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Appreciation: Local TV Commercials I Have Known and Loved (Despite Themselves)

While watching the morning TV news yesterday, I thought of local TV commercials. They are getting to be a rare breed these days, given the rise of the Internet as a marketing medium, and the nationalization/globalization of TV watching (both on “regular” TV and online). I have lived in a number of large cities, each with its share of home-grown commercials. No slick productions or fancy computer graphics here — just sincere local businesses trying to get your money. Here are some of my favorite local TV commercials from years past, perfect for this Throwback Thursday.

As a kid growing up in Detroit, Maurice Lazar, owner of Belvedere Construction, was a fixture on the family TV set in his guise of “Mr. Belvedere”. This 1984 commercial is the oldest one I could find, but if you ask anyone who grew up in Detroit during the 1960s or 1970s, they know about these commercials. I’m sure there are some people who, although they can’t remember their own phone number, remember Mr. Belvedere’s – TYler 8-7100.

I hope you noted the near-Method delivery of Mr. Belvedere’s lines, as well as the au courant wood paneling in the background.

Later, when I lived in Chicago, TV was a refuge from the stresses of graduate studies. Chicago did not lack for uh, interesting local commercials. Here’s one from Moo and Oink, a meat market chain that featured the beloved mascots Moo the cow and Oink the pig.

Although the Moo and Oink stores are closed, Best Chicago Meat bought the trademarks, including the iconic pig and cow. Moo and Oink products are now on grocery shelves in areas surrounding Chicago. Don’t know if they’ll resurrect the commercials though…

Along the way, I lived in the Washington, DC area. At first, I couldn’t think of an old local commercial that played in DC. So I did a search for “old DC TV commercials” on YouTube. The first one that came up was for Mr. Ray’s Hair Weave! I definitely remember these commercials, and passing by the shop when driving home on Georgia Avenue. I didn’t see a line of people with hair problems outside, clamoring for Mr. Ray’s services, though…

Crazy Gideon was L.A.’s answer to the infamous New York City purveyor of cheap, crappy electronics, Crazy Eddie. But Gideon, who at times could be incomprehensible even to polyglot Angelenos, had a style all his own.

Recent gentrification of eastern downtown Los Angeles doomed Crazy Gideon’s, but the Yelp reviews of his store (and commercials) are still with us. These reviews are as bizarre as the commercials were!

What’s your favorite old or new local TV commercial?

A family listening to a radio program. Could it be The Adventures of Superman? Photo by Warren K. Leffler.  Courtesy, Library of Congress

Listen, on the radio — it’s Superman!

A little-publicized Thursday morning panel at the recent Comic-Con International: San Diego addressed the 75th anniversary of the debut of The Adventures of Superman radio serial. Despite being overlooked today, this radio show, which ran for more than 10 years and 2000 episodes, added important elements to the Superman mythos. Although he made his debut only two years earlier in Action Comics No. 1 (June 1938), Superman was already an established pop culture figure when the show began. According to How to Love Comics, the show ran from February 1940 to 1951, first on WOR and in syndication before being broadcast through the Mutual and later ABC radio networks. The television version of The Adventures of Superman, starring George Reeves, started in 1952, a year after the radio show ended.

The 1930s and 1940s were prime years for radio programming. Radio audiences were familiar with daring heroes such as The Shadow, The Lone Ranger, and The Green Hornet. But there was no one on radio quite like Superman. The producers of the radio show had to meet the challenges of a character who resided in the public’s imagination as a visual character. As a result, the radio show featured plenty of sound effects — whooshing noises for the flying sequences, as well as explosions, fighting, and other action scenes. Echo effects mimicked large caverns, empty rooms and long-distance telephone calls.

The Superman radio show also introduced many of the now-familiar tropes of the character. Listeners of this show were the first to hear the famous phrases “It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Superman!” “Up, up and away!” and “Faster than a speeding bullet…!” This show also gave us the long-running supporting characters of Jimmy Olsen, Perry White and Inspector Henderson. In 1945 came two firsts: Superman’s exposure to Kryptonite and his first official team-up with Batman.

People more familiar with recent portrayals of “mild mannered” Clark Kent may be a bit surprised by Clayton “Bud” Collyer’s portrayal of Superman’s alter ego. As in the early Superman comics (later mimicked by Peter Parker’s exploitation of his Spiderman identity), Superman’s feats were a way for Clark Kent to get a big news scoop for the Daily Planet. Although Collyer raised his voice an octave to distinguish Clark’s voice from Superman’s, his version of Clark Kent was as much an active participant in the story (at times aggressively so) as Superman. An interesting fact about Collyer’s portrayal of Superman was that for the first six years of the show, his identity as the voice of Superman was a secret.

The radio show had its share of controversy. Lily Kaufman, writing earlier this year for Time magazine’s blog, noted that the February 26, 1940 issue of Time stated that “Superman or no superman, he has to watch his step on the radio. Mothers’ clubs have their eyes on him, the Child Study Association of America feels that his occasional rocket & space ship jaunts are a bit too improbable. “  Despite these concerns, The Adventures of Superman had an effect beyond radio and the comics that inspired the show. According to Durnmoosemovies, the most famous episode arc of the radio show, ”Clan of the Fiery Cross”, was suggested by activist Stetson Kennedy, known for his investigation of the Ku Klux Klan. In “Clan of the Fiery Cross”, Superman takes on the Klan, revealing many of the real-life organization’s rituals and code words. It is believed that this episode arc made a negative impact on the Klan’s recruitment and membership.

Episodes of The Adventures of Superman are available through the Internet Archive. Listening to these shows will take you back to the time of your grandparents or great-grandparents, when the whole superhero genre, as well as electronic media, were in their early days. Frankly, they’re just fun to listen to!

Photo: Husband, wife and two children, seated in a living room, listening to a radio, 1957. Warren K. Leffler. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

Christmas display in Los Angeles CA

Relevance is Comin’ to Town: Rankin/Bass Productions and Santa Claus

Earlier this year, Arthur Rankin, one of the founders of Rankin/Bass Productions with Jules Bass, died at age 89.  Rankin/Bass Productions (“RBP”) is probably best known for its Christmas TV specials, such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town and The Year Without a Santa Claus.  These specials have become so much a part of American pop culture it seems that a Christmas season doesn’t go by without a spoof of one.  One of the things that made the specials appealing at the time they were originally broadcast, and which contributes to their continuing appeal, is the parallels of the story lines to what was happening in the United States at the time.

Although Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), based on the popular song, focuses on the titular reindeer, Santa Claus plays an important role.  Rudolph, first broadcast during the time of the Civil Rights Movement, presents many lessons in acceptance.  When Santa at first rejects Rudolph based on his appearance, it reminds one of the real-life intolerance many authority figures of the 1960s had towards those who looked different.  (One could go further with this idea – was the Island of Misfit Toys a ghetto?) Once Santa recognizes Rudolph’s abilities, he realizes that Rudolph, given the chance, can be a productive member of North Pole society.  Similarly, the subplot regarding Hermey, the elf who wanted to be a dentist reflected the increasing desire of young people of the time to follow a path different from that of their parents.  That Hermey was able to work at the North Pole fixing dolls’ teeth showed that even the most traditional of places can find room for those who have different ideas.

In contrast to the authoritarian of Rudolph, Santa is downright rebellious in 1970’s Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (“SCCT”).  SCCT, first shown during the height of the “youthquake” of the Baby Boom generation, is the story of how the young and cute Kris Kringle becomes the jolly old elf we all know so well.   Kris, with his long, almost Beatlesque red hair and his sunny demeanor, spurs an uprising against the old uptight ways of the establishment – personified by the grumpy, anti-toy Burgermeister Meisterburger.  Along the way, Kris manages to find romance with the lovely town schoolteacher Jessica. In a scene that has been cut from recent showings of SCCT, Jessica sings about the changes Kris has brought to her and her town.  This reflects the real-life changes that youth brought to American life during the 1960s and early 1970s.

SCCT also draws a parallel between Santa and another iconic figure – Superman.  Both Santa and Superman were foundlings adopted by elderly couples.  Both assume an identity (Kris Kringle/Clark Kent) separate from their true identities (Claus/Kal-El).  Both have special powers that don’t manifest themselves until adulthood.  SCCT manages to wrap the heretofore mysterious Santa in a cloak (or cape, as it may be) familiar to many viewers.

A few years later, in 1974, RBP introduced The Year Without a Santa Claus (“YWSC”).  Departing from the generally “known” aspects of Santa’s world, and based on a book by Phyllis McGinley, YWSC was released at a time of moral crises in the United States.  The events of Watergate and the subsequent resignation of President Richard Nixon, as well as the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam, were on the minds of the American people.  Meanwhile, at the North Pole, Santa sees the increased disbelief in the spirit of Christmas.  Disappointed and discouraged, Santa decides to take a (permanent?) vacation instead of delivering toys.  It’s up to Mrs. Claus, with the help of a couple of elves, the reindeer Vixen, and a bunch of kids in a small Sunbelt town, to get her husband back in the sleigh.  The casting of Shirley Booth, TV’s “Hazel” from the 1960s, as Mrs. Claus is appropriate here. (This was also Shirley Booth’s last acting role.) Just as Hazel the maid took charge of a dysfunctional household, Mrs. Claus takes charge during the chaos.  In real life as well, women were beginning to take charge in many ways.

But despite the fact that Santa is encouraged enough to resume his duties (of course), YWSC may have been seen as too cynical for some people.  Network TV hasn’t shown this off-canon look at Santa Claus since 1980. The cable channel ABC Family does show YWSC as part of its “25 Days of Christmas”.  This hasn’t affected the popularity of YWSC one bit – there are regular references to it in other parts of pop culture.

Rudolph, SCCT and YWSC demonstrate that Rankin/Bass Productions, and in turn Arthur Rankin and (the still living) Jules Bass, recognized that American society was undergoing a shift.  Rankin and Bass were aware as well of the pop culture of the time, and of the need to be relevant to television viewers, no matter what their age or knowledge of current affairs.  For many of us who, as kids, sat in front of the television in our pajamas year after year, the underlying themes of these shows sunk in.  In any case, we continue to hold these shows dear in our hearts.

Lynne a.k.a. Poprocker1

Throwback Thursday –A Look Back at Dumb & Dumber (1994)

In light of the premiere of  Dumb & Dumber To [not a misspelling]  (“D&DT”) tomorrow, my family and I watched the original Dumb & Dumber (“D&D”) from 1994 a couple of days ago.  I hadn’t seen the movie in years, and wondered how well it would hold up in the 20 years since it first came out. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself still laughing at it.  (Yes, I know that there was a 2003 prequel, Dumb & Dumberer, but this is the only time I will mention it.)

In short, D&D is the story of two not-so-bright guys, Harry (Jeff Daniels) and Lloyd (Jim Carrey), who make a cross-country trip to return a briefcase to a woman whom Lloyd considers “the love of his life”. [An aside – until I did some research, I completely forgot that Jim Carrey was briefly married to Lauren Holly, who played the love interest in the movie.]  The briefcase, of course, is a MacGuffin that serves to propel the story.  It wasn’t until I saw the movie again that I realize the similarity of this film to a couple of Hitchcock films, particularly North by Northwest.  Of course, the guys in D&D were the polar opposite of the sophisticated characters played by Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in the Hitchcock film.

As with all Farrelly brothers’ comedies, this film isn’t for everyone (and you know who you are).  Scatological and just plain gross humor abounds here.  And like the later There’s Something About Mary (1998), the audience is definitely laughing at, not with, the main characters.  And that’s okay, because despite Harry and Lloyd’s “dumb” demeanor, each of the characters has enough guile and street smarts for the audience to see them in a comedic, rather than sympathetic, light.  We see, for example, that Harry and Lloyd are capable of stabbing each other in the back to get ahead.

I always wondered how the Farrelly brothers managed to get Jeff Daniels to play against type in the D&D.  In 1994, Daniels was probably best known for being Debra Winger’s jerky husband in Terms of Endearment (1983).  His pleasantly WASP-y façade isn’t what you would consider as suitable for a crude slapstick comedy.  I can only imagine that doing D&DT was probably a nice break from the serious character he plays on Aaron Sorkin’s  talky, somnambulant (at least to me) The Newsroom.  At least Daniels’ character Harry has a slightly better hairstyle this time around.

In contrast to Daniels, at the time of D&D, Jim Carrey was riding the crest of his comedy career.  Carrey’s Lloyd was definitely the protagonist (and the dumber one) of D&D, given the box office success of films such as Ace Ventura, Pet Detective (1994).  Carrey has seen less success in recent years, however.  Maybe by returning to the scene of this well-remembered and extensively referenced movie, Moe Howard-style bowl cut and all, Carrey will finally get his comeback.  (If so, I hope Eddie Murphy pays attention – Coming to America Too, anyone?)

I admit that I won’t rush out and see D&DT this weekend. My son wants me to see Big Hero 6 with him, and I don’t like going to see a film opening weekend.  But I do hope that the film is as funny as the original, and does well at the box office.  D&DT is definitely a much-needed break from omnipresent big action films, as well as the serious Oscar contenders that dominate the theaters this time of year.

Lynne a.k.a. Poprocker1