Neon Art

I’ve always liked neon signs.  There’s something kitschy about them, of course, but also something classically American — bold, consciously attempting to be memorable and attract passersby, naked in their capitalistic purpose, and often dosed with fantasy or humor.  Plus, neon really looks cool at night.

Downtown Boston has come up with a great way to celebrate — and preserve — some of these neon relics of a.past America.  On one of the small strips of land between the downtown area and the waterfront, called the Greenway, neon signs have been positioned around the perimeter.  The signs draw visitors like moths to light.  Two of my favorites were the Siesta Motel, with its cactus and sombrero theme, and the Flying Yankee Restaurant, with its rocket ship and flaming trail.  The Siesta Motel, which dates from 1950, was located in Saugus, Massachusetts — where its southwestern-themed sign must have stood out like a sore thumb — and the Flying Yankee Restaurant, which dates from 1953, long before rocket ships were commonplace, was located in Auburn, Massachusetts.

Don’t you wish you’d had a chance to see these signs on the great American road during the ’50s, and perhaps stop at the Flying Yankee for a cup of coffee and a piece of pie?

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Working Man, Burger Boy

We’re down in San Antonio, arriving just in time for lunch.  Richard said we had to go to the Burger Boy, a long time San Antonio institution, and when I asked one of the locals what to order he said I should opt for the Working Man combo — a double burger, crinkle-cut fries, and a tub of diet soda big enough to float a battleship — and to order it with “real” Kraft American cheese.  I’m a working man, so of course I took his advice.  

The double burger was succulent, the “real” American  cheese nudged it into the spectacular category — so much so I was briefly tempted to wolf down another — and the crinkle-cuts were deep-fried to perfection.  Fully sated, I exited the ’50s and headed back into modern America.

Once More Into The Same Age Interlude

As of today, for the next two months, I am the same age as my older brother. Of course, when I saw him this afternoon he taunted me about it, as brothers must. It’s an annual rite.

00019762We were born 10 months apart, back in the ’50s during the Baby Boom, when hospitals were overloaded with newborns and every family was growing like crazy. He was the spindly one and I was the beefy porker. He was the well-behaved one who would pose politely for a photo with a smelly goat at a cheap petting zoo, and I was the Curly-lookalike who wrinkled my nose at the odor and wandered away as fast as I could waddle.

Having a brother so close in age has its good points and its bad points. The principal good point is that he went through everything right before I did, and if there were barriers to be broken he did the breaking so I could sail through clear. And, of course, we spent a lot of time together and both grew up cursed with loyalty to Cleveland sports teams, so I had someone to commiserate with when the inevitable sports disasters occurred. The principal bad point is that now virtually everyone thinks that I’m the older brother — and its not even a close question — while skinny, black-haired UJ is the youngster.

So it will be, again, until June 19 when UJ celebrates number 58. I’ll kid him about it when it happens, as brothers must.

Whistling, In The Graveyard

When was the last time you hear someone whistle a tune? Doesn’t it seem like whistling has become much less common than it used to be?

I’m a whistler.  When I walk the halls at work, I often unconsciously whistle an off-key rendition of a snippet from Swan Lake.  It’s something I’ve done for years, and I’m not sure why.  The whistling is rare enough, apparently, that people at work comment on it.  It’s been a long time since I’ve heard someone else — a co-worker, or a kid in the neighborhood — whistle something.

Why does whistling seem to have one foot in the grave?  Is it because you have to practice to become a halfway decent whistler?  Or is it because there is no point in learning to whistle a tune when you can walk around all day listening to an iPod?

The heyday of whistling probably was the ’50s and ’60s.  In those days, there were popular TV shows where the theme song was whistled, like the jaunty intro to The Andy Griffith Show or the lonesome-sounding intro to Lassie.  And why was the intro to Lassie so sad-sounding, anyway?  You’d think a show about a kid and his dog would be more upbeat.  Of course, the fact that Lassie was constantly saving Timmy from an abandoned well or catching some escaped convict lurking in the neighborhood may have affected the theme-whistler’s mood.  Perhaps another reason people have stopped whistling is that it brings back disturbing memories of June Lockhart trying to interpret the precise meaning of Lassie’s barks so that she could promptly solve the latest crisis.

Who Was Ghoulardi, And Why Should Anyone Care?

The ’50s and early ’60s were a pretty standardized time.  There were three TV networks, and they offered similar programming: morning news shows, soap operas and game shows during the day, the evening news, and variety shows, westerns, crime shows, and silly sitcoms at night.  There were good shows, and bad shows — but mostly, the shows seemed to be cut from the same cloth.  Late at night, however, some differences emerged.  In Cleveland, in the early ’60s, the most significant of those differences was Ghoulardi.

Ghoulardi was a TV character invented by Ernie Anderson.  He was the coolest, weirdest TV host we’d ever seen.  He was supposed to be the host of a show that showed movies, but the movies sucked and Ghoulardi made fun of them.  Nobody cared about the movies, anyway, because Ghoulardi really was the show.  He wore a fake moustache and goatee, fake glasses that usually were missing a lens, a white lab coat, and a cheap wig.  His show looked dark and creepy.  He played great music that you didn’t hear on the radio.  He blew up car models on the air.  He showed weird drawings.  He had bizarre skits and in jokes, he regularly made fun of Parma, and he created catch phrases.  You weren’t sure you got all of Ghoulardi’s jokes — in fact, you were pretty sure that you didn’t — but you also thought that the powers that be probably weren’t getting all the jokes, either, which just made Ghoulardi cooler. (The “poker” joke in the YouTube clip below is an example, I think.)

Ghoulardi wasn’t for everyone.  I’m sure the Greater Cleveland Decency League or the Daughters of the American Revolution or some other “pro-decency” organization regularly protested his show.  But, if you were a kid who lived in the Cleveland area you just had to watch him and then talk about him with your friends the next day.

Why should anyone care about a local TV personality who was on the air a few years more than four decades ago?  Because Ghoulardi, and similarly unique local TV personalities from other areas, helped to light the way for the current state of TV in modern America.  Ghoulardi showed that bold and strange TV shows could develop a devoted following, even if the show didn’t broadly appeal to the masses like the standardized pablum that was broadcast on the networks.  Ghoulardi was a niche show before there were niche shows or niche networks.  In that sense, shows like Man vs. Food, Robot Chicken, and Space Ghost Coast To Coast, among many others, owe a debt to Ernie Anderson and his curious, non-conformist character.  He helped to blaze a trail that the entertainment industry is still following, 45 years later.