It's been a quiet week. The local churches prepare for Christmas, Marilyn Tollerud receives a disturbing late-night call from her daughter Sharon, and a few thoughts on the benefits of winter.
This is a little belated, but two Saturdays ago Martin Freeman hosted Saturday Night Live. You likely recognize his name, but in addition to starring as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit (and as Dr. Watson in Sherlock), he was in the original BBC version of The Office with Ricky Gervais, playing the role of Jim.
I figured that for sure they'd do a Hobbit sketch, and was hoping that they'd do something with The Office. Little did I suspect, though, that they'd put them both together.
The sketch isn't hilarious, but it's amusing, whimsical and very well done. Freeman has the Jim character down pat, and gets the eye-rolls and slightly off-camera looks spot on. And Bobby Moynihan does a wonderful job as Gervais (playing David Brent). He's not doing a direct impersonation, since after all he's also playing Gandalf and Ian McKellan, but he has the Gervais mannerisms down, and whoever wrote the sketch got the David Brent dialogue impeccaably.
Okay, here's another international production of Fiddler on the Roof, but one I especially wanted to post since I find it particularly appropriate. The story of the musical takes place is Russia, as you no doubt are aware, and this is about as close to that as I've come across. It's from the Estonian National Opera.
Estonia was an independent nation that had been occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940. However, it regained its independence in 1991 after the breakup of the USSR.
The production comes from 1990. The performers here, playing Tevye and his wife Golde singing "Do You Love Me?", are Jüri Krjukov as Tevye and Helgi Sallo. When I first saw the description, I mis-read things and thought it said that Krjukov was one of the most beloved performers in Estonia. He does a nice job here, but it was Helgi Sallo as Golde who I thought was particularly wonderful. Then I re-read things, and it turns out that while Jüri Krjukov was a well-regarded actor from the Estonian Drama Theatre, it was indeed Ms. Sallo who was so beloved, performing for half a century in operas, operettas, musicals (including starring in Hello, Dolly!), drama plays and TV series..
I've written several stories this past year about a company called Stream TV Networks, beginning with this piece here last August. The company makes a product called Ultra-D, which is a stunning technology they license for 3D-TV without glasses.
I've been following the company for several years, being in regular communication with its president Mathu Rajan, and have seen their TV sets in operation, and it's quite stunning. The products are at brilliant 4K-compatible quality, and among other things can convert regular on-air TV to glassless 3D in real-time.
(I know that some analysts feel that the window for 3D-TV has come and gone, flopping poorly. But that's for 3D-TV with glasses, a technology I've long-written is very flawed and destined to fail. But 3D-TV without glasses is a completely different dynamic, I feel. And a technology, too, that can be adapted to other media, like monitors, tablets, large screen mobile phones, even potentially movie screens one day -- who knows? --and more.)
Release to the market for the Ultra-D TV sets is another issue, and has been a long time coming, where I've gotten a lot of calls from Mathu about new deals and products being close for release. The deals are real, but at that point the manufacturing and distribution is out of Stream TV Networks' hands. Thus far, most of the companies they've had TV manufacturing deals with have been based in China -- although they distribute the U.S. -- and thus far there have been delays.
But a month ago, Mathu called, full of excited anticipation for some news deals upcoming. And the past week, those have finally been announced. One is a deal with a U.K. TV manufacturer, Cello Electronics. Another is the first deal I've seen them announce with a U.S. manufacturer, Izon. It's a small company, but I've seen their presence at CES in the past. The third press release isn't incredibly clear what it's announcing (never a good thing for a press release), but after some investigation it's a deal with the company, Inception Digital, that makes sets that are placed in restaurants or other such-business to display ever-changing ads and information, and they’re doing a test with about five restaurant chains, one of which is Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse.
Though this latter company isn't a TV manufacturer, it's noteworthy nonetheless, because one of the things that Stream TV Networks has been pursuing and developing has been application for their technology in products other than just televisions -- as mentioned, like for tablets and monitors and more. So, this is evidence of progress in that area.
After getting all this information, I contacted Mathu Rajan again, and he filled me in enthusiastically with more updates. (Though, to be clear, he tends to speak with excited enthusiasm as a general rule.)
None of these deals are for imminent distribution in retail stores. However they all have expected market dates in the coming year, some in the early part of the year. Izon and Cello Electronics, for instance, are both expected to have sets in the stores during the first quarter of 2015. They also have a commitment from several large Chinese companies to roll out their sets with Ultra-D technology during the coming year. Skyworth (which is #1 in China selling 4K sets and #7 for global TV manufacturers) will be showing their Ultra-D sets at CES next month and expect to have them on the market in Q2. Konka (#9 in the world) will be presenting its 65" Ultra-D set at CES, as well, and also plans to have them in stores in Q2. And there is the continuing deal with Hisense. SkyMedia -- which is #3 in TV sales in South Korea -- should have their Ultra-D sets in the market in Q1.
Additionally, there are several other new relationships with substantive companies who have already taken their sets with the Ultra-D technology to display in public at trade shows, which is a significant step. It's particularly significant since these include Panasonic and NEC. Two other very big Japanese companies he mentioned (though not ready to name for public consumption yet) are expected to be ready in the third quarter of the year.
As I mentioned, Stream TV Networks has also been developing their glassless 3-D technology in areas other than just TVs, like computer monitors, tablets and large-screen mobile phones. In that regard, they have a deal with Epic Entertainment, who is developing games for the glassless-3D platform and will be showing their products at a a "gaming area" of the Stream TV booth during CES. And also at the booth, Stream TV Networks will have a "mock" TV studio giving demonstrations with equipment that can broadcast directly in glassless 3-D. And they're in talks with several high-end PC makers, expecting to display glassless 3D-monitors at the huge IFA Berlin trade show in September..
I have no idea what will come of this, after all there have been starts-and-delays along the way, but it does appear that some significant, meaningful steps forward have been taken. When companies have already displayed their Ultra-D sets at trade shows and others will doing so at CES in just two weeks, it seems like the "expected" market dates -- some as soon as the first quarter of 2015 -- are definitely worth watching.
Updates as they occur...
Back in my initial posting here about Kukla, Fran and Ollie, I wrote about how puppeteer Burr Tillstrom won an additional Emmy Award that was not involved with KF&O, but for his work on his own. It was for one of the "hand ballets" that he performed on occasion for the satirical news series, That Was the Week That Was.
That Was the Week That Was was a smart, pointed, very sharp British sketch-comedy show which was brought over to the U.S. in the early 1960s. Among other things, it introduced to American audiences one of the original British cast members, David Frost. It's also the show that introduced Tom Lehrer to most Americans. He wrote periodic songs for the series, and then recorded them for his now-classic hit album, That Was the Year That Was.
And it also brought Burr Tillstrom into the national spotlight in a way people hadn't seen or expected.
His hand ballets were little vignettes that didn't use any puppets at all, but merely Tillstrom's bare hands, using them alone to evoke some story in the news he wanted to get across. It was done with great artistry, often movingly. And one of them so artistic and moving that it won him an Emmy Award.
In 1963, two years after the Berlin Wall had been erected, a very brief concession was made. The Wall would open for the Christmas holiday and allow those in the West to travel into East Berlin and visit family and loved ones, needing to return a few days later.
This is what Burr Tillstrom did a hand ballet about shortly after. And I found the video of it.
I was planning to post it at some point soon...but then I realized what better time to do so on Christmas day.
The quality of the video is a little rough, especially at the beginning, but it's fine. And ultimately, as you watch -- one brilliant artist using only his hands -- the quality of the video won't matter one whit.
And if anyone ever wonders where the humanity of Kukla, Fran and Ollie came from, to bring such life into puppets, now you'll know.
Here it is.
Earlier in the season, we had a lesser-known song from Tom Lehrer about Hanukkah, with his "Hanukkah in Santa Monica." Just to round things out a bit, here's another early lesser-known holiday song of his, from the album, An Evening Wasted with Tom Lehrer". Here is "A Christmas Carol."
Side Note: Back in this post here, I wrote about how when the movie musical Scrooge, was released, its composer Leslie Bricusse told about how they had done research and had found that no song had ever been written called, "A Christmas Carol," and so he wrote the first one for the movie. And I noted that in a 1956 TV adaptation of the very same Dickens story, which they called The Stingiest Man in Town," they had a song, "A Christmas Carol." And now, here's yet another song with the same title, three years after that. (Though this song is "little-known," Tom Lehrer has and had a big following, and this album was not obscure.) I like the movie Scrooge and its score. But even given that this was in the days before the Internet, Leslie Bricusse needed better researchers. Indeed, I suspect if one doesn't even try to hard, one could find a bunch of others.
It's just not possible to let Christmas go by without the wonderful classic from Stan Freberg -- the great, "Green Chri$tma$." This was done in 1958, and at the time it was very controversial. Some radio stations wouldn't even play it. That was largely due to outrage from advertisers. Some advertisers were all right with it being played -- but had the condition that their own ads couldn't be run within 15 minutes of it.
Oddly enough, within about six months of the release of "Green Chri$tma$," two of the companies that are clearly satirized in the piece -- Coca Cola and Marlboro -- each asked Freberg about dong ad campaigns for them. He accepted Coke, but turned down the cigarette company. (Freberg, an acclaimed maker of satirical ads, in addition to his work as a humorist, had no problem with advertising. In fact his first-hand knowledge of advertising helps make "Green Chri$tma$" so effective. His issue was the commercialization of Christmas.)
The single transcended the protests, and went on to have a healthy, long life. Today, half a century of mass-marketing later, it has an almost genteel quality to it. Yet, it's still pointed -- and even poignant -- and still wonderful.
Every year around this time, there are articles about which recorded version of A Christmas Carol is "the best." Usually it comes down to the films that starred either Alistair Sim or Reginald Owen.
But for me, it's this one. An audio version done for, I believe, the BBC, in 1960. It's quite wonderful and as good an adaptation of the story as I've come across. It stars Sir Ralph Richardson as Scrooge, and Paul Scofield as Dickens, the narrator. Casts don't get much better than that.
I first heard this on radio station WFMT in Chicago which has been playing this every Christmas Eve for many decades. Eventually, I found it on audio tape. I've listened to it annually since I was a kidling. Some years I think I won't listen to it this year, but put it on for a few minutes for tradition's sake -- but after the first sentence it suckes me in.
There are four reasons why, for me, this is far and away the best version. But one reason leaps out.
First, the acting is as good as it gets. Scofield is crisp and emphatic,and almost every creak of his voice draws you in to the world, and Richardson is a Christmas pudding joy. Second, being radio, you aren't limited by budgets to create the Dickensian world. Your imagination fills in every lush and poverty-stricken, nook and cranny -- and ghostly spirit, aided by moody sound effects and violins. Third, the adaptation sticks closely to the Dickens tale, and Scrooge comes across more realistic, rounded-person than as a Mythic Icon.
And fourth, and most of all by far, unlike any of the other version, this includes...Dickens. While the story of A Christmas Carol is beloved, it's Dickens' writing that makes it as vibrant as the story is. And that's all lost in the movie versions, even down even to the legendary opening line, "Marley was dead, to begin with." Or any of the other classic narrative lines. Or the richness of Dickens setting the mood and tone and description of the gritty and ephemeral and emotional world. All that's gone in movies, good as they may be. But all of that is here in this radio adaptation, and Scofield's reading of it is joyously wonderful and memorable. For many, this will be A Christmas Carol unlike any other you're aware of, giving it a meaning and richness you didn't realize was there. The ending of the tale is so much more moving and joyful here, as we listen to Dickens' own words, that begin with "Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more," and soar from there, to perhaps my favorite passage about the new Scrooge and how good he is in the "good old world. Or any other good old world."
If you have the time or inclination, give it a listen. If only for five minutes to at least get the flavor. You might find yourself sticking around. Let it play in the background, if you have other things to do. It runs about 55 minutes.
(Side note: speaking of Dickens, if you know the original cast album of Oliver!, the actor here who plays the Ghost of Christmas Present, Willoughby Goddard, was Mr. Bumble on Broadway and in the original London production.)
This might not play immediately, since it's a large file and may have to buffer first. But be patient, it's worth it.
A few years back, I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post about new discoveries surrounding the holiday classic, Handel's "Messiah." Several months later, I followed it up with additional revelations. Given that 'tis its season yet again - it seems like a fine time to repeat the story, as just another of the many holiday traditions. Sort of like a very early, 18th century version of "The Grinch."
But have a glass of nog, as well. Fa la la...
Over the passage of years, we lose track of the conditions that existed when artworks were created. When those years become centuries, the history vanishes, and all that remains is the work itself.That is, until someone researches that history, and puts the piece in its original context.
And that brings up Handel's "Messiah."
By any standard, it's a brilliant piece of music, which has understandably lasted 250 years. Even to those who don't share its religious underpinning, the music is enthralling, and part of the celebration of the Christmas season.
Now comes this detailed, deeply-researched article in the New York Times by Michael Marissen.
"So 'Messiah' lovers may be surprised to learn that the work was meant not for Christmas but for Lent, and that the 'Hallelujah' chorus was designed not to honor the birth or resurrection of Jesus but to celebrate the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in A.D. 70. For most Christians in Handel's day, this horrible event was construed as divine retribution on Judaism for its failure to accept Jesus as God's promised Messiah."
Mr. Marissen does an impressive, scholarly and even-handed job uncovering the history of Handel's "Messiah." If anyone is interested in that history, do read the article. At the very least, read it before stating an opinion on it...
To be clear, this is not about political correctness. This is about correctness.
The truth, we are told, shall set us free. Either we go out of our way to learn the truth in our lives - and embrace it - or we bury our heads in the sand and listen to the sounds of gravel.
People will still listen to Handel's "Messiah" for centuries to come, whatever the reality behind it. The music is glorious. The words? Well, be honest, it's a fair bet that most people don't know exactly what's being sung about anyway - it's 2-1/2 hours, for goodness sake. Most fans wouldn't listen to "American Idol" for that long. People tend to tune out Handel's "Messiah" about six minutes in and let the music wash over them. When the "Hallelujah Chorus" is about to begin, they get nudged and sit up straight. And even at that, the only words most people know are "Hallelujah" and that it will "reign forever and ever." (Some people probably think it's about Noah's Ark.)
So, in some ways, the libretto of Handel's "Messiah" is not of critical importance 250 years after the fact. And that might be the biggest joke on Charles Jennens, who wrote the text and apparently saw the work as a way to confront what he believed was "a serious menace" in the world By having his friend Handel set his pointed tracts to music, Jennens felt that would help get his point across more subtly to the public. The result, of course, was that the spectacular music swamped over the words, and over time they took on a completely different meaning.
This is known as the Law of Unintended Consequences. Or also, be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.
Somewhere up in heaven, or more likely down in hell, Charles Jennens has been pounding his head against a wall for the last couple hundred Christmases, screaming, "No, no, no! Don't you people get it?!! It's supposed to be about celebrating the destruction of heathen nations, not the embracing love of mankind. You people are so lame!"
And it gets worse, because starting the day after Christmas - until the next Christmas when Handel's "Messiah" starts playing again - Jennens berates himself all year, wondering if he screwed up his work and didn't make it clear. Like maybe he used too many metaphors, or commas. Or perhaps in Scene 6, when he wrote, "Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron," he should have explained who "them" was or described a different bludgeon.
No doubt there will be some people aghast by the revelations (no matter how valid) about the writing of Handel's "Messiah." I also have no doubt that almost all those who are aghast have never sat through the 2-1/2 hour work. Nor that most of those ever paid attention to what the precise words actually were. But they will be aghast anyway.
On the other hand, most people who <em >have</em > sat and sat through a 2-1/2 hour performance of Handel's "Messiah" likely welcome having an excuse now not to have to do so again.
Mr. Marissen concludes his study with a thought on the subject.
"While still a timely, living masterpiece that may continue to bring spiritual and aesthetic sustenance to many music lovers, Christian or otherwise, 'Messiah' also appears to be very much a work of its own era. Listeners might do well to ponder exactly what it means when, in keeping with tradition, they stand during the 'Hallelujah' chorus."
And while singing along, they might want to add a "Hallelujah" for the truth, as well.
And that, I thought, was the end of the story. But it wasn't.
A few months later, while reading Volume 9 of Will and Ariel Durant's majestic Story of Civilization, entitled "The Age of Voltaire," I came upon their extensive discussion of Handel. After the passage on "The Messiah," the Durants continue on with the composer's life and eventually reach five years later, April of 1747, when Handel had hit hard times. Not only had he written a string of failures and needed to close his theater, but he went into a sort of retirement, and rumor passed that he may even gone insane, though perhaps it might have been mental exhaustion. (The Earl of Shaftesbury remarked, "Poor Handel looks a little better. I hope he will recover completely, though his mind has been entirely deranged.") However there was yet more to Handel - and to the story relating somewhat to the controversy today about "The Messiah." The Durants write -
"...Handel, now sixty years old, responded with all his powers to an invitation from the Prince of Wales to commemorate the victory of the Prince's younger brother, the Duke of Cumberland, over the Stuart forces at Culloden. Handel took as a symbolic subject Judas Maccabaeus' triumph (166-161 B.C.) over the Hellenizing schemes of Antiochus IV. The new oratorio was so well received (April 1, 1747) that it bore five repetitions in its first season. The Jews of London, grateful to see one of their national heroes so nobly celebrated, helped to swell the attendance, enabling Handel to present the oratorio forty times before his death. Grateful for this new support, he took most of his oratorio subjects henceforth from Jewish legend or history: Alexander Balus, Joshua, Susanna, Solomon and Jephtha. By contrast, Theodora, a Christian theme, drew so small an audience that Handel ruefully remarked, "There was room enough to dance."
No doubt, Charles Jenniens, author of the text for "The Messiah," is spinning even faster and deeper in his grave. But quality does win out over time. And so does transcending decency. And that, perhaps, in part, and in the end, may well be what we're left with.
I should have posted this eight days ago, the night before Hanukkah, rather than the last night -- but the last night will have to do.
I posted this last year, and as things of tradition have it, here it is again --
A New Tale for Hanukkah: The Legend Begins
Several years back, a mixed group of writer friends was discussing religion, when it veered off track a bit. "A bit" as in, someone whimsically bemoaned that Christmas got all the good colors, while Hanukkah was pretty much stuck with blue and white.
I'm guessing that this wasn't the kind of debates Spinoza or Moses Maimonides ever got into. Though you never know.
Another person decided to raise the holiday spirits, suggesting that since there was an actual, physical limit of primary colors in the world, and therefore nothing could be done about that at this point, perhaps instead a new fable could be created. A few days later, this second fellow and his wife came up with the Twin Dalmatians of Hanukkah, Pinkus and Mordechai. The pups scour the earth to bring hats of joy, filled with treats, to the children on the first night of Hanukkah. Pinkus, the cheerful one, would load them up with tasty goodies, while practical Mordechai with a bell on his collar would leave practical gifts, like slide-rules.
The benefits of this new legend were clear to see. For one, it meant that that you could add a whole new color scheme to the Hanukkah celebration palate for displays across the land and trimmings in stores everywhere - black and white, the Dalmatian decorations! And also, Pinkus and Mordechai "pug helpers" would prance throughout shopping centers to the joy and happy laughter of those with childhood in their hearts. And of course, when you're competing with Rudolph, Frosty, the Little Drummer Boy, Scrooge, Magi, Santa, and so many more, it never hurts to have as many fables as possible to pass down through the generations.
He and his wife wrote a few verses to show what he meant, and I thought an unfinished poem was no way to celebrate the season of holidays, and therefore completed it.
Like all good stories of the season, this one ends with a miracle. They went on to create a TV series for ABC a few years later, and then another one for CBS. So, it's good to know that poetry and warm spirit in their hearts (along with a touch of lunacy in their heads) had such a positive impact on their lives. They also now have a reputation to protect and by request shall remain nameless.
Since 'tis the season, then 'tis appropriate to finally bring the story out of its dusty pages where it has annually passed from glowing face to glowing face of the few lucky children to hear it told, and when a few years back on the Huffington Post I presented the new fable to the world.
Okay, maybe there haven't been all that many glowing faces, and maybe it's passed Hanukkah this year (man, it came so early this year!!), but it's the holiday season and time of miracles, so anything's possible.
'Twas the night before Hanukkah,
And all through the shul,
Not a creature was stirring,
The meshpocheh was full
With latkes and brisket
And kugel and more.
Through the heads of the kinder
Spun dreidles galore.
But I in my yalmulka,
And she in her wig,
Settled down in our beds
With warm milk (but no pig).
When up on the roof
I heard such a bark
That I yelled "Oy, gevalt"
(To the goyim that's "Hark").
And I knew with a jingle,
Then a second great "woof,"
That jolly ol' Pinkus
Was up on our roof.
Though t'wasn't just Pinkus,
But Mordechai too,
The Hanukkah Puppies--
Those Dalmatian Jews.
So I sprang to my feet
And quick threw on a shmotta.
And I saw our kids' hats
Were now filled with a lotta:
With toys and candy from Pinkus
And from Mordechai, socks.
And for me and the Mrs.
Some bagels and lox.
The dogs silently worked,
As if studying Torah
(Though Pinkus got playful).
Mordechai lit the menorah.
Then straight up the chimney
Pinkus leapt from the floor.
Mordechai politely went out
the front door.
It's hard to explain
The joyous nakhes I felt
As I saw the Dalmatians
Go to hand out more gelt.
And I heard Pinkus bark,
"Kids can have all they want if."
"Happy Hanukkah," said Mordechai.
"And to all a Good Yontif."
Robert J. Elisberg is a two-time recipient of the Lucille Ball Award for comedy screenwriting. He's written for film, TV, the stage, and two best-selling novels, is a regular columnist for the Writers Guild of America and was for the Huffington Post. Among his other writing, he has a long-time column on technology (which he sometimes understands), and co-wrote a book on world travel. As a lyricist, he is a member of ASCAP, and has contributed to numerous publications.
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