Friday, April 17, 2015

America's Best Neighbors™ : Your Quarterly Update!

On January 20th, I introduced the above video clip to share a project I created that is well suited for cable television. As a creative person, I've always been fascinated with new projects that are positive, promote good will, healthy communication and actions that improve the lives of others in our communities. I'm equally interested in what motivates us to create the proverbial "new and improved toothpaste". 

My motivation for this program is simple and straight forward. Recently, a friend of mine stated that she is cautious about tuning into television news programs with her young son in the room, given the amount of graphic violence that is depicted. While it's true that none of us can live in a vacuum and avoid every unhealthy story or program, two facts are certain. 

First, the advent of cable television did provide a platform for hundreds of new ideas that resulted in a wide variety of programming and consumer choice. From "Do It Yourself" shows with experts in a given field serving as hosts, to documentaries and "Reality TV", there is something for everybody. Fifteen years ago, this wasn't the case.

Second, viewers have to decide for themselves what is positive or negative programming. It's an accepted fact of life that not every news story is encouraging with a hopeful ending. We've all witnessed too many examples of this reality from recent news reports here at home and abroad. However, it's also an undisputed fact that people deserve an alternative to discouraging news and negative programming with hopeful and positive content that recharges our optimism. America's Best Neighbors™ is an alternative program that is family friendly, with a "cool factor" to it. Incidentally, this is not an easy balance to create! But at the end of every episode, imagine families or groups of friends engaged in dialogue about a story they just finished watching involving neighbors helping someone less fortunate in their community. 

Coast to coast in large cities and small towns alike, there are tremendous acts of compassion that never makes the local or national news. One exception that I cited in my January blog post was a story that came to my attention three years ago. It involves a Catholic priest by the name of Father Michael Pfleger in Chicago. Concerned about the rise in street gang violence, he created a basketball tournament and was very effective in encouraging gangs to form teams. As Father Pfleger told reporter Diane Sawyer of ABC News at the time: "Nobody wins in a shoot out. We're trying to create an atmosphere that when something comes up, talk it out rather than shoot it out". Father Pfleger went further by helping gang members attain their GED, career training and jobs.

Since January, I've approached a number of key broadcasting executives, production companies and cable networks to elicit their feedback. As you might imagine, the subject of financial risk for a new production regularly comes up. With this project, that risk is minimal, and the commercial viability is limitless; the demographic of America's Best Neighbors™ is wide open--whether you are 7 years old or 107. Commercial product endorsements are well suited to this scenario.  

Just the same, nothing comes easy. Here is a program with simplicity and clarity that enables current programming to remain in place. What America's Best Neighbors™ offers is merely an alternative that is at once a fresh and inspiring call to action. You won't find physical or emotional violence, dark themes or bad language in this series. What you will find is a program that allows you to relate to stories of hope and encouragement. 

Imagine a weekly television program that reaches viewers through their hearts and not their pocketbooks! By featuring stories of children and adults who  are quietly engaged in spontaneous or planned acts of kindness and generosity, this series will inspire others to consider how they too can make a positive difference in their own communities. 

As of this writing, proposals and budgets have been submitted and second round follow ups with the strongest candidates as production partners is underway. With the first quarter of 2015 now behind us, this project remains a work in progress. 

With the second quarter of the year under way, I continue to see some amazing possibilities ahead that make this project entirely possible.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Pagliacci: The Show Must Go On!

Two stories that dove-tail beautifully are in order here. 

First, a friend of mine in New York found this old television commercial that plays to my sense of humor. As I understand it, Kellogg's cereal is a client of the Leo Burnett Advertising Agency. Writer and Documentary producer Joel Hochberg based this commercial on the 1892 Italian opera, "Pagliacci" by Ruggiero Leoncavallo--with an obvious change of lyrics to the aria, "vesti la giubba" (translation: "put on the costume".) 

Second, when Jack Paar died in 2004, (Paar succeeded Steve Allen and preceded Johnny Carson as host of "The Tonight Show" before any of us were born) I remember hearing veteran broadcaster Hugh Downs (Parr's co-host) giving his impressions of the late talk show host. Downs, who lives in Phoenix, was on a cruise at the time of Paar's death and spoke by telephone with Larry King at CNN. In his tribute, Downs said that Paar was never a "Pagliacci" type of person, given to hiding his feelings. He wore his feelings on his sleeve, and you always knew what was on his mind. This point will become evident in a moment. 

As with every story I find amusing, there is the known and the lesser- known. 

What is Known
It strikes me as hilarious in the commercial video that the son continues to calmly eat his cereal while watching his father go into full opera aria mode, then suffering a meltdown! Incidentally, I believe this performance is taken from the character of Canio from the original opera. I have no idea how many takes this must have required. The mother-in-law looks as though she's made a grocery stop on her way to the family home, directly from the Metropolitan Opera!

The cast consisted of Johnny Hamer as the husband, Reva Rose as his wife and Maria Montalbo as his mother-in-law. 

It's public knowledge that "Vesti" received a Cannes Gold Lion Award and is in the Advertising Hall of Fame. Entertainment Weekly Magazine selected this as one of the ten greatest commercials of all time.  Fans of "The Simpsons" may also remember Krusty the Clown paying tribute to "vesti la giubba". 

A total of three operatic television commercials were created for Kellogg's. The remaining two are based on "Carmen" and "Madame Butterfly". I haven't found the "Carmen" episode, but I did locate the video commercial based on "Madame Butterfly". In my opinion, "vesti  la giubba" from "Pagliacci" was the best of the two that I've watched. 

What is Lesser Known (until now)
I've discovered that "vesti la giubba" has much in common with themes by the late rock n' roll legend Roy Orbison. His hit songs, "Crying", "The Comedians" and "Running Scared" are just a few examples of Roy's "three-minute opera's". Each involved devastating heartbreak and influenced a young Bruce Springsteen when he was growing up. In any event, "vesti la giubba" is sung at the conclusion of Leoncavallo's first act of a two act opera. Criticized at its debut for being short, in my opinion, this length is perfectly suited for today's short attention spans. But I digress. 

The story takes place in the 19th century in southern Italy and involves a troop of travelling clowns headed by Canio, a great opera tenor. Basically, Canio's wife, Nedda, is lusted after by the villain Tonio, and a local peasant boy, Silvio, with whom she is truly in love, and secretly plans to elope with later that night. Tonio reveals his feelings for Nedda. Rebuffing him,  she strikes him in the face. After witnessing Nedda in Silvio's embrace, Tonio seeks revenge by immediately informing Canio. Heartbroken by his wife's betrayal, Canio must hide his feelings under the makeup of a clown to sing for a waiting audience. This is a prelude to a double murder of Nedda and Silvio, before Canio addresses the audience with "La commedia e' finitia" (translated: "the comedy is over") at the end of the second act. "Pagliacci" is a "play within a play". Accordingly, each actor has a real name and a stage name. 

Like modern-day songs by Roy Orbison, the notion of the "tragic clown", smiling on the outside but crying on the inside is significant. Comedian Jerry Lewis once described the clown as "the most devastated human being". In "Pagliacci", the clown often features the painted-on tear running down the cheek of the performer. 

I encourage readers to review online videos of Mario Lanza, Luciano Pavarotti (sadly both deceased) and Placido Domingo in performances of "vesti la giubba" from "Pagliacci". Hugh Downs' description of Paar has always struck me as admirable: 'He was never a Pagliacci-type of person'. A reference to this paraphrased statement would be helpful for me to close this post.

On November 11, 1960 an emotionally unpredictable, albeit, principled Paar made national headlines for announcing to a stunned studio audience that he was leaving "The Tonight Show" in protest. The precipitating event for this action involved the NBC network censoring a joke that Parr had used the night before that featured the British term "water closet" (American translation: bathroom). Parr, clearly upset in audio recordings I've listened to, thanked NBC and the audience, then shook hands with Downs before walking off the set. This was not a publicity stunt, and left Downs to fill what I believe was more than 80 minutes of air time on television. Paar returned three weeks later, and was allowed to tell his joke. 

Public Domain/Author Unknown

There you have it, from a television commercials origins, to Roy Orbison and Jack Paar. I hope you enjoyed this tale! "Pagliacci" brings to mind another phrase: "The Show Must Go On!" 

Disclaimer: This is a personal blog site and I do not own the video. It is used only in the context of sharing and critiquing a great moment in television.  It is brilliant! No copyright infringement is intended.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

On Assignment...

Photo-Michael Manning

I've just finished a lengthy magazine assignment and will be back soon!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Remembering Steve McQueen

Photos-Donna Redden
Steve McQueen with the English Director Peter Yates during the filming of "Bullitt" 

Had he lived, actor Steve McQueen would have been 85 today. It is amazing when I run into someone in their mid to late twenties who actually knows who McQueen is, and equally shocking when they don't. Those who do, are generally film buffs. Those who don't, need to be given some slack, considering that Steve died young in 1980 of complications from Mesothelioma. He was only 50. 

Casting age aside, Steve was the world's highest paid and biggest box office draw from 1967 to 1980. Among his great films are "The Sand Pebbles", "Bullitt" and "Papillon"--co-starring Dustin Hoffman. His life and achievements were amazing. 

Born in Beech Grove, Indiana in 1930, he was largely a throw-away kid, abandoned by his father and forced to endure life on and off with his troubled mother. A stint at the Chino Hills, California's Boys Republic reform school helped provide some grounding to his life. Service in the Marines followed, and upon his discharge, many lean years resumed in New York where he and Martin Landau were selected from among 2,000 hopefuls for The Actor's Studio. 

McQueen's Solar Productions filmed "Bullitt" in San Francisco 

From the television series, "Wanted Dead or Alive" to his break out role in "The Great Escape", McQueen acted with such stars as Richard Crenna, Paul Newman, Natalie Wood, Sir Richard Attenborough, James Garner, Faye Dunaway, Edward G. Robinson, and Dustin Hoffman. 

These photographs from the 1968 film, "Bullitt" are telling. The film itself secured McQueen as the undisputed "King of Cool", the anti-hero who is inextricably drawn into conflict against his will. He remained troubled throughout his adult life by personal demons, but found peace in his final years as a born-again Christian. He was a quiet philanthropist, who donated generously to The Boys Republic, and to troubled youth to the very end of his life. 

Photo--Marshall Terrill

Despite the overwhelming success of "Bullitt", McQueen never played a cop again. Other notable films include: "The Magnificent Seven", "Love with the Proper Stranger", "The Cincinnati Kid", "Junior Bonner", "The Getaway" and "Tom Horn" among many.  

While the film, "Bullitt" is largely remembered for the famous car chase that has never been duplicated, acting students are encouraged to study McQueen's physicality and improvisation in the film. One such scene involves McQueen examining a room in a seedy motel, where a witness under police protection is murdered. Never a Method actor, McQueen relied entirely on his instincts, and delivered a masterpiece performance without uttering a single word. His reliance on facial expressions, and his impeccable timing resonates deeply with fans in non-English speaking countries who revere McQueen for his courage and tenacity. His authenticity as an actor often leads to debates about who was more influential--Marlon Brando or McQueen. (On my REEL PAGE you can watch my interview with McQueen biographer Marshall Terrill, who addresses this issue at: 

Columbia Pictures
The grueling physical requirements of the 1973 prison drama "Papillon", based on the autobiography of Henri Charrierre is considered among McQueen's finest screen performances. His range was quite broad, and he is today regarded with awe for the films he chose, as much for the 94 films he turned down. These included: "The Bodyguard" (later starring Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner), "Apocalypse Now" (co-starring Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando), "First Blood" (starring Sylvester Stallone"), "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (starring Jack Nicholson) and "The French Connection" (starring Gene Hackman). While it's impossible for me to imagine Steve McQueen as an 85 year-old man, it's quite moving that he is still highly regarded among fans old and new, including today's actors in Hollywood, who acknowledge an unforgettable actor who left us far too soon. 

Photo--Michael Manning

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Tuesday Throwback: Jerry MaGuire Meets West Side Story

  (Image Courtesy of Tri Star Pictures)

In 2013 I made an "editorial decision" to delete over 2,000 posts from my blog archives, in addition to another 1,000 posts that I had deleted over the previous 18 months. My decision to tidy up my site was inspired by a quotation I've pondered over the years from my Senior Thesis Adviser at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas (one of three universities I attended): "I believe that the ability to incorporate new ideas and discard outdated ones is the most important trait in reaching any goal". 
One of the posts that survived my updating was, in fact, only the second blog I had written.  I'm re-posting it with the hope that you enjoy reading it and laugh as hard at me as I did at myself.
Years ago, I could still enjoy a glass of wine without incurring a migraine headache. For the sake of this story, I'll call the girl who was my date by the name of Jennifer. Standing at five feet, five inches tall with short brunette hair and a slim build, Jennifer was very cute. I stood at five feet six inches, so it was a good day. I can't recall exactly how we met, but I'm fairly certain that we encountered each other in an upscale (and now-defunct) bar near my college campus. I was there one night with a buddy of mine, and we were laughing over our experiences as summer boarders at a fraternity house for Engineering and Architecture students. Jennifer walked in to meet a girlfriend over a couple of drinks, ostensibly to discuss a boyfriend who had cheated on her. My buddy had quite a knack for starting conversations with total strangers, and he proceeded to introduce us to the girls using an outrageous opening line that was so contrived, I almost busted out laughing. To my relief, the girls had a sense of humor and laughed at my buddy before inviting us to join them at the bar. I wound up talking to Jennifer, while my buddy entertained her friend. By the end of the night, she and I exchanged phone numbers scribbled on paper napkins after a fun conversation, with plans to go out on a date. The following weekend, Jennifer drove over to my apartment located just off campus. We jumped in my car for a short drive to a popular East Side Italian restaurant. 
Our evening had all of the ingredients of a great first date. I ordered a specialty item from the menu that I'd never order today. It was known as a Seven Layer Salad with iceberg lettuce, spinach, celery, water chestnuts, peas, red onions and diced chicken. This concoction was smothered in mayonnaise dressing with Parmesan cheese, and topped with bacon. Throughout the evening, we traded funny stories about our lives, and managed to polish off almost two full carafe's of Cabernet Sauvignon before I drove her back to her car. The evening ended on a sidewalk directly across the street from my loft apartment, with a prolonged send off reminiscent of the Tony and Maria characters in the classic motion picture, "West Side Story" (played by Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood). We stood on the sidewalk of a one way street that magically became our Champs-Élysées.  
(Image Courtesy of Mirisch Pictures and United Artists)
 Richard Beymer (Tony) with Natalie Wood (Maria)
Our two-carafe dialogue went something like this
My Date: (smiling) "You know, I had a great time tonight". 
Me: (also smiling) "So did I". 
My Date: (starting to appear more serious) "I'm already looking forward to our next date". 
Me: (with the wine talking) "I'll tell ya one thing, it'll be unforgettable". 
(A long kiss ensued with traffic speeding by and car horns sounding approval).
My Date: (after a long pause) "Call me". 
At this point, you could say that I was feeling very good about how the night was going. All I needed to do was reveal a little mystery and bravado. So, I started slowly walking backwards with my forefingers and thumbs of each hand pointed at my date, just as Tom Cruise would do years later in the film, "Jerry MaGuire". Without breaking eye contact, I snapped my fingers, pointing at Jennifer and said "You got it". This was, without any doubt, one of those moments that Bruce Springsteen sang about on his "Born To Run" album! However, my seemingly cool and seductive exit was violently interrupted.

(Image Courtesy of CBS/Sony Records)
As I turned to cross the street, a massive attacker struck me squarely in the chest with what appeared to be a large hammer. It all happened in a split second! I was certain that the assault on that sidewalk had broken my sternum. The air escaping my lungs sounded like a first grader scraping a black classroom chalkboard with his fingernails. My backward fall onto the pavement seemed to occur in slow motion--in hindsight, probably due to shock. On the verge of losing consciousness from the pain as I collapsed onto the warm summer concrete, I managed to catch a glimpse of the assailant--a cast iron parking meter rocking back and forth! I was now flat on my back. Jennifer rushed forward and knelt at my side. Yes, this was the ending of "West Side Story", and I was Tony dying in Maria's arms after a rumble with a rival street gang. Never mind that this drama would have technically been called "East Side Story" for accuracy. Cue up Leonard Bernstein's somber opening to the song "Somewhere". The exception to this comparison was obvious. If Jennifer was "Maria", she wasn't singing. She looked horrified! And if I was her "Tony", I certainly did feel as if I was dying. I just had the wind knocked out of me and I was struggling to breathe! 

 (Image Courtesy of Mirisch Pictures and United Artists)
Very similar to me laying on the sidewalk outside my old off-campus apartment.
As soon as it became apparent that I wouldn't require artificial respiration, I remember that Jennifer's face began to reflect a strange mixture of humor and pity. "Are you all right? Tell me! Is there anything I can do?", she pleaded. In those precious seconds,  I went from a debonair leading man to a certified imbecile who walked chest-first into a parking meter that was anchored in two feet of concrete! Ultimately, I started to breathe again, and Jennifer gently helped me up off the pavement. She even managed a hug. By now, the only thing I was "dying" of was embarrassment. Jennifer's sweet voice was sobering. "Do you need me to walk you across the street?", she asked. "No, no, uh. That uh...that won't be necessary. Really, I'm okay". Exit stage left. 
As I crossed the street and made my way inside the apartment, I had a very bad feeling about the prospects of that second date we had mentioned so passionately only minutes earlier. In fact, somewhere between the attack of the parking meter and our next outing, Jennifer's two-timing beau re-entered the picture. I was informed by a "Dear John" style telephone call that there would be no second date. To my credit, I told Jennifer that I understood, and wished her well. That memorable movie...
At the end of "West Side Story", a lone police car pulls up with it's flashing red light illuminating Maria kneeling on the ground and holding a dying Tony in her arms. The camera pulls away, the musical score is a dirge of dread, and the scene fades to black. 
I did try to contact Jennifer a couple of weeks later. You can never tell how those two-timing guys fare after they return. Her phone number had been disconnected. I'd like to think she is very happy today. On a recent visit back to my college campus, I noticed that the fabled parking meter fell victim -- no pun intended --to urban renewal, and is no longer anywhere to be found. It's just as well. 


(Image Courtesy of Columbia Records)

   Winter Photo--Michael Manning: (taken by a passerby with a disposable camera for this story).

Thursday, March 12, 2015

"Wild": A Brief Film Review

Image Licensed under Fair Use via Wikipedia-Fox Searchlight Pictures 
The theater I attended was packed for an afternoon showing of Reese Witherspoon's movie, "Wild". Despite a theater ticket agent having advised me a week earlier that some audience members left the movie early, I was impressed enough by the online print and video interviews I accessed with Witherspoon to have a look at the film. I was glad I did. 

Interestingly, this marked my second experience over the past year with a film focusing on a story of personal survival. Robert Redford's epic film, "All Is Lost" was the first. 

In "Wild", Witherspoon (also marking her producing debut) turned in a terrific performance under often harsh filming conditions in the Northwest states of Oregon and California. The movie is based on the true life story of Cheryl Strayed's 2012 memoir, "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail". The film co-starring Laura Dern, is directed by Jean-Marc Vallée with the screenplay adapted by Nick Hornby. Both actresses received Academy Award nominations in 2014 for their performances. 

It's interesting to me that I thought of the Redford film days later. In that particular project, Redford is the sole actor, with a spartan script that forced him to rely on pure instincts. At the time that film was released, a friend of mine frankly told me, "I don't think I could tolerate seeing it" (from the standpoint of anxiety). Neither is "Wild" a film for the faint of heart. 

Set in 1995, Cheryl Strayed makes a bold decision to hike a one thousand mile-section of the Pacific Crest Trail in an effort to heal the wounds of an abusive alcoholic father, the death of her mother from cancer at 45, her heroin addiction, years of destructive behavior, and a divorce. Unlike the Redford film, "Wild" uses a multi-linear approach to Strayed's story, with flashbacks to her life as a child, a teenager and adult. Invariably, there are some disturbing scenes that Witherspoon bravely chose to perform, in the spirit of maintaining the authenticity of the book's narrative. To this end, the film is honest in its treatment of heartbreak, loss, grief, and the redemptive power of the human spirit. Audiences will certainly identify with Strayed's discovery of her own capacity for endurance in the face of seemingly insurmountable hardships from the past through the present. It is a remarkable story.

The film had its premier on August 29, 2014 at the Telluride Film Festival. I must have been the last person on earth to know that the film's theatrical release was on December 3, 2014. Locally, the film has been in theaters here in Phoenix, Arizona a little over two weeks. 

At the risk of sounding cliche', Reese Witherspoon's range as an actress is quite impressive and will, no doubt, be a surprise to many. I pondered the film quietly for two hours after leaving the theater. The central core of life's most powerful instinct--survival--is also a hopeful one.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Delta's 747: The Retirement Plan

Airways Magazine

The April 2015 issue of Airways Magazine is already on the shelves of Barnes & Noble Booksellers and fine bookstores and newsstands worldwide. It contains my article, "Delta's 747: The Retirement Plan". 

If you've ever flown aboard the "Queen of the Skies"--the majestic Boeing 747--then consider yourself lucky. The airliner that is responsible for "shrinking the globe", is today flown in the U.S. by two remaining carriers--Delta and United Airlines. 

Driven by Pan Am's legendary chief Juan Trippe and Boeing's William Allen to carry two and half times as many people as the Boeing 707, Trippe reportedly stated to Allen, "If you build it, I'll buy it". Allen replied, "If you buy it, I'll build it". A firm handshake followed in December 1965. Amazingly, both men risked the existence of their company's on the success of the 747, which revolutionized air travel as the safest and most comfortable airplane ever built. Ever the visionary, Trippe viewed the 747 as a "stop gap" design that would eventually be succeeded by supersonic jets (the French-Anglo Concorde and Boeing's 2707) with the 747 transitioning into a new role as a cargo carrier. While Concorde was developed by a joint venture between France and England, environmental impact concerns in the U.S. ended the Boeing 2707 development in the early 1970's. 

With the merger of Delta and Northwest Airlines in 2009, Delta inherited 16 samples of the Boeing 747. Four aircraft have already been retired, and by 2017, the remaining 12 will also be phased out. United currently has not announced plans to retire their 23 Boeing 747's. It feels strange to be saying farewell to a legendary commercial jet admired and flown by airlines all over the world. 

In this article, I examine how the Boeing 747 program began, Delta's history with the aircraft in the past and present, and plans to retire their newly refurbished 747 fleet. With stunning photography, it's great to take a look back at what was once considered an impossible aircraft to build. The Boeing 747 is the personification of comfort and class.