Hardy-har hubristic follow-up from yesterday: turns out I wrote the wrong name on the check for the IRA etc, and had to run to the post office at the last minute to get something in. Hah! But it wasn’t the last minute, since there’s now an extension for all. Never known that to happen.
Ordinary day of little import, as they say in the herring business, and I have to write a column now. Lucky for all I banged out something last night about a subject dear to my heart, and important to anyone who wants to understand the 90s.
Does anyone want to understand the 90s, though? Don’t we all believe we have them figured out? There’s your personal decade, and then there’s the overall decade we share, and the tenor of the latter can’t help but influence your recollection of the former. I remember the 80s with warmth even though it was my 20s, and your 20s usually blow rotten ambergris by the ton, and in a lot of ways I had some emotionally fraught stretches, hands-and-knees stuff on a road that stretched for miles. But it was exciting and novel in a way the 70s weren’t.
The 90s started hard and just got better in every way. Now and then I was lucky enough to realize it. Anyway:
Art Bell. Dang. There’s still some residual references to his show buried in the bones of Diner references, because my radio show came on before his. We had the same audience: the late-night types who figured the rules were a bit different after 10 PM. The world wasn’t so 24/7 then; no one binged on a constant stream of incredibly well-made TV until 3 AM. There was still the general idea that the day was done after the news and the Leno monologue or Nightline opening sequence, and after that it was infomercials and reruns. Maybe a syndie show. Do I miss that? No.
Yes. The division of the day into tones and moods, into states when some things were laughable and some things would be . . . possible, well, that seems remote. Perhaps it’s because I grew up waiting for the scary / sci-fi movie after the news on Saturday night - the interesting stuff was either rationed or marginalized. The occasional monster movie, comics for dorks. Once a year a big sci-fi movie with Chuck Heston. You felt underrepresented in the culture, but don’t most of us in adolescence? Art Bell addressed that audience: the people who believed none of it and the people who believed all of it and everyone in between. We’d been waiting all our lives for a guy on the radio to take a call cold from anywhere in the nation and hear about a UFO, or a ghost, or pretend to pilot a plane over Area 51.
As I’ve said, Art came on after the Diner. My mythology mirrored his, for the sake of a joke. He had Area 51; we had Area 57, where alien tech was used to invent new condiments. Old Highway 23 is a reference to Richard C. Hoagland’s Masonic conspiracy about lines on Mars. And so on. We never took it seriously, except when . . . when it seemed to be referencing something gathering in the margins.
You know, the Quickening.
I never bought that. The apocalyptic stuff I didn’t pay any attention to, although the guy who was always talking about an imminent Solar Kill Shot - gamma rays, any day now - made you think well yes that could happen. It was the sense that a bunch of stuff was going to come out. Roswell, Area 51, abductions - they were part of it. What did he always say? Pieces of the puzzle. At some point we were going to get the pieces that made the picture come into focus, and helped to answer this weird mood in society that had been thrumming along since the early 90s. As I said on Twitter, it was all post-Cold-War end-of-history Y2K anxiety plus anti-government suspicion. I didn’t buy Y2K and I didn’t buy the secret FEMA government that was going to herd us into camps, but did I believe the government had information on UFOs it didn’t tell us? Hell yes.
So that was the entry point into Art Bell’s world, and while you were there you sat through the obvious BS, waiting for the good stuff. Now: everyone who believed in ghosts sat through the UFO BS waiting for their good stuff. And you listened as he picked up a line and talked to some guy piloting a big rig across the black prairie, talking about a thing he’d seen.
It was fun. Deliciously subversive fun. At the center, this guy who listened to everything, gave slight hints when he disbelieved the caller, walked out to look at the desert during breaks, smoked, lived in a trailer, looked like a Radio Shack manager in 1978, and loved radio.
Podcasts aren’t the same.
You had to be there.
What if there was a serial that wasn’t kid stuff? Because I mean, c’mon. Batman’s kid stuff.
How about this:
This will be a substantial first ep, since there are so many details irrelevant to the serial itself. Such as: is it possible to find out where the streetscape above was shot? Of course!
But hold on. Really? Are you sure? Would you bet money on it? Here’s the marquee of the theater you might be thinking about:
It’s a different lettering style. I can’t prove it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this marquee was from Grauman’s Egyptian theater, which had a Pig & Whistle Cafe next door.
Anyway. Our cast. Here's the folks with whom we'll be spending our Wednesdays into the summer:
Also, Lon Chaney Jr., poor guy. Okay! Let's begin.
We don’t start out with newspapers telling of a devious crime-wave. The Bank of Belgravia is robbed. Sound the . . .
And also the . . .
The Siren-O and the Alarm-O are enough to alert attention, so it's off to the strange police department were no one's speech is synced:
Brenda? They’re after Brenda? And who are these people? Where is this?
Oh, that’s easy. It’s Los Angeles! So the cops are chasing Brenda, and we see his car crash. He’s killed. Law Enforement agencies around the world close his file . . . but wait.
So he’s going to be brought back to life by Victor Frankenstein? That’s swiped directly from the Frankenstein soundtrack.
Well, it is a Universal serial.
Anyway, we go to the Secret Agency, where the boys are having an after-action report about the Death of Brenda. But our special Agent Dexter, alias X-9, says he’s been studying the picture of Brenda’s dead body since it came in from Belgravia, where it was killed.
So it’s not Los Angeles. They used stock footage of LA’s famous street for Belgravia.
Anyway, Dexter X-9 knows that Brenda was left handed, and his gun was found in his right hand. It was all staged! He faked his death so he could pull off a big heist.
Then we meet Pidge. He’s the comic-relief guy in this serial, and he tells X-9 that “Blackstone” is in town. He’s Brenda’s “finger man.”
So then we got to Blackstone, who’s got a den of henchmen in a pirate ship that’s moored to a wharf as a tourist attraction. They’re going to steal . . .
. . the Belgravia Crown Jewels, which are in America for exhibit. The Marines are guarding them, so nothing bad can possibly happen. Just to be safe, X-9 assigns a green agent to keep an eye peeled on the ship that takes them home. The ship . . .
. . . is the USS Grisholm. Alas:
Does anything about that picture catch your eye?
NEDICKS. Looks like a theater, but a marquee wouldn't look like that - no space for the show title.
The Nedick's chain was founded by Robert T. Neely, a real estate investor, and Orville A. Dickinson, who operated a store in the Bartholdi Hotel located at 23rd Street and Broadway, in 1913. The original Nedick's stand opened in a hotel storefront at the Bartholdi Hotel. Nedick's business plan was modeled after an Atlantic City juice stand named Clements.
Nedicks caught on. Seventy-five locations by the 50s, but you can guess the rest.
Following intense competition in the 1970s from such national chains as McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts, and much criticism in 1981 for the quality of its concession at the Central Park Zoo, Nedick's ceased operations.
Those had to be some substantial criticisms to kill the whole chain.
Anyway. The FBI swings into action, doing fiber analysis on some string found in a matchbook on the ship. (Some time seems to have been compressed; how, in 1937, do you get evidence from a ship heading to Europe back to America in under a week?)
Turns out it’s Tweed.
Big whoop, you say, but this is advanced criminology for 1937. They also note that Brenda stole the jewels by drilling a hole in the wall of the adjoining stateroom and pumping in poison gas.
Which would have been something you’d think they’d want to show.
We promptly cut to the silhouette of Brenda . . .
He calls Blackstone and arranges a meeting. Blackstone tells the henches that Brenda’s hidden the jewels. In America. The ones he got from the ship. HOW.
Off to a completely normal American town landscape:
This is where the action shifts, and it's an important place: an art-supply store on the waterfront.
Yes, I said the picture above is where we will find an art-supply store on the waterfront.
Inside the shop we see a guy painting something on a painting. What he says is crucial information for the next few eps:
Hey, where's the safe-deposit box slip where the jewels are hid?
Also: If anything happens, keep a sharp eye on every painting. That's because he was painting the safe-deposit box slip into the painting.
Of course they locate the clothier who sold the tweed suit, and get an address, which HAS to be legit since the customer’s name was John Smith. But X-9 goes there, poses as room service, and gets the drop on Blackstone.
HAMPER AGENT IS WEARING A HAT.
I'll spare you the deduction that leads the FBI right back to the art-supply store on the waterfront where Blackstone got the bag from the guy who was painting the painting and who wasn't Brenda.
But first, we have to meet the Dame.
X-9 gets to the Art shop, talks to the Dame, who lies about knowing Brenda - and then X-9 spies the Art Shop manager - the guy who was painting the painting. He runs out! Hey! He's getting away out the back door of the art-supply store on the waterfront!
That reminded me of the Venice scene in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." Anyway:
Okay. Interesting start, and it’s the oldest serial we’ve done here.
There you go; see you around. Or around you go, and see you there.