Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Merry Christmas, Bill Melendez

This is the first Christmas with A Charlie Brown Christmas but without Bill Melendez. Of course, we all know "Peanuts" creator Charles Schultz left us years ago, and his cartoon progeny continue to live on in holiday specials and classic reprints of the strips in numerous newspapers, but you may be less familiar with Melendez, who painted quite a career in animation.

Bill Melendez directed the seminal holiday classic on a wing and more than just a proverbial prayer, in six months, with a nervous CBS network and Coca-Cola company breathing down his neck. When A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired on the 9th of December, 1965, Christmas specials were supposed to be filled with singing, dancing, big production values, and the main characters schlepping the sponsor's product in between the schmaltz. Producer Lee Mendelson, along with Melendez, and Charles Schultz, were having none of that. In fact, they dared to let Linus quote The Bible.

Ironically enough, Melendez and Schultz first met when Bill was called upon to create animated commercials featuring the Peanuts gang extolling the virtues of the 1962 Ford Falcon. (If somehow, Linus and Lucy selling cars seems inappropriate, let me remind you that to this day Snoopy still appears in commercials for the decidedly unchildlike Met Life insurance company.) From there, Melendez struck up the that rarest of gems: a friendship with Schultz that reached the echelon of always calling Schultz "Sparky." Actually, that should come as no surprise, for anyone who met Melendez met a man who was far too jovial for the manner in which his chosen profession had treated him.

J.C. Melendez, as you'll see his name in credits for classic Warner Brothers cartoons, was born in 1916 in Hermosillo, Mexico. He grew up in Arizona and California, and started his career going straight to the top: Walt Disney Studios, where he worked on Pinocchio, Bambi, and a number of short cartoons. The artists strike of 1941 made Melendez one of those disgruntled outcasts in the eyes of Uncle Walt, so Bill made his way to Warner's where he animated Bugs and Daffy in some of the greatest cartoons ever to come out of Hollywood. As the major studios cut back on the cartoons, Melendez moved to Playhouse Pictures, where he directed commercials. And that's what led him to the Ford Falcon account. Ford wanted the Peanuts gang in their commercials. History was about to be made.

Listen to Bill in the audio commentaries he recorded for the Looney Tunes DVD's. You'll hear somebody you want to hang around with. That positive outlook must have served him well, because making the half-hour show that would become a holiday classic wasn't easy. Real children provided the voices of the Peanuts characters, and voice directing children is no small feat. Bill modeled the characters almost directly from the comic strips, which raised a myriad of problems in animation. Schultz, a fan of Picasso, designed his characters "flat" in order to read clearly on the newspaper page. Melendez had to design the Peanuts style of animation where the third dimension is cheated when a character turns. A character could only raise his hand above his head in profile. And in Sparky's cartoon world that bears no room for adults to intrude, after all these years, we still have no idea who answers the command when Linus calls for, "Lights, please."

Watching the show today, we see all the warts, of course. The TV print used for many years was carelessly hacked - edited to provide more commercial time. DVD releases have restored the missing "snowball throwing" scene. The animation glitches at times. Digital TV and DVD remastering is not kind to the "graphic blandishments" as Melendez titled animation in the credits. The child voice actors needed a few more tries to get the inflection right here and there. There's a nasty cut in the film just as the "Linus and Lucy" dancing gets into high gear, causing the music to jump like a dropped record. Vince Guaraldi's piano is a little out of tune, and some of the cues come in rough, giving the whole thing a classroom production vibe that stuck with me as a child. And it stuck with a whole lot of people who watch it every Christmas and love it... warts and all.

Christmas, and life I guess, is not about making things perfect, but rather making something you love. Bill Melendez loved creating this cartoon. And we love him for making it.

Merry Christmas, Bill.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Government Needs to Save Publishing

Right now, on one of the major broadcast networks, there should be a weekly series called "The Nanny Diaries." It should be starring a fresh, up-and-coming actress as the lead, George Clooney as her on again/off again love interest, and as a clever bit of inside joke casting Fran Dresher as Mrs. X. We should be in season 4 or 5 by now, reaching the point where the little boy is aging out of needing a nanny and the complications that arise from that. This show should be filling the time slot that "Lipstick Jungle" wasted.

The film version of "Lovely Bones" should've won the Oscar for Best Picture last year.

There should be an action/mystery TV series called, "Plum's Level" based on the Stephanie Plum character created by Janet Evanovich.

Nickelodeon should be airing a cartoon series entitled "Petra and Calder" based on the Blue Balliett books.

"A Tale of Desperaux" should've been produced in traditional "2-D" hand-drawn animation.

The "Chronicles of Narnia" films should've been produced in the chronological sequence that C.S. Lewis intended, not in the "Star Wars" jumble format we're getting.

Dan Brown should be as recognizable on late night talk shows as Steve Carell.

Artimis Fowl should be as recognizable as Harry Potter.

Just in time for the holidays, we should be going to theaters to watch "Bridges of Madison County 3," starring Brooke Shields and that Dr. McDreamy guy.

All these things should've happened, but somehow the publishing industry dropped the ball. Instead, as the economy slides, we hear of major cutbacks and reorganizations at the publishing houses. Random House in now a house of random layoffs. Simon and Schuster is hanging on by a thread. And Scholastic still can't figure out how to make money without a Harry Potter release. In other words, the publishing industry is rife with mismanagement, corporate greed, and Peter Principled incompetence within the ranks.

All the same symptoms being suffered by the ailing U.S. auto industry.

I think you can see where I'm going with this.

What the literary world needs right now is a government bailout. Billions of dollars granted to the faltering publishing giants would save jobs within the industry and beyond.

I'm serious. Think of the domino effect if we allow the publishers to fail. Without publishers, there would be no editors wining and dining up and down Manhattan's midsection, thus hurting the business of dozens of restaurants all along Fifth Avenue. Chefs, waiters, dishwashers, and the guy in the uniform who opens the door to the Town Car and expects a twenty for doing so would be out of work. Imagine the hardship. Where else but in Midtown can you get twenty bucks for opening a car door? Plus, bailing out the publishers will shore up the American as well as the worldwide economy. After all, if an American publisher goes belly up, think of all the printing presses in China that will go idle.

And then there's that entire subculture based on hopeful aspiring writers called The Writer's Conference. Each year, dozens of conferences from Maine to Maui are held, offering a wellspring of useful information to the growing author that can't be found anywhere else. Where else can novice writers of children's books be told not to write in rhyme, only to watch Dr. Seuss continue to sell like sub-prime mortgages every year? And where else can devoted mystery writers hear law enforcement officials detail proper procedure and pinpoint the legalities of not cooperating with the law, only to return to your hotel room and read the most acclaimed mystery of 2007 with a final chapter that basically says, "And so the cops just let her go to Mexico. And, while we were at it, we made up a fictitious grave site. And not one reporter in the major news media market of Baltimore questioned any of this." You can't just pick this kind of knowledge up off the street.

So start sending those emails to your congressman today. Tell them you want a bailout plan for the American Publishing Industry. Save the economy. Save the freedom of speech. Save a way of life. And save jobs.

Particularly mine.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Bill Drake and Radio, R.I.P.

Bummer, man.

Radio programming innovator Bill Drake died recently at the age of 71. Drake, along with his business partner Lester Chenault, created the top-40 format known as Boss Radio that took stations such as KHJ in Los Angeles, KGB in San Fransisco, and WOR-FM in New York to the top of the ratings. It was a music driven, hyper speed format designed to get you to listen, and to maximize ad revenue. Depending on your point of view, it was the dawning of a new day, or the beginning of a real drag.

The format hinged on the delicate blend of personality DJ's who could condense their patter down to the essentials - sell it during the eight second intro Petula Clark's "Downtown" and make sure your last syllable hits just before she sings "When" - power jingles, newscasts at 20 after and 20 'till, and MORE MUSIC. Fourteen or fifteen songs, compared to Station X down the dial where the jocks have diarrhea of the mouth and the newscaster sounds like Walter Cronkite played back at half-speed. Youth-driven, powered by the Beatlemania-fueled/psychedelic Motown sound of the 1960's, Boss radio was a product of its time. No sad songs from folkies on this station. Take your hootenanny somewhere else. You know in the deep recesses of the windmills of your mind that getting airplay on Boss stations was the real reason Dylan went electric.

But as groovy as this happening was, the Man was actually calling the shots. The jocks had a short leash. Keep it short, and no dead air, or else the Bat phone lights up. BUT, there were no liner cards.

Drake and Chenault had grasped a fundamental business reality of radio: economy of scale. Winning LA is great. But taking this gig nationwide is where the real bread is, baby. Step one: trademark "Boss Radio." Make it your brand, man. Don't let some square steal your idea in Cincinnati or Santa Fe and harsh your mellow. Then, you sell the format to stations around the country. Prepackaged, condensed radio. Just add water. You know, like that can of soup Warhol painted.

What's that? You're stuck sitting in your nowhereland, and the air talent is hard to come by, and the jocks you have just don't dig what you're puttin' down? No problem. You can buy the whole format in automation. Yeah. Just load those ten-inch reels of tape, load the jingles and spots on cartridges, punch in your commands, and before you can say, "Hal, open the pod bay doors," you're in the groove. And here's the best part: computers don't smoke pot in the studio.

Hey, don't get all uptight about this syndication jazz. Wolfman Jack says it's all personality. Yeah, but dig it, the Wolfman you hear in Cleveland is actually a vinyl record. Some high school kid is punching in a cart of Wolfie with the local call letters. But who cares? It sounds great, right? And there's always going to be room for good local air talent. It's not like someday the station managers are going to let radio stations just shovel the music at us and then dump a ten-unit, five-minute commercial break on us. Yeah. Like that could ever happen.

So, was Boss Radio the pinnacle of top-40 radio? Or was it the siren song that led to our destruction? Heavy. All I know is my CD changer and my MP3 player doesn't help any radio stations make money.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Doctor Seuss in the Studio

I found this photo on Michael Barrier's website. It combines three things I love in life: Dr. Seuss, Chuck Jones, and a whopping big audio board.

From Michael Barrier's site:

From my files, this photo, probably taken a little over forty years ago, of Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) and Chuck Jones at a recording session for the 1968 TV special How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The men at the console are an engineer, Thorne Nogar, and a producer for MGM Records, Jesse Kaye.

I'm not one to contradict Mr. Barrier, but according to the filmography in "Chuck Amok" Grinch premiered in 1967. Plus, "Grinch" won a Peabody Award, so if you care to look it up, that should be the definitive word on the matter. Therefore, this photo is likely from a scoring session in late 1967. Notice the musicians in the studio. Recording the score is usually the final step in the process, assuming no further effects are added.

I can't identify the make of the audio mixing console, but this is typical of the mid-sixties in spite of it's ancient appearance. Rotary faders were still in wide use in the US until the 1970's. It's a mono board, as stereo wouldn't come to American television until the 1980's, and most film soundtracks were still optical mono. Looks like it can mix eight sources at a time. There are five meters on the bridge, but that doesn't mean there were five audio tracks being recorded. Four-track was the common technology of the day, but I can see what appears to be only three sub-mix outputs on the far right of the board. That means they may have still been using three-track, a very common format in recording studios on the West Coast in the late 50's to mid 60's. EQ settings on each input were critical due to the temperamental microphones of the day. Notice the turntable on the far left above the engineer's head.

This was back in the days when recording engineers, and everyone else, still wore a tie. Jones was being counter-revolutionary with his bow ties in the 1960's. Squaresville, man.