Saturday, May 30, 2020

Michigan Outdoors with Mort Neff

Mort Nell armed with a 16mm camera.
One of the most beloved programs in early Detroit television was Michigan Outdoors hosted and produced by Mort Neff. The original outdoor show debuted in 1951 specializing in hunting and fishing segments. It ran for twenty-three straight years and 1,196 shows before it was cancelled in 1977. Michigan Outdoors has the distinction of being the longest-running outdoor and sportsman show in American television history.

Mort Neff graduated from the University of Michigan with a double major in journalism and electrical engineering. Upon graduation in 1927, Neff began writing an outdoor sports column for a small newspaper in Detroit. In 1942, the Michigan Conservation Department asked Neff if he would be interested in doing a recorded radio show. At first, he did his recording from a small studio, but Neff drew upon his background in electronics to devise a battery pack to power a wire recorder for remote reporting from the fields and streams of lower Michigan.

In 1946, Neff learned to fly and used his single engine Piper Apache to cover outdoor stories all over Michigan including the Upper Penisula, which at that time was accessible only by slow-moving ferry boats that took hours of waiting in your car before boarding. Neff surprised ice fishermen by landing his plane on frozen lakes and interviewing the anglers with his battery-powered wire recorder.

Mort Neff on Brighton Lake with ice fisherman.
By 1951, Neff ran an advertising agency specializing in outdoor films for the commercial and industrial market when he was approached to produce a show called Michigan Outdoors. Neff recalled, "Fran Congdon--ad manager for Altes Golden Ale Brewing Company--asked me to produce a TV show. Two weeks before the show debuted, the chosen host had a conflict of interest and was dropped from the program. Fran insisted I do it."

Neff's only experience was behind the camera. Of his early days in television, Neff said, "I was awful. Who had any idea how to do a television show? Nobody!" But despite his lack of experience as on-air talent, the show became an immediate Thursday night hit and one of the most popular programs on Detroit television. 

Mort Neff soon became a local television personality and a much sought-after luncheon and banquet speaker around Detroit. Michigan Outdoors brought out the ham in Neff. He enjoyed his new-found celebrity and soon sold his ad agency. Mort had discovered his life's work.

Neff and his various cohorts over the years filmed segments on sportsmanship, hunting, and fishing, as well as wildlife and habitat conservation. Michigan Outdoors prided itself on giving accurate, up-to-date information on current hunting and fishing conditions in Michigan. The Catch of the Week feature was one of the most popular segments of the show.


If Neff mentioned on his Thursday night show an area where hunting was good or a lake where the fish were biting, 200 to 300 Detroit area sportsmen could be expected for the weekend trek up north, which sometimes caused problems for local residents. Often county roads were not adequate to handle the onrush of city traffic. Getting "Neffed" was not always welcomed by county officials. After some negative publicity, the show developed a policy of not reporting specific hotspots in favor of regional locations.

When Mort worked for the Michigan Conservation Department decades earlier, he learned that the South American country of Chile imported rainbow trout eggs from them in 1918. The eggs were hatched and the fry released into the Chilean mountain river system. Neff always wondered what happened with that forty-year-old project. Now, he was in a position to find out. He organized a two-week expedition with a film crew and a few friends to report on the original project and catch some rainbow trout.

Mort and his cohorts discovered that Chilean rainbow trout grew larger and faster than their Michigan cousins. "On average," Neff said, "a two-pound rainbow would reach six pounds in Chile. When we cleaned our first catch, their bellies were full of crabs the size of half-dollars found only on the river beds of the Andres Mountains. My fishing friend Buck Newton from Traverse City caught a rainbow over 21 pounds. It sounds like a fish story, but we have film and the photos to prove it."

On the strength of his successful Chilean fishing trip, Neff was recruited as an outdoor correspondent for ABC's American Sportsman hosted by Curt Gowdy. ABC producers financed Neff and a film crew for several more South American fishing trips which were featured on the network show giving Neff national exposure.


In 1971, Michigan Outdoors moved from WWJ-TV (channel 4) to WXYZ-TV (channel 7). As the 1970s wore on, American attitudes about hunting changed. Sportsmanship and conservation were always central to Neff's outdoor narrative, but his audience was aging and younger viewers were not tuning in.

In response to this new trend, Neff told reporters, "I think the hysteria over ecology has been overdone. Sportsmen and conservationists were working on the environment long before it became fashionable. I do think it is good that more people are aware and interested in preserving our natural resources and protecting the environment." Michigan Outdoors continued to lose audience market share until it was cancelled on January 7, 1977.

Neff wasn't bitter. He told the Detroit Free Press that "My wife Maureen and I decided twenty-three years was long enough to support the tremendous burden of a weekly television program, and we're ready to move on. I've been lucky. I've had one of the most golden careers ever." The Neff's retired and built a beautiful summer home just north of Harbor Springs.


Mort Neff passed away from a stroke at the age of eighty-six on Wednesday, August 15, 1990 at Northern Michigan Hospital in Petosky. Ten years before he died, Mort selected the tree to make his coffin, had it sawed into planks, and asked his neighbor Bill Glass to build it. Bill kept telling Mort it wasn't time yet. Mort brought the subject up one last time two weeks before his death. Bill Glass began building the pine box on Thursday for Friday's private funeral service at Harbor Springs Presbyterian. Mort was laid to rest in the coffin lined with cedar boughs cut by his family members.

World Adventure Series hosted by George Pierrot 

Friday, May 22, 2020

World Traveler George F. Pierrot

Detroiters who grew up watching television in the 1950s and 1960s are no doubt familiar with George F. Pierrot, the gravelly-voiced, rotund host of the World Adventure Series on WXYZ (channel seven) which debuted in 1948 and George Pierrot Presents on WWJ-TV (channel four) which debuted in 1953. Pierrot holds the distinction as the only Detroit television personality to host shows on two local stations concurently. Pierrot instilled the desire to travel in many of its younger viewers.

From the point of view of the audience, Pierrot's job seemed easy enough. He introduced his guest travelers who showed and narrated their 16 mm films of the Western United States and exotic world location with speakers like Don Cooper, Stan Midgley, Dennis Glen Cooper, and Lowell Thomas. Behind the scenes, Pierrot booked the speakers, viewed and edited their films for content, and handled all negotiations and background arrangements.

"I demand a good reporting job," Pierrot said. "Sure, I want good films, but the speaker must have his facts straight. Viewers want indepth lectures and documentaries on what it is like in different countries." Like Pierrot himself, all of the commentators on his shows belonged to the Circumnavigator's Club whose headquarters was in New York City. The show was sponsored by Edward Brink of The Mutual of Omaha insurance company.

World traveler, author, and raconteur, Pierrot was born in Chicago on January 11, 1898, but his family moved to Seattle where his father practiced medicine and introduced his son to globetrotting. George studied journalism at the University of Washington before becoming the editor of the Washington Daily, but he left to write for a national magazine based in Detroit called The American Boy in the early 1920s. Pierrot became a regular luncheon and banquet speaker at service organizations and non-profits all over the city making him a much sought-after personality in Detroit.

When The American Boy went out of business in 1934, Pierrot pitched the idea of a weekly travelogue program to the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) to boost the museum's poor attendance during the Great Depression. In those days, world traveling was a much bigger deal than it is now. Travel was impossible for the average person. Pierrot became the director of the World Adventure Series. For a yearly membership fee of one dollar or a charge of ten cents per lecture, the public could attend the Sunday afternoon travelogues. The programs were a big hit and set Pierrot up with his life's work. The DIA series ran in the Longfellow auditorium until 1979.

With the start of World War II in Europe, Pierrot complained in October 1939 that "It's hard enough under normal circumstances to assemble world celebrities for lecture programs, but now the war is disrupting every travelogue series in the country. However, we do have the war to thank for our first feature of the season. A motion picture newsman returning from Poland will show two of his films this Sunday. 'Poland Under Fire' at 3:30 pm and the 'Defense of Poland' at 8:30 pm."

The DIA suspended The World Adventure Series in October of 1942 because of gas rationing and the curtailment of public transit on Sundays when the programs were held. Gas stations were closed and drivers were asked to stay home in an effort to save gas for the war effort. Forty-five percent of the program's audience came from the suburbs, so the museum shut the program down. The DIA resumed its Sunday World Adventure Series the following year when the ban on Sunday travel was eased. Rather than travelogues, documentary films from the battlefronts where Americans were fighting and dying dominated the lecture program until the war ended.

One-millionth USO serviceman winning a day on the town. Saturday, April 24,1943.
Pierrot did his part for the war effort by becoming the director of the Detroit Branch of the United Service Organization (USO) in 1942. He ran one of the most extensive and successful programs in the country. Activities for American soldiers and sailors included weekly dance parties and an entertainment unit that showed free motion pictures with special features like Movietone News and cartoons. Pierrot reported to the Defense Department that the Detroit USO entertained 40,000 G.I.s a month.


Three years after the war ended, Pierrot took his World Adventure Series to the new medium of television. For twenty-eight years--1948 until 1976--he brought the world of travel to Detroiters in their living rooms. In 1979, the DIA's World Adventure Series went dark after forty-two years.

Pierrot lead the way for television travelogue hosts like Rick Steves and Anthony Bourdain. In addition to travel, George was known for his love of food, drink, and off-color limericks. On February 16, 1980, George F. Pierrot suffered a heart attack at his Indian Village home and died forty-five minutes later in Henry Ford Hospital. He is buried at Elwood Cemetery in Wayne County.

World Adventure Series with George Pierrot circa 1960 

Michigan Outdoors with Mort Neff 

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Detroit's Historic Fort Wayne Namesake--"Mad" Anthony Wayne

Protrait of Anthony Wayne painted by Thomas Pauley
Throughout the Midwestern states of Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan the name Mad Anthony Wayne resonates in communities far and wide. Scores of towns, cities, counties, schools, parks, hospitals, streets, and businesses have been named after this Revolutionary War general.

General Anthony Wayne led his soldiers in essentially rear guard actions harassing the British behind their lines. In several successful skirmishes with the enemy, he ordered surprise "bayonet only" attacks at night that inflicted many casualties. He was known as a courageous general--decisive and quick to act.

The legend behind the sobriquet "Mad" Anthony Wayne owes little to the general's military achievements. It has more to do with a drunk and disorderly colonist--known as Jemmy, the Rover--who the general sometimes used as a spy. A constable arrested the man who began to drop the general's name. When the general heard this, he threatened Jemmy with "twenty-nine lashes well-laid-on if this happens again."

In disbelief, the now sober Jemmy replied, "He must be mad or else he would help me. Mad Anthony, that's what he is. Mad Anthony Wayne." The story made its way around town and became a favorite among the troops. The general's nickname had a rhythm and bravado that was repeated in the ranks until it stuck.

President George Washington called Major-General Wayne out of retirement to command the newly formed Legion of the United States. Wayne established the first basic training facility to prepare  regular army recruits into professional soldiers.

Wayne mustered and trained a fighting force of 1,350 American soldiers and led them to the Northwest Territory (Ohio and Michigan) where they won a decisive victory against British forces and the Indian Confederacy at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, just south of modern-day Toledo, Ohio. The war ended and Major-General Wayne negotiated the Treaty of Greenville between the tribal confederacy and the United States signed on August 3, 1795.

While returning to Pennsylvania after the conflict, Wayne died from complications of gout on December 15, 1796. He was buried at Fort Presque Isle. His body was disinterred in 1809 at the request of his family to be buried in a family plot. His bones make the journey to Radnor, Pennsylvania in saddlebags. For that grisly bit of history, consult the link below.

***

Aerial View of Old Fort Wayne.

The star-shaped fort in Detroit, Michigan--which bears Anthony Wayne's name--began construction in 1842 at the Detroit River's narrowest point with Canada. Fear of a territorial war with British Canada prompted the fort's building. It was named to honor Major-General Wayne's defeat of the British at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. The victory resulted in the United States occupation of the Northwest Territories. Diplomats were able to settle territorial disputes, and the war with Canada never materialized. The new fort never fired a shot.

***

Fort Wayne was first used by Michigan troops in 1861 at the outbreak of the Civil War. It became the primary induction center for Michigan troops for every field of American combat from the Civil War through Vietnam.

During World War II, every truck, Jeep, tank, tire, spare part, or war ordinance manufactured in Detroit went through the docks of Fort Wayne to the battlefronts. Also, Italian prisoners of war from the North Africa Campaign were housed at the fort. After Italy's surrender, Italian POWs were given the chance to return home. Many chose to settle in Detroit where there was an established Italian-American community and greater opportunities awaiting them.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Fort Wayne's grounds were open to assist and house homeless families. During the Cold War of the 1950s, Nike-Ajax missiles were installed to prepare for a nuclear war that never came. And during the Detroit riots in 1967, the fort was again used to house displaced families, the last families leaving in 1971.

Today, the Detroit Recreation Department operates the fort with the help of the Historic Fort Wayne Coalition, the Friends of Fort Wayne, and the Detroit Historical Society. The grounds are the home of the Tuskegee Airmen Museum, the Great Lakes Indian Museum, and historic Civil War reenactments. Special events are held throughout the year.

Fort Wayne was designated a Michigan State Historic Site in 1958 and entered into the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. The State of Michigan wants to upgrade the property into a multi-use facility while maintaining the fort's historical significance. Once the new International Transport Bridge is built in old Delray, the United States customs plaza will be located near the historic site. More information on restoration plans can be found in the Detroit News link below.

*** 


Bruce Wayne--Millionaire Industrialist
While researching, I discovered that Batman's alter ego--Bruce Wayne--was named after Scottish patriot Robert Bruce and Mad Anthony Wayne. In DC Comics, Bruce Wayne is said to be General Wayne's direct descendant, and stately Wayne Manor is built on ground given to General Wayne for his Revolutionary War service.

Another little known fact is that in 1930, stunt man and young actor Marion Michael Morrison was originally given the stage name of Anthony Wayne by director Raoul Walsh. Fox Studios changed his name to John Wayne because Anthony sounded too Italian.


***

For more information on preservation plans for Historic Fort Wayne:
The story of General Anthony Wayne's exhumation may be more noteworthy than his military achievements. For more details, check out this link: http://www.americanrevolution.org/wayne.php

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Docu-Artist DeVon Cunningham--a Detroit Art Treasure

DeVon Cunningham
Born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama on February 21, 1935, DeVon Cunningham began his art training at the tender age of eleven when he won a scholarship to the John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis, Indiana. Part of his training was a two-week, all expenses paid seminar to study in Italy.

He continued his art training at the Detroit Center for Creative Studies and the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center. Cunningham went on to complete a bachelor's degree from the Detroit Institute of Technology and a master's degree from Wayne State University.

When he wasn't working as a marketing executive for Detroit Edison, DeVon was painting. Over his long career, DeVon's paintings have appeared in many galleries including eleven one-man shows, and his work hangs in many private and public art collections--the most notable being the Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institute.

In 1969, DeVon Cunningham achieved national recognition when he painted the mural of the Black Christ on the dome of St. Cecelia Catholic church at Livernois and Burlingame in Detroit. This work featured a twenty-four-foot, brown-skinned image of Jesus with six multiethnic angels beside him serving high mass. The church's parishioners were mostly African Americans from the neighborhood. The mural was a welcomed addition to this French Romanesque church built in 1930 before the ethnicity of the neighborhood changed.


A national controversy erupted when the mural appeared on the cover of Ebony magazine in March 1969. Twenty-five years later on December 25th, 1994, the mural once again became the topic of controversy when the New York Times featured the church mural on Christmas Day. Reverend Raymond Ellis, rector of St. Cecelia's, responded to the criticism in a Detroit Free Press interview.

"Black parishioners have a legitmate complaint when they walk into a church to worship and everything is white. Christianity forces people to accept Western European culture.

"The historical Christ was Hebrew, a Jew from the Middle East. He might have had dark skin; he might have been fair. But Christ is the head of the church, he is God, and he is any color people want him to be."

Cunningham's commissioned portraits of prominent Detroit community leaders include Martha Jean "The Queen" Steinberg, a WCHB radio personality active in Detroit's African American community; Coleman Young, the city's first black mayor; Abe Burnstein, Detroit's reputed Purple Gang boss during Prohibition; and many others.

The most mysterious portrait Cunningham has painted is of Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. It was unveiled at Gordy's Boston-Edison mansion as a birthday present from his sister Anna Gordy Gaye--the wife of singer Marvin Gaye. Berry was quite moved and lauded the painting of him dressed up like Napoleon. Somewhere along the line, someone suggested that it might not be a compliment to be compared to Napoleon, and the painting disappeared. (More on that story appears in the link at the end of this post.)

Cunningham's portraits gave way to what he calls docu-art that informs, instructs, and involves the viewer. His work combines symbolism with cultural iconography that leaves the viewer with a montage of images to ponder. DeVon's art not only appeals to the eye but also to the mind.

DeVon's jazz musician series typifies much his later work. Historically, Detroit was instrumental in the 1920s through the 1950s for providing African American jazz and blues musicians venues to perform and make a living through their music. To document the historic relationship of Jews and African Americans, Cunningham painted legendary performers like Theolonius Monk, Louie Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Miles Davis, who performed in Detroit's legendary nightclubs owned by Jewish empresarios who hired black acts when other venue bookers wouldn't.

Billie Holiday docu-art
At the age of eighty-five, DeVon Cunningham continues to produce significant art that remains relevant in our changing times. He has a distinguished body of work and presently is working on a commission for the international Spill the Honey foundation, a group that emphasizes the shared legacy of Jewish people and African Americans seeking historical truth and social justice through educational and artistic programs.

With over fifty years of artistic achievement, ask people in the contemporary Detroit art world who DeVon Cunningham is and the likely response will be "Who?" What a shame.

Berry Gordy's Lost Portrait

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Billy Martin Fight Night in Detroit

Many Detroiters remember Billy Martin when he managed the Detroit Tigers from 1971-1973. He took an aging team of veterans and guided them to their first American League Eastern Division Championship in 1972. Better known to some fans may be the fistfight Billy Martin had with his star pitcher Dave Boswell at the Lindell AC sports bar when Martin managed the Minnesota Twins. Who better to tell that story than Mel Butsicaris, who was tending bar that night.

"I called him Uncle Billy. Billy Martin and my Uncle Jimmy (Butsicaris) were close friends. Martin was best man at my uncle's wedding. He was Uncle Billy to me.

Anyway, Billy Martin was managing the Minnesota Twins in 1969 when he told his players to take a lap around the field before heading to the locker room--a common routine for any sports team. His star pitcher Dave Boswell refused and Uncle Billy said you will if you want to play on my team. Boswell refused a second time and was benched. When the Twins came to Detroit to play the Tigers, Boswell was supposed to start the first game, but Martin benched him.

After the game, the whole team came to the Lindell AC sports bar as usual. Normally, coaches don't go to the same watering hole as their players, but Uncle Jimmy and Billy were close friends. They were sitting at the end of the bar quietly talking. The team was sitting at tables in a large group. Dave Boswell had a few drinks and started bad-mouthing Martin. The more he drank, the louder and more vulgar he got. He started yelling at Martin about his heritage and his mother's character if you know what I mean.


Billy Martin hard at work in a Yankee uniform.

Uncle Billy ignored him. Boswell got so obnoxious his roommate on the road Bobby Allison, a big, strong, power-hitting center fielder, was trying to get Boswell to leave the bar and sleep it off. Boswell got louder and more abusive. Allison kept blocking him until Boswell sucker punched Allison in the face. Bobby went down bleeding. Like a bench-emptying baseball brawl, the team jumped up to get between Boswell and Martin while getting Allison off the floor.

Up until then, Martin kept out of the situation. He told Boswell, 'I don't care what you say about me, but now you're beating up the team. Enough, everyone back to the hotel, curfew in ten minutes and bed check in fifteen.' The hotel was near the sports bar. The players started to march out forcing Boswell out with them. He breaks away from the pack and throws a wild punch at Martin, who ducks. Boswell takes another swing at Martin which he blocks.

Telling Boswell, 'You're all out of warnings,' Martin took him to school. Despite being six inches shorter and weighing many pounds less than his ace pitcher, Martin grew up a tough kid in Berkley, California and pound-for-pound the best boxer I have ever seen in or out of the ring. His fists were moving so fast it looked like a Popeye cartoon. It lasted for only six seconds but Martin landed about twenty punches to Boswell's stomach and face. Power-hitter Bobby Allison picked Boswell off the barroom floor and took him to the hospital.

The sports writers from Minnesota and the Detroit newspapers were there, but they agreed not to write about the story because it would only make the situation worse. It was not good for major league baseball. A couple of days after the brawl, a young reporter who was not a witness to the fight broke the story.

Because of  growing publicity concerns, Dave Boswell called a news conference when he was released from the hospital. Boswell stepped-up and said he was drinking and out-of-line. The fight was his fault. The Twins front office did not care. They fired Martin and the Tigers hired him the following season. To all those people over the years who said they saw Billy Martin challenge Dave Boswell to go outside and fight--you are busted."

Billy Martin died on Christmas Day, 1989, at the age of sixty-one in Johnson City, New York. His pickup truck was driven by longtime Detroit friend William Reedy (53). The truck skidded off a patch of icy pavement and plummeted 300 feet down an embankment. Neither Martin nor Reedy were wearing seat belts. Billy Martin was pronounceed dead of severe head and internal injuries. Reedy survived with a broken hip and ribs.

Billy Martin was born Alfred Manuel Martin. His Italian grandmother called him "Belli" [pretty] as a child and the nickname "Billy" stuck. As a major league baseball manager, Billy Martin built a reputation as one of the game's all-time best. He was known to work wonders with difficult ball clubs and not take crap from players, managers, or umpires. He could shape up a team and get the best from his players.

Unfortunately, Billy Martin had a self-destructive side which followed him throughout his career. Notice the baseball card at the top of this post. Martin is giving the finger to the photographer. By his own admission, "I'm a very bad loser."

Friday, April 17, 2020

Detroit/Windsor Sock-Hop-Jock Robin Seymour

Robin Seymour at the height of his popularity.
Robin Henry Seymour began his career in radio as a child actor on The Lone Ranger show on WXYZ in Detroit. Eventually, he became one of the country's most popular disc-jockeys. During World War II, Seymour spent part of his enlistment as a DJ on Armed Forces Radio.

Seymour's civilian broadcasting career resumed in 1947 in Dearborn, Michigan at WKMH. The newly formed radio station played mainstream pop music with news, sports, and weather segments. Soon, Seymour became the station's top jock who appealed to many of Detroit and Windsor, Ontario listeners. Seymour championed early rock & roll artists and was one of America's first DJs to play doo-wop music and black rhythm & blues which was labeled race music in those days.

As his popularity grew, Seymour began live appearances with his "Original Rock-n-Roll Revue" at Detroit's legendary Fox Theater. Seymour's personal theme song "Boppin' with the Robin" was recorded in 1956 by a group popular at the time--The Four Lads. They were accompanied by the Percy Faith Orchestra.

Canadian broadcaster CKLW hired Seymour to host a television teen dance show in 1963 entitled Teen Town, modeled on Dick Clark's American Bandstand. Clark's show was broadcast nationally, but Seymour's regional show was wildly popular in the greater Detroit area.

With the help of rising Motown artists, the show gained popularity and was rebranded as Swingin' Time. Local teens would dance to Top 40 hits and two kids were chosen from the audience to rate new records with an "aye" or a "nay." National acts performing in Detroit or Windsor appeared on Swingin' Time to promote their live shows and records.

Seymour had the good fortune to feature virtually all the Motown artists--The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Little Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, and the list goes on. Many of them recorded on Gordy and Tamala records before the Motown label. Swingin' Time introduced white suburban teens to local black performers, helping bridge the racial divide in heavily segregated Detroit.

In addition to Motown artists, many local white rock group performers appeared on Seymour's show--people like Glenn Frey, Mitch Ryder, Ted Nugent, and Bob Seger. Because of technical limitations in those days, all of the performers lip-synced their records. The most frequently booked local group on his show was The Rationals--an Ann Arbor garage band. Seymour managed many of the early Detroit groups.


Robin Seymour today.
When CKLW changed ownership in 1968, Robin Seymour was replaced by Tom Shannon, another popular Detroit DJ. America was undergoing drastic political and social turmoil and the music reflected that change. Ever try to dance to psychedelic music? The show dropped in the ratings and ended its run in 1969.

Robin Seymour passed away today (April 17, 2020) at the age of ninety-four in San Antonio, Texas. He will be missed by thousands of Detroiters and Windsorites. Robin was working on an autobiography for the last several years which I hope will one day see the light of day.

Robin Seymour's "Boppin' with the Robin" theme song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uJFyQuvGG8g

Early Bob Seger performance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LMUrxXwL-NM

Sunday, April 12, 2020

2020 Alex Karras Film Fest

Although on the face of it, an Alex Karras film festival seems ludricrous, Alex Karras had a good career as a character actor and television personality. What better time to watch some of Alex Karras' film roles than during this pandemic?

The Alex Karras filmography lists 25 guest shots on popular television programs and made-for-television movies including Love, American Style; The Odd Couple; McMillan & Wife; M*A*S*H; and appearances on talk shows like The Mike Douglas Show and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Alex also co-starred with his wife Susan Clark and Emmanuel Lewis on Webster which ran on ABC for six years. Karras' feature film credits include 14 movies, six of which my wife and I watched over the last ten days. That's a substantial body of work.

***

In his first feature film Paper Lion, Karras played himself in a 1968 look behind the scenes of the Detroit Lions preseason training camp. He appeared alongside other Lion players, but Alex's personality jumped off the screen. He was the only player with acting ablity. Alex appeared in plays at Gary Emerson High School.

Karras caught the attention of Desilu executive producer Lucille Ball. Lucy phoned Karras and encouraged him to pursue acting after he retired from the gridiron. From then on, he was bitten by the acting bug. Lucille Ball was helpful in getting Karras established in Hollywood. They became lifelong friends.

***

In 1975, Karras hit box office gold with his portrayal of Mongo in Mel Brooks' riotous film Blazing Saddles. Amidst the craziness of the film, Mongo speaks eight words that encapsulate the dilemma of modern man, "Mongo a pawn in the game of life."


Karras plays a Looney Tune cartoonish, dull-witted brute who knocks out a horse with one punch and opens a Western-Union candygram that blows up in his face. Classic Warner Bros. slapstick comedy. Blazing Saddles is #6 on the American Film Institute's list of 100 Best Comedies.

***

The following year, Karras gave a nuanced performance as wrestler George Zaharias--the real-life husband of America's most celebrated female athlete Babe Didrikson. The TV movie Babe starred Susan Clark in the title role which earned her an Emmy award for Best Actress. Their onscreen chemistry was powerful and translated to real life. Karras and Clark met on this film, fell in love, and married five years later. His performance proved he could handle dramatic as well as comic roles.

***

Neither Sue nor I had ever seen Porky's before. It turned out to be literally a low brow, coming-of-age comedy. The biggest names in the movie were Susan Clark and Alex Karras. Now man and wife in real life, they took minor roles and never appeared on screen together in this film. Susan Clark plays stripper Cherry Forever and Karras plays County Sheriff Wallace. Giving a deadpan performance, Karras is convincing as a corrupt cop harassing the Angel Beach High School basketball team on a dark country road.


Porky's Lobby Card

Film critics Gene Siskel & Roger Eberts gave Porky's two thumbs down for its "degrading objectification of women and juvenile treatment of adolescent sexuality." They pronounced the movie "One of the worst films of 1981." The initial $5 million investment grossed over $136 million in the film's worldwide release, becoming the highest grossing comedy in Canadian history.

For me, Porky's has little redeeming value, but film historians credit it for spawning a new breed of film--the teen movie. Porky's influenced a generation of writers, most notibly John Hughes, who came to exemplify the genre throughout the 1980s with films like Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and The Breakfast Club--all of which had more heart and charm than their predecessor. 

***

In 1982's Blake Edwards' gender-bending extravaganza Victor Victoria, Alex Karras got a first-class supporting role as Squash Bernstein, the bodyguard of American gangster King Marchand, played by James Garner. Karras' comedic timing, deadpan facial expressions, and flawless line delivery make this performance the high point in his comedic career.


Alex Karras and Robert Preston

The movie's finale performance of "The Lady of Spain" with Robert Preston (The Music Man) as an aging, gay cabaret performer is not to be missed. Director Blake Edwards remembers that Preston did the routine in one take. Two takes might have killed him. That in itself is reason to see this film. Gay or straight, this movie is a laugh riot.

***

The most compelling role where Karras' range as an actor was on full display is 1984's Against All Odds--a remake of the 1947 film noir classic Out of the Past with Robert Mitchum. What makes his role of pro-football trainer Hank Sully more compelling is a football gambling syndicate that drives the plot of the film.

In another life, Alex Karras was suspended by the NFL for the 1963 season for gambling on football games which he openly admitted. This film benefits from Karras' real life experiences and problems with the NFL. Karras plays a football trainer in a role fundamental to the storyline.

Character Hank Sully is basically a good guy who compromises his integrity with a gambling syndicate. Though internally conflicted, Sully is hired to cover up a gambling scandal and recover a missing ledger book filled with incriminating information tied to names of important people.

Jeff Bridges and Alex Karras
Against All Odds benefits from solid performances by Jeff Bridges, as a washed up pro-football player declared "damaged goods" and thrown to the curb by his team; Australian Rachel Ward plays the femme fatale Bridges is paid to locate in Cozumel, Mexico; and James Woods is the underworld figure who wants his girlfriend, his ledger book, and his $50,000 back. Sue and I agree that Against All Odds is Alex Karras' best film performance.