A career murdered on November 22, 1963

The Boston Globe‘s Jeff Jacoby remembers Vaughn Meader, whose JFK imitation made him a superstar in the early sixties.  And then…

In 1962, a 26-year-old stand-up comedian from Maine named Vaughn Meader rocketed to fame and fortune with his uncanny impersonation of President Kennedy. Meader starred in a comedy album, “The First Family,” that became an extraordinary cultural phenomenon and the fastest-selling LP the recording industry had yet seen. “There never has been an album that has broken so many records, or set so many new ones,”Billboard marveled in January 1963, two months after Meader’s record went on sale. Demand for the record soared as high as 1 million a week; all told, 7.5 million copies were sold. “The First Family” won the Grammy for album of the year in 1963. Soon there was a second album, “The First Family, Volume Two.”

Meader’s spoof of the Kennedy family made him rich and popular. There were write-ups in Time, Life, and Newsweek, appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, and bookings in Las Vegas and in clubs around the country. The president himself commented on Meader’s impersonation. Asked at a press conference whether he was annoyed by the comedy album, JFK responded to laughter: “Actually, I listened to Mr. Meader’s record but I thought it sounded more like Teddy than it did me — so he’s annoyed.”

Meader’s career effectively ended on Nov. 22, 1963; the murder of the president he had imitated for laughs instantly made him radioactive. His club act was canceled; the albums were pulled from store shelves; he was disinvited from the 1964 Grammy Awards show. It was thanks to his talents that presidential mimicry became a permanent element of modern American culture. But by the time he died in 2004, Vaughn Meader was largely forgotten.

Audiences whose idea of comedians taking shots at the president has been shaped by Saturday Night Live and the Daily Show would be astonished to learn how gentle, even affectionate, Meader’s jibes were. “The First Family” had no jokes about the Bay of Pigs fiasco or the questionable origins of the Kennedy fortune. There were no skits that involved the president gulping antidepressants. Instead there were skits that involved the president allocating bathtub toys (nine toy PT boats apiece for Caroline and John, but “the rubbah swan is mine!”)

The closest Meader came to hinting that Kennedy may have won the White House with some conveniently stolen votes was a spoof public service announcement: “Go to the polls and vote. Vote for the Kennedy of your choice, but vote!” Even digs at Republicans’ expense barely stung. (Reporter: “When will we send a man to the Moon?” Kennedy: “Whenever Senator Goldwater wants to go.”)

More surprising than the gags on the album, though, might be the note that appeared on the album sleeve: “This album is for fun! Things are being suggested and said here about some of the great people of our time, and perhaps the very fact that they are able to laugh with us . . . is in part what makes them the great people they are.”

After Kennedy’s assassination, Lenny Bruce said, “Boy, did Vaughn Meader get fucked.”

(P.S. Oswald acted alone.  Deal with it.)

How Dynamo Berlin cheated its way to glory

In Communist East Germany, whatever the Stasi wanted, the Stasi got.  And in the seventies and eighties, the secret police wanted championships:

…this club dominated East German soccer, winning the title 10 years in a row 1979-1988. The problem is, they cheated. Dynamo was the team of the Staatssicherheit, the Stasi, the hated GDR secret police. As a result, they manipulated results and otherwise cheated to win the titles. No wonder!

From 1954-66, the club was simply known as Dynamo Berlin. The club was officially founded as BFC Dynamo in 1966, and really didn’t do much until the late 1970s. Despite being the official club of the secret police, apparently the club was allowed to play on it’s own terms. However things started going crooked once Erich Mielke, the head of the Stasi, decided that he wanted championships. So whenever they needed a result, they got it. Losing the game? Have the ref call a “penalty.” Need another player? Have him transferred to BFC Dynamo. It’s not surprising that the club proved unstoppable. Title after title followed. Fans throughout the GDR expressed their hatred to BFC Dynamo, but were forced to grin and bear it.

After reunification, the ties to the Stasi were obviously cut, and a newly constituted FC Berlin was formed in 1990. Obviously, the burden of history was a hard thing to live down. Management attempted to emphasize youth soccer and get away from the disgraceful past of the club. Despite a concentration on youth teams, encouraging fun and fair play, the change was hardly accepted.

In May 1999, the members voted to bring back the old name BFC Dynamo. Some of the reasons were to “capture the glorious past” and attract more sponsors. I guess they figured they couldn’t pull the wool over anybody’s eyes anyway.

They’re still around, plugging away in the fifth tier of German football.    The Guardian ran this interesting piece about the DDR-Oberliga in 2009:

There were four categories of clubs in East German football:

a) The Dynamos: Connected to the secret police. Every club with the Dynamo prefix (eg Berlin, Dresden) was directly answerable to the head of the Stasi, Erich Mielke, who had little difficulty jumping the “fit and proper person” hurdle.

b) The Vorwärts, which were overseen by the Ministry of Defence. Big in the 60s.

c) Good old-fashioned football clubs with no affiliation to secret organisations (eg FC Magdeburg and FC Carl Zeiss Jena).

d) Works Teams (Rotation Babelsberg, Turbine Potsdam and the oft-relegated Traktor Gross-Lindau).

Football may not have been a religion in East Germany but it did carry a hefty ideological burden. Here’s the Stasi’s Mielke: “Football success will highlight even more clearly the superiority of our socialist order in the area of sport.”

[...]

…when the national team played against the West in the 1974 World Cup in a match billed as an example of “the triumphal march of GDR sport and the certainty of victory in the class struggle with West German imperialism”, more than 70% of the country tuned in. The match finished FRG 0 GDR 1 (Sparwasser 77) and was the undoubted high point in the 40-year life of East German football. Cannily, they knocked back imperialist requests for a rematch.

Low points were much more common. None lower than when, as Dynamo Dresden were celebrating yet another championship, Mielke ghosted into their dressing room like Satan with a grudge to inform them that next year BFC Dynamo would be champions. This turned out to be an inspired piece of tipping. And with the Stasi on board, motivating referees and suggesting certain players might do certain things, BFC went on to enjoy a run of success remarkably similar to that achieved by Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson.

The World is finally catching up to “Last Action Hero”

20 years after it was released, The AV Club‘s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky (in an article published as part of “1993 Week”) has high praise for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s misunderstood action-comedy:

Heavy cross-promotion didn’t exactly endear it to the press, nor did the then-prevailing impression that Last Action Hero was an extension of the Schwarzenegger brand, a Planet Hollywood theme restaurant in feature form. But blaming Last Action Hero’s comparative failure on advertising isn’t accurate; after all, Jurassic Park was just as aggressively promoted. (Of course, many of those involved with the movie would eventually come to blame Jurassic Park—which opened the week before Last Action Hero and became a runaway hit—for their movie’s “failure.”)

Rather, the reason why Last Action Hero didn’t become a massive blockbuster rests in the film itself. It’s a mutant that can’t be categorized, both a straightforward action movie and a Joe Dante-style gag-a-minute fantasy. It doesn’t make much sense. It’s the only truly funny comedy of Schwarzenegger’s career, and it’s overtly about Schwarzenegger, and yet none of its best jokes are related to Schwarzenegger’s screen persona. At times, it’s brilliant and demented.

[...]

One of my favorite sequences in the film starts with Danny sitting in a classroom in his world. The teacher puts on Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet. As Danny grows bored, the Olivier movie dissolves into an imaginary adaptation starring Schwarzenegger, full of references to his meta-fictional Jack Slater character. This parody (which is, I should say, pretty damn funny) dissolves into Chuck Jones’ Road Runner cartoon Fast and Furry-ous; a slow zoom out reveals that Danny is watching it on his TV set.

Within the space of a few minutes, the movie goes from a fictional reality to a real fiction to a fictional fiction to a cartoon and then back to the fictional reality again, all in the service of gags and “visual melodies.” The fog around Elsinore turns into a puff of cartoon smoke. As fiction, it’s messy and nonsensical. As filmmaking, it’s pure.

This scene, featuring the great Charles Dance and Anthony Quinn, is representative of the film’s sense of humor.  It’s easy to see why 1993 moviegoers anticipating Arnold’s T2 follow-up just didn’t get it, but now it seems way ahead of its time:

Train of Fools

“Alright, everyone, our network is stuck in last place.  ‘Little House on the Prairie’ is our only hit.  We need a game-changer show that will turn NBC around.”
“How about ‘The Love Boat’ on a giant nuclear-powered train?”
“COCAINE FOR EVERYBODY!!!”

When the infamous Supertrain began its nine-episode run in 1979, the hosts of the Today show – anchored by an impossibly young Tom Brokaw – were forced to promote it.  The sheer contempt in which Brokaw and Gene Shalit hold the series is hilariously obvious:

More than you ever wanted to know at this remarkably comprehensive fan site.

The legend of Ali Dia

It sounds like a movie: a young soccer football player from Africa travels to Europe to make his fortune, but just isn’t good enough to play for anyone other than lower-tier and semi-pro clubs.  So, he gets someone to call up a major English team pretending to be the World Footballer of the Year, recommending that his “cousin” get a tryout, and by the time the hoax is discovered the guy has actually made it onto the field during a crucial Premiership match.

All of this actually happened in 1996:

…Ali Dia is famous in the Premier League for being the greatest conman in the history of the game and his name is one Graeme Souness would dearly love to forget. The year was 1996 and Souness was in charge of Southampton when he received a mysterious phone call from a man claiming to be George Weah, the former Fifa World Player of the Year and footballing superstar. Now any contact with a player that good is enough to get any manager excited, but instead of offering his own services to the Saints, Weah told Souness to check out his cousin, a PSG player who had won caps for Senegal.

In the days before YouTube, where a routine spot check would be enough to tell someone all they needed to know about a potential superstar, a personal recommendation from one of the game’s greats is surely enough to earn you a contract. After all, the scouts at the Dell didn’t want to lose out on a prodigious talent to their rivals, indeed only Matt Le Tissier came anywhere near the word ‘talent’ in a Southampton shirt at that time. To hoard off any interest from other clubs, the Saints offered Dia a one month contract with the club to prove his worth in the Premier League.

Unfortunately for Souness and Southampton, the phone call was a fake. Dia had never played for the Senegal, probably didn’t know who PSG were and his cousin was most certainly not George Weah. In fact Dia’s footballing career before that was no better than the average Sunday league player, he’d turned out for a few unheard-of French teams before unsuccessfully trialling at a number of lower English league clubs. He did however make one appearance for Blyth Spartans of the Northern Premier League where, by all accounts, he put in a remarkably forgettable performance.

So the fact that Dia pulled on a Southampton shirt during a Premier League game against Leeds United is one of the most bizarre happenings the game has ever witnessed. Saints legend Le Tissier has gone on record to say that Dia trained once with the first squad, showing as much skill in a five-a-side game as a man with his feet tied together. Not one member of the Southampton team thought Dia would ever be involved in a match day squad, so imagine their surprise when Souness named his new Senegalese superstar on the bench for the crunch match with Leeds.

After Le Tissier pulled a thigh muscle during the game, the number 33 went up on the fourth official’s board, signalling that Dia would be introduced for his debut…

If this were a movie, of course, the audacious young hero would score the winning goal.  But it wasn’t a movie…

…What happened next was excruciatingly embarrassing for everyone that witnessed it. Dia ran around like Bambi on ice, unable to control the ball or keep any sort of position on the field. 53 minutes later and the substitute was substituted, as Souness realised his terrible, terrible mistake, hauling Dia off for Ken Monkou. Leeds won the game 2-0 and the most ambiguous of Premier League matches went down in the game’s folklore.

Dia never showed up at the Dell again, probably catching on to the fact that he’d be in for some serious questions from the Saints hierarchy, indeed the subject has haunted Graeme Souness to this day. Unbelievably that season, Dia turned up in the Conference, making eight appearances for Gateshead where he scored twice, including a goal on his debut against Bath City.

This Liverpool supporter (who admittedly has his own reasons for wanting to see Graeme Souness embarassed) hails Ali Dia for living the dream:

What probably ranks among Souness’ worst minutes as a manager, was probably Ali Dia’s greatest 22 minutes of his life. He was rubbish. He missed an open goal, along with another fairly decent chance. He wandered all over the place. He couldn’t control the ball. He was substituted after 53 minutes. In the words of Le Tissier,‘His performance was almost comical. He kind of took my place, but he didn’t really have a position. He was just wondering everywhere. I don’t think he realised what position he was supposed to be in. I don’t even know if he spoke English – I don’t think I ever said a word to him. In the end he got himself subbed because he was that bad.’

Most fans probably think this a bad thing. The most notorious player ever according to most in fact. Number 1 in several bad transfer lists. But I tell you now that Ali Dia is a legend. Most of us untalented footballers will never play for a premier league side, or even get close. Ali Dia managed it, with a massive amount of luck, but with balls and with persistence, and with the help of a friend who goes sadly unremembered. Ali Dia is the fan in the crowd supporting his beloved team who is suddenly called up to by his manager to get laced up, to take the field and play. And Ali Dia nearly scored. Twice.

Dreams are made of what Ali Dia built.

He disappeared into conference mediocrity immediatly after the game, to never be heard of again. But he can tell his kids that he played for a top, top side. He can pretend that he was that good. Hell, he could tell them the truth, and say he pulled the greatest hoax in history, and it would still be amazing. He was the worlds best streaker – he smashed every other mad fan running in every direction across the pitch by a mile. 23 minutes of running headless in every direction and the security guards never caught him.

So this is my dedication to Ali Dia, because one day there will be moves about him, possibly even a trilogy. And a paraphrasal of Mel Gibson/William Wallace shall be in there. Like this:

‘…dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willin’ to trade all the days, from this day to that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here, and play twenty three minutes for Southampton as a striker!’

Yes, Ali Dia is that awesome. He is the football fan who fulfilled his dreams against all the odds, and in spite of everything you may have read, can hold his head high indeed.

Might the “Sprockets” movie actually have been…good?

It’s one of the most infamous abortive projects in Hollywood history: Mike Myers committed to a movie based on his Dieter Sprocket character from Saturday Night Live, only to back out because he believed his own script wasn’t good enough.

Considering that Myes subsequently signed off on Austin Powers in Goldmember*, that’s a scary thought.  But Bradford Evans of Splitsider actually read that supposedly subpar screenplay, and says Dieter could have been a very funny movie:

Co-written by Mike Myers, Michael McCullers (who scripted both Austin Powers sequels with Myers), and SNL hall-of-famer Jack Handey, Dieter (originally titled Sprockets) is a dense screenplay packed with solid jokes. The storyline follows Dieter’s talk show plummeting in the ratings after his pet monkey Klaus, who’s his wildly-popular sidekick, is kidnapped and held for ransom. Dieter, who can’t make the ransom because he “spent all his money on arts and lotions,” then travels to LA to get his monkey back. It’s a silly plot for the film, but a Dieter movie is going to be silly anyway. It manages to be entertaining nonetheless. Like other Mike Myers movies, the script jumps around a little bit and feels like a series of sketches at times, but that’s not a bad thing as most of the sidetracked gags are funny.

One of the script’s strengths is its supporting characters. While in LA, Dieter stays with his stereotypical American cousin Bob Sheeder and his stereotypical American family. Myers had cast Will Ferrell, still on SNL at the time and years from becoming a household name, as Sheeder, a role that clearly was written for Ferrell (the script, penned before Ferrell was signed on, reads “Think Will Ferrell” for the character description). ..

[...]

As prescient as it was for Myers to hire Will Ferrell for a meaty supporting role three years ahead of him becoming a big movie star, he had another future comedy heavyweight in the supporting cast: Jack Black. Coming off of his breakthrough role in High Fidelity when he was cast in 2000, Black was to play Daryl Hanes, a monkey tracker/notary public who comes to Dieter’s aid and is described as “a crazy looking Slim Pickens kind of guy.” Landing both Ferrell and Black was a major coup for Myers, as the duo would become two of the biggest names in comedy a few years later and they were playing the two biggest parts in Dieter beside Myers. Other supporting characters included one-dimensional Mike Myers movie sexy lady love interest Gena (it’s not known who was to play her) and David Hasselhoff, who had signed on for a self-parodying extended cameo that was a little ahead of its time and not as unfunny and hackneyed as seeing David Hasselhoff play himself in a movie now would be.

On paper, Dieter had a lot going for it: a funny script, burgeoning stars Will Ferrell and Jack Black in prominent roles, and red-hot Mike Myers coming off of the second Austin Powers, his highest-grossing movie yet, when production was about to begin in summer 2000. One big thing the movie had going against it, though, is that Dieter is a much less relatable and less charming protagonist than Austin Powers or Wayne Campbell were. In fact, he’s pretty cold and off-putting. Throughout the movie, he’s a Nietsche-quoting, artsy nihlist who doesn’t really have any affection for anyone except his monkey. Dieter is perhaps at his most sadistic in a scene midway through the script where he sends an FBI team to retrieve his monkey, lying that it’s his human son who’s been kidnapped. A bunch of the FBI men are killed, but Dieter doesn’t really bat an eye…

I dunno.  I think any chance of a good Sprockets movie died on May 28, 1998, when the actor who played “Susan” was so cruelly taken from us.

*What about The Love Guru? As they say on We Hate Movies: never seen it, still happy.

Never before has a man made so much for so little

American Airlines tried to help  Matt Flynn  after release and downgrade   CBSSports.com

Forbes explains how Matt Flynn, recently cut by the Oakland Raiders, made $14.5 million for one great game:

On New Year’s Day 2012, the last day of the NFL regular season, the Green Bay Packers basically took the day off. The Packers had already made the playoffs, so they rested several key players, including their Super Bowl-winning quarterback, Aaron Rodgers. So the starting QB against the Detroit Lions was Matt Flynn, a fourth-year backup who had started just once in his career. In the snow at Lambeau Field, Flynn started with a 7-yard TD pass to Jordy Nelson. Then he threw an 80-yarder to Ryan Grant. Then two more to Nelson, one more to Driver, and finally the game-winner to Jermichael Finley. When it was over the Packers had won 45-41, and Flynn had thrown for 480 yards and six touchdowns — both franchise records. Only 21 players had ever thrown for more yards in an NFL game.

Flynn wasn’t about to dislodge Rodgers, one of the two or three best QBs in the league. But Flynn was about to be a free agent. He had one of the greatest passing games in NFL history at the best possible time for his career.

That was less than two seasons ago. Since then, he has played for two other teams and made $14.5 million. In that span he has started exactly one game. On Monday, the Oakland Raiders cut him.

Statisticians often warn of the dangers of drawing large conclusions from a small sample. From now on they should just call it the Matt Flynn Principle.

Flynn first signed with the Seattle Seahawks. He was slotted to be the Seahawks’ starter in 2012. But the team also spent a third-round pick on Russell Wilson from Wisconsin. Wilson, at 5-11 and 206, was small for an NFL quarterback (Flynn is 6-2, 230). But at the Seahawks’ training camp, it became clear: Wilson was better. Flynn rode the bench and attempted just nine passes all season.

He made $8 million for that season with the Seahawks, and teams don’t spend big money on backup quarterbacks. So this past spring, the Seahawks traded Flynn to the Raiders for a fifth-round pick and another conditional pick. The Raiders signed him to a contract with $6.5 million in guaranteed money. Flynn’s path to the starting job seemed even clearer in Oakland, which has had a decade-long series of disasters at quarterback. But Flynn couldn’t beat out Terrelle Pryor, who had played just four games in his first two seasons. Flynn got his third career start two Sundays ago when Pryor was out with an injury. The Raiders lost at home to Washington 24-14. Flynn threw an interception and lost two fumbles. The fans booed him off the field. Coach Dennis Allen demoted him to third string. Then the team let him go.

For his career, Flynn now has 1,329 passing yards and 10 TDs. That one game against the Lions accounts for 36 percent of his career yards and 60 percent of the touchdowns.

We should all be lucky enough to fail like that.

(Image via CBSsports.com)

“Carrie” won’t stay dead

The book made Stephen King a household name, and Brian De Palma’s movie was so successful they’ve remade it twice.  (Three times, if you count the 1999 sequel/remake in which Rachel Blanchard is killed by a pair of exploding glasses.)  The Broadway musical, alas, is the flop by which all other Broadway flops are still judged.

Decades later, however, a revamped version of the show is getting a second chance – in Minneapolis:

Based on the Stephen King horror classic that became a classic Brian DePalma movie, “Carrie” seems like the sort of bold-but-simple story that could work as a musical. And plenty of talented people, including several Tony Award winners, were involved in its creation.

Still, the original production in 1988 is never mentioned in the same sentence with the word “classic.” It’s such a legendary flop, in fact, that a whole book about legendary flops was named after it: Ken Mandelbaum’s “Not Since ‘Carrie.’ “

Despite its reputation as a bomb, “Carrie” has long been of interest at MMT, where the mission is to perform little-seen shows. One problem: No one would let them read it, much less perform it.

“It’s been on our list of shows to look at for a while, but we’ve never been able to get ahold of it,” said Steven Meerdink, MMT’s artistic director. There have been a couple of campy, unauthorized productions of “Carrie: The Musical,” but until an off-Broadway production last year, the original creators declined to let anyone produce “Carrie.”

As a result, the musical — like its bullied title character, whose telekinetic powers are unleashed when a cruel trick is played on her — has seemed to be cursed. In a pre-Broadway engagement, the legendary Barbara Cook, playing Carrie’s psycho mom, quit in the middle of the run after nearly being decapitated by a chunk of falling scenery. Audiences reportedly chuckled at the meant-to-be-serious moment when singing teens converged on poor Carrie, having her first period during gym class. And when the show finally lurched its way to Broadway, critics essentially threw buckets of pig’s blood all over it. “Carrie” closed after only five performances.

Things started to go from “Yikes!” to “Bravo!” last year when the off-Broadway revival, which was substantially revised, earned respectful reviews and finally resulted in the recording of a cast album (the original closed before one could be made).

“The biggest thing they did is make it a smaller, more intimate show. I didn’t see the original show, but they tried to make it a big blockbuster,” Meerdink said. “Based on the clips I’ve seen, that was the biggest problem with it. It had a ‘Phantom of the Opera’ feel, rather than focusing on the characters and story, and I think that’s what they’ve done now by reducing it to a smaller version.”

The revised version is the one MMT will be doing (the original remains unavailable) and, although the Broadway production proved Carrie’s mom’s prediction — “They’re all going to laugh at you” — all too true, MMT is decidedly not going for laughs.

“It’s not a camp show at all. It’s going to be a hard thing for us to convince people of, since we did ‘Evil Dead’ and ‘Bat People,’ but it’s very much a serious piece that is relevant in today’s society,” said Meerdink, who notes that the setting has been shifted from the 1970s to the present, in part to reflect modern concerns about bullying.

It’s playing in San Francisco, too.  Carrie might not seem like suitable material for a big-budget musical – but then again, neither did this.

Flashback: opening-night reviews, with clips from the disastrous 1988 production: