Thursday, August 13, 2009

Pioneering Animation of Sleeping Beauty

(Article published in today's San Francisco Examiner)

One of the most beloved Disney animated features ever made, “Sleeping Beauty” took nearly a decade to reach the screen from the time that initial production started until it was released to critical and audience acclaim in 1959. An almost obsessive attention to detail and quest for quality were among the reasons behind the long timetable, which ultimately resulted in a visual richness and exquisite sense of style that has remained virtually unmatched ever since.

San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the film with a special exhibit, “Once Upon A Dream: The Art of Sleeping Beauty,” featuring everything from original model sheets and copies of pencil sketches to behind the scenes photos and actual animation cels from the production of the fairy tale classic.

Disney artist and illustrator Ron Dias, whose personal collection provides the bulk of the material for the exhibit, looks back fondly on his time spent on the film and the creative design of the production, which was handled quite differently than previous Disney projects in that everything had to adhere to the lush designs of one person, Eyvind Earle.

“Walt, being the innovative person that he was, was always looking for something different and new. He was actually worried I think that everything was looking quite moldy-fig and having the sameness to it.”

“Sleeping Beauty” was the first major project that Dias worked on, joining the Disney team in 1956 at the age of 18, working as an Inbetweener and Clean Up Animator, where he helped draw the intermediate frames to create the seamless animation that gave life to the characters of Princess Aurora and the devilishly evil Maleficent.

“It had to be precise and exact, or it would jitter and jump—and we had to make sure that we were looking at the model sheet at all times, because she was designed so differently than any other character,” says Dias. “We had to make sure that it not only moved smoothly, but did not look awkward. When you look at a character you look at their face, their eyes, and a mouth that’s moving, and she moved smoother than almost any other female character.”

Visitors to the exhibit can catch a glimpse of the great efforts that went into such a lavish endeavor, back before the time of modern computer animation when talented artists had to hand paint each individual frame, giving it a look and feel that no computer program could ever hope to achieve. The exhibit also features examples of Dias’ later work, including animation cels and concept art from films such as “The Little Mermaid,” “The Secret of NIMH,” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”

In the years since he stopped working on feature films, Dias has done many projects for both Disney and other notable companies, providing artwork for books, DVDs, limited edition lithographs, and even theme parks. He still gets fan mail from people of all ages, and loves to meet the people who have grown up with his art.

“I’m finally beginning to realize how many people we all have touched, and we’ve put so many smiles on faces—that’s really a wonderful thing.”

If You Go:

“Once Upon A Dream: The Art of Sleeping Beauty”
Exhibit open through January 10, 2010
Cartoon Art Museum, 655 Mission St., San Francisco
Opening reception with artist Ron Dias, Saturday, August 15, 7-9 p.m.
Regular gallery hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Tickets: Reception is free; regular admission $2-$6
(415) 227-8666,,

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Pissed Jeans Hit Bottom of the Hill

(Preview published in today's San Francisco Bay Guardian)

Specializing in a brash, raucous, and infectious brand of rock, Allentown, Pa.'s Pissed Jeans mix fuzz-drenched rhythms and caterwauling vocals. The band's latest album, King of Jeans (Sub Pop), hits record store shelves today. The standout blistering ditties include "She Is Science Fiction," "Request For Masseuse" and "R-Rated Music." Here's hoping the group sears your ears with live versions tonight.(Sean McCourt)

With Mi Ami and Hissing Wound.

9 p.m., $12. Bottom of the Hill, 1233 17th St., SF. (415) 621-4455,

Brian Posehn Brings The Laughs To San Francisco

(Preview published in today's San Francisco Bay Guardian)

Getting his start doing stand up in Sacramento and San Francisco, comedian Brian Posehn has also added his hilarious talents to a wide variety of other media; he has starred in TV programs such as "Just Shoot Me," "Mr. Show," and "The Sarah Silverman Program," and has had parts in several films including Rob Zombie's "The Devil's Rejects.” A devoted fan of both horror movies and heavy metal, Posehn co-authored the graphic novel “The Last Christmas,” a tale about Santa after the apocalypse, and he released the album “Live In: Nerd Rage” (Relapse Records) in 2006, featuring the side-splitting parody song (and even funnier music video) "Metal By Numbers," where he skewers modern “false metal” with his searing lyrics and growled incantations of “Cookie Cookie Cookie!” (Sean McCourt)

8 p.m. Thu.; 8 p.m. and 10:15 p.m. Fri.-Sat. $18.50-$20.50. Cobb's Comedy Club, 915 Columbus Ave., SF. (415) 928-4320,

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Welcome To The Nightmare: Stellar Corpses Unleash New Album

(Article published in today's Good Times)

Though most people may like to think of Santa Cruz as a quiet beach town, some locals know the area also has a dark side—one part fictional, as seen in the cult classic vampire movie The Lost Boys, notoriously filmed here in the 1980s—the other very real, as seen during the 1970s when a string of serial killers terrorized the mountain communities that surround the city.

It should come as no surprise then that a band that embraces the more monstrous side of things has been born here: Stellar Corpses have been making a name for themselves locally and globally for nearly four years, mixing psychobilly, punk, rockabilly, surf rock and more, while striving to avoid any pigeonholes. Featuring Dusty Grave on vocals and guitar, Matt Macabre on drums, Dan Lamothe on bass, and Emilio Menze on guitar, Stellar Corpses released their debut EP, Respect The Dead, in 2007, toured Europe in 2008, and a new full length album, Welcome To The Nightmare, has just come out on Fiend Force Records, exploring a fuller breadth of styles.

“There’s something that everyone will like on the new album, we have such a wide variety of stuff that we listen to—everything from Jimmy Buffet to Slayer,” Macabre says.

The instrumental title track kicks things off in high gear for the album, followed by the shout-along anthem “My Shadow.” “Cemetery Man,””One More Day” and “When You Don’t See Me” are among the other standout tracks on Welcome To The Nightmare, which is being unveiled at this week’s CD-release party at The Catalyst.

“Our predecessors, the guys who were doing rockabilly to start with, they were taking country and the blues and doing their own thing with it,” says Grave. “We just feel like we’re continuing that tradition, and being true to ourselves.”

That independent attitude has fueled the band’s journey down a darker, richer path—chances are you won’t hear many other area groups play a song like “Hale Bopp,” a frightfully catchy tune that tells the infamous tale of the mass suicide of the Heaven’s Gate cult, set to a Bo Diddley-on-steroids beat.

Info Box:

Stellar Corpses’ CD Release Show
Friday, July 31st
9 p.m.
The Catalyst
1011 Pacific Ave.
Santa Cruz
(831) 423-1338

Who Ya Gonna Call? Ray Parker Jr. Set To Perform At The Boardwalk

(Article published in today's Santa Cruz Sentinel)

With an instantly recognizable tune and the familiar refrains and shout along responses of “If there’s something strange/ in your neighborhood/ who ya gonna call?” the “Ghostbusters” theme song likely brings back a flood of fun memories for anybody who grew up in the 1980s, or was a fan of the hit movie and much-played music video.

Written and performed by Ray Parker Jr., the theme song for “Ghostbusters” opened the blockbuster movie about a group of somewhat zany paranormal investigators starring Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Ernie Hudson and Rick Moranis. Released in 1984, fans have been celebrating the 25th anniversary of the film with the recent release of a special edition Blu-ray DVD and a new high-tech video game that came out earlier this year, both featuring the catchy theme song.

“We didn’t know it was going to be a record, we didn’t know it was going to be anything. To be quite honest, today we’re talking about like it’s a big deal, but at the time I was doing it, it was not a big thing,” says Parker, who is performing at the Boardwalk on Friday night.

Prior to getting the “Ghostbusters” gig, Parker was known in the entertainment business for a string of well-received songs as a solo artist, as well as having a reputation for being a stellar studio musician, having performed with people including Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Barry White, Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross among many others. Near the end of the production of the movie, the producers and director approached him to write a theme song for the horror-comedy.

“They liked my other songs, and so they just wanted me to write one for the film—who knew it was going to be that big—I thought I had big records before, but that was like hitting the ball out of the park,” says Parker.

“They showed me the film, they didn’t have any music in it yet, the director kind of described what he was looking for, and I only had a few days to do it, because they were running out of time—the film guys always start late on the music—and that is the song that came out of it.”

Parker wrote, recorded and produced the song in a mere two and a half days, recording in a Hollywood studio he owned at the time, playing almost all of the instruments himself, aside from a few overdubs that his friends helped provide.

“That was my girlfriend and her friends yelling [‘Ghostbusters’] in the background, so I got them on it,” laughs Parker.

The accompanying music video for “Ghostbusters” ended up being a star-studded affair, featuring Parker singing on a variety of neon and mist filled sets, while the cast members danced and sang along with him in Times Square, and celebrities who weren’t even in the film turned in appearances, such as Chevy Chase and John Candy.

“It was a lot of fun to make, especially the New York scene with all the Ghostbusters guys and me, and it was sort of a monumental video. We got on MTV at a time when they said they weren’t playing any black music on MTV.”

Parker, who is still recording and touring a good portion of the year, recently released his latest solo album, “I’m Free” and spent part of the summer touring in Europe, performing at events including the Montreaux Jazz Festival. He still enjoys playing the “Ghostbusters” song, and says he looks forward to meeting his fans on the beach tomorrow night.

“I think the song is a huge blessing, ‘Ghostbusters’ seems to transcend time. I have a son who is 8 years old; he and all of his friends know it. As the new kids grow up, they all like that song, it’s really interesting.”

Info Box:
Ray Parker Jr.
6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.
Friday, July 31
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
400 Beach Street
Santa Cruz
(831) 423-5590

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

USS Hornet Splashdown 2009

(Preview published in today's San Francisco Bay Guardian)

USS Hornet Splashdown

In July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to ever walk on the surface of the moon, and the famous quote, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" was relayed around the world to an enthralled television audience. When the historic Apollo 11 mission was over and it was time to return to Earth, their capsule landed in the Pacific Ocean, where the aircraft carrier USS Hornet was the main ship to recover them. Today, the Hornet has a place of honor in San Francisco Bay as a floating museum, and the majestic ship is hosting a special three-day event, Splashdown 2009, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of these groundbreaking accomplishments. Aldrin and several other crew members from the mission will be on board, sharing memories with visitors, who can also enjoy interactive exhibits, displays, receptions, talks about current space exploration, and more. (Sean McCourt)

6–10 p.m. (Sat/25 and Sun/26 10 a.m.–5 p.m.), $6–$25
USS Hornet
707 W. Hornet, Alameda
(510) 521-8448

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

More Than A Decade Later, The Dude Abides

(Article published in today's San Francisco Examiner)

When the Coen Brothers' bizarrely brilliant comedy “The Big Lebowski” was initially released in 1998, it didn’t fare so well at the box office. In the decade that has passed, however, it has become a bona fide cult classic, inspiring such fervent fandom that in 2002 the first "Lebowski Fest" was held in Louisville, and the event has grown every year since.

Bay Area fans can join in on the celebration of the film that starred Jeff Bridges as the Dude, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, and Julianne Moore with a host of events this weekend at “Lebowski Fest San Francisco,” which is part of a 15 city tour put together by Will Russell and Scott Shuffitt, who came up with the idea of the festival while working as vendors at a tattoo convention.

“To pass the time we were quoting lines from ‘The Big Lebowski.’ Low and behold, the people next to us joined in and started quoting along with us,” says Russell. “We had this moment where we realized that we were not alone in our obsession and love of the movie, and we were like, ‘If they have this tattoo convention, why can’t we have a ‘Big Lebowski’ convention?’”

Russell and Shuffitt, along with some friends, rented out a run-down bowling alley and invited people to come dressed as their favorite characters and to have a good time—the turnout was much bigger than they had expected, and the festival has continued to grow in popularity, and now travels the country.

“It just keeps getting bigger and weirder and it’s a lot of fun. There are still plenty of surprises and several moments where I’m left scratching my head,” says Russell.

Friday night’s festivities will include a costume contest, trivia contest, and of course, the mass consumption of white Russians while bowling, or rolling rocks, as one would say in the parlance of Lebowski-speak. The party continues on Saturday night as the Fox Theater in Oakland hosts live music acts including Har Mar Superstar and a screening of the motion picture that started it all.

Russell and his cohorts have even written a book about the “Lebowski” phenomenon, “I’m A Lebowski, You’re A Lebowski,” (Bloomsbury, 2007) which lead to their first and only interaction with the Coen Brothers.

“When we asked if we could write the book, they sent a one sentence official response, which was, ‘You have neither our blessing nor our curse.’ It was very Coen-esque I guess,” Russell laughs.

If You Go:
Lebowski Fest
Classic Bowling Center, 900 King Drive, Daly City
Fox Theater, 1807 Telegraph Ave., Oakland
8 p.m. Friday,
7:30 p.m. Saturday

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Ramblin' Jack Elliott Plays Felton

(Article published in today's Santa Cruz Sentinel)

Legendary folk singer Ramblin' Jack Elliottt has been making music and traveling the world sharing his songs for more than five decades now—and at age 77, he shows no signs of slowing down. Having befriended and played with everybody from Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash to Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson, Elliott has influenced multiple generations of songwriters and musicians and won many awards along the way, including the National Medal of the Arts, presented by President Bill Clinton in 1998.

Born and raised in New York City, Elliott became fascinated with cowboys after seeing a rodeo at Madison Square Garden as a young boy. Unhappy with school and the prospects he was facing in the city, he ran away from home at age 15 and after hitchhiking out of the area, he ended up joining a rodeo—a stint that lasted just a few months, but it gave him his first exposure to folk music, courtesy of the rodeo’s resident musical clown.

“When I got home from that trip I found an old guitar in the closet and started playing some of those songs that I heard him singing, which were mostly hillbilly songs—they didn’t call it country-western at that time.”

After honing his playing skills while listening to radio stations that broadcast western music, Elliott discovered the burgeoning folk music scene in Greenwich Village, and eventually befriended Woody Guthrie, for a time moving in with the Guthrie family, soaking up as much musical knowledge as he could from the seminal writer of “This Land Is Your Land.”

On a road trip across the country with his mentor, Elliott discovered that the power of Guthrie’s songs and the messages he conveyed through them did not sit well with certain portions of the American population, even in his home state.

“A lot of the good people in Oklahoma loved Woody Guthrie and were very proud of him, but there was another large element of Guthrie haters—he narrowly escaped with his life after we stopped at a café in Okemah for a cup of coffee.”

Fifty years on, Elliott continues to travel and play with a fiercely independent spirit gleaned from his heroes, and he comes to Don Quixote’s on Wednesday supporting his latest album, A Stranger Here (Anti Records), which has been receiving rave reviews from fans and critics alike since its’ release this past April. The 10 tracks that make up the album are all cover songs; the collection is comprised of not folk, but pre-war and Depression-era blues tunes by artists such as Son House, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Reverend Gary Davis.

Elliott actually played with and met some of these blues masters when he was an up and coming young troubadour in the early 1960s, such as an encounter he had with Mississippi John Hurt at the Newport Folk Festival.

“He admired my Martin guitar—he had a kind of inexpensive guitar that he owned, and he asked me if I would mind letting him use my guitar. I said ‘You sure can, I’d be honored for you to play my guitar.’ He took it with a big ear to ear smile, and said, ‘Thank you, if they calls you for it, I’ll give it back to you, if they calls me for it, you give it back to me.’ Kind of hard to figure out what that means,” Elliott laughs. “But it all worked out.”

Even though the songs were written several generations ago, their melodies and messages still resonate with modern audiences, which Elliott attributes to a few key facts.

“It’s direct, it’s very simple, it’s undeniably true and it’s kind of rough— I think it appeals to people that must be tired of all the phony B.S. that’s so popular in music now.”

If You Go:

Ramblin’ Jack Elliott
July 22
7:30 p.m.
Don Quixote’s International Music Hall
6275 Highway 9
(831) 603-2294

Friday, July 10, 2009

Remembering "Creature From The Black Lagoon" star Ben Chapman

(Article published today on the website of the San Francisco Bay Guardian)

Having roared and clawed its way into the hearts of film fans around the world when it was first released in 1954, the Universal monster classic Creature From The Black Lagoon has endured for generation after generation, seeming to grow in popularity with every passing year. Filmed in glorious black and white, the tale of the ancient half-man, half-fish—better known as the Gillman—cleverly uses the unique aspects of the colorless medium to effectively create a creepy atmosphere, particularly with the manipulation of shadows and lighting. Believable cast interaction, a monstrous musical score, and above all a great story make Creature From The Black Lagoon a picture to remember—and it’s clear from the multitude of collectibles, video releases, actor appearances and screening events that faithful fans have done just that.

The iconic and intricately designed Gillman suit was brought to life in the scenes above water by the late Ben Chapman, who gave the character a sympathetic feel through his body language and natural motions—a feat that no modern CG effect could hope to recreate.

Chapman, who passed away last year at the age of 79, visited San Francisco in October of 2006 for a special event at the Castro Theatre celebrating Creature From The Black Lagoon, meeting fans and sharing memories with the audience. I had a chance to speak with him then.

“One of the things that made it successful—and it shows—is that we were all very happy. It was a great crew, great people. I would get up in the morning and I couldn’t wait to get to the studio.”

That genuine love for what he was doing guided Chapman throughout his life—from his early days as a dancer and contract actor to his last years spent travelling the world and meeting his adoring fans, he always had a positive outlook on things.
Born in Oakland, his family moved back to their native Tahiti when he was young, but returned to the Bay Area when Chapman was 12, settling in San Francisco while his father worked as a merchant marine. Chapman had fond memories of living in the city, where he went to Lowell High School from 1942-1946.

“San Francisco during the war years—oh what a town—even the bums on the street had money! That town never slept.”

Chapman learned Tahitian dancing and singing from family, and after graduating, moved to southern California, where his brother in law had a traditional dance group. Around the same time, he joined the Marine Corp Reserves, and he was eventually called up to fight in the Korean War, where earned several medals before coming back to civilian life and rekindling his entertainment career.

“In 1952, I was working in a nightclub at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, and some people from Universal Studios came in looking for a group to do some music and dancing in a musical short for the Miss Universe Girls.”

When getting ready to film a scene, the director asked Chapman to step out of the background and play a chief, sitting in a large throne and saying a few lines in Tahitian—which he spoke in addition to English and French. When the short was completed, some of the studio heads asked about Chapman, and offered him a contract.

“They were thinking about bringing back the tropical movies, about the islands, and they were going to groom me for it. I used to come into the studio when I wasn’t working, and say hello to everybody. I came in one day and there was a casting director for cowboys and stuntmen-type people, and she asked me if anyone had talked to me about an Amazon picture. I didn’t know what she was talking about, but she made a few phone calls, and told me to come back the next day.”

The following afternoon Chapman returned, and he was taken to a meeting of studio executives, who simply asked him to stand up and turn around so they could get a look at him. After doing so, they thanked him and asked him to come back again the following morning.

“I came back the next day and she had a contract waiting for me for $300 a week, and that’s how I got the part—a lot of people think there must have been a big audition and this and that—but no, there was no big thing about it.”

“I’ve always been very lucky in my life of being in the right place at the right time—the same thing happened in combat, when I was in the Marine Corp in Korea, there were a few times I should have gotten killed, but I was just in the right place at the right time.”

When Chapman joined the production of Creature From The Black Lagoon, director Jack Arnold was scouting locations to shoot in southern California, but couldn’t find any place with clear enough water for what was needed for the underwater sequences, so he went to Florida, and found an ideal spot in Wakulla Springs. To save time and money, the studio decided to shoot all of the underwater parts in Florida with a second unit and stunt doubles, while the main actors filmed their scenes at the Universal Studios back lot.

How To Make A Monster

The Gillman is one of the most recognizable creature creations of the silver screen, the result of clever imaginations and hard work at the Universal Studios makeup department. But it was the six foot five inch tall Chapman who wore the costume and truly brought him to life for generations of fans.

“It was foam rubber, it was very light, and it was very pliable; it was like an outer layer of skin. They took a Plaster of Paris impression of my body and then they sculpted all the different pieces, and they simply glued them right on to this costume. To get into it would take two to three hours; you had to fit it just right, so that there were no wrinkles. I couldn’t gain weight or lose weight,” remembered Chapman.

“It was extremely hot though—if we were working where there was water, that was no problem, I would just jump in the lake or the pool, but if we were on a sound stage, I had a guy over in the corner with a hose, and I’d go up to him and ask him to hose me down, until I could feel my body temperature going down.”

The hands and feet of the creature were worn like gloves and boots, while the iconic mask slipped over his head, and sealed with a hidden zipper in the back. Some days’ shooting schedules required that Chapman keep the costume on for long periods at a time—the longest stretch being 14 hours straight.

Although the suit was very light when dry, there were several scenes that called for the Gillman to come out of the water, and when fully soaked, the foam rubber outfit would absorb liquid like a sponge, greatly increasing the overall weight, and making it difficult for the actor to move about.

“There’s that one scene at night where I climb up the side of the boat, and then I get up so far and there’s a lantern, and I hit the lantern, and dive back into the water. When we were filming on the soundstage, I swam over there and I tried to pull myself up, and Jack [Arnold] said, ‘Come on Benny, pull yourself up!’ and I said, ‘I can’t!’”

The water there was about 7 feet deep, so they got a ladder and put it under the surface, so as Chapman was pulling himself up on the rope, he could climb step by step at the same time, assisting him with the ascent, while still giving the appearance that he was only using the rope. If one looks carefully at the end of that scene, however, it’s easy to notice that when the Gillman falls back into the water, he doesn’t fall straight down—lands on something below, and then dives off to the side—a blooper that Chapman laughed about when revealing it.

The bulkiness of the suit in the water didn’t stop the young actor from playing around on the set, however—Rock Hudson would sometimes visit and bring various studio guests to see the location on the back lot, and one day Chapman told him that he would have a surprise waiting for them. As the guests arrived on the shores of the manmade lake, he swam out to the middle in full Gillman costume and submerged except for the very top of his head. He slowly moved in closer and closer, until the depth was only a few feet, and he leapt straight up out of the water and roared at the shocked people getting a tour.

“Word came up that I couldn’t do that anymore—they said the studio was afraid someone was going to die of a heart attack,” Chapman laughed.

Another behind the scenes story that he liked to tell was regarding the poor vision he had to deal with while wearing the costume—the makeup department had designed different sets of eyeballs to go in the mask for varying shots; some had larger holes for Chapman to see out if, others, for close-ups, had no openings at all, and a crew member would have to shine a flashlight at the actor so that he would know what direction he was supposed to be walking in.

In the famous scene where he was carrying Julie Adams through the caves of his underwater lair, he couldn’t see clearly in the dimly lit surroundings, and he accidently bumped her head into one of the fake rocks.

“I couldn’t see, I had no idea what was going on, then there was this kicking, and people yelling, and I was going, ‘What? What’s going on?’ and they grabbed Julie out of my arms. But she was a trooper, we patched her up, and we got that shot.”

Another challenge that Chapman was faced with was how to give the Gillman a personality—the actors portraying the other monsters in the classic Universal canon could use dialogue and (underneath their makeup) facial expressions to convey a sense of their characters. The Gillman costume completely obscured all of Chapman’s features, even his eyes, so he had to find a way to bring the creature to life.

“It’s very tough for an actor if he can’t use his face, so what I had to do was use body language to get what we wanted—a sympathetic view. He was the good guy, they were the bad people. The black lagoon was his home, and they invaded his home by coming in there with the boat. If you went home tonight and found a bunch of people in your living room having a party, how would you feel?”

Chapman pointed to the Marilyn Monroe movie The Seven Year Itch as proof that audiences had the sympathetic reaction to the Gillman right away.

“That famous scene where her dress blows up in front of the theatre—if you look just ten seconds before that dress blows up, when the scene opens it shows them walking out of movie theater, and above them in huge letters was Creature From The Black Lagoon. She says, ‘I feel so sorry for the creature.’”

Chapman was friends with Peter Lawford, known for being a member of “The Rat Pack,” and one day he was over at Lawford’s house for a party. Monroe was also there, and the two began talking.

“We were sitting there, but I didn’t want to say, ‘Well, you know, I played the creature,’ so I thought, ‘How can I get her to know?’ I started talking about The Seven Year Itch and said ‘There’s that one scene where you and Tom come out from the theater—what was that movie that you saw?’ and she replied, ‘Creature From The Black Lagoon.’ Peter was walking by, and said, ‘Oh, by the way, Marilyn, you know Benny here played the creature.’ She looked at me and said, ‘You did!?’—that just made my night, I floated away.”

A Universal Legacy

“When people ask me what made Creature From The Black Lagoon so successful, I go on and on,” said Chapman. “First of all it was a perfect cast; everybody was perfect for the role that they portrayed. The story still holds up today, because the story is of those scientists trying to figure out where man comes from.”

The classic cinematic techniques that were used in the film were another factor that Chapman attributed to the movie’s longevity.

“We left a lot of it to your imagination. In that movie, I kill several people, but you don’t see it. You don’t see blood and gore, you don’t see me kill a person, and you don’t see that person die. We leave it to your imagination, and that’s the way movies were made. In my day we made real movies with real stories and real people.”
Chapman fully embraced the Creature From The Black Lagoon phenomenon, and attended fan conventions and screenings throughout the globe, meeting his fans that grew up watching the movie.

“We enjoy sitting there and talking with them, and making ourselves accessible, having pictures taken. I enjoy people, I’ve always liked working with an audience—I love my fans, it’s simple as that,” said Chapman. “I feel very blessed that I was able to live and work in that era, I wouldn’t trade it for all the money in the world.”

Info Box:
Creature From The Black Lagoon in 3-D
Friday, July 10
Paramount Theatre, 2025 Broadway, Oakland.
Doors at 7 p.m., show at 8 p.m.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Paying Tribute to Paul Williams, A Pioneering Rock N' Roll Writer

(Article published in today's print and web edition of the San Francisco Examiner)

Paul Williams has been called the father of rock journalism; he launched "Crawdaddy!" which was one of earliest magazines to cover the changing world of rock n' roll before the revolutionary Summer of Love, and he played a part in some of the most influential musical and cultural events of the 1960s.

Unfortunately, Williams is now suffering from early onset dementia, brought about from brain injuries he received in a bike accident nearly 15 years ago. He requires full-time care, and his many friends and fans are coming together to help his family cover the costs and to lend their emotional support. At a benefit show on Sunday night, John Doe, Jello Biafra, Mojo Nixon, Mark Eitzel, former Rolling Stone scribe Ben Fong-Torres and more take to the stage for song and spoken word to pay tribute to the groundbreaking writer and publisher.

“The fact that he has such passion for the music and for particular artists, his style would just leap in there, with no attempt at what might be considered objective journalism or criticism,” says Ben Fong-Torres. “Whatever he felt was right out there, naked, and I think that made his writing more special and appealing to people and unique in the field of rock writing, which he helped pioneer.”

Williams founded the independent magazine “Crawdaddy!” when he was only 17 years old, and he became part of the fabric of the '60s rock counterculture, not only writing about it, but also participating in many historic happenings—from driving to Woodstock with the Grateful Dead, to staying with John Lennon and Yoko Ono during their “Bed in for Peace."

“[Williams] showed me that music writing can and should come from a very personal place, that of a fan, and it can oftentimes lead to some pretty out there, existential stuff,” says Jocelyn Hoppa, current Editor-in-Chief of “Crawdaddy!”

“He set the tone for how writing about rock music should take a more serious approach rather than just what an artist’s favorite color was; Paul's writing was a conduit into how the art of the musical experience lived within the listener.”

If You Go:
Paul Williams Benefit
Where: Red Devil Lounge, 1695 Polk St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $20
Contact: (415) 921-1695,

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Haunted Hornet Ghost Quest

(Article "Ghost Chattin' With Kristyn Gartland" published today in the San Francisco Bay Guardian)

Having survived the ferocious naval campaigns of World War II, the U.S.S. Hornet now stands as a living museum in Alameda, where guests can learn about the ship’s role in history, and, according to several eyewitness accounts, one can also catch a glimpse of the ghostly spirits of her departed crewmen. The 893-foot long aircraft carrier has recently been featured on paranormal-themed television programs such as the hit Sci-Fi channel show “Ghost Hunters,” where spectral apparitions were said to have been spotted roaming the decks in the dead of night.

Fans of that show, along with “Ghost Hunters International” and A&E’s “Paranormal State,” are all in for a special treat this weekend, when respective cast members including Kristyn Gartland, Donna LaCroix, Angela Alderman, Chip Coffey and more will be on board giving lectures, meeting with participants, and even leading late night expeditions aboard the floating bridge to the past.

Kristyn Gartland, who works as the case manager for The Atlantic Paranormal Society, or TAPS, the group featured on “Ghost Hunters,” joined the team after going through a long series of personal experiences and incidents at her own home.

“I guess I had stuff happening for years, but I just didn’t understand it—my grandmother had died, and I used a Ouija board; I brought in a whole bunch of stuff using that, so I became a client.”

The ongoing nature of her experiences brought her in contact with Jason Hawes, the founder of TAPS, who eventually invited her to join the team, which he founded in 1990.

“It just kept going for years and years, so Jay said to me, ‘I don’t know why you don’t just join the group, and help us,’” Gartland laughs.

In the seven years since joining TAPS, Gartland has seen her fair share of unexplained phenomenon—but she has also had to sort through a lot of reports and requests that are rooted in easily explainable reasons, such as improper mixing of prescription medication.

“There are a good majority that we can say ‘This isn’t paranormal’ over the phone, and that is based on years of experience doing this, so we can debunk a lot.”

There are, however, still a good deal of situations that require a physical visit; in these cases Gartland will delegate the response based on location and severity. Some of the more active cases end up broadcast on the “Ghost Hunters” show, which has been on the air since 2004.

“We get requests from all over the country, and other countries as well. We get a ton of emails, and I have to go through them and set them up, either with us doing it or another group that’s closer to them, and we just kind of go from there.”

Of all her experiences and travels with the TAPS team, one place that stands out in particular to Gartland is the Trans-Allegany Lunatic Asylum in West Virginia, a now-closed hospital for the mentally ill originally built in the 1850s.

“That one gave me the creeps,” she admits, although she says that easily startled nerves are not something that a seasoned paranormal investigator usually has after several years of experience—but even they can still get an uneasy feeling when hunting around in the dark.

“I don’t like to use the word scared because it’s kind of stupid if we’re going into stuff if we’re scared, but there have been places where I have been uneasy, and a lot of it has to do with the fact that you’re walking around in a dark place, that you don’t know where you are, you have no idea where the lights are, where the exits are, anything like that, should something happen.”

The other times that she is a little more cautious are the cases when a location is reported to be haunted by inhuman entities, more commonly referred to as demons.
“Those are the ones that if you know for a fact that you have something that is inhuman, you know going in that you take the chance of getting hurt badly,” says Gartland.

During her visit to the U.S.S. Hornet on Saturday, Gartland will be giving an abbreviated version of her “Paranormal 101” class that she often teaches back at TAPS headquarters in Warwick, Rhode Island.

“I talk about the different kinds of haunting, what they normally will do, what you’re going to experience with each haunting, how you should deal with each type of category that they’re in. I do that because everybody thinks for some reason that they’re home has a portal to hell—and we have to explain to them that that is not the case,” she laughs. “It definitely gives people a new outlook.”

Gartland has been to the Hornet once before, when the “Ghost Hunters” crew taped an episode onboard the ship last September. Although she says that she didn’t have many personal experiences while investigating, she does feel that it is well worth checking back on.

“There was just a feeling of constantly somebody watching you, it was kind of weird. If it wasn’t for all the people on that ship, we wouldn’t be able to be where we are now, so it’s a grateful feeling to go back there and be able to investigate again and hopefully catch some stuff.”

Her teammates on the program, did, however manage to catch several strange goings on, including chasing a shadowy figure that seemed to vanish into a locked watertight door that apparently hadn’t been opened in years.

After Saturday’s daytime programming, which will also include an audience Q&A session, meet and greet opportunities, and other lectures, people who have purchased a special package ticket will be able to stay onboard the Hornet overnight and investigate the ship with Gartland and her companions. She has participated in several events like this before, and as one would expect, there are sometimes goof offs that don’t take the experience very seriously, but there are also those who come in acting and equipped like die hard professionals.

“Every once in a while we do get a group of people that really just have no interest in investigating, but it’s to be expected. Then we get a few that show up with more equipment than we own,” she laughs.

Gartland enjoys meeting with her fans, both those who simply like watching “Ghost Hunters,” and those who reach out for more personal and deeply felt reasons.

“I like doing these because we do get to meet people that have said to us, ‘I was never able to talk to anybody about this until the show came out,’ and it’s kind of cool to get to meet the people that finally could say what they needed to say, and feel accepted.”

As the popularity of paranormal-themed programming seems to be ever increasing these days, one could extrapolate that the acceptance of people who claim to have had an encounter with a ghost or otherworldly spirit has also increased. For those who are still afraid to tell their loved ones or seek help locally, Gartland says they can go to the TAPS website and find contact information for the nearest member of the TAPS family.

Gartland points out that TAPS and her team members are not out to convince non-believers of the existence of ghosts or the afterlife; instead they offer what they say is the evidence they’ve gathered over the years, and people can take a look at it and make up their own minds on the matter.

“You don’t want people to think that you’re just out to make them believe—when you believe is usually when you have a haunting, and then you go, ‘Oh my God, I need some help!’ It’s kind of like religion; you don’t want someone to feel like you’re a bible pusher, so I don’t want to be a paranormal pusher.”

“Haunted Hornet Ghost Quest,” Saturday, June 27. 10:30 a.m., U.S.S. Hornet, 707 W. Hornet Ave., Alameda. $50 and up.

Friday, June 19, 2009

"THEM!"-- Atomic Ants Terrorize The World In 1954 Sci-Fi Classic

At the height of the Cold War, science fiction films and monster movies were often based around themes that involved the ongoing arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union; the bulk of them revolving around the unexpected results of nuclear weapons testing. One of the best of these films was “Them!” a campy romp about giant mutated ants that were born in the New Mexico desert from the fallout of the domestic testing of atomic bombs during World War II.

The film, which was released 55 years ago today, is still a highly entertaining piece of science fiction—the special effects may be somewhat crude, but the well-written storyline and convincing acting still provide for an engaging and fun viewing. James Whitmore, the Tony- and Emmy-winning actor who passed away earlier this year, stars as a small-town cop that encounters a colony of nightmarish ants that have begun to wreak havoc on the region’s residents. James Arness, who also filled the title role of the rampaging alien in 1951’s “The Thing” and later starred in the hit TV series “Gunsmoke,” joins the fight against the ants as an FBI agent sent in by the U.S. government to help the local authorities.

The genre’s requisite eccentric scientist is portrayed by Edmund Gwenn, who won an Academy Award for his role as Santa Claus in the 1947 holiday classic “Miracle On 34th Street,” while Joan Weldon stars as his daughter and the leggy love interest for Arness’ character.

Throughout the film, the arrival of (or at least the allusion to the nearby presence of) the ants is heralded by a high pitched shrieking, which, along with “Creature From The Black Lagoon,” (also released in 1954) likely provided the influence for Steven Spielberg to insert John Williams’ theme music every time the shark in “Jaws” is about to make an appearance.

Fess Parker makes a cameo as a pilot who spots a flying Queen ant in the air, and is locked up in a mental hospital to make sure that he doesn’t make his story public. Walt Disney saw Parker in this role when the film was released and quickly offered him a contract, leading to Parker’s best known part, that of Davy Crockett in several Disney productions throughout the rest of the 1950s.

The dark and serious tone of “Them!” is occasionally broken up with some comedy relief, such as when Whitmore and Arness are interviewing a drunk in the alcoholic ward of a hospital who has seen the ants. When seeing a member of the military that has accompanied the two men, the man seams to offer up a serious deal to help them, but then starts jumping up and down in bed, chanting “Make me a sergeant, charge the booze!”

One of the most hilarious moments in “Them!” however, comes from a line which is delivered devoid of any humorous tone; when Gwenn’s scientist is speaking with Whitmore and Arness after the army has bombed the ants’ first nest in the New Mexico desert with cyanide, they ask him if he thinks that all of the ants have been killed. He responds by saying, “Yes, I think the nest was thoroughly saturated.” Arness then looks at his fellow actors and says, “If I can still raise an arm after all this is over I’ll show you just how thoroughly saturated I can get.”

The climax of the film takes place in the tunnels connecting the concrete sections of the Los Angeles River, where the surviving ants have attempted to start a second colony. Although the ending almost feels a little rushed, it does provide a solid conclusion to the storyline, and in fact, it even throws in a plot twist that viewers back in 1954 probably wouldn’t have been expecting—the death of one of the main characters and heroes of the movie.

“Them!” is widely available on DVD today, and for fans of classic science fiction and monster movies, it is definitely worth a watch. You might even think a little differently the next time you see a trail of ants crawling along the kitchen counter or making their way towards your unattended picnic basket.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Will Clark and the San Francisco Giants Lead A Fight Against Autism

As an increasingly common diagnosis among children in the United States, Autism is affecting more and more families every year; an event being sponsored by the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park tonight aims to raise money for research into the disorder, and to reach out to those with Autism and their loved ones.

“Autism Awareness Night” will benefit community-based groups that help with the fight against Autism, and the club also hopes to help educate fans with pre-game festivities and distribution of informational materials during the game against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

Former Giants slugger Will Clark knows first-hand the challenges facing families with autistic children—his son, 13 year old Trey, was diagnosed when he was two and a half.

“After he was diagnosed we’ve been trying to get him as much help and therapy and treatment as possible, and he has responded extremely well,” said the six-time All-Star first baseman.

Autism is a developmental disorder characterized by impaired social interaction, problems with verbal and nonverbal communication, and unusual, repetitive, or severely limited activities and interests. According to recent Centers For Disease Control And Prevention numbers, 1 in 150 young children today are at risk of having an Autism Spectrum Disorder, a group that also includes Asperger syndrome, Rett syndrome, and others.

Life as a professional baseball player required Clark to travel extensively during the season, keeping him away from his family, and providing one more hurdle to overcome.

“I think the biggest challenge was that I was gone and everybody was at home,” said Clark. “The burden fell upon my wife when I was on the road, so it made it a little tougher in that regard for her.”

Clark, who played for San Francisco from 1986-1993, and retired from baseball in
2000, returned to the Giants this season to work as a special assistant in the team’s front office, mentoring younger players with the trademark intensity that earned him the nickname “The Thrill”—the same quality with which he approaches the fight against Autism, having appeared at many public events over the course of the last decade along with his wife, Lisa.

“Once I retired I was able to pitch in and help a little bit more, and take some of the burden off of her and at the same time, having a father figure around helped my son develop quite nicely,” said Clark.

In addition to the festivities on the field, fans who purchase tickets for the “Autism Awareness Night” section will receive a special edition Will Clark jersey shirt, with proceeds from each ticket sale benefiting Athletes Against Autism and Autism Speaks, two groups that strive to raise funds and awareness for Autism research, along with education and treatment programs.

“We’re trying to educate the fan base as best as we can,” said Faham Zakariaei, Special Events Manager for the Giants, who added that there will be information about Autism posted on the scoreboard’s giant screen between innings.

Several sports teams and institutions are beginning to hold Auti
sm awareness events; NASCAR held the “Autism Speaks 400” race in Dover, Delaware last month, and many Major League Baseball teams will host a similar event this season.

“There a quite a few baseball players that have autistic kids, so it’s starting to hit the baseball family quite a bit,” said Clark.

Fans can also visit an informational booth to find out about Autism in general, the signs of Autism, and the many initiatives, services and fundraisers provided by the local community and groups such as Autism Speaks, who will be holding several upcoming walks later this year.

“We hope fans will take away knowledge of what services are available in the area, and how they can get involved with local fundraising events,” said Monica Segot, the Northern California Walk Coordinator for Autism Speaks.

This is the second year that the Giants will have hosted “Autism Awareness Night,” which organizers are hopeful will be as successful as last year’s, both in fundraising and in getting the word out about the prevalent disorder.

“This is not only an outreach for families that need help—this is a big problem now in the United States,” said Clark. “And if anything it’s getting bigger, so it would benefit a lot of people to be aware of it.”

For More Information:
(415) 972-2298
(707) 778-3840

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Dave Alvin Pays Tribute To A Fallen Friend

(Article published in the print edition of today's Santa Cruz Sentinel)

Roots rocker Dave Alvin has played with a wide variety of bands and in a number of musical partnerships over the years; from the early days of barnstorming with the Blasters, X, and the Knitters to his later mainstay groups such as the Guilty Men, the guitar slinger and songwriter extraordinaire has forged many a fruitful relationship with his fellow musicians, both on and off the stage.

One such powerful friendship was with Chris Gaffney, who played accordion and guitar with the Guilty Men, on top of a long career as a songwriter and singer steeped in the rich traditions of Americana music. The two men became close friends through the years, and when Gaffney was diagnosed with cancer in early 2008, Alvin and his other friends came to his aid, setting up a website and playing gigs in an attempt to help pay for his costly medical treatments. Unfortunately, the 57-year old Gaffney succumbed to the cancer just a couple of months after initially getting the diagnosis.

Gaffney’s death hit Alvin and all of his friends and family hard, but from the outpouring of their emotions and vetting of their grief has come two new records, Man of Somebody’s Dreams: A Tribute To Chris Gaffney, and Dave Alvin & The Guilty Women, both released earlier this month on Yep Roc Records.

The former is an inspiring celebration of Gaffney’s life and work, featuring a host of top notch musicians that called him a friend; Los Lobos, Alejandro Escovedo, Boz Scaggs and John Doe are among the many people paying homage by performing their own renditions of his songs. Alvin, who produced the album in addition to contributing the track “Artesia,” says that he views the tribute CD as his way of giving his departed friend the shot at making it he never had.

“Chris never even got a shot to screw up. I’ve known a lot of musicians, and some people got their shot and screwed it up, other people I’ve know have gotten their shot and it just didn’t work out, and then other people I’ve known got their shot and became very successful. Since he was my closest friend, and a guy that I just had limitless respect for as a musician and singer, the project for me became, ‘This is going to be Chris’ shot.’”

The tribute album was released the same day as Alvin’s debut with the Guilty Women, his new band that came together for a show at last year’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco. Alvin brought the group together after deciding to take a break from playing with the Guilty Men, the band that he had played with Gaffney in for so long.

“I just thought, well, we’ll put this on the backburner for a little while, and just do something different. When the people from Hardly Strictly called, that was the little kick in the butt that I needed, just to change things up.”

Though he had worked with most everybody in the new band at some point in the past, the collective members of the Guilty Women had not played all together before that first gig, which happened to be in front of several thousand people in Golden Gate Park. Alvin says that due to differing home bases and schedules, a formal rehearsal just wasn’t feasible, so the group simply came together about an hour before hitting the stage and practiced in a tent, going over the basic structures of the songs that he wanted to play.

“It went really well, it was a little bit like jumping out of an airplane without a parachute—it was an extreme sport,” laughs Alvin. “I like unpredictability—it just keeps things interesting; there’s a certain way that people play when they don’t know what’s coming. If you know what’s coming you’re going to go a certain way, and you get locked into it, and sometimes it’s good just to break that all apart.”

After the enthusiastic response from the audience and an offer to do an album came around, Alvin wanted to keep the same vibe as that first concert, so the band approached the recording process in the same way—no prior rehearsals. The resulting collection of songs has an infectious and liberated live feel to them, from the opening track, a re-worked version of the Blasters’ classic “Marie, Marie,” through a number of Alvin originals, covers, and tunes contributed by members of the new band.

The album ends with a boogie woogie blues version of “Que Sera Sera,” which Alvin says encapsulates the feeling and tone of many of the songs on the CD.

“Take away all the schmaltz from the original version by Doris Day, and the fatalistic nature of the lyrics—the way I view it—it’s sort of the ultimate expression of a blues philosophy in a non-blues song. It’s kind of the theme of the album.”

Info Box:

Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women
7:30 p.m.
Rio Theatre
June 18

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

“The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story”

(Article published today at Hell On Frisco Bay)

Although Robert and Richard Sherman might not be household names today, chances are it would only take a fraction of a second for someone listening to one of their songs to instantly recognize it and immediately be transported back to their youth, all while singing along to every word.

For 50 years now, the Sherman Brothers have been writing some of the most well-known and beloved music ever produced for film, television, stage and even amusement parks. Ranging from “Mary Poppins” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” to “Winnie The Pooh” and “It’s A Small World,” the output of the two musically gifted siblings has been absolutely astonishing—and because of the fact that they have produced so much work together over the years, and the tunes are almost universally upbeat and inspiring for children, the true story behind their tumultuous personal relationship with one another is doubly fascinating.

“The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story” is a new documentary looking at the lives of these two award-winning men, produced and directed by their two sons, cousins Jeffrey and Gregory Sherman, who didn’t know each other growing up even though they only lived a few blocks away from one another.

The world premiere screening of the deeply moving film took place in San Francisco on April 25th at the theater in the Letterman Digital Arts Complex, George Lucas’ new high-tech headquarters in the Presidio, the former army base that will also be home to the new Disney Family Museum later this year.

The packed event, part of the 52nd annual San Francisco International Film Festival, brought out all sorts of film-goers, ranging from small children to grandparents, including a sizable group from Disney that filled the middle section of the seating area.

Composed of several different types of cleverly woven together footage, including current interviews, clips from films, vintage behind the scenes home movies, personal family photos and more, “The Boys” starts out by giving some background on Robert and Richard Sherman’s family, particularly their father, the famous Tin Pan Alley songwriter Al Sherman.

Providing a backdrop for some of the brothers’ early influences, the documentary makes it clear that the two always had different personalities and interests, which were only widened when the elder Robert went off to fight in World War II and was wounded in combat. His physical injuries and the emotional scars from his time in the European portion of the conflict are slowly brought up over the course of the film, shedding light on his outlook on life, particularly when it is revealed that he was among the first Americans to liberate the Dachau concentration camp near the end of the war. He is clearly still haunted by what he saw, and he talks about how creating joyful art helped "make the horror go away."

Robert and Richard Sherman, now 83 and 80, respectively, are interviewed separately throughout the film, with Robert now living in London, while Richard still resides in Southern California. Many of the sequences segue from current interview footage to nicely rendered, almost three-dimensional restored photos from the past, while the interviews continue as voice-overs.

In addition to interviews with the Sherman Brothers and their sons, the film features words and thoughts from other family members and several people who have worked with them or admired their songs over the years, including Dick Van Dyke, Julie Andrews, John Landis, Angela Lansbury and Ben Stiller, who served as an Executive Producer on the project.

Tracing the story of their music career back to when they were getting ready for college, the film details how Robert had already made up his mind to major in writing, while Richard wasn’t sure what he wanted to do until one day while walking down the street he found himself with a tune running through his mind that he didn’t know where it had come from. Running home to the family piano to figure out how to play the melody he heard in his head, his father walked in on him, asked what he was doing, and when he was told, he immediately suggested to his son that he should become a music major.

After the two graduated and moved back to southern California, they shared an apartment, living together out of economic necessity, with both concentrating on their own muses—Robert on writing a novel and poems, while Dick wrote and played music. One day their father suggested they work together on something, which they did; their first published song was "Gold Can Buy You Anything But Love," recorded by the legendary Gene Autry.

The documentary shows how this was the impetus for their continued teamwork, and then details The Sherman Brothers’ first big break with Disney, when they wrote "Tall Paul" for Annette Funicello in 1959.

Both brothers obviously still love Walt Disney and appreciate the opportunity that he gave them; as they talk about their first meeting with him, and how they got their job, they start to choke back tears a bit, and later on in the film they do the same when recalling the last time they saw Disney before he passed away in 1966. They relate the story of going to a movie premiere with him, and that at the end of the night, he came up to them and said, “Keep up the good work, boys”—something that he had never done before.

In a further touching tribute to Disney, the documentary then shows a still photo of him, with the camera panning towards the sky where a drawing of Mickey Mouse is crying. The scene then shifts to home movies of Disney throwing seeds to a flock of birds, all while the song “Feed The Birds” from “Mary Poppins” is played. Richard Sherman explains that Disney always asked them to play that particular song if they were in his office at the end of the week, that it was one of his favorites.

Among the interesting background stories and insider’s looks into how the some of the songs they wrote were originally created is one about how Jeff Sherman came home one day from school to find his father struggling to work on a new song for “Mary Poppins.” Robert Sherman looked up from his work, and asked how his son’s day had been, who related that he and the other students had to have a vaccination. Robert then asked if it was given through a shot, to which Jeff replied that they had “just taken a spoon and poured the medicine over a sugar cube” for them to eat. A current shot of Jeff imitating his father is then shown, nodding his head in thought, and then saying, “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down…”

Many, many other clips from movies and songs are used throughout the lively 100 minute film, including “Charlotte’s Web,” “Bedknobs and Broomsticks,” “Snoopy Come Home,” “The Jungle Book,” and “The Tiki Tiki Tiki Room.”

Interwoven into these wonderful snippets of their work is a gradual attempt at explaining the story behind the Sherman Brothers’ eventual personal estrangement—the case for one reason in particular is not made, but rather it seems that years and years of little things building up led to their current situation, among the factors being marital problems, financial considerations, and the general outward personalities of the two—who continue to work together across a long distance, thanks to advances in technology—but they just can’t seem to reconnect on a personal level for themselves, or for their families.

At the end of the documentary, the two filmmaker cousins show their trip to the recent premiere of “Mary Poppins The Musical,” and in voice-overs discuss how they had hoped that through the making of this film, they could convince their fathers to reconcile and re-form their personal relationship. A sequence of the two brothers greeting each other cordially on the red carpet is shown, but then one of the sons comes back on to finish the narration, saying “unlike a Sherman Brothers song, not all stories have a happy ending.”

After the screening, Richard, Jeff and Greg Sherman appeared in person for a question and answer session, walking to the front of the theater to a standing ovation.

One of the questions posed for Richard Sherman asked about how he felt when he was riding “It’s A Small World,” or was in a place where one of their songs was being played, and people were enjoying it, but didn’t know that he was one of the people who had created it. He said he a good answer for that, that he would share a story from his childhood—when he went to a big football game with his father, during halftime the marching bands came out and played "You Gotta Be A Football Hero," a song that his father had co-written. The crowd was all cheering along and clapping to the song, and as a kid he asked his dad how he felt, to which his father replied “It feels good, kiddo.”

Richard Sherman then looked around at the audience at the Letterman Theater, smiled, and said, “That's how I feel, it's feels good!”

Another question asked of the two filmmakers was what they had learned while making the documentary. Jeff Sherman, Robert’s son, began talking about how he really started to get to know his father, but he started getting a little overwhelmed, and had to choke back tears. Richard chimed in, saying, “See, we Sherman’s are an emotional bunch!” which drew supportive applause.

Shortly thereafter, the three were talking about all of the people that helped them with the film, and Richard mentioned that two of the people in the picture had recently passed away after filming their interviews—he then started choking up himself, and he said, “See?”

Jeff Sherman then looked at his cousin, and said, “You’re next!” Greg looked over at him, back at the audience, and then grinned a little, pointing at his head, quietly staying, “Sports scores…sports scores,” giving away the fact that he was trying to think of other things to stop the flow of tears coming.

Overall, “The Boys” is a very well made documentary, and is a must see for anyone who grew up listening to the Sherman Brothers’ unforgettable songs, though it may not be entirely suitable for young children due to some of it’s highly emotional scenes.

“The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story” opens May 22nd at the AMC Metreon in San Francisco.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The English Surgeon

(Article published today in the San Francisco Bay Guardian)

In the medical world, there are serious risks associated with any kind of surgery. If a mistake is made during a procedure on a leg or arm, there might be some loss of movement or ease of mobility, but the patient can still generally go about their lives, perhaps with a slight physical handicap. If something goes wrong during a brain surgery, however, a person can lose their memory, their control of motor skills, even the ability to think.

This is the challenge that faces British neurosurgeon Dr. Henry Walsh every time he operates on somebody, and is one of the personal revelations about his work that he shares in the film “The English Surgeon,” which has its San Francisco theatrical premiere at the Red Vic from May 17-20.

Director Geoffrey Smith tells the story of how Marsh has been traveling to the former Soviet republic of Ukraine since 1992, volunteering on his own time to help in a region of the world that has a medical system that lags many decades behind those in the industrialized west—and where many cases of brain tumors and other illnesses go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed for so long that what would have been easily taken care of with a routine operation or procedure at Marsh’s hospital in London have now progressed to the point that there is little doctors can do to save the patient’s life.

“The English Surgeon,” which is slowly making its way to theaters around the world for regular engagements, was shown at last year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, where during the screening audience members alternated between quietly sniffling and dabbing their eyes during the more heart-wrenching scenes, and then bursting out in collective laughter (and relief) during some of the film’s more light-hearted moments. That emotional dynamic and natural flow to the piece was of significant importance to the director of the film.

“The only model one has [when making a film like this] is what you see out there. When I first went out with Henry, that’s really what happened, it was funny, farcical, surreal, tragic, moving, and then it would just start over again. Life in many ways is like that in the Ukraine, so it gave me a model to structure the film, and also to pace it emotionally, because just when you think you’re safe, you get another wake up call, and then you have another piece of humor. It feels good though, it feels real, because that’s how reality is there,” says Smith.

“I think the thing about these situations is that people in extremes, people in difficulty, of course it’s dramatic, but it also allows us in to see how people cope, and how other people treat them, what those dynamics are. Ultimately it’s a great metaphor, a barometer, for how good or otherwise, society is. It challenges all of us to do something. So, if you can encapsulate those forces into a human story, and medicine is very useful for that, I mean, it also has a beginning, a middle and an end, it’s a useful technique.”

“I love sort of the difficult stuff; the ethics and the dilemmas, because, life, it seems to me, is more about that, it’s not simplistic and clear cut. You and I can’t save lives with our hands, we can do all sorts of small things, and it’s the choice we make or don’t make, and it’s the decisions about those things, that’s where it resonates with each audience member, as it gets closer towards the end, it starts to grab you by the throat and ask the same questions.”

Both Smith and Marsh have long been interested in Ukraine, each having their own reasons for initially making their visits.

“The first thing about the Ukraine for me was meeting people on the Trans-Siberian Express back in ’83. I corresponded with people, and I had a chance to go after the wall went down properly—I fell in love with the city and those people, I really, really did,” says Smith.

“There’s something that you can’t put into words—back in the early ‘90s, the place was absolutely dire, the whole bottom had fallen out of it, and we have seen literally, this country transform in some ways, and not all of them good, but it’s intoxicating to be there because of the rate of change, and amount of possibility is like you could never have in the west.”

Marsh had been interested in Russia and Russian cultures since he read Tolstoy at the age of 16; he later attended Oxford University, studying politics and economics, with a specialization on the Soviet Union.

As he puts it, he then “strayed into brain surgery, in that way one does, and I never thought I’d be able to combine Kremlinology and brain surgery. By chance in 1992, a local businessman in my part of London was looking for some neurosurgeons to take out to Ukraine, which had just become independent, to give sort of good will lectures—to maybe help him sell British medical equipment—it was rather naïve in retrospect, because the Ukraine was totally bankrupt at the time.”

Marsh says that his initial introduction and first visit to a place he had learned so much about from afar was a jarring one, but he found himself thoroughly intrigued.
“It was a totally extraordinary, intoxicating, terrifying time—if you had a hundred dollars in your pocket you were a millionaire, it was like sort of being in a dream world. It was horrifying actually, it was very deeply depressing. I remember getting back to my hotel room with one of my colleagues and opening a bottle of duty-free whiskey and drinking most of it in a state of sheer shock at seeing such rough medical conditions.”

After returning to London, Marsh heard nothing for a year, but then got a Christmas card from one of the doctors he had met on the visit, Igor Kurilets, who had gotten approval to ask about coming to London to work with the esteemed surgeon, and learn from him. Marsh accepted, and during the three months that the two worked together, they developed a strong bond, and once Igor went back to the Ukraine, Marsh began taking trips to visit him, bringing him used medical equipment from London so that the poorly provided for clinic in Kiev where he practiced could have a better chance of helping people.

Smith, who has made a variety of documentaries over the past 20 years, first heard about Marsh while making a BBC program about surgeons, and was immediately drawn to him as a subject.

“What I like about him is that he’s able to articulate these things, he’s able to let you in, to be vulnerable, and fragile maybe, even to be flawed, and ultimately wrong, perhaps, or at least admit the possibility of that. But within all of that there’s this wonderful ‘Nobility of Failure,’ as he calls it, which immediately makes us feel like we can relate to him. He’s not putting on a show, he’s not perfect, he’s not contrived, he’s not pretentious nor arrogant; he’s one of us at that level. Mixed in with great humor and compassion, he’s a hero, and that world loves a good hero.”

During his visits to Ukraine and Kurilets’ office, Marsh learns of the case of a young man named Marian from a small village who has a brain tumor that has been deemed inoperable or too tricky for native Ukrainian surgeons to deal with. The film features the parallel journeys of the patient and the doctor to the city, with the final outcome being that Marsh decides that the procedure is possible to do in the Ukraine—but in a manner different than what would be done in the west. Due to a lack of needed equipment and properly trained staff, Marian will have to be awake during the operation—a local anesthetic will be used as opposed to a general one, so he will have to hear and somewhat feel what is going on.

Intermingled with this part of the narrative are scenes of Marsh helping Igor with consultations of other prospective patients, sifting through lines of people that stretch down entire hospital hallways, some people being told what they should do for their treatment, others being told that nothing can be done.

Also mixed into the film is the story of a young patient named Tanya that Marsh tried to help several years ago, bringing her to London for a surgery that ended up not going as planned, resulting in the girl’s eventual death a couple of years later. During his visit to the Ukraine when accompanied by the filmmakers, Marsh decides to visit Tanya’s mother, Katya, enveloping viewers into an even more personal emotional journey.

“It was the first time I had seen her since she and Tanya had left London. [She lives in] a very remote part of the Ukraine, and I didn’t really have any reason to visit her before. I’m very busy when I’m there, and Igor would see no point to it, ‘what’s the point, it’s sentimental.’ But he could see the film was a good idea, it wasn’t going to do him harm, it was easier to say, ‘let’s go and see Katya.’ Igor is a nice guy, but he’s not sentimental,” says Marsh.

“Going to see Katya was nice for me, not that I felt guilty or bad about what I did—I tried, and I failed. When I was walking in the cemetery, I felt all the dead faces on the tombstones saying, ‘well, you tried, that’s something, at least you tried.’ But it was nice to see Katya, because although we don’t have a common language, we were very close; she had been to my home [in London] many times, and it was good to see her again.”

“The English Surgeon” features a soundtrack composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, which adds to film’s tone, but never attempts to take it over; it us is used very sparingly, which Smith says worked perfectly in the end result.

“I think the thing that’s important to realize about Nick is that he is enormously cine-literate; he watches more films than anyone I know. He’s a softie, but in a way that he responded exactly to Henry, because what he saw in the paper proposal and in the rushes, is someone who is utterly unsentimental, and yet through the almost melancholic idea of the failure of things, in the failure, there’s all the love and goodness and trying and the redemption that Nick writes about.”

During many of the most dramatic scenes, such as when Marsh and Kurilets have to tell a grandmother that there is nothing they can do for her grandchild, there is no music—the enormity of the real-life situation is enough on its own, which Smith says that they were all very conscious of during the making of the film.

“Nick is very strong on the complete idiocy of using music to manipulate the story, and so am I. It’s the power of what’s going on, and there’s no music under any of those emotional scenes, because that would be really silly.”

“The English Surgeon” presents a very moving and powerful story about what a couple of strong-willed individuals are attempting to do to help their fellow man—but both the director and subject want to steer clear of any perceptions that this could be a ‘feel good’ or ‘self-congratulating pat on the back’ type of project—and they know that the film wouldn’t be as effective without the contributions of Kurilets.

“My very close friendship with Igor is an incredibly critical element. I really like seeing him, he really likes seeing me. Our idea of socializing is work, you know, my idea of a holiday is to go and operate in the Ukraine—I’m not interested in beaches and things like that,” says Marsh. “[But we] have to be very wary of ethnic voyeurism, you know, these wealthy, comfortable, well-fed westerners nip into a bit of hardship overseas, and then say, ‘Gosh, wow, this is reality,’ and then nip back home again. I hate that. But there is a certain nobility—with suffering and poverty people have to surmount problems we don’t. They are in some ways finer people than we are, because they’ve been tried. If they survive, if they transcend their terrible difficulties, as Katya in a sense has, maintaining her dignity, I’m filled with awe, and God knows how would cope if I had to cope with what they cope with.”

“There’s a great quote by the Hungarian poet Faludy, who said that Soviet communism is like acid poured over metal—people made of base metals were destroyed, but people made of gold shone all the brighter. When I see people like Igor or Katya, that’s what I feel. But how I would be if I had the acid poured over me? None of us knows until it happens; all one can do is see that some people have come through that, and it’s very humbling.”

“The English Surgeon” screens through Wednesday, May 20, at the Red Vic Movie House, 1727 Haight St., San Francisco. $6-$9. (415) 668-3994,

Saturday, May 16, 2009

In The Footsteps of Sam Spade: The Dashiell Hammett Tour

(This is an article that was written for the San Francisco print edition of the Onion, just before it was announced that this local edition would cease publication last week. An abbreviated version of this article was published today on Decider, the Onion's San Francisco and Bay Area entertainment website)

Stepping off a grimy sidewalk in an area of downtown San Francisco known for its dark and mean streets, a man wearing a trench coat and fedora briskly walks down a dead-end alleyway, keenly glancing over his shoulder at the group of people following him, watching his every move. While starting to address his companions, the bearded man suddenly spins in mid-sentence, pulls a pistol from his coat, aims at the nearest person, and pulls the trigger, leading to gasps from the flock of people gathered nearby.

While this could very well be a description of a crime scene from a classic noir thriller, it is in fact part of Don Herron’s Dashiell Hammett Tour, a journey across downtown San Francisco that enthusiastically explores many of the places that Hammett lived at, wrote about, or held an important place in his literary world.

Revered amongst fans as one of the greatest detective novelists of all time, Hammett (1894-1961) briefly worked at Pinkerton’s Detective Agency before plying his trade as an author, so he came to the writing game with more real life experience and background knowledge than many of other literary counterparts. Living in San Francisco during the 1920s, Hammett perfected his hard-boiled prose while renting apartments in the city’s Tenderloin district and writing his soon to be classic work, including “The Maltese Falcon” and his “Continental Op” series, most of which are set in the city itself.

In 1977, Hammett aficionado Don Herron started taking people on an informal walking tour as part of a college project—three decades later, he still leads the tour, which has drawn acclaim from participants the world over, and now a new 30th anniversary edition of his Dashiell Hammett Tour Guidebook (Vince Emery Productions) has just been released.

“I never expected to last thirty years, it wasn’t in my mind anywhere along the way,” laughs Herron, who clearly loves his subject matter. “I’ve never really done it for money; I don’t think this is a good way to get rich. The reason I started is because I really like the stories—if I didn’t like the stories, I wouldn’t bother.”

Starting outside the Main branch of the San Francisco Public Library, the tour combines Herron’s encyclopedic knowledge of the writer and his work with a rapid-fire dispensation of history, anecdotes and passages from the books, all delivered in a tone and manner of speaking that would befit a classic pulp story by Hammett himself.

Sites along the way include the alleyway at Burritt Street where Miles Archer was done in by Brigid O’Shaughnessy, the Geary Theater, where Joel Cairo had tickets to see a play, and the apartment building on Post Street where Hammett actually wrote “The Maltese Falcon”—and was used as the model for Sam Spade’s apartment in the novel.

The new guidebook, which is full of even more background information, detailed maps, and a collection of vintage photographs, also features a great concise biography of Hammett written by Herron, who admires the writer not only for his work, but also his character; during the early 1950s, Hammett was sent to prison for refusing to cooperate with authorities during the communist witch hunts of the time period.

“The idea that appeals to me about Hammett in the McCarthy era is that he was proving that the code presented in his pulp fiction actually meant something to him. He was a stand-up guy, like his detectives. In the stories he wasn’t just saying something he didn’t believe in—I think this gives the fiction that much more credibility.”

The tour ends at John’s Grill, the restaurant where Sam Spade ate dinner in “The Maltese Falcon,” and now serves as an unofficial Hammett museum. Tour participants can relax over a “Bloody Brigid,” and discuss what they saw during the day’s adventure—and as Herron points out, people of all ages come on the tour, dispelling any notion that Hammett is a relic of a bygone era, an author that nobody reads anymore.

“Every now and then I’ll get some people who say that Hammett only appeals to an older generation, and I say ‘Give me a break!’ I have older people, yes, but I have young people coming out constantly who are just discovering the stuff. Hammett is one of these writers who just keeps hitting it with new generations.”

Info Box:

Don Herron’s Dashiell Hammett Tour
Sundays in May and September
(Check for other special dates on website)
Meet at Noon outside the Northwest Corner of the Public Library, 100 Larkin St., San Francisco. (Closest to intersection of Larkin and Fulton).

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

San Francisco Cocktail Week

(This is an article that was written for the San Francisco print edition of the Onion, just before it was announced that this local edition would cease publication last week. An abbreviated version of this article was published today on Decider, the Onion's San Francisco and Bay Area entertainment website)

San Franciscans have long enjoyed a romance with alcohol—from the debauchery of the Barbary Coast era, when miners flush with gold would spend their riches at waterfront saloons, to the rebellious Beats that weaved their North Beach drinking escapades into poetry and novels, to the modern renaissance of the artisan cocktail, the city by the bay knows how to knock 'em back. In fact, according to a 2003 federal study, residents of San Francisco spend more per capita on alcohol than any other city in the country.

Celebrating this high-proof history with a multitude of events is San Francisco Cocktail Week (May 11-18), a fete that includes a variety of parties, classes, workshops and competitions lauding a myriad of mixed drinks, ranging from classics like the Sazerac and the Martini (which according to legend was invented in nearby Martinez, California) to more modern creations by a new generation of mixologists.

Jeff Hollinger, co-founder of The Barbary Coast Conservancy of the American Cocktail, the group that is promoting the event, points to the city’s colorful and booze-infused past as something that is deserving of proper recognition by today's cocktail enthusiast.

“You’ve got some of the most legendary, historic bartenders having played a part in San Francisco’s cocktail history—Jerry Thomas bartended here in the Barbary Coast area for a good chunk of his career, you’ve got people like “Cocktail Bill” Boothby who was just kind of larger than life and played a part in politics, and you had Duncan Nichols popularizing the Pico Punch here. There’s a lot of different things that have happened here, so we decided that it was really up to us to start celebrating that."

A historical bar crawl through the North Beach area will provide participants with the opportunity to imbibe in locations that have been around since before prohibition, and in some cases, since the gold rush itself, such as the Old Ship Saloon. Originally situated in an abandoned sailing ship along the old city waterfront, it was eventually landlocked as the area was filled in—the current brick building sits atop the wooden hull that lies below street level.

Hollinger, who is a manager at Absinthe Brasserie and Bar and the co-author of the 2006 book "The Art of the Bar," is also emphasizing the focus on education at this year's Cocktail Week, noting that a host of classes will be taught where people from all walks of life can learn about a variety of subjects, including the basics of bartending, how to create their own home-made ingredients, and how the process of distillation works.

“Sure, there’s going to be some celebrations where it’s just going to be kind of a big party, but at the same time the idea is give people the tools to be able to learn about the history of cocktails and spirits, and to broaden the knowledge about cocktails as they are today.”

The United States Bartender’s Guild National Championship is another part of this year's event, pitting finalists from around the country head to head as they attempt to woo judges with drinks of their own invention, the winners of which will head to international competition.

Overall, Hollinger hopes that people will learn a thing or two about the cocktail's place in history, along with having a great time. He cites a certain sense of nostalgia for another time and era when explaining his love for mixology and the culture that surrounds it today.

"In the couple of generations before ours, there was the idea of the cocktail—you would have your cocktail parties before you went out to dinner and there was something to me that was kind of romantic about that. When I was a kid, my grandfather had a little two-seat bar at his house, and my brothers and I would play behind that bar. He had all kinds of great glassware and really cool bar artifacts—as I got older and joined the drinking world, there was always an element of me that looked back fondly on that.”

Info Box:
Prices vary with events, ranging from free to $45.