid .75 for each live endorsement I did.

The salad days!

I love going to the New Media Seminar presented by the bible of the business, Talkers Magazine and bask in the glory of radio. People often wonder why I am there and I have to explain I'm a writer from the area where Talkers is published.

Every year I enjoy the Talk Rumble and for the last few years I've been posting video from it. Here is a part of this year's combat.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

I shot some tornado footage and finally had the time to edit the shots together.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Back in the 1980s when I was a radio talk show host over WREB, I interviewed a fair number of celebs including Elvira Mistress of the Dark. That was the problem. I was interviewing Elvira, the fictional character rather than Cassandra Peterson the talented actress who created the role.

The result was a very awkward exchange in which I was attempting to do improv comedy with someone who had been trained at The Groundlings along side with Phil Hartman and Paul Ruebens.

At least I got a great station i.d. from her.

The interview didn't stop me, though, from enjoying her show and her two feature films.

A couple of weeks ago I received the opportunity to interview her once more and she was great. At the end of the talk, I told her about our previous conversation and she explained that at the time she wanted to do what Ruebens had been doing – stay in character (he was constantly Pee Wee Herman) during interviews and public appearances.

She has since decided to discontinue that practice and for me that's great as I'd much rather speak to Peterson.

Before "Mystery Science Theater 3000," before "Riff Tax," before "Cinema Titanic," Cassandra Peterson was making fun of movies as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.

She told Reminder Publications in contrast to the members of those other comic groups she had "two big things working for me [dramatic pause] — my personality and my talent."

"I'm the queen of subtlety," she said with a laugh.

Peterson has brought her show "Movie Macabre" back to television in syndication — WTIC runs it at 2 a.m. Friday and Sundays at 1 a.m. — and two of the new shows are now on DVD.

Each DVD has a double feature. The first is "Night of the Living Dead" with "I Eat Your Skin" — which Peterson quickly noted has nothing to do with eating someone's skin — while the second has Sir Christopher Lee's last appearance as Dracula in "The Satanic Rites of Dracula" paired with "The Werewolf of Washington."

The new shows are funny and clever with Elvira not only poking fun at the movies — of the four only "Night of the Living Dead" is really any good — but also setting up comic bits.

Peterson, an actress who was a member of the famed Los Angeles-based improvisational troupe, The Groundlings, auditioned to be a local horror film host on a TV station in 1981. Her success in the regional market led to a syndication deal where "Movie Macabre" was seen all over the country.

Her character took on a life of its own and became a cottage industry inspiring two movies, many guest appearances on television shows and a lot of merchandise. Although she has done other roles than Elvira, Peterson is at peace with the character that took over her career.

"I was very angry," she said with a laugh. "I wanted to do Shakespeare in the Park."

She said she did have some reservations in the beginning, but realized as she landed roles on pilots for television shows she had a decision to make: work all season long in a show being paid the minimum union scale or work in October and make a year's worth of money.

Peterson owns the rights to the character and controls what she does with it.

"It's like running a company and I'm the CEO," she explained.

The down side is that because a show business corporation doesn't own her character, Elvira doesn't have the support that other characters receive.

Peterson said she "wades" through horror films in the public domain to select ones she thinks have potential for the show. Then she and her writing partner Ted Biaselli watch the film over and over — as many as four or five times — to come up with a theme for the Elvira segments and the "pop-ins" in which Elvira appears at the corner of the screen with a quip as the film is running.

She said her training in improvisational humor helps her with the writing.

She has made 20 shows for syndication and six more that will be DVD exclusives.

Peterson continues to make public appearances at various pop culture conventions and is impressed with the stories her fans tell her.

She recalled that people have come up to her teary-eyed because they watched her show as a child with a now departed parent. Many young women have told her they saw Elvira as a strong powerful woman and she was a role model.

Other fans have recalled how they had one of her posters up in their room.

"I think I helped them through puberty," she laughed.

Considering this has become a career for her, it is lucky for her own sanity that she is actually a horror movie fan.

"Totally, totally," she said. "I wouldn't have gone to the audition if I hadn't."

She quickly noted she likes "the old bad ones that are unintentionally funny," and isn't a fan of the new breed of slasher movies.

Peterson said that as a child her favorite film was the Vincent Price classic "House on Haunted Hill" and she loved the movies Price made with director Roger Corman based on the stories of Edgar Allan Poe.

She said that while other girls were interested in playing with Barbie, she was assembling plastic monster models.

"I was a pretty odd girl, but it paid off," she said.

To learn more about her show and the DVDs, log onto or become her friend on her Facebook page at Elvira Mistress of the Dark (Official).

© 2011 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Yes, we were lucky

Our new to us car was crushed.

It was supposed to be a typical Wednesday evening – no big deal.

I arrived home around 4:15 p.m. to prepare supper for my in-laws. We bring it to them most Wednesdays and my wife visits them while I cover the Chicopee School Committee.

While I put some meatballs in the microwave I looked out through our back porch. It was raining a bit and I wondered which, if any, of our cats were outside. I had heard there was a threat of a tornado, which I immediately discounted. The storm was intensifying and I thought, “I’ve never seen a thunderstorm like this.”

That’s because it wasn’t just a thunderstorm.

The winds quickly picked up to a level I’d only seen on televised news reports. The color of the sky was a shade of green. When a huge tree came crashing down from my neighbor’s yard, I knew this was no ordinary thunderstorm.

I watched the winds selectively snatch the cable for the television, phone and Internet from the side of the house and pull it.

I walked from the kitchen to the dining room with the porch door flapping crazily in the background. The noise of the wind was deafening. Having most of my windows open meant they were saved from being blown out by the difference in pressure, but it also meant the winds came into my house to do damage.

The winds popped out the window screens. It pushed a glass jar off the mantle, which broke on the floor. Debris from leaves to pieces of insulation in the wind was deposited almost everywhere.

The cliché of the tornado seeming to take forever to pass while in reality only lasting several minutes was true in this case. When it was over, I was in a daze.

I looked out my front door. The tree that shaded our living room had been uprooted and it laid length-wise down the top of my relatively new car. A large piece of roof decking from someone’s house was mixed in with the tree. Another tree near the driveway was snapped into two pieces, which hung together.

The debris around my car blocked Spruce Street and two other downed trees covered the intersection with Hawthorne Street.

The trees in our backyard, which provided shade for the house, were all destroyed. A spruce tree was snapped close to its base. Two maple trees were shredded. There were broken limbs, roofing material and glass everywhere.

My back porch was structurally intact but most of the windows were destroyed and part of the siding near the roof was gone. A quick look around the house showed that storm windows had been broken but the regular windows seemed OK.

I was startled to realize that our power was still on. The underground cables that bring us electricity in this neighborhood are notorious for having problems, either on the hottest night of summer or the coldest day of winter.

This time, though, the technology came through for us.

I called my wife and told her what had happened. She had watched the funnel cloud travel through the area from her office on State Street. She told her co-workers she knew it was in her neighborhood.

I went back to the front door and looked out. People are starting to come out of their homes. One woman was screaming the name of a child, whom she eventually found unharmed. Neighbors started going from home to home asking each other if they were OK.

A group of people started removing the tree limbs from my car with the intent to clear the street. Rain forced us to stop. When the rains stopped, more people with axes and chainsaws came back. I was able to move my car up onto the sidewalk and Spruce Street was now somewhat clear.

My wife and I have lived in this neighborhood since 1990 and have never seen people coming together in the fashion as they did that night.

A young woman walked down the street trembling and clearly distressed. She can’t get past the debris and we told her to walk up on our yard, but be careful of the boards with nails.

My wife, who had arrived home, talked with her. She lives in Sixteen Acres, but she has family here and she needs to check on them.

As the afternoon pushed on, we were visited by two police officers who were checking every home. They told us there was considerable destruction in the South End.

As dusk fell, the sky was still an odd color. One young woman declared breathlessly at one point she has heard another tornado is coming. I dreaded the thought of going through this a second time, fearing we wouldn’t be as lucky as we were a few hours before.

Fortunately, another tornado didn’t come; only rain fell.

I took a short walk down to Central Street and saw in the dusk homes with no roofs and another one, recently renovated, that was practically destroyed.

We sat on our front porch, watching lightening strikes in the distance and listening to a steady soundtrack of sirens and passing helicopters. People waked down the street asking us if we were OK.

Later than night, I watched the news conference on our television that still has an antenna. I turned it off near midnight but had a difficult time sleeping. A team of firefighters awoke me between 3 and 4 a.m. to make sure we were all right.

The next morning, I drove my wife to work. What should be a five-minute trip was lengthened due to the traffic. Central Street was closed and Florence Street became the detour. Our tiny Spruce Street – barely wide enough at times for two cars – was suddenly elevated as a main drag.

Being a journalist, I couldn’t stay at home. I got my notebooks and camera and set out walking. What I saw are things I’ve never seen in person before.

House after house had suffered damage from stripped off roofs to complete destruction. On Hancock Street I walked past the Elias Brookings Museum Magnet School. There were some children gathered there and a guy wearing a hardhat told them there would be no more school here.

Looking at the damages, I thought, he may be more correct than he really knows.

School personnel were going in and out of the building. Its windows were all blown out and there was one second-floor classroom that is completely open to the elements.

Across the street, one house had most of its front walk sheared off, giving it the exposed view of a dollhouse. Next door, another brick building was without its roof.

I met, by accident, Ward Three City Councilor Melvin Edwards, who lives in the neighborhood. Like me, his home suffered minimal damage, but we shared a worry for this area as a whole.

There had finally been some forward development in this working class, working poor neighborhood. In the Central Street corridor, the long abandoned Spruce Manor Nursing Home – a major problem – had been demolished and there are now new single-family homes being built.

As we walked up Central Street, the destruction was breathtaking. I now realize how incredibly lucky we were. Only a fluke in topography or barometric pressure kept the tornado from ripping apart our home as it did so many others.

I took photos and shot some video. Edwards and I went to Beech Street where nearly every home had been damaged including one that was lifted off its foundation.

The police had blocked Central Street as workers tried to deal with a brick apartment building that was crumbling apart.
CNN had a crew on Beech Street. The videographer told me no matter how many times he has seen scenes such as this one he can’t get used to it.

I also met a reporter from WCBS radio in New York City. He left the city at 5:30 a.m. that morning to report on the tornado, which has been his fourth one in the Northeast.

As the morning progressed there were a growing number of people driving and walking through the area holding video cameras and taking still photos. As I sat on my front steps I watched this conga line of gawkers as they drove slowly, many with one hand on the wheel and another aiming a video camera.

I felt like sharing a gesture with them.

I realized this was a historical event and people want to see it, but this shouldn’t be some sort of perverse tourist attraction.

Crews of workers came through the area in the afternoon sawing down fallen trees to make sure streets and fire hydrants are clear. A pick-up truck rolled through with a woman standing on the back bumper asking everyone if they needed water. Children sat in the truck bed handing out bottles.

At suppertime, my wife and I took a walk. What appeared to be insurance adjusters were walking throughout the neighborhood with clipboards and cameras.

As we headed home we saw two men trying to loosen a piece of metal siding from its perch in branches. They were successful and laughed, although looked a little sheepish when they saw us. They loaded the metal into their pickup, which was already nearly full.

Vultures, I thought. It didn’t take them long at all.

Although the process of getting a new car and the overwhelming chore of cleaning up tons of tree debris numbs us, my wife and I know we were very lucky. Many people were not. And this neighborhood may take several years to fully recover.

One more shot of our car followed by homes very close to us that were hit by the storm.