Saturday, February 24, 2018

Meeting Caroll Spinney

Ever have dreams come true?  I have.  A few times.  I had one such dream come true in September 2016 at DragonCon in Atlanta, GA.  The only way I can finally make that dream better is to actually go to a certain studio in Queens, NY, and put my feet on the Street.

A little back-story:
One of my friends e-mailed me from across the country that "Caroll Spinney is going to be in Atlanta at DragonCon.  Are you going?"  Would I?  Well, considering how much of my life has been affected by this man?  I'd better!

My earliest remembrance is an old record album with a greeting from Gordon and Susan followed by a voice that would make me grin upon every life-long hearing of it:  "Oh, Gordon!  Susan!!"  The Sesame Street Cast Album was mine, and the star of the whole thing (to me) was Big Bird.  Because of Big Bird, "I Just Adore 4" as a favorite number, yellow is a color I think of as a joyful color, Ornithology was an interest of mine as a kid (at the book fair, I remember buying all books about birds!), and my hero of all my toy "performances" was either Big Bird or Snoopy.
As a matter of fact, Sesame Street was my first introduction to The Muppets, and so while I do love (and collect) Kermit the Frog, Big Bird was at the top of that Muppet heap for me.  I never considered him a leader, but he was the Muppet's star character in my eyes.  Even during the Elmo-coup of the Street (as some of us called it), Big Bird was always, and is, the star of Sesame Street.  He's been able to make me laugh, cry, and it's not just a thing from childhood, but even today.

And how?

We have to credit the person that is Big Bird's inner most soul: Caroll Spinney.  This is a genius who, despite a failing show at a Puppeteers of America convention, Jim Henson saw more in him.  He was hired to come perform on a new show Jim worked on with Joan Ganz Cooney.  Here, using all his previous years' experience of puppetry in other shows, he was able to bring to life the iconic bird and the greenest Grouch, Oscar, ever to appear on TV or movies.  Indeed, Jim saw more in Spinney who just kept giving more and more and more of himself to the rest of the world.

I was already interested in cartooning as a kid thanks to Peanuts; but, upon learning that Jim Henson had a graphic design background and that Caroll Spinney had drawn cartoons all his life I was more determined than ever to create from pencil and pen and paper.  There was more joy to bring to the world and I felt compelled from these inspiring greats to be one of those many people to bring that happiness to others.

This 6 year old, 8'2" tall yellow bird brings me joy.  I've created a good collection of items over the years, from my own childhood and even today.  I have a great collection of items that, as I look at them, remind me of more joyful years, of happier times, and stories that taught me about life when there wasn't anyone else there to do it.  Caroll Spinney still doesn't realize it, but he's probably one of my best childhood friends!

Dragon Con 2016
So, that he would be 6 hours away at a convention where I can finally go meet him?  You bet!  With only a few days to go, friends stepped forward to tend my pets (I'm grateful to Angela and Brad for this), another friend offered to let me stay at her family's house in Atlanta (thankful to Lori), and no entry without a ticket, offered to me by one of my dear friends Steve Troop, also a guest that year!  Everything quickly fell into place meaning I was going to have a chance to meet one of my heroes!

I made the 6 hour trip from Memphis, TN, to Atlanta, GA, and found my way late to the apartment where I'd be staying.  I woke the next morning, we loaded up and went to the subway system, arrived at the convention hall, and I began making my way around, mainly through the puppetry track of the convention.

During that convention, I had the opportunity to meet other great folks from Sesame Street: Leslie Carrara-Rudolph, Tyler Bunch, and the ever lovely Pam Arcerio!  They led great panels and discussions, and favorable workshops.  One of my favorite moments during a workshop was when Leslie the Fairy took Muley and performed him in front of the crowd!

Then, my friend, Lori, called and said, "Get downstairs now.  He's here!"

The Meeting
HE'S HERE!  Those words rang through my head as I feverishly hastened my way to his location, directions she was dictating to me on my phone.  My attention was focused, I swore I wouldn't fan-boy out (and I didn't, yet).  There he was.  She was talking to me while I stood in line and said, "I'll see you at the end of the line, but remember: don't cry yet."

Yes.  I'm a man.  I'm not afraid to admit I cry - I'm that steadfast in my masculinity.

I finally got nearby, and his handler asked me which photo I would like to have signed, if I had anything else I'd like signed.  I asked if he could draw a Big Bird sketch, but the handler said it would be too costly (dang!).  I got to him, greeted, said, "You've always been a huge inspiration for both cartooning and puppetry, and I'm extremely grateful for your work and career."

"Thank you," he said.  "I'm going to sign this as 'Hey, Kevin' because that's how Big Bird would greet you.  By saying 'hey.'"

I gushed.

"Interesting story," he continued, "When I was in the Air Force, I illustrated a comic strip titled Harvey and did other comic work.  The editor called me into a meeting one day and told me that since I was working for the publication, I couldn't sign my artwork any longer so I stopped.  Eventually, one of the generals saw a cartoon I drew and loved it.  He sent down for the original, and got it but it didn't have my signature on it.  So, he checked around and finally found out I did the art and called on me to come to his office.  I showed up and he asked me 'Why didn't you sign this?' and I told him that I was told not to.  He called my superior in and told him, 'From this day forth you must have signatures on all artwork published.'  Then, in front of the editor, he had me sign my artwork."

He then noticed some other items I had in my hands for signatures.  His wife, Debbie, reached for the items.  One item I had was the book "The Wisdom of Big Bird" which he signed (I learned later he drew a little Big Bird sketch in them).  I was a big supporter of the "I Am Big Bird" documentary, and had the cover for that and told him I was a backer.  He was thankful to hear that and said that he was still "surprised that people care" about his story!  I told him that I interviewed the producers of that documentary, and he was interested in that.

Of course, I had some other books, but the one that caught his eye was his written and illustrated "How To Be A Grouch" book that I've had and kept in pristine shape since I was a kid.  "Wow," he said, "This looks brand new!"  Debbie agreed.  I told him it was one of my favorite books as a kid and that I would sometimes try to draw from it.  He said, "The publishers asked me if I would do a book, and I said yes.  So, I wrote this story and drew the images.  Finally, I was finished and I sent it all down to the publisher; but, I never heard anything.  Not for a long time, so I called them.  The editor looked all over, but called me and said 'I'm sorry, we've lost your book.'  All my original illustrations and the text - all gone.  So, eventually, that editor either quit his job or lost it, and the next guy came in and was cleaning out the desk drawers and there, deep in a drawer and to the back, was my envelope with my original drawings and the text in it.  Finally, "How To Be A Grouch" was published.  This looks very nice!"  He attempted to hand it back to me, but I pushed it back, "No, please, sign it."  "But, that'll mess it up!"  I said, "Oh, no sir, this is for me.  You wrote it, and you drew it, your signature will make it much better!"  He signed it to me from himself, Big Bird, and Oscar, just as he'd signed all the other books and more.

"May I have a photo with you?"  I asked, and he and Debbie agreed.  I walked around the table, posed with Muley, and the photo was taken.  "Who is this?"  He asked, looking at Muley.  I said, "He's Muley."  Muley replied, "I'm a mule."  Caroll said, "And very likeable."  "You, too," said Muley.  I think Caroll chuckled.

I had a moment more and I asked, "Next time you're at the Street, can you do me a favor and tell Big Bird that Kevin from Memphis, TN, says hi?"

"Oh, sure, I suppose I could," Caroll said.

Debbie spoke up, "Or, maybe Big Bird could say hi to Kevin now."

"I guess he could," Caroll said.  "Oh, I mean - "

"Hey, Kevin!" said Big Bird.

Muley and my signed collectibles back in the bag, I thanked both Caroll and Debbie and walked toward the exit curtain.  There stood my pal, Lori, "Well?"

"Big Bird said 'Hey' to me," I said with a quivering lip.

Lori smiled, "You can fan-boy now." 
Yeah, I did.

1992 Topps Sesame Street Collector Cards - Box

For YEARS I've been trying to get my collection of cards completed and - finally, it's complete.

I plan to scan and share the cards with everyone; but, first I wanted to share the box and it's beautiful artwork.  The neat thing is that the cards are actually photos of the characters from throughout the years.

Top of the Topps Box

This art runs down both sides

From the front-facing end of the box

The rear of the box

Bottom of the box / le fond de la boƮte

Monday, February 19, 2018

George Burns and My Appreciation Thereof

George Burns.  It's a name that, when you hear it and think of comedy, you not only think of a golden age of television but a time when good humor was pure humor - sometimes with a little innuendo, but not much.  You think of the greatest love story that ever was: George Burns and Gracie Allen, who were also a funny duo!  You even think of George's best friend, Jack Benny.

My first experience with George Burns was "Fit to be Tied" which appeared on a TV network at some point in my childhood, and for some reason I found it very, very funny.  At least when George moved to the ties counter, and then to the magazine counter.  Of course, I later learned about the Burns and Allen Show where I truly got to learn their humor, and mostly his.  George Burns was the epitome of the "straight man," who would not make fun of his beloved Gracie, but support her through the hilarity.

There are tons of movie stars and musicians that, if I tend to say how I first learned about them, I will say I first experienced them through The Muppet Show.  I, of course, paid close attention to one particular episode.

There was even a George Burns action figure!

Now, my love of classic television led me to love many of these comedians.  Of course, I loved The Three Stooges, the duos of Laurel and Hardy and Abbot and Costello, and groups like The Marx Brothers.  I loved Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, and George Burns (by the way, three of those appeared on The Muppet Show and I was lucky to get autographed photos of them).

I was thrilled when Joan Benny finished her father's book and it was released as "Sunday Nights at 7 by Jack Benny."  It was a neat book that told his life story.  Joan added her bit, and their dialogue was separated by her text being in normal font, and his text being printed in bold font.

Then, one night, I had a dream:
There was this huge gala that was going on.  I saw all these movie stars in this giant, black granite building.  We were all in ties and tuxes, the women were in beautiful ball gowns.  One whole giant wall was a solid, thick piece of glass that separated our party from the ocean in which we could see giant fish, whales, sharks, and more.  Away from the tables where we were dining was a high, high set of stairs that led up to a balcony on which was a library of books.
As I walked back to my table, I noticed the people I was sitting with: Bob Hope, Jack Benny, George Burns, and Milton Berle.
So, of course, I begin telling Jack Benny that I appreciate his book and asked him to sign it.  George Burns tells me, "If you want to read a really good book, get my book 'Say Goodnight Gracie.'"  He agrees to sign it if I get it and bring it back to him.  I immediately run up the stairs and start looking through the books to find the title I need...and...then...
BRRT! BRRT! BRRT!  The stupid alarm goes off.
I wake, look online, and immediately buy the book George told me I needed.

For George's 100th birthday, he was planning a stand-up act (with a life-time contract!) in Las Vegas.  I wanted to go see him, and I planned on getting tickets eventually.  But, it wasn't to be.  His concert was cancelled due to his having had a heart attack.  I wouldn't get to see George Burns on stage.

Would I?

February 2018, a great show comes to Memphis' Halloran Theater.  It stars Alan Safier in "Say Goodnight Gracie" by Rupert Holmes.  Waiting in anxious anticipation for the program to start wondering how this will be.

I was thrilled to walk in and see art by Al Hirschfeld!

A dimly lit stage, a low fog across the floor, and into view comes the shadowed silhouette of a man.  Not actor Alan Safier, but there is George Burns!  Look, voice, humor - it's all there.  I'd finally gotten my chance to see George Burns!  Spectacular performance, great story - everything you could hope for.

Now, I'm not one to weep openly in public (right-) but this was such a moving experience to see a person resurrected this way.  From the moment of stepping out into the fog, George Burns was alive and well - mostly!  I don't want to give too much away, but as he makes his way to the front and center of the stage, and a bright light shines on him, George asks, "Who're you?  Oh, God!"  And in those first few moments, the voice was also that of George's, and I was taken back to a golden time of American comedy.

George continues to review his story and discusses his meeting with Gracie Allen (of course, the majority of his story IS Gracie), the short film shown above was one of the first times he told her to "say goodbye."  He discussed his dear friends Jack Benny and wife Mary, two others who I dearly love.

There was a little bit of singing, but not full songs.  More in the vein of, "So, we did this song 'Sweet Adeline, my sweet Adeline...' and, boy, we sang it great!"  That's not from the show, but an idea of how the singing would go.  Though, you can buy a full CD of songs that were covered by George and Gracie on Mr. Safier's website (see below).

So, the show is over, the life has been reviewed, and George Burns wanders off into the bright light.  There I am, being the guy who doesn't cry in public (right-) and there among the huge crowd, everyone standing and applauding Mr. Safier's performance as George Burns.

The BEST George Burns since...George Burns.

After the show was a meet and greet where you could get a CD (unfortunately, I had no cash).  But, you can order it from his website!

So, this was my quick story about me and George Burns.


Remember the weird dream above?  Well, Jack Benny had passed away long before I had realized I could get autographs from folks whose work I loved; but, I did get busy and start reaching out to the rest of them.  George Burns' autograph is above.  Here are Bob Hope and Milton Berle's autographed photos.  I guess they were too busy to personalize it like George did.

Always a class act, that George.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Evolution Pop Culture Community Summit - 3/10/2018

featuring Actor, Producer, Director - Robert Townsend (Meteor Man, Five Heartbeats, Hollywood Shuffle, B.A.P.S. etc.) will be hosted by Heal the Hood Foundation of Memphis and MAW Productions. The Summit will feature comic book story telling classes, a Community Summit with a Q&A session discussing African American Heroes, Meteor Man, Black Panther, social and economic empowerment, Meet and Greet opportunities and many more surprises. 
There will be live entertainment, autograph signing, and a huge opportunity to connect youth and adults in a growing culture of minority heroes. This exciting event gives you a in-depth experience with the first African American Super Hero to appear on the silver screen as well about powerful artists, writers, storytellers and visual effects experts. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity and it is absolutely FREEPlease RSVP to reserve your spot.  In addition to the Summit, we will have a Comic Book Storytelling class for 40 students that are interested in a massive opportunity to see how it's done first hand.
Please RSVP for the classes as well. Here's the schedule:

1pm - 1:45pm - Comic book Story Telling (Hero Empowerment Center)
2pm - 3:50pm - Community Summit featuring Robert Townsend, and a Celebrity Panel hosted by Amy Spears Speropoulos (Community Room) 
4pm - 5pm - Meet and Greet, Autograph signing and Mixer (Hero Empowerment Center)

Hickory Ridge Mall - Hero Empowerment Center
6075 Winchester Road
Memphis, TN 38115

Saturday, March 10, 2018 from 1:00 PM to 5:00 PM (CST)

Heal the Hood Foundation of Memphis

Heal the Hood Foundation of Memphis (HTH) is a nonprofit organization that uses creative methods of the arts and media science to enact community change in the city of Memphis and surrounding areas.

Monday, February 12, 2018