Rev up for summer reading

If you’re looking for some fast-paced beach reading, I’m happy to announce the release a new anthology, “Last Exit To Murder,” a collection 16 short stories about crime and the Los Angeles car culture, available now on Amazon, print and ebook.

Every two to three years since the late 1990s the Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles chapter produced a new anthology of stories by members. Entries are judged via blind submission so each writer, newbie and pro, gets an equal consideration. Over the years a number of aspiring authors have earned their first mystery publishing credit via these anthologies.

The titles of the first two books, “Murder by 13″ and “A Deadly Dozen,” refer to the number of stories inside. Since then the titles and tales have taken on a specific theme.

“Murder on Sunset Boulevard” takes the reader on a geographic tour down that iconic street. “LAndmarked for Murder” has stories set at famed locations throughout the city. “Murder in La-la Land” highlights the eccentricities of the City of Angels.

“Last Exit” closes with my story, “Dark Nights at the Deluxe Drive-in.” When I was looking for a story, I was initially stumped. I’m not a car buff. Cars are just transportation. I hate driving on the freeways and dealing tailgaters and bad drivers. I don’t watch car races and I don’t go crazy over car shows. If I have no interest in something, how can I write about it?

In searching for ideas I discarded the most obvious: dead body in the trunk, traffic jams, police car chases. Other stories in the book use these themes so anything I wrote would be a duplicate.

I wanted to write about those great characters cars of TV-Black Beauty, Batmobiles, Monkeemobile, Munstermobile-but I couldn’t come up with a plot and I didn’t know enough about car customizing to give the story authentic detail. Besides, the SinC/LA anthologies shy away from Hollywood stories and deal more with common folk.

At the time I’d recently visited the Nethercutt Museum in Sylmar and its fantastic collection of restored classic cars. That place would make a great setting for a mystery.

At some point I hit on drive-in theaters. Ah ha! I could have fun with that concept.

I grew up in the Midwest, where the drive-ins were, of course, closed during the winter months. The first drive-in movie I saw was “2001:A Space Odyssey” with my brothers. Some time after that I had my own car with a long hood. At the theaters I’d sit on the hood to watch the show, parked between two speakers for a fake stereo sound. 

Years ago one drive-in that I frequented was torn down for a mall/indoor movie theater. That gave me an idea for my story: A greedy developer wants to build a state-of-the-art multiplex on the site of an aging, decrepit drive-in; however, the owner won’t sell. Great conflict, great characters, great motive for murder.

I researched drive-ins and found that the LA area-the San Fernando Valley and Ventura County-once sported a number of drive-ins, all of which are now closed. A few drive-ins still operate throughout California. Most have two screens to pull in more revenue and a few host flea markets during the day to make ends meet.

 Despite the poor sound quality and a lowbrow reputation, drive-in provided good family entertainment at affordable prices. The kids could romp in the playground while their parents watched the film. Teens could show off their wheels and socialize.

 With the drive-ins gone, some people are trying to recreate the experience. In Eastern Ventura County, during the summer several cities host outdoor movie screenings of family movies in parks or plazas. Oak Park High School invites people to bring their cars to the school parking lot for an outdoor screening (the audio track is broadcast over the car radios). Simi Valley has “dive-in” movies at a community pool. People can watch the movie while sitting on the grass or floating in the water.

 Why do drive-ins strike such a fond note among baby boomers? Is it the friendships made in the lot? The silly monster pictures watched? Enjoyment of a clear night sky? The bad-for-you but tasty concession food? The simplicity of movie going?

 What are your memories of drive-in movies? Would you like to see drive-ins make a come back?   


Teen Idols on Tour, or, Old Codgers Hit the Road Again

It’s summer and that can only mean one thing–the official start of the teen idol tour season.

 At least that was true in the 1960s and 70s when teen idols were promoted through a weekly TV series. Since filming went on hiatus in midyear and the target audience of preteen girls was out of school at this time, the hot summer days were the perfect time for major coast-to-coast tours.

 Today, when many baby boomers are retiring, some of the old heartthrobs are still packing their bags for another show–but they may not be coming to your town. The guys who used to do nightly shows in numerous cities have cut back their touring to a few weekend gigs a month.

The teen idols that hit the scene during the flower power era are now in their late 60s. Some, like Bobby Sherman and Shaun Cassidy, are no longer performing and moved on to other interests. The others opt to work only when and where they want, making performing less of a chore and more of a delight. 

The older teen idols, once the mainstay of county fairs and summer festivals, are now working mostly in smaller indoor venues which have certain advantages: better sound, more comfortable seating, fewer distractions and climate control.

However, in my experience, outdoor shows are livelier with more audience reaction and larger crowds (not to mention the cheaper ticket prices). Gone are the days of hordes of screaming girls, much to the relief of the artists no doubt. Now the audiences sit quietly and listen, then applaud politely as they would for a concert orchestra.

 The guys are doing more casino shows that provide more intimate seating but don’t let in the younger fans, limiting the expansion of their fan base.

 The smaller venues may also be due to reduced interest. Most people will pay to see an artist once or maybe twice, enjoy the shows, and that’s all they need. Only the most ardent fans continue to dog their idols to every single show. Let’s face it, how many times can a fan stand to hear the same song list?

 Why do these entertainers still tour? I don’t know any teen idols personally, so I can only guess.

 Money is not the issue; these guys can afford not to work.

 Teen idols are A-type personalities who were active in their youth and still need to keep busy even in old age. Paul McCartney (who recently turned 71!) was asked why he kept touring. He said, “What else would I do? Sit at home and watch telly?”

 These guys have traveled the world several times. They’ve seen more and done more that the average person. Sitting still is not in their nature. George Harrison was content to spend his days gardening and meditating but he still wrote songs and produced albums.  

 And let’s face it, performing for an audience is fun. Musicians get a kick out of doing what they do. Humans are born with a creative nature. Making art makes both the creator and the recipient happy. Art is what gives flavor and delight to daily life. Nobody can sing and stay miserable. And who wouldn’t want to be on a stage with a room full of cheering fans?

 No doubt there’s ego issues involved. The time for a performer to get scared is not when the fans mob him but when they stop. Over the years the various teen idol fan clubs, once numerous, have shrunk in number and many closed.

 Most performers probably fear the “Sunset Boulevard” syndrome that they’ll end up as forgotten recluses, living in their past glories while waiting for the silent phone to ring. As long as the teen idol can book one more show, he knows he’s still loved.

 But their fans are aging. In another decade or two many of their fans won’t be able to drive to a show or walk without assistance.

 For the older idols, these years may be their “last hurrah,” one last chance to put on a good show while they still can, a final opportunity to connect with fans that have remained loyal for so many years.

 As long as the artists are in good health and enjoy what they do, then if they keep performing I say more power to them. But when they reach the point when they can no longer do justice to the music or if they simply burn out, my hope is that they can gracefully bow out. The idols of yesterday deserve to go out with a bang, not a groan.

 To avoid ending this post on a bleak note, some years ago I saw Peter Tork do an acoustic show at a little coffee house. The audience numbered around 40. After the show Peter was sitting behind the merchandise table, handling the CD sales. When he saw me he got up and gave me a big hug.

He said, “I’m so glad you came today.”

That’s why fans love their idols.







A forgotten movie gem: ‘The Comic’

Many years ago a friend told me about a seldom-seen movie called “The Comic,” starring Dick Van Dyke. While I was familiar with the actor’s work in family musicals like “Mary Poppins” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” I had never seen or head of this film.

Some years later I spotted the movie playing on a cable station in the afternoon and taped it, the only time I ever saw the film running on TV.

Why Van Dyke and director/co-writer Carl Reiner didn’t receive award nominations for this hidden gem is a mystery. Despite the title, “Comic” is a dark comedy about the rise and fall of a man who was both a comic genius and a jerk.

The film opens at the sparsely attended funeral of Billy Bright (played by Van Dyke), a once-great silent film comic. Billy provides an ongoing narration throughout the film as he reflects on his life and blames others for his own shortcomings.

To say too much about the film would spoil it. Billy leaves vaudeville to break into silent movies. He meets a young actress named Mary (Michelle Lee), then steals her from her boyfriend, marries her, and churns out hit films with her as his leading lady.

But the trouble begins on their wedding day when Billy insists on skipping the honeymoon to shoot a film (“c’mon, honey, the guests are all here and we’re losing the light”), ignoring Mary’s protests. Billy’s philandering causes his wife to take their son and leave him, which sends the comic into a tailspin.

Unable or unwilling to pull himself together, Billy wallows in a sea of booze and cheap floozies. He unwittingly ends his career when he refuses to adapt to the new world of sound pictures (“comics don’t talk, they act”). Billy spends his sunset years attempting to recapture his glory years, begging anyone to hire him. The star who once lived in a grand Hollywood palace is now a broken old man surviving in a run down, one-bedroom apartment.

Mickey Rooney co-stars as Cockeye, a cross-eyed clown who is not only Billy’s comic sidekick but also his best (and only) friend off screen. Despite Cockeye’s physical quirk, he prefers to “see” the good part of Billy’s nature even during the comic’s temper tantrums and drinking bouts.

As the two comics go older (both Van Dyke and Rooeny are great as their characters “age”), Cockeye bemoans the lack of acting roles; modern producers say making fun of crossed eyes is “offensive.” Cockeye says, “When people stopped laughing at these (eyes), they started fighting.”

Van Dyke also plays the comic’s only son, Billy Jr., grown up. Billy Sr. is not happy with how his son turned out. Would the son have been a different man if his father had been by his side growing up?

At the end Billy watches one of his films at home on a small black-and-white TV set. As the movie runs his face is a mask of regret, anger and sadness. Anyone who can view this final scene without crying lacks a pulse.

What can we learn from this movie? It’s too easy and safe to say the film is only about the troubles of the rich and famous. The movie is about anyone who can’t identify and change their faults. It’s about making the necessary changes to live a good and decent life. It’s about moving on from past failures into a better tomorrow.

How fitting that the movie begins with a funeral, because the film is about how Billy “killed” his career, his friendships and his chance at having a good family. “What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?”(Matthew 16:26).

Interesting trivia: The film has a fantastic montage of clips from Billy’s films including one in which he plays a waiter chasing an elusive cherry around a dinner table. The scene is no doubt an homage to a similar routine done by Stan Laurel in the silent short “From Soup to Nuts.” It’s no secret that Laurel was a major comic influence on Van Dyke.

The church exterior seen in the opening shots is mostly likely St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Glendale, a church that has often opened its doors to filmmakers. The interior shots, however, were made on a soundstage, as the St. Mark’s sanctuary looks quite different.

Has anyone seen this film? What were your reactions to it?




The Value of Collectibles

What turns a mundane object into a valuable collectible?

In 2007 I viewed the Dead Sea Scroll exhibit at the San Diego Natural History Museum. I expected long scrolls but instead saw tiny fragments of crumbling papyrus covered with faded ink. The pieces were sorted in airtight frames placed under dim lighting to prevent further deterioration. Guards protected the fragments from theft or vandalism. Hundreds of people bought tickets and traveled long distances to view the fragments.

To millions of Jews and Christians world wide, these tiny bits of parchment are an important part of their religious heritage. To hundreds of scholars and historians, the fragments play a crucial part in reconstructing life in ancient times.

Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder.

Currently, some relics of St. Anthony-a small piece of bone and a patch of skin-are traveling across the U.S. to display in churches. To many, these items are grotesque, silly and pointless. To hundred of Catholics, however, the relics are devotional objects of great value.

As for modern day relics, when the Beatles first toured American, entrepreneurs scooped up clippings of the Fib Four’s locks following a haircut, packaged the pieces, and sold them to the female fans.

Next weekend in North Hollywood, the Bob Hope estate is hosting a public “garage sale” of the entertainer’s personal items, household goods and memorabilia. Prices range from under $10 to hundreds of dollars. No doubt many will turn out just to gawk and a large number will buy something, anything, even if it’s something they don’t need or can use, just to say they own a relic of Bob Hope.

Here are my thoughts on what makes something a “collectible.”

Time: In our disposable, must-have-the-latest-upgrade culture, things are valuable if they’ve managed to last a long time. The more than 2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls are priceless partly because they’ve survived for so long.

The more, the merrier: The more people that consider something valuable, the more worth it holds. A few years ago a local PBS station auctioned off a large, framed autographed photo of Ringo Starr (Ringo appeared on camera during the pledge break) for $400. I’d have to pay someone to take a signed photo of me.

Rarity. When comic books were first printed, they were considered throwaway entertainment for kids. Many parents tossed out the old comics when their kids moved out of the house.

Action Comics No. 1-Superman’s debut-sold for a dime when it was published in 1938. The same comic sold at auction for $2.16 in 2011. Why? Because only a handful of pristine copies are still around.

Nowadays publishers sell “collector’s editions” of new comic titles. But if everyone preserves and keeps their copy, the comic will have little value in years to come.

Importance in history: Action Comics No. 1 has value because it introduced Superman-one of the most beloved superheroes ever-to the world.

In Washington D.C. one can view some old pieces of hand-inscribed paper that overthrew a government and established a new nation-the original Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Any piece of paper that can spark a revolution is  priceless.

I have a set list-two sheets of paper, taped to the stage floor that listed the order of the songs-from a Monkees concert I attended in 2001. Outside of myself and possibly some die-hard Monkees fans, these papers mean nothing. In the broad sweep of history, this set list has little lasting value.

But I had a good time at the show and the papers are meaningful to me. Sometimes that’s all that matters.

Do you have or want an item that might be considered a “collectible”? What do you think makes an object valuable?

Blogging, the new fan magazine

Thanks for stopping by my new blog where I’ll be discussing my mystery novels featuring former teen idol Sandy Fairfax as well as my observations about the world.

In this digital age, many authors are cranking out blog posts as a promotional tool. But what bloggers are doing is nothing new. The use of social media to promote artists had its genesis in the teen fan magazines starting in the 1950s and still going strong today.

Ah, those were the days when young girls swooned over the likes of Bobby Rydell, David Cassidy and Bobby Sherman. The teen idol industry was in full gear, constantly cranking out new idols as audiences “aged out” into harder rock music and their kid sisters now wanted their own stars to follow.

Since the Internet hadn’t been invented yet, the studios spread the word and kept fans connected through monthly teen magazines such as Tiger Beat, Flip, Music Star and Seventeen. Some of the more popular performers had their own line of magazines, such as The Monkees and Starsky and Hutch.

In each issue, fans learned interesting facts about their idols, sympathized with their star’s feelings about dating issues, and looked at groovy photos. Fans could mail in letters for publication as a way to talk to their idol and get the addresses for fan clubs where they could meet similarly-minded youths.  

Fanzine articles were puff pieces about the idol’s life, such as a minute-by-minute description of a party at the star’s house, or what the singer did inside a recording studio, or his latest date. The purpose of the ‘zine was to build a bond between the fan and idol.

Of course each magazine also featured ads of various idol-related merchandise that fans could purchase to show their devotion.

Isn’t this what writers are doing today with social media, sharing their activities and talking about their feelings as a way to stay connected to their readers. Writers post photos from their personal appearances or daily home life. Readers can leave comments to directly talk to the author and meet up with other fans.

Some writers use Facebook to constantly update their online “friends” as to their daily activities. Some use their blogs to share their feelings about their personal lives. The goal is to present the author as more than just a headshot and a brief bio on the book jacket.

Of course each blog also features the author’s books that readers can purchase.

Please leave a comment or sign up if you’d like to receive notices about my upcoming releases. Thanks for reading!