Friday, October 28, 2011

Hero. Daredevil. Showman. Lunatic. :: Getting to the Root of All Evel.

___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___

"Kids wanted to be like me, men wanted to be
me, and the women wanted to be with me."
___ ___ ___
___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___ ___

Childhood memories can often be a tricky thing. Even though clouded over with time or diluted by overlapping events, there's still a few, vivid scenes and scenarios that have stuck with me since the ripe old age of two, and, as usual, it deals with something I saw on the TV. (The power of nostalgia or scathing indictment on my generation I'll leave for you to judge...) And one thing that I can clearly remember seeing while gathered around the old wood-paneled Zenith with my family unit, was watching a man on a motorcycle, viewed from the rear, jump over several cars, miss the landing, crash, and go skidding into the opposite tunnel; rolling, flopping, and bending [unnaturally] until he and the bike finally stopped in a twisted and smoking heap.

Wow! Who the hell was that guy?!

Well, that guy turned out to be one Evel Knievel (-- as those of you who were around back in the 1970's had already guessed), and this particularly spectacular wipe out -- that's been burned forever into my memory -- was his failed jump at The Cow Palace in San Francisco in 1972. This was my introduction to Mr. Knievel: hero, daredevil, and, to some, a complete lunatic and / or moron. (Not me, though, I think he's a stud.) Regardless of what you thought of him, the man was a great entrepreneur, had a flair for the ballyhoo, and risked life and limb for our entertainment -- and he's got the scars and broken bones to prove it.

Part P.T. Barnum, part rock star in a patent leather jumpsuit, Robert Craig Knievel got his name from his lawless days in his native Butte, Montana, and first broke onto the scene as a filler piece on ABC's Wild World of Sports, where he successfully jumped his bike over several cars. Eventually, Knievel and his traveling circus broke away from the rodeos and stunt-circuit and hit the big time, when he proposed to jump the newly installed fountains at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas in 1968.

Video courtesy of apeshitquarterly.

Now, history shows Knievel did not successfully land this jump, which ended in a horrific crash (-- during the graphic footage shot by actress Linda Evans, then the wife of filmmaker John Derek, you can actually see both of the victim's
legs snap), and one can't help but wonder if he had landed the jump, successfully, would Knievel have become such a national phenomenon? Was it that wreck and our desire to see him make a successful comeback that drew our attention? Or, more than likely, a desire to see him wreck again most horribly that brought us back to watch him over and over and over?

Whatever your answer is, if you'd like to see some of Knievel's successful stunts or bone-crunching wipe-outs, you can check them out on the Evel Knievel's Spectacular Jumps. Eleven jumps in total are featured on the DVD, but that's about it as they try to cram in all the goods into a measly half-hour. Included are the two stunts already mentioned plus his famous, or is that infamous, attempt to jump over the Snake River Canyon in a homemade rocket (!); and his world record jump of over 19 cars in Ontario, California. Later, he jumped over 50 cars in the L.A. Coliseum, but those were stacked differently -- although I'm sure they didn't mention that in the promos.

And then there was his jump over 13 double-decker buses in London's Wembley stadium, where, depending on which story you've heard, the bike was either missing a part or the ramp wasn't up to specifications; but Knievel jumped anyway, not one to disappoint the fans. After the inevitable, albeit spectacular, wreck, a dazed and broken Knievel announced his retirement. But he was back five months later in King's Island, Ohio, and made a successful jump over 14 Greyhound buses.

His last jump was rather anti-climatic, however ... I was eight years old by then in 1978, and I eagerly awaited a stunt that would see my hero trying to clear a tank that held 13 dangerous, man-eating shark (-- man, Happy Days so ripped this off.) Alas, the jump never happened because Knievel was injured during a test run. This proved to be his last crash and he retired for good after that.

A disappointing ending to be sure, but I still have nothing but fond memories of the guy. Sure, most of them are of him crashing, but honestly, until George Lucas took me to a galaxy far, far away, no pop-culture icon had a bigger effect or influence on my formative years than the King of the Daredevils. And now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to go check and see if my mom threw out my old Evel Knievel wind-up stunt cycle and round up a few Tonkas to jump. If I recall, that thing could never stick a landing, either.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Blogathon Revisitron :: Got Ghosts? Then, Who You Gonna Call? The Alan Brady Busters!

As if I didn't already love this show enough, but, between Robert Petrie consistently breaking off his killer Boris Karloff impersonation, whenever the spookified need presented itself, and his constant referencing to other classic monsters, like Godzilla and Frankenstein's monster, when allegorically appropriate, has me convinced that Dick Van Dyke was probably/definitely a closet creature-feature fiend. (Gooble-goble gooble-goble gooble-goble ... *ahem*) Or at least somebody on The Dick Van Dyke Show was, evidenced by the number of episodes or dream sequences that had more than a slight B-Movie bent:

Hell, I even recall an episode where Rob and Buddy spot a UFO, which leads them to a couple of mad scientists doing diabolical things in a lab tucked away in the depths of the office building. But the best of this hair-brained bunch was an episode called:

Now, this particular chapter begins with the comically creepy and kooky, mysterious and spooky, snowball already formed and gaining momentum as it rolls down the hill, with the writers of the Alan Brady show arriving at a mountain fishing lodge, nestled somewhere in the Catskills. Brought to this wilderness retreat at the behest of their boss / evil overlord to help hammer out the details of a new program Herr Hairless is backing, upon arrival, these city folks, especially Buddy and Sally (Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie), are having a little trouble adjusting to the peace and quiet and the amount of fur hung on the walls that keeps looking back at them. (Huh. You'd think being in the heart of the Borscht Belt old Buddy would feel right at home.) Not sure why they had to be drug out to the middle of nowhere, himself, ringleader Rob (Van Dyke), with help from the wife, Laura (Mary Tyler Moore), encourages them all to make the best of it, but each platitude is quickly shot down by the wisecrackin' and quip-packin' duo.

Then, to make this odious situation even worse, seems there's been a mix-up with the reservations, and, as the Good Book says, there is no more room at the inn. Apparently, their producer, Mel Cooley (Richard Deacon), was too busy ferreting around for Brady and overlooked this less than slight detail; and after fighting bumper to bumper traffic for over five hours just to get there his employees metaphorically get back in the car and run Mel over, with Buddy at the wheel, as usual, backing up and running Mel over again and again and again, just in case there was an insult he missed the first few times.

(And aside from futching the reservations,
Mel also apparently forgot his pants.)

"The Bald Phantom strikes again! Sic 'em, boys!"

Poor Mel. Anyways...

Positive he can salvage the situation, Mel sends everyone else to lunch -- including Cousin Eeyeech, while he and Rob try to sort things out with the manager. And, with the help of a few sawbucks, turns out there might just be one unoccupied cabin left to rent. However, there are a few logistical problems with it. For one, there's only one bedroom. But Rob assures that they can make due with that and a promised fold-out couch. Good enough, but, the beady-eyed manager adds, the cabin might be a little shabby since it hasn't been occupied for almost three years. And why is that? Well, the answer to that question is also the biggest logistical quirk the lodging has.

For you see, the cabin in question is [dramatic pause] haunted.

[Insert maniacal cackle here.]

Mel, of course, reacts to this paranormal revelation with his usual stone-faced consternation. Rob on the other hand...

Telling them to mock all they want, and feeling obligated to give them the whole story, the manager then regales them with the tale of Amos Chantz, a regular guest, who regularly stayed in the very cabin in question. Until one night, three years ago, he up and disappeared without a trace. Local scuttlebutt says Chantz was murdered for his money, but they never found a culprit, the money or a body, and, as the ultimate topper, seems no one has managed to spend a full night in the cabin ever since -- because it's already occupied. Muwahahahhahahhahahhhh...

As one to scare that easily, but not THAT easily, and since it's their only option, with Mel's pushing, Rob agrees to take the cabin on the condition that they don't tell the girls about the [alleged] ghost. Upon reaching the cabin, they find it in much better shape than originally advertised, improving everyone's mood -- a wary Rob included. And as the girls settle into the bedroom, Rob convinces himself that the hokey ghost tale is just that: hookum. However, there's a slight hitch in this hookum-busting...

For Rob has made the mistake of confiding in Buddy about the ghost, who quickly starts channeling Lou Costello, Don Knotts and Curly Howard as he puts on a one man revival of The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. And all of Rob's efforts to defuse this ticking-time-bomb of angst is quickly short-circuited by a knock at the door and the untimely arrival of the gaunt'd woodman dressed in black [genus Crazy Ralph / species Margaret Lanterman].

Apparently, Spooky McCrackpot delivers a cord of wood every night at 9 o'clock sharp and then vacates the premises as fast as possible. This he does, adding a sinister cackle free of charge, but after he's gone, Rob starts to get suspicious.

Finding the deliveryman a little too kooky, having seen this movie already, Rob is now convinced that someone is making a concentrated and deliberate effort to scare them out of the cabin. Because if what he said was true, there'd be three years worth of logs lying around, right? And I think Buddy would have agreed with him, if the fireplace hadn't just managed to ignite itself.

Hookay, after writing that off with a completely rational explanation (a dry log and an old ember flaring up), Rob spends the rest of the evening trying to keep the freaked-out Buddy from blabbering to the girls about their mysterious visitor and the spontaneously-combusting fireplace.

But even after all of that hair-raising excitement, the Petries still find time to be absolutely adorable (and, lets face it, randy as a couple of rabbits). Alas, with the shared accommodations, they have to break it up (-- before the pajamas start coming off, and those separate beds at home ain't fooling nobody, am I right?), with Sally and Laura taking the bedroom, leaving Rob to deal with the couch and Buddy...

Who keeps his shoes on in case he has to make a quick escape when the ghost shows up.

Which he does, maybe, when the front door slowly creaks open, revealing no one; then a nearby rocking chair starts moving on its own. Was this caused by an errant breeze? Who knows. What I do know is a couple of seconds after the rocking chair stops moving, the front door closes up again.

-- Maybe the breeze shifted directions?
-- More likely, the ghost got up and left.

Undaunted, Rob writes it off as nothing, and over Buddy's vehement protests turns the light off for the night.


Too bad they won't stay off.
(Maybe it was loose ember and a dry light bulb?)

Meanwhile, in the bedroom with the unaware girls, things quickly escalate up the sinister scale when something far, far worse than a flaky lamp and a sentient rocking chair silently makes its ectoplasmically peeping presence known...

[For the record: I so (HEART) Mary Tyler Moore.]

Laura's well warranted hysterics brings everyone together on the fly. Of course, by now, the apparition in the mirror is long gone. Regardless, that's the last straw for Buddy, who demands Rob spill the beans about the haunted nature of their surroundings -- the ghost, the visitor, the fireplace, the lights, everything ... Obviously, this pertinent kept secret doesn't sit too well with the womenfolk; and after piling Laura's encounter on top of everything else, over Rob's protests, ghost or no ghost, the other three decide it would be in their best interest to screw that noise and boot-scoot down the road immediately.

Heading back into the main room, where they find the couch mysteriously folded back up on its own and their bags already packed and waiting by the door, the decision to go is made that much easier. All that this spook-house is missing, says Sally to a still stubborn Rob, is Vincent Price and a thunderstorm. And she barely gets those words out before Buddy opens to the front door to a bright flash of lightning and long peel of thunder. Next comes a rap on the bedroom door, which slowly creaks open -- again, revealing no one inside. Seems Mr. Price blew his cue...

So, with the storm howling outside, making the three mile hike back to the main lodge untenable, Rob decides to call up Mel to send the Jeep for them. Thus, after walking en masse around the cabin to get to it, Rob picks up the receiver and dials. And, really, does anyone at this point think the phone won't be dead?

Show of hands. Anyone? No one? Good. Because it most definitely is, meaning the group is stuck indefinitely.

Which isn't such a bad thing since it leads to another hysterical circumstance / money-shot as our collection of knocking-knees and frayed nerves regroups and hunkers down to wait out the storm. Unfortunately...

The fold-out couch has other ideas...

And in the ensuing chaos after the possessed
furniture tries to eat them...

One by one...

Our group of four becomes three...

Then two...

Until, finally...

Poor Rob is left all alone.

E'yup. All alone.

Well ... except for the Ghost.

Who still ain't talking.

Leaving Rob, and the audience, to ponder just What the hell is going on, here? Is it someone just trying to scare them? That kooky motel manager? Or maybe some other lodge workers, or a local deviant (Spooky McCrackpot immediately springs to mind), who are still looking for the lost loot, with these unwanted guests both in the way and in dire need of being disposed of?

I mean, Eek!

And Eek again!

Then again, perhaps it's Chantz, himself, alive and well, playing dead, spooking off unwanted tourists or would be treasure hunters. Or, hell, maybe the cabin really is haunted? Or maybe, just maybe, all of the above. And as Rob looks to the magic mirror begging for an answer, we get ours:

That's right. It was all a goof. Seems that new show they were brought out to the boonies to work on was nothing more than a blatant Candid Camera knock-off. (Typical Alan Brady lechery, am I right? Don't believe me? Then just ask Uncle Spunky. He'll back me up.) That's right; Rob, Laura, Buddy and Sally were just used as guinea pigs for a dry run on the inaugural episode of Spooky Camera.


The Ghost of A. Chantz is another great episode directed by Jerry Paris, who seemed to have a knack for getting the cast to really let it fly no matter how absurd the situation. And fly they do. But make no mistake, in lesser hands this kind of material would have fallen flatter than my left rear tire (which I really need to get fixed). Things do get hysterical (on both ends of that spectrum) but the cast never falls into histrionics, which would have sunk it. Amsterdam really shines, here, and I always love it when Moore is allowed to really cut loose and play with the others. And the written word just can't do justice to the zingers and bits of business used to either defuse a situation or push the gas pedal closer to the floorboard. You just gotta watch it to experience the full immersion of what's really going on onscreen. And if nothing else, The Ghost of A. Chantz also provides one of those precious, rare moments when Mel finally, finally, gets the last word in with Buddy, earning that last laugh at his most dreaded nemesis' expense.

This post is the second, and critically overdue contribution to The Dick Van Dyke Show blogathon, originating over at Ivan's truly magnificent Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, which was held aboouuuut three weeks ago. (You can read the first part here.) But, with Halloween rapidly approaching it just seemed be the perfect fodder, which sounds so much better than saying Blogger ate my post. Again. (Which it did. Twice.)
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