Design historian Grace Jeffers tells the ‘truth to materials’ at ICFF

(Photo: Jim Bessman)

Last week’s ICFF trade show at the Javits Center featured an American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) educational program of talks by industry experts, with none more jarringly thought-provoking than eminent independent design historian/materials specialist Grace Jeffers’ Man Made Natural: Insights Into the Authenticity of Materials.

Jeffers’ thesis was that there is a bias in the design trade toward natural materials in design, but that “the truth is that synthetic material is a better solution—and a more environmental solution.”

“I’ve been giving this talk all over the country the last year-and-a-half,” Jeffers said later, “and it really rattles their cages. It frames the whole ‘real vs. fake’ issues in a different way.”

Indeed, Jeffers uses a dramatic illustration of her point in her talks: breast implants.

“There’s the attitude that the real thing is better that the fake, that breast enhancement is vanity,” she said. “But if you had a cancer mastectomy, it’s a blessing. It’s still the same implant, but the context—and attitude–is different. The material doesn’t change—what changes is us.”

She noted that while we tend to think of “fake” objects being “cheap” and “shoddy,” “in history, they’re more durable and desirable,” and turned to the history of billiard balls as an example.

In the 19th Century, she said, the British billiard industry was using ivory for billiard balls, but realized that the African elephant was approaching extinction because of it, and offered a huge reward for a synthetic billiard ball substitute. That substitute was celluloid.

“Celluloid was developed in the mid-1800s as the first plastic invented as a solution for the problem of endangered nature,” said Jeffers.

Another natural material cited in Jeffers’ talks is the hard tropical timber species Afromosia, which is found in Democratic Republic of the Congo and used in flooring and furniture.

“It’s being deforested, which is why pygmy elephants and bonobos are becoming extinct in the wild,” she said. “They’re losing their habitat, and selling the wood funds warlords in the Congo. I realized that people had no idea about any of this and didn’t understand using such materials in a bigger context.”

She noted how the “truth to materials” philosophy that the innate qualities of the materials should influence the projects created from them “is one of the guiding principles of design and architecture, but in my talk I question, Is it valid, accurate, or useful today? Ultimately my argument is that we should understand what truly is wild and embrace how synthetics can actually keep the world in the wild—that sometimes using synthetics can preserve nature, that sometimes synthetics are the solution to the problems in nature and not the cause.”

Jeffers acknowledges that hers is “a very, very different way of thinking and looking at materials [that] flips how people in design traditionally look at these things.

In addition to her ASID talk, Jeffers was present throughout ICFF at the Wilsonart Challenges/Appalachian State University exhibition hall booth. Jeffers teaches as part of laminate manufacturer Wilsonart’s annual Wilsonart Challenge student design scholarship program to foster the careers of emerging furniture designers in North America, which challenges students at a designated design school–a different one each year–to create a unique chair using Wilsonart Laminate.

“When we started with Appalachian State, the school said, ‘We will not work with wood grain laminate,’ because it was ‘fake and awful.’ And I said, ‘Okay, you feel that way today, but sit in on my talk and then tell me your opinion’–and they agreed and completely changed their tune. Of all my students in the booth, only one out of seven did not use wood grain laminate in their chairs, and he used linen print [laminate].”

All the students therefore “embraced imitation,” concluded Jeffers. “It framed the way they looked at material.”

Next up for Jeffers is a lecture next month at Chicago’s NeoCon commercial interiors trade show, a preview, she says, of the wood chapter of her forthcoming encyclopedia of design materials, The New Materials Handbook, due out next year through Thames and Hudson, London. And in September commences the next chair competition, this year at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies—the winners to exhibit at ICFF 2016.

[This article originally appeared in on 5/25/2015.]

1/14/2016 Award-winning producer Scott Sherratt brings musical touch to audiobooks

Scott Sherratt and Elvis Costello (Courtesy of Scott Sherratt)

If it’s Grammy season, it’s a given that Scott Sherratt has a vested interest.

High on the list of “first call” producers/directors of audio and video specializing in the publishing industry, Sherratt has helmed seven Grammy-nominated titles, including this year’s Best Spoken Word nominee Yes Please by Amy Poehler. His productions have won over 20 Audio Publishers Association Audie Awards and more than 60 Audiofile Magazine Earphones Awards for Excellence.

Since commencing his audiobook production career, Sherratt has worked on over 600 titles, written and/or recited by the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Billy Crystal, Rachel Maddow, Elizabeth Warren, Kim Kardashian, Gene Simmons, Lena Dunham, Mindy Kaling, Colin Powell, Mitt Romney, Ted Kennedy, Nelson Mandela, Malala Yousafzai, Michael Chabon, Harper Lee, John Waters, Robert Ludlum, Poehler and most recently, Carly Simon, Chrissie Hynde and Elvis Costello.

“I work with people for days and it’s a very personal experience for them,” says Sherratt of his award-winning methods. “I take their trust and confidence very seriously: It’s all about showing a side of them that’s best in telling their story.”

He distinguishes between the “producer” and “director” credit as applied to his niche in the recording industry.

“As they relate to standard music recording terminology they are essentially the same,” says Sherratt. “There is a lot of overlap and blurred lines between these job descriptions—meaning that the director is the person in the recording sessions guiding the performance just as a producer does in music sessions. I am most often producer and director–booking studios, contracting talent, directing sessions, and supervising edit, mix, mastering and delivery.”

Each project is unique and presents it’s own challenges and opportunities, he notes.

“It often comes down to communication. I am very comfortable speaking with performers, actors, narrators, and authors and helping to develop a vibrant, energetic, comfortable, and collaborative environment in which to create something amazing. I absolutely love working with creative people–brilliant actors, personalities, and fabulous writers. It is really thrilling and I find the whole process to be tremendously rewarding.”

Sherratt says he always looks to bring added value to his productions, “so each audiobook I produce can stand on it’s own as it’s own creative work rather than simply being a companion to or alternative way of consuming the printed version of a book.”

The audiobook, actually, “often kicks the crap out of the print version,” he adds.

Making it all work is a post-production team made up of editors and other crafts people around the country.

“We live in an exciting time where transferring large files is easy and fast, allowing me to hire the absolute best people in the business regardless of where they live,” Sherratt explains. “I am a bit of an audio nerd, and it is truly important to me that everything sounds great. The mastering legend Bob Ludwig recently complimented some of my productions, and that in itself makes all the extra effort feel worthwhile.”

Being an “audio nerd” comes natural to Sherratt, who brings his extensive background as a musician to his audiobook projects. A guitarist, bassist, vocalist and composer—as well as studio engineer and producer—Sherratt has also acted on stage, film and TV; he has managed stages and tours, and produced live shows in addition to albums and audio books. And he’s toured and recorded with various rock bands for years before settling into his current vocation: He toured with and produced three albums of music for experimental theater playwright/director Richard Maxwell, and produced The Lonesome High album with Willem Dafoe.

Sherratt has since composed and performed music on many of his audiobook productions.

“It’s the most fun when I can call upon some of my favorite musician friends to help out with music for a particular project,” he says. “Last year Rodney Crowell—for whom I produced the audiobook for [his 2011 memoir] Chinaberry Sidewalks–gathered some musicians together in Nashville and wrote and performed some terrific music for Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, which I produced in L.A. with narrator Reese Witherspoon. Rodney also wrote and performed a perfect guitar piece for Sissy Spacek’s memoir [My Extraordinary Ordinary Life] that I produced a few years ago.”

Music artists frequently provide or perform exclusive material for their audiobook projects with Sherratt.

“[Sonic Youth’s] Kim Gordon gave me a track I loved for her book Girl in a Band and I was thrilled to record Elvis Costello playing guitar for [his new memoir] Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink. It is, of course, perfect, and we also recorded some pieces for a track we included on the companion soundtrack album released by Universal Records.”

Observing that it’s a “golden age for audiobooks” in that “more audio is being produced than ever before,” Sherratt has a hard time naming favorites.

“I’ve had so many wonderful opportunities and recorded many amazing people in their homes, most notably Oprah,” he says. “She drove us around her unbelievable California estate in a golf cart and had her private chef prepare delicious meals. I even got her to sing on the recording—and yes, she can really sing! I also recorded Jennifer Lopez at her house last year—also fun.”

Poehler’s Yes Please was “a true production standout” in that Sherratt not only recorded Poehler in Los Angeles along with Michael Schur, but Carol Burnett in Santa Barbara, Patrick Stewart in New York, Poehler’s parents in Boston, and Poehler with Seth Meyers and Kathleen Turner at Saturday Night Live.

“I also produced and recorded a live show with Amy at The Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater in Hollywood, which we included on the audiobook. Add to that terrific music by Freddie Khaw, and a track from Steve Albini, and it’s a one-of-a-kind, fabulous item.”

But working with Costello “really was a dream come true,” says Sherratt. “I have been a fan for so many years, and it was such a treat to go to Canada and lock myself in the studio with Elvis for a week. He is every bit as brilliant as I knew him to be.”

Besides working with all the major publishers and numerous independents, Sherratt is additional dialogue replacement (ADR) and casting director for the U.S. version of the animated U.K. TV series Chuggington, and produces and directs other TV and video projects.

Sherratt will stay in Los Angeles after the Grammy Awards to produce a project with X’s John Doe and music publisher/former A & R rep Tom DeSavia. “They’ve written a fabulous personal history of the L.A. punk scene called Under the Big Black Sun—named after an early hit by X.”

But he now laments the one that got away.

“My ‘Great White Whale,’ the long-rumored autobiography by David Bowie!” says Sherratt. “But even if it happened now it wouldn’t be the same: Every author should narrate their own memoirs while they can, because every autobiography that is not read by the subject is less than it might have been.”

11/20/2014 Legendary music event producer Bill Carter advises GW pre-law students

Bill Carter, the legendary former Secret Service agent for President John F. Kennedy whose later music business experience includes managing artists like Reba McEntire and legal representation for the Rolling Stones, recently recounted his remarkable career before the George Washington University Phi Alpha Delta Pre-Law Fraternity at the Marvin Center Amphiteater in Washington, D.C.

But Carter also addressed the anxiety that students naturally feel as they near the end of their college studies.

“Life is not always going to go as you think it will, so expect the unexpected,” he said, then illustrated with examples from his own unexpected experiences following high school graduation in his tiny hometown of Rector, Ark. College not being an option, he joined the Air Force in 1953, then attended Arkansas State University on the GI Bill. Higher education, he said, prepared him for and provided the opportunities that would guide his future.

Deciding to go to law school at the University of Arkansas, Carter first accompanied is brother, who went to Dallas to take a civil service exam. Rather than just sit there, he took it, too.

Broke following 18 months of law school, he was about to take a job as an insurance adjuster (“It paid $450 per month and they furnished you a car. Sounded like heaven to me.”) when he was contacted by the U.S. Secret Service, which had found him through the Civil Service roster in Dallas.

“I wonder what direction my life might have taken had I not taken that test,” Bill told the students. “Now the 26-year-old kid from Rector was in training school in Washington, which included the White House. Never in my wildest imagination growing up in Rector, did I think this kid would ever make it to Washington, much less meet the president of the United States.”

Carter was in Washington on that fateful day of Nov. 22, 1963, and was sent to the White House immediately following the assassination.

“Those four days still haunt me and will until I die,” said Carter, who was assigned to the Warren Commission investigation in Dallas, and brought Marina Oswald to the commission’s hearings in Washington in March, 1964.

“JFK inspired my generation with new ideas, hope, and vision,” Carter told the students. “He touched and remolded lives, and gave young people the faith that individuals can make a difference to history.”

Devastated by the death of Kennedy—“the most magnetic personality I have ever met, and I have met several”—he left the Secret Service in 1966 and returned to law school and graduated in 1967. But his time in the Secret Service led to future opportunities.

While practicing law in Little Rock in 1969, he was hired, because of his Washington contacts, to represent a young man who was trying to establish a cargo airline. After three years of legal work to change Civil Aeronautics Board regulations, Federal Express was born.

Then in 1973, Bill’s friend Wilbur Mills, the powerful Arkansas Democrat and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, asked him to help another friend whose clients were in trouble. And thus began Carter’s work for the Rolling Stones, who had been barred by the State Department from returning to the U.S. because of open drug use and riots by fans at American concerts in 1972.

Carter’s exploits with the Stones are chronicled in books including Chet Flippo’s On the Road with the Rolling Stones, Keith Richards’ Life and Bill’s own memoir, Get Carter.

“Needless to say, I spent a lot of time getting various members of the Rolling Stones out of legal troubles so they could perform in the United States,” he related. “And while I was busy doing that, I also established friendships with some of the most colorful characters that ever walked the planet. Me, a kid from little Rector, Arkansas.”

Bill also shared other adventures stemming from his new entertainment business involvement, most notably his friendship with actor Steve McQueen and the retrieval of his body following his death in Mexico. But besides representing the likes of the Stones, David Bowie, the Bee Gees, Tanya Tucker, Reba McEntire, Waylon Jennings and Bill Gaither—to name a few—Bill represented Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa in 1974, bringing him into a confrontation with President Nixon in his White House office.

“None of these opportunities would have come my way had I not been prepared to take on the challenge,” Carter said. “You’ve got to be fearless, and you’ve got to be ready to do what it takes—even if you think the job is beyond your skill.”

Always remember, he instructed, that “hard work creates opportunity.” You never know who you will meet at a job, he explained, and the opportunities that flow from those fortuitous meetings.

But even the best education, he suggested, “is not always enough to be a good and effective lawyer.” While he himself was “never a brilliant lawyer,” he allowed, “I had common sense and knew how to deal with people. That kind of knowledge is a valuable commodity, but you’re not going to learn it in a classroom.”

It’s vital, then, to “get to know your future clients–the ones who will be counting on you to help them. The better you know the big variety of life’s circumstances, the better prepared you will be to relate, and help.”

So “believe in yourself, hold strong to your faith, and know there is a world out there waiting for you to make a positive impact,” Carter concluded. “One person can change the course of history. Be that person. You can do it.”

Noted fraternity president Will Jennings, “Most of the speakers we bring in to discuss what they have done with their careers in law focus on how necessary it is to get into the best law school and work for the best law firm as quickly as possible. With the recent economic recession, those who are interested in law in my generation are always worried about the next several years and are under a lot of strain from mentors and peers who constantly tell us we will be unemployed or underpaid if we don’t follow a career center’s clearly defined plan better than anyone else.”

“But Bill offered the students a different story—one of hope,” added Jennings.

[The Examiner wrote the foreword to Bill Carter’s memoir Get Carter–Backstage In History From JFK’s Assassination To The Rolling Stones.]

3/3/2016 Music legend Bill Carter inspires students with tales from rich life experiences

He’s already excelled in several careers, from Secret Service agent for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, to tour lawyer for the Rolling Stones and David Bowie, to artist management for the likes of Reba McEntire and Shenandoah.

But all of Bill Carter’s achievements now come into play in his latest incarnation—inspirational speaker at colleges.

In fact, Carter’s most recent speech last month at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) may well lead not only to more such engagements at colleges in America, but corporate appearances here and overseas as well.

“I’ve had inquiries from Berlin, after meeting a guy from a music school in old East Berlin at a One Spark [crowdfunding] event here in Jacksonville,” says Jacksonville’s Drew Armstrong, who represents Nashville-based Carter for personal appearances.

“We were talking about Bill and his connection with music and the Stones, and he was more interested in Kennedy,” Armstrong continues. “He’s in his early 20s, and was fascinated because of Kennedy’s famous ‘I am a Berliner’ speech. But it only reinforced what I felt could be an excellent opportunity for Bill: He could just as easily speak at a corporate business meeting about crisis management and strategic negotiations because of his experiences outside of music—and all the things he’s done in life.”

Carter’s exploits with the Rolling Stones are chronicled in books including Chet Flippo’s On the Road with the Rolling Stones, Keith Richards’ Life (Carter first appears in the first line of Page Two) and Carter’s own memoir, Get Carter–Backstage In History From JFK’s Assassination To The Rolling Stones. But he was involved in numerous other significant events, including, besides Kennedy’s and Johnson’s presidencies, notorious Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa, whom he represented and brought before President Richard Nixon in the White House; the founding of FedEx, which required federal bureaucratic changes; and smuggling the body of Steve McQueen out of Mexico.

“The Rolling Stones were banned from the U.S. and all the expensive lawyers in New York couldn’t do anything, but Bill did because he knew how to talk to people,” says Armstrong. “He knew how bright Mick Jagger was and brought him to the State Department to meet people and show them he was a smart young business man. This and so many of Bill’s other stories can apply in any business setting, because they illustrate the principles of working with people to iron out issues and accomplish goals—especially now in our country, when people on opposite sides of the table can’t work anything out and shut things down.”

Armstrong has seen how well Carter’s “amazing stories” work in the college setting.

“Young people eat them up, but his life lessons are more important,” he says, specifically, “Nobody can tell you what to do or guide you—those decisions are in your heart.”

He reports that over one-third of the 60 or so MTSU students stayed for way over an hour to speak with Carter personally after his talk with the school’s Department of Recording Industry chair Beverly Keel.

“Bill’s talk was one of the most moving and memorable events on campus in my 20 years at MTSU,” says Keel. “The students hung onto his every word, whether he was talking about successfully working with the State Department to allow the Rolling Stones to tour in the U.S. or working in the White House the week of the Kennedy assassination. As Professor Amy Macy commented afterwards, you could hear a pin drop.”

Remarkably, “I didn’t see one student glance at his or her phone the entire time!” adds Keel. “What was so beneficial was that he offered advice to our students and shared what he learned along each chapter of his life. They were inspired by the fact that he came from poverty, made his own way since age 17, as well as the fact that each job in his life somehow prepared him for the next.”
Indeed, Carter related his “very poor background” in the tiny rural Arkansas town of Rector. “I told them of my own situation and that stimulated them somewhat, I think,” he says. “I didn’t have any self-confidence, but had to learn to survive on my own, and they needed to hear that–to keep the faith and work hard and let opportunities come along.”

He contrasts his appearance at MTSU with a previous one at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

“Those kids seemed to come from well-to-do families, but the Middle Tennessee kids are struggling financially. But they all had one thing in common: insecurity about facing the world—and I realized that my generation experience little, if any, stress: You get out of school and find a job! But there seems to be a lot of stress on this generation–and a lot of expectations. Everybody expects them to do well, but there are less opportunities than in the past, and they’re scared to death and insecure about the future. We put all that stress on young people!”
So Carter stayed after his MTSU talk as long as there were students who needed him.

“There were several inspirational moments,” says Keel, “but the one I recall most vividly was when a student from Africa approached him and said, ‘I understand about hardship,’ and beat his fist over his heart. That powerful connection moved me to tears.”

Recording Industry Department professor Amy Macy, who had worked with Carter when she was a staffer at RCA Records and he managed label acts Shenandoah, Lari White and Lonestar, particularly lauds Carter’s ability to “spin a story—and sell a concept.”

“In class, I encouraged the students to practice this concept, especially if they are not comfortable at talking,” adds Macy. “We all have ideas that we must present and get others to believe in, and now is the time to deepen our selling skills and strengthen our ‘gut’ and step out of our comfort zones. Bill showed them how easy it can be to share what he knows.”

Carter’s life “also reflects the idea of taking advantage of moments presented,” notes Macy, singling out his story about accompanying his brother to a civil service exam in Dallas, then taking it himself on a whim. His score eventually resulted in his job with the Secret Service.

“Bill encouraged the students to find their God-given path that was embedded in them from the beginning,” says Macy.

But Carter cautions that today’s college kids “need to find more than just a job, but meet the expectations of success—and understand that success is not measured by dollars and cents but by happiness.”

“After I spoke at George Washington,” he says, “I told the president of another college, ‘You ought to offer a course in life. You teach everything but what to do once you graduate–how to deal with society and the world. Hell, when I graduated, I was a survivor and knew I’d find some kind of job—and it didn’t matter what it was as long as I got paid! But I never had goals, and today, maybe, kids have too high goals set for them by parents and peers and whoever.”

Armstrong, who’s known Carter since the early 1970s, echoes Macy in quoting Reba McEntire.

“She said, ‘Nobody can tell a story like Bill can!’ But in all the time I’ve known him, he never, ever talked about Kennedy,” states Armstrong, who shot video of Carter’s MTSU talk for promotional use. “It was too emotional for him. But when his [2005 memoir] Get Carter–Backstage In History From JFK’s Assassination To The Rolling Stones came out, there were things about Kennedy that I never heard, and when we shot the video at MTSU, he talked about the assassination and there was even more things I’d never heard, and he was very emotional: He talked about how nice Kennedy was to everyone and spoke to everyone on their level, from maintenance people in the White House to Charles de Gaulle. And how he went to the White House the night they brought his body back—that stuff is emotional, and to hear it from someone who was actually there, first-hand!”

Carter also shared his conclusion regarding the assassination.

“It comes up every time, of course,” says Armstrong. “He’s very respectful of everyone’s opinion, but says, ‘This is what I know, and I interviewed everybody.’”

Having been sent to Dallas to interview everyone from Lee Harvey Oswald’s family and friends to his landlady, members of the Russian community, Jack Ruby, and witnesses at the Texas School Book Depository, Carter has always maintained that Oswald acted alone.

“It’s so powerful,” says Armstrong. “All of that—and such a great inspirational message of how a guy from Rector, Arkansas, whose parents were hard-working and with no wealth whatsoever, could get to the White House and the Rolling Stones. If we get him one or two corporate bookings, he’ll be on the preferred speaker circuit.”

As for more college bookings, Keel concludes, “We are already brainstorming on how we can bring him back to campus as often as possible!”

[The Examiner wrote the foreword to Bill Carter’s memoir Get Carter–Backstage In History From JFK’s Assassination To The Rolling Stones.]

5/22/2012 Eddie Blazonczyk: An appreciation

[Having reposted by Steve Popovich tribute from now defunct, here’s a few Eddie Blazonczyk tributes, also from Eddie B. was a true giant, in every way.]

There was no one like him.

Eddie Blazonczyk. Big, personable, and with a voice so robust and warm it put a smile on your face as your feet started a-hoppin’.

Polka isn’t called “that happy, snappy music,” for nothing, and Eddie Blazonczyk sure made people happy.

“I have pictures of Ryan at 18 months with Eddie,” recalls Dee Dee Ogrodny, who was in Pennsylvania’s Grammy-nominated polka band Henny & the Versa J’s when her son Ryan, then the group’s seven-year-old featured violinist/vocalist, recorded “If I Could Be Like You Polka” with his idol.

“We wrote it in the living room on the floor,” she continues. “Ryan would bounce up and down in his playpen and jumper chair and sing Eddie B. songs!”

“If I could be like you I’d sing this song,” the young Ryan sang, “to make the people happy all day long/‘Cause those who play bring out such joy in me/My one great dream to be like Eddie B.”

Eddie Blazonczyk, known far and wide as Eddie B. and the king of Chicago’s Polish “push” polka style, died yesterday of natural causes. He was 70 and had retired after suffering a stroke in 2001, though his son Eddie Blazonczyk Jr. had kept his band, The Versatones, going until last December.

None other than Jimmy Sturr, who dominated the polka Grammy category, called him an icon.

“Everyone wanted to have a band like Eddie’s,” he told The Chicago Tribune’s arts critic Howard Reich. “But as much as everybody would have liked to have a band like The Versatones, nobody reached that pinnacle. Not only because of the musicianship in his bands, but because he had such a great voice. He was probably the best voice ever in polka music.”

Lenny Gomulka was a long-time member of The Versatones before striking out on his own as leader of the Chicago Push polka band.

“I traveled with Eddie throughout the country back in the day when we did 180 performances per year,” he says. “We co-wrote songs together and spent thousands of hours in the studio inventing new sounds and styles. He was always a perfect gentleman and tremendous talent: With his good nature and wonderful sense of humor, he made the polka world a much better place.”

As Blazonczyk Jr. told The Trib, his father was “a one-man music mogul” since the 1960s. He absorbed the full range of polka bands and styles at taverns and ballrooms on Chicago’s Southwest Side, then became a recording rock ‘n’ roller as Eddie Bell, touring with the likes of Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent and Brenda Lee before joining The Versatones in 1962; with his band The Bell-Aires, he had a hit with “The Masked Man (Hi Yo Silver)” and appeared on American Bandstand.

With The Versatones, Blazonczyk perfected the intensely dance-rhythmic Polish “Chicago push” polka style, his classic six-piece band format (bass, drums, accordion, concertina, trumpet, clarinet) blending traditional polka music with rock ‘n’ roll, country-and-western, Cajun and Tex-Mex forms in modernizing the genre. His and his band’s 55-plus albums included the 1986 Grammy-winning Another Polka Celebration; his many other awards incuded a National Heritage Fellowship Award (presented by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in 1998), and his induction into the International Polka Association Polka Music Hall of Fame.

“Music I, too, love to sing and play,” he sang back to Ogrodny in “If I Could Be Like You,” “and helping you to make the people smile/Is something that makes my job so worthwhile.”

One of his most remarkable concerts had to be a 1998 set at Central Park SummerStage.

“We were asked by an Eddie B. fan to add polka to our already diverse musical roster,” says Bill Bragin, who booked SummerStage then and now oversees Lincoln Center’s Midsummer Night Swing and Lincoln Center Out of Doors summer series.

“It took some convincing, because of our preconceptions about the limits of the audience it would appeal to,” Bragin continues. “When the day finally came, sharing a bill with zydeco master Geno Delafose, we were impressed by the broad appeal of Eddie B.’s upbeat, joyous music. My most profound memory is mid-set, when Cleveland International record impresario Steve Popovich pulled a $100 bill out of his wallet and announced, ‘Let’s call a dance contest!’ A young Polish-American man and women fought hard, but only took second place–edged out by a lesbian couple who had taken their first polka lesson earlier that afternoon!”

Blazonczyk & The Versatones were “as avant-garde, subversive and punk rock as anything I’ve ever seen at SummerStage,” Bragin adds. “And [Blazonczyk crowd favorite] ‘The Happy Tappy’ has been in regular rotation in my personal musical collection ever since.”

Blazonczyk was also a music publisher and producer, radio broadcaster and record label owner—and role model for other artists.

“Eddie was such a great inspiration and mentor and friend for me,” says grownup Ryan Ogrodny, who now goes by the easier-to-spell Ryan Joseph in his new role as Alan Jackson’s fiddler. “About a year ago I spent a day in Chicago with Eddie. It was wonderful and something I will always cherish.”

For Grammy-winning polka/rock band Brave Combo, Blazoncyzk’s acceptance “meant everything to us—as far as the polka world is concerned,” says bandleader Carl Finch.

“I remember playing on stage in Chicago at Fitzgerald’s night club in the early 1980s and seeing a group of large men take over all the stools at the bar,” says Finch. “One of them was obviously Eddie and the more we played, the more he smiled and clapped. This was like hitting a grand slam: The polka king of Chicago was giving his approval!”

Blazonczyk invited the band to his store/recording studio/record company headquarters.

“That was one of many visits over the years,” says Finch. “One particular event stands out, though. He booked us to play his annual polka Fourth of July blow-out, Polka Fireworks, at the Seven Springs Resort in the mountains of Western Pennsylvania. Just before we took the stage to perform for a curious packed house–which was 90 percent Polish polka purist–Eddie introduced us, defending our style and asking the audience to welcome us and, basically, open their ears. And that’s just what they did.”

It was a very important moment for the band in being “accepted into the polka fold,” says Finch, “where we’ve been allowed to remain. But beyond all of my personal memories of Eddie Blazonczyk, his contributions to polka music are indisputable: great songs, great arrangements, great production and, of course, his perfect, one-of-a-kind voice. Above all, I am just happy to have had the opportunity to hear Eddie B. do his thing. And, man, it was a powerful thing.”

Indeed, Eddie Blazonczyk (pronounced Blah-ZON-chick) was every inch the “Polka Hero” of one of his most famous songs.

“I always say that he ‘evolutionized’ the music,” Blazonczyk Jr. said, noting how his father had taken polka beyond its traditional style of older-generation songs like “Roll Out The Barrel.” “Before him, polka music carried such a stigma.”

Also in The Tribune’s obit, Sturr likewise observed how people who don’t know about polka music—or know only the stereotypes—look down on it.

“Eddie tried to break that barrier,” Sturr said. “And he did break that barrier, because a lot of people followed that band.”

Perhaps Blazonczyk put it best, himself, via the lyrics of “If I Could Be Like You.”

“It seems to me you got a real good start,” he sang to the young Ryan Ogrodny. “’Cause pleasing people comes right from your heart.”

Singing from the heart–Eddie Blazonczyk’s big heart–is exactly what he did.

[The Examiner wrote liner notes on Cleveland International’s Polkatime: 20 Of The Best from Eddie Blazoncyk & The Versatones CD, and was a judge at the polka dance contest held during The Versatones’ Central Park SummerStage show.]

12/29/2011 Eddie Blazonczyk’s Versatones: An appreciation

Polka music’s venerable band Eddie Blazonczyk’s Versatones chose to go out in good company.

“Oprah…retiring. Regis Philbin…retiring,” Chicago’s long-reigning top polka band noted amusingly in announcing its own retirement on its Web site earlier this year. And after Saturday night’s New Year’s Eve show at the Glendora House ballroom in Chicago Ridge, one of America’s most celebrated and beloved polka bands, who certainly deserve to be included alongside the admittedly better-known Winfrey and Philbin, will be no more.

Eddie Blazonczyk’s Versatones recorded their first album, Polka Parade, in 1963 on the Bel-Aire record label. They were led by Eddie Blazonczyk, Sr., the son of immigrants from the rural Tatra Mountain region of southern Poland, whose parents performed gorale mountaineer music and dance.

As a youngster, Blazonczyk (pronounced blah-ZON-chick) was exposed to some of the most influential polka musicians of the day, including Lil’ Wally, Steve Adamczyk, Eddie Zima, Marion Lush and America’s Polka King Frank Yankovic. Before embracing polka as a performer, he recorded rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll as Eddy Bell with some regional success and toured with the likes of Buddy Holly and Brenda Lee–and performed his hit single “Hi-Yo Silver” on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.

When he did go polka, though, he went all the way. He and his Versatones played some 160 dates at polka bastions in the U.S., Canada, France, Austria, Mexico and Poland. A purveyor of the intensely dance-rhythmic Polish “Chicago push” polka style, his classic six-piece band format (bass, drums, accordion, concertina, trumpet, clarinet) blended traditional polka music with rock ‘n’ roll, country-and-western, Cajun and Tex-Mex forms in modernizing polka. Its 55-plus albums included the 1986 Grammy-winning Another Polka Celebration.

Blazonczyk’s many other awards incuded a National Heritage Fellowship Award (presented by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in 1998), and his induction into the International Polka Association Polka Music Hall of Fame. In 1997, his son Eddie Blazonczyk, Jr. took over the operations of The Versatones, and in 2002, Eddie Blazonczyk, Sr. pretty much retired from the band due to health reasons, with his son carrying on until now.

“I spent countless hours with Eddie, Sr., in the recording studio and on the road,” recalls Lenny Gomulka, a longtime clarinet player with the Versatones before forming his own celebrated polka band, The Chicago Push.

“Eddie was a friend to many of us musicians,” Gomulka continues. “He captured the hearts of friends and fans and always stayed a gentleman. I have too many nice memories to mention and much too many funny stories to tell.”

But Gomulka does want to emphasize “my respect and admiration for Eddie, Sr., as a fellow musician and longtime musical and personal friend. We go back nearly 50 years. Eddie was a driving force on the polka scene, especially when polka music was much more widespread. Congratulations, Junior, for hanging on another 10 years after Senior’s retirement and for keeping the torch lit. Congratulations, God’s blessings and Sto lat [100 years] to the Blazonczyk family. I expect to see The Versatones back in a few years, good Lord willing.”

One of Eddie Blazonczyk’s Versatones’ most memorable performances had to be their 1998 appearance in New York at Central Park SummerStage. At the time, the late Steve Popovich was releasing Versatones albums on his Cleveland International label.

“He’s got a magical personality that comes through in his music and can attract anybody,” Popovich told Billboard before the event, which he supported with an on-site polka dance contest. Noted Blazonczyk, Jr., “We’re trying to get people past the ‘polka’ stigma, that it’s all just ‘She’s Too Fat For Me’ or ‘Beer Barrel Polka’ when it’s really happy, snappy music that gives you a better life. If we can only get people in the door we can convert them, so we’re very excited about playing Central Park!”

Sure enough, they made a major convert at the park.

“This is real rock ‘n’ roll!” declared the late Dave Nives, a music business veteran in sales, marketing and a&r, and like Popovich, one of the last of the great record men.

[The Examiner wrote liner notes on Cleveland International’s Polkatime: 20 Of The Best from Eddie Blazoncyk & The Versatones CD, and was a judge at the polka dance contest held during The Versatones’ Central Park SummerStage show.]

5/24/2012 Who stole the kishka? The confession of Eddie Blazonczyk

Now it can be told: Eddie Blazonczyk stole a pizza! And maybe the kishka, too.

Actually, “Who Stole The Kishka,” as all polka fans know, is the much-recorded polka standard having to do with the grievous theft of a kishka, or Polish sausage. Written by Blazonczyk’s fellow Polka Hall of Famer Walter Solek (who also had a hit, incidentally, with “Pierogi Polka”), the tune was memorably recorded by polka king Frankie Yankovic in 1963.

The legendary Chicago Polish “push” polka star Blazonczyk, who died Monday, was the chief person of interest in an incident that took place in the 1990s at one of his annual Fourth of July Polka Fireworks weekends at Seven Springs Resort in Champion, Pa.

Wanted posters mounted throughout the hotel ballrooms and hallways asked, “Who stole the kishka?”, with the drawing of a shady suspect that did in fact resemble Blazonczyk, a.k.a. Eddie B., printed beneath the question. There was also an investigative reporter, with a camera crew, interviewing people at the crime scene of what has now long been a cold case.

One of them was Kathy Blazonczyk, Eddie’s daughter, known to polka fans everywhere by her alias, Kathy B.

“Did your father ever steal anything before?” the relentless reporter asked. Clearly buckling under the withering interrogation, Kathy B. softly conceded, “He once stole a pizza.”

Years later, confronted with his own daughter’s incriminating testimony, Eddie B. confessed. Fittingly, it was at a Pulaski Day black-tie dinner at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel ballroom, where Eddie Blazonczyk’s Versatones were about to play a short set of Polish songs.

Let the record show that Blazonczyk made no attempt to deny his dark secret; indeed, if not relieved to finally make peace with himself, he most certainly was more than amused, as he broke into a hearty belly laugh—and as all Eddie B. fans know, he did have a belly.

They were at a hotel one night, he recounted, and there was an unexpected knock on the door. It was a pizza delivery man with a pizza for another guest.

It remains unknown to this day, but one only hopes that the guest who had ordered the infamous pizza did not go hungry that night.

Presumably, the statute of limitations for the misdeed at the time of Blazonczyk’s confession had long since expired.

[The Examiner wrote liner notes on Cleveland International’s Polkatime: 20 Of The Best from Eddie Blazoncyk & The Versatones CD, and was a judge at the polka dance contest held during The Versatones’ Central Park SummerStage show.]

6/9/2011 Steve Popovich–an appreciation

[This is a piece I originally wrote for, now defunct. As I was tweeting about Steve a lot yesterday–and think about him so often–I want this to remain available. We must never forget those who are so important to us, and as Gregg Geller said, “Steve Popovich is not replaceable.”]

A screenshot from a YouTube video tribute to the late Eddie Blazonczyk (center), the polka legend for whom Steve (left) released a compilation that I (right) wrote the liner notes for.

There’s nothing better you can say about a man than “he would give you the shirt off his back,” and Steve Popovich, who died in Murfreesboro, Tennessee yesterday at 68, would truly give you the shirt off his back–and you wouldn’t have to ask.

Indeed, there’s at least one Examiner who has a closet full of them.

Of course, they’re big shirts. Popovich’s shirt size was extra large, for he was a big man, obese, to be sure, who made his annual trek to the Duke University “Fat Farm,” as he called it, and over the last few years he did seem to be making some progress in eating healthy and dropping a few pounds. But the years of working hard and eating bad had clearly put a fatal strain on his heart–though as big as his belly was, he had an even bigger heart.

But his big heart let him down in the end, at least it appears so ahead of the determination of official cause of death–and probably in more ways than one. Simply put, as much as he loved his family (the Cleveland native, who never forgot his working-class, ethnic roots, had moved to the Nashville area, where he once held court, to be with his radio producer/artist manager son Steve Popovich Jr. and two grandchildren), he loved all humanity, really, and all music–but not so much the business of music.

Not that he didn’t excel at it. The “widely loved” Popovich, according to Nashville music historian Robert K. Oermann in today’s, was “one of the most colorful record executives in the history of Music Row.” After helping establishing the likes of Santana, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Mac Davis and Chicago during a stint at CBS Records in the 1960s and ’70s, he became vice president of A&R at Epic Records, where he signed or helped guide the careers of Michael Jackson, The Jacksons, Cheap Trick, The Charlie Daniels Band, Ted Nugent, Engelbert Humperdinck, Tom Jones and Boston.

He also famously ran his own label Cleveland International Records, home of Meat Loaf’s 1977 album debut Bat Out Of Hell, one of the biggest-selling albums ever, said to be at 40 million units sold worldwide. But he became embroiled in years of litigation with Sony, which distributed Cleveland International, over millions of dollars in unpaid royalties and its failure to print the Cleveland International logo on reissues of the album.

Cleveland International’s original artist roster also included Ian Hunter and country music legend Slim Whitman. From 1986 to 1988 Popovich ran Mercury Records in Nashville, where he signed legendary artists including Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, polka king Frank Yankovic, Lynn Anderson, Billy Swan and Johnny Paycheck.

He returned to Cleveland to restart Cleveland Interational in 1995, and released albums representing his typically wide musical interests with titles from Grammy-winning polka acts Brave Combo and Eddie Blazonczyk & The Versatones, as well as a series from country music great David Allan Coe. Popovich himself was rightly inducted into the Polka Hall of Fame in 1997.

But the son of a coal miner in Nemacolin, Pennsylvania, who startedf out in the music industry by unloading trucks at a Columbia Records warehouse in 1962, long expressed frustration with the business as it related to the less mainstream music that he so often championed.

In one of many loving and telling Facebook tributes posted as word of his death spread, fellow Nashville music business veteran Neal Spielberg recalled a late 1980s Country Radio Seminar panel where an audience member complained that the labels weren’t taking chances in Nashville. “Hey, I signed 60-year-old polka singer Frank Yankovic to my country label. Don’t tell me I’m not taking chances!” responded panelist Popovich.

In another post, artist manager Mark Spector called Popovich “a kind and generous man who was a mentor to so many at Columbia in the early ’70s. He had a passion for records that was infectious.” For veteran entertainment producer Chip Rachlin, his death marks “the end of an era”; wrote Gregg Geller, who worked with him at Epic, “Steve Popovich is not replaceable.”

Geller’s comment capped a memorial sent out to a network of Popovich’s business associates, in which he confirmed that his former boss did in fact sleep in his office, that is, if he ever slept at all.

“When you worked for Steve you were on the job 24/7 because he was working 24/7—there was simply too much music and too little time!” noted Geller. “I’ll never forget heading out to his place in Freehold–a two-hour drive–at 4 a.m. only to turn around and head back to the city at 7 a.m., stopping for coffee on the run, his Camaro strewn with half-listened-to cassettes.”

Half-listened-to, Geller explained, “because he just couldn’t wait to get on to the next tape.” And while he could introduce his associates to hip discs like Ian Hunter’s “All The Young Dudes” and a fistful of singles from England’s Stiff label, “if Steve Popovich believed that ‘After The Lovin’’ by Engelbert Humperdinck was a hit record, you had better believe it was a hit record! There were audiences out there in the real world, the world Steve lived in, waiting to be entertained. Our job was to provide for their entertainment.”

Entertainment–and spiritual enrichment. For Steve Popovich, the two went hand-in-hand.

He may not be known to the general public as a music industry giant on the level of the Ahmet’s, the Clive’s, or the Walter’s who were his contemporaries, but Steve Popovich was every bit the great record man they were and so very much more, always his own man–and an uncommon music man of and for the people. All the people.

[The Examiner wrote CD liner notes for several Cleveland International releases.]


8/14/2013 Anne Serling writes about legendary father and finally finds peace

Anne Serling, again, was listening to someone gush over her father.

“I hear it all the time—the impact my father had on people,” she said. “But no one would be more surprised than he.”

Maybe because Rod Serling, whom Anne Serling so lovingly depicts in her new book As I Knew Him: My Dad Rod Serling, humbly considered his writing “momentarily adequate” at best, she noted, and not able “to stand the test of time.”

But Anne pointed out that her father, among other landmark achievements, wrote 92 of his historic Twilight Zone series’ 156 episodes.

“His writing dealt with the human condition, and social and moral issues that are still relevant today,” she said. “I think that’s why they’ve endured.”

Although she was just a child in the Twilight Zone’s heyday (in her book she recalls her dad bringing home Willy, the frightful ventriloquist dummy form the famous “The Dummy” starring Cliff Robertson, to amuse her), like everyone else, she has her favorites.

“I was watching ‘Walking Distance’ some time ago,” she said, speaking of the celebrated episode where an advertising executive returns to his hometown to find it hasn’t changed—at all—since he was a boy.

“That’s one of the episodes that’s still relevant today: It gives you that punch, and maybe deals with a theme that our our age is in tune with: of going back in time and back to your hometown.
Same with ‘A Stop At Willoughby’ [likewise about a stressed-out New York media buyer who via the Twilight Zone, finds refuge in small-town New York, 1888].”

She also cited “In Praise Of Pip,” in which Jack Klugman famously played a bookie who learns of his soldier son’s serious wounds in Vietnam, and is filled with remorse for not having spent more time with him as a child. Not at all that her dad didn’t spend time with her; rather, a bit of “Pip”’s dialog was taken from an affectionate father-daughter routine.

But Serling surmises that the fact that The Twilight Zone was in black-and-white helped.

“I heard a quote last night, something about how black-and-white leaves an impression on you that color takes away,” she said. “I’m paraphrasing, but black-and-white gives you back that raw emotion.”

Much of that emotion, of course, came from Rod Serling. His Twilight Zone intros and recaps, delivered in his signature gritted-teeth intensity, were full of foreboding, though he still somehow came off as comforting, too.

“Any trepidation my friends had in meeting him that was connected to The Twilight Zone immediately dissolved within just a few minutes,” Serling related, echoing her warm descriptions of him in As I Knew Him. “He was so down-to-earth and welcoming and fun—and brilliantly funny. My friends adored him.”

Still, Serling, who was 20 when her father died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1974 at age 50, had heard him described as quite the opposite.

“I felt it was time to set the record straight,” she said. “He wasn’t a dark, tortured soul.”

But he was deeply concerned with the world around him, and often used The Twilight Zone to express his hatred of prejudice, injustice and war. Besides revisiting those classic episodes, Serling researched his letters and speeches in fleshing out the public and private man that she as a child knew most closely as a loving father—not as a man who suffered for his work.

“That was one of the toughest things,” she said. “For instance, I didn’t know how my dad had to battle the censors—I wasn’t cognizant then. And one of the most difficult things for him was writing letters to and receiving them from his parents during the war: My own son was 18 when I was writing the chapters that includes them, and I was reading his letters from training camp and it drove home how young these guys are that we send to war, and the letters broke my heart. My dad enlisted in the Army the day after he graduated high school, and his scars never healed. He was going to major in physical education, but was so traumatized he pursued writing to get it all off his chest.”

Anne Serling seems to have come to her own career as a writer out of personal pain.

“My dad always said to me, ‘If only you knew your grandfather’—and I never dreamed I’d say the same thing to my children,” she said. “But I guess you do arrive at some peace [even though] every day I miss my dad. I started another book eight years after he died, but I wasn’t even beginning to work through my grief–even after almost a decade. I had to set it aside and finally write this one, which I started six or seven years ago.”

Unable to “be that open with my grief” in an early draft, she “opened up more because it was so essential” after being encouraged by her editor.

“It ended up not as difficult as I thought it would be,” she said, adding, “a lot of people really connected with me and their own grief—which was humbling and gratifying.”

As for her father’s continuing impact, what with regular Twilight Zone Marathons over 50 years after the shows first aired, she reiterated: “His writing dealt with the human condition, and that doesn’t change. There are elementary school classrooms that study The Twilight Zone to learn about prejudice and scapegoating, and it’s really fascinating how kids get these messages from the show. I believe that would have been my dad’s greatest accolade.”

She cited the classic “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” episode from 1960, about a small town’s aliens-induced paranoia: “The teacher showed it and asked the class who the real monster was, and the entire class stood up! Who would have thought that after all these decades kids would really get this.”

The Twilight Zone, Anne Serling concluded, was “an extraordinary program with a gifted teacher.”

That teacher, of course, was her father, Rod Serling.

8/9/2013 Anne Serling’s loving book tribute to her dad Rod Serling

Writing As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling (Citadel Press) was clearly a cathartic experience for Anne Serling, who was 20 when her father died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1974 at age 50.

Yet her beautifully written book somehow becomes cathartic, too, for the reader. True, Rod Serling was her father, this kindly but intense gentleman of stern yet comforting voice and ever-present cigarette. As he described himself, he looked tall, dark, and close to omniscient on screen, issuing “jeopardy-laden warnings through gritted teeth.” But in person he was five-feet-five, had a broken nose, and looked altogether “about as foreboding as a bank teller on a lunch break.”

Such self-deprecation extended to Serling’s self-criticism. Of an early attempt at writing a western, he said, “I gave better dialogue to the horses than the actors.” But with The Twilight Zone, short as he may have been in height, Rod Serling, with “that wide, captivating smile and those dark eyes that I know so well,” in his daughter’s warm description, became a towering cultural figure, indeed, even a father figure as he guided the new baby boom generation through the twilight terrors he conceived.

Most of us, of course, know him mainly through The Twilight Zone. But Anne Serling, who required years of therapy to deal with his loss, shows just what a special man he was beyond it, both as innovative talent and devout humanitarian. And while she was forced to withstand the pain of his absence, his life, as she relates, was likewise full of doubt, but above all else, the internal stress brought on by empathy, conscience and commitment.

And censorship. Serling recounts her father’s various struggles with network higher-ups, like when he couldn’t show a scene with New York’s Chrysler building due to Ford sponsorship. Worse, he had to change a story inspired by the infamous 1955 murder in Mississippi of the young African-American Emmett Till to a northern setting—and an elderly Jew character.

His script for the TV movie Carol For Another Christmas—based on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol—brought forth huge protests that he was furthering the Communist conspiracy, and promoting the United Nations as a means of establishing a single world government superseding that of the U.S. As he would tell an audience in the Library of Congress auditorium, “From experience, I can tell you that drama, at least in television, must walk tiptoe and in agony lest it offend some cereal buyer from a given state below the Mason-Dixon.”

Inevitably, Rod Serling became TV’s Angry Young Man—and with reason: Because of sponsors’ fears of upsetting southern customers, they chopped up his script, he wrote, “like a roomful of butchers at work on a steer.” Eventually he found that “a Martian can say things that a Republican or a Democrat can’t,” that is, via The Twilight Zone.

For The Twilight Zone gave him license to intone, at the end of the classic “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” episode from 1960, how “prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all its own—for the children and the children yet unborn.”

His own nightmares (his daughter would hear him awaken screaming in the night) from his service in World War II also surfaced throughout the series, in episodes like “A Quality Of Mercy,” which takes place in the Philippines, where he served, and “The Purple Testament,” in which a lieutenant, again in the Philippines, sees a strange light showing on the faces of soldiers who are about to die.

Not surprisingly, death itself—along with justice and hope–are central themes in Anne Serling’s account.

A student at Antioch College who later taught writing there, Rod Serling absorbed its first president Horace Mann’s words, “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity,” inserting them into the script of The Twilight Zone’s “The Changing of the Guard” episode about an old professor wrongly convinced that his life has no meaning left.

In a letter to The Los Angeles Times in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, he wrote: “We must look beyond riots in the streets to the essential righteousness of what he asked of us. To do less would make his dying as senseless as our own living would be inconsequential.”

Prophetically pointed as well as extraordinarily eloquent, he said, in a 1970 commencement address at the University of Southern California, that if we don’t respond to the screams of those suffering from poverty, hunger, racial tension and pollution, “we may well wind up sitting amidst our own rubble, looking for the truck that hit us—or the bomb that pulverized us. Get the license number of whatever it was that destroyed the dream. And I think we will find that the vehicle was registered in our own name.”

Like his daughter, Rod Serling was forever haunted by the death of his father, at 52, from a heart attack, before he could return home from the war. The letters to and from his father—and to and from his daughter—are deeply moving; there’s also a tender introductory letter from him to a Korean foster child (“We are tremendously interested in your welfare, and to that end we’ll do all we can on your behalf”)—one of two he supported (the other being Filipino).

These letters and speeches fully flesh out this most remarkable man, still so much a part of our lives “35 years after my father’s death, four decades after The Twilight Zone went off the air,” writes Anne Serling, adding, “its parables are still relevant today”—even though he felt, according to her quote, “I’ve pretty much spewed out everything I had to say, none of which has been particularly monumental, nothing that will stand the test of time.”

Tell that today to the legions of fans, old and new, who tune in to those holiday Twilight Zone marathons that Syfy sure enough butchers as if it were a steer. Those legions of fans who discover, in his daughter’s loving reminiscences, this slight giant who is everything anyone could want in a father, a storyteller who in only 25 years of professional writing, wrote the definitive book on decency, courage, integrity, brilliance and pioneering creativity.

10/17/2011 Classic ‘Twilight Zone’ action figures get William Shatner’s approval

Keeping time with the release of William Shatner’s latest album Seeking Major Tom and book Shatner Rules: Your Guide To Understanding The Shatnerverse And The World At Large, pop culture toy/collectibles supplier Entertainment Earth introduced an exclusive, “officially approved by William Shatner” addition to its Bif Bang Pow! Line of Twilight Zone merchandise at last weekend’s New York Comic Con show at the Javits Center.

The novel Bob Wilson/Don Carter Deluxe Action Figure is a fully articulated eight-inch figure of Shatner (featuring a Shatner-sanctioned all-new head sculpt), along with clothing and accessories to recreate Shatner’s image from two legendary Twilight Zone episodes: “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet” (which originally aired in October, 1963) and “Nick Of Time” (November, 1960).

In “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet,” Shatner famously played former mental patient Bob Wilson, who is terrified by his vision of a hairy gremlin on the wing of the airplane he and his wife are passengers on. In “Nick Of Time” he was Don Carter, a man obsessed with a “Mystic Seer” fortune telling machine on the table of a café he and his wife visit when their car breaks down.

“It’s very well done,” says Shatner of the figure. “The reality is that these three young guys who run Entertainment Earth came up with it, and I thought it was cute and fun and went with them.”
The future Star Trek hero, who says he’s signed a couple of the figures, is flabbergasted by the continuing fascination with The Twilight Zone–and his two big episodes in particular.

“The fact that a half-hour show has remained in the public consciousness–and that these two episodes are among the most popular–why me? I don’t know!” says Shatner. “I stand with my mouth agape!”
He recalls the shows’ production.

“My goodness! It’s a half-hour show,” he notes. “You fly in and do it in three or four days and fly out. I think I was living on the East Coast then and had worked with those [Twilight Zone] guys in live television, and they liked me and I liked them and just did them. I figured they’d be broadcast once or twice and ‘goodbye!'”

Acknowledging that “Nightmare At 20,000” remains so memorably terrifying, Shatner still wonders why “a furry little monster on a wing doesn’t bring gales of laughter and derision!” When he himself gets on a plane, he’s more concerned that “the thing flies today and doesn’t crash into a swamp, than this furry little guy!”

Incidentally, Entertainment Earth was at Toy Fair earlier this year, when it introduced a companion piece bobble head set of Bob Wilson and Gremlin that were designed to be used as bookends. The company also brought out a full-sized, functioning replica of the Mystic Seer counter-top amusement piece, complete with napkin holder, menu holder, and working coin mechanism that dispenses “fortunes”–just like in the show.

A miniature replica of the Mystic Seer is packaged as an accessory in the Wilson/Carter figure, along with Carter’s watch, Wilson’s handgun and newspaper, and both characters’ clothing. A small Mystic Seer is also available separately in black-and-white and color non-functioning versions.

2/24/2011 New “Twilight Zone” figures unveiled at Toy Fair

Fans of The Twilight Zone will be thrilled to learn that cult audience-targeted action figure, toys and collectibles supplier Bif Bang Pow! (BBP) has plenty of new Twilight Zone figures and merchandise on the way.

The North Hollywood-based company, which has been licensing Twilight Zone bobble heads the last couple years has a new Willie And Jerry bobble head, from the famous 1962 ventriloquism episode “The Dummy” starring Cliff Robertson, and a new companion piece bobble head set of Bob Wilson and Gremlin, from the equally unforgettable 1963 “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet!” installment starring William Shatner, that are designed to be used as bookends.

Forthcoming on the Twilight Zone action figure side are two-figure sets featuring Doctor Bernardi (“Eye of the Beholder,” 1960) and Henry Bemis (“Time Enough at Last,” 1959) and the Venusian (“Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?,” 1961) and Invader (“The Invaders,” 1961).

More than 20 Twilight Zone figures and bobble heads are now available from BBP, which has expanded the line with license plate frames, lunch boxes, journals, magnets and coasters.
“We have a big master license, excepting apparel,” says BBP co-owner/executive VP Jason Labowitz, who displayed all the Twilight Zone merchandise, along with other popular licensed product from properties including The Big Lebowski and Dexter, at last week’s Toy Fair.

Most of the Twilight Zone collectibles are easily affordable. But two forthcoming pieces are understandably high-priced.

From the 1960 episode “Nick Of Time” (also starring Shatner) comes a full-sized, functioning replica of the “Mystic Seer” fortune-telling counter-top amusement piece, complete with napkin holder, menu holder, and working coin mechanism that dispenses “fortunes”–just like in the show. Available in July, the 13 1/2 x 7 1/2 x 6-in. unit is priced at $250 and unlike most Twilight Zone figures, is in full color–red box with a grey “seer” devil head.

“It’s a working replica that people might set out on display,” explains Labowitz. “The series was in black-and-white, and there are no color-reference shots available, so none of the merchandise has ever been seen before in color. And black-and-white is what fans remember: We’ve attempted some figures in color in limited edition runs to gauge the response, but people like black-and-white versions more than color.”

The Mystic Seer, which is already available in small $13 black-and-white and $15 color non-functioning versions, was a hit at Toy Fair, says Labowitz, who also showed an 18-inch black-and-white Talky Tina doll replica, from the 1963 Twilight Zone episode “Living Doll” (starring Telly Savalas). Also available in July, the $140 piece features vinyl head and limbs, soft fabric body and clothing, rooted hair, eyelids that open and close and a talking mechanism. The doll also comes in a replica box, and like its $18 Talky Tina talking bobble head counterpart, it speaks five phrases.

Labowitz notes, though, that the doll is black-and-white. He explains: “I wasn’t going to make a color doll that might end up in a child’s room, and have it say, ‘My name is Talky Tina, and I’m going to kill you!'”

Labowitz helps his Twilight Zone “superfan” BBP partner design the product after a “selection process” in which characters are culled from their favorite episodes. But not every character translates well to a figure, Labowitz says.

“One that doesn’t is a manikin, because that’s just a doll–and nothing special,” he says. “So we look for unique faces: aliens like the three-eyed Venusian or robots, or someone with a unique outfit.”

The Mystic Seer and Invader figures are the most popular, says Labowitz.

“Everybody has their favorite episodes,” he notes. “We don’t expect anyone to get the whole collection, just one that really resonates.”