Sunday, September 29, 2013

Trader Horn and the one-time-only movie star

I am fascinated by this article about the filming of the movie Trader Horn from the June 1968 issue of American Heritage magazine. The movie, which was MGM’s first talkie, cost nearly $3 million to make. That was an astonishing sum in those days, and if you believe in comparing dollars now to dollars then, the equivalent today would be $42 million. And this was just as the Great Depression was starting.

The cast and crew of Trader Horn filmed on location in Africa for a year, and the female lead, Edwina Booth, a 21-year-old Mormon girl from just south of me in Provo, Utah, made it through the filming, but was sick with jungle fever for six years. After some subsequent minor roles she left the movie business. Easy come, easy go! She had walked in to the audition as a young starlet, and walked out with a major movie role, and then it was all over. Booth married a Mormon gentleman and they spent their time doing church work. Because of her illness rumors had spread that she had died, but she had just taken a low profile. She died in 1991 at age 86.

Duncan Renaldo (who, I was surprised to learn, was born Renaldo Duncan), was her male costar. You may remember that Renaldo did The Cisco Kid TV series in the 1950s, and was famous for his closing line with his costar, Leo Carillo, “Ohhhh, Ceesco...” “Ohhh, Pancho...” Born in 1904, as was Edwina Booth, Duncan Renaldo died at age 76 in 1980.

Copyright © 1968 American Heritage

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Joseph Smith, UFO contactee?

As a former Mormon I found the 2012 “Mormon moment” interesting. I thought it would provide political enemies of Mitt Romney an opportunity to shine a spotlight on some of the more arcane beliefs of the religion.(1)

Mormonism was discussed publicly, but its origins not so much. Republicans, even those who were holding their noses while supporting Romney, didn’t want to obscure the issues of the election with beliefs of the church that offend so many conservative Christians. The Mormon church has been known to deflect some discussions of its past that don’t fit its modern message. They can’t get away without the linchpin of their faith, though: their earliest history that involves Joseph Smith and his claims of dealings with supernatural beings.

 A nineteenth century woodcut of Joseph Smith, Angel Moroni and the golden plates. The angel is more of the popular conception; Mormons don’t believe in angels with wings.

Joseph Smith’s story of meeting with an angel and receiving plates of gold inscribed with ancient writing he “translated” into the Book of Mormon is usually dismissed by non-believers. But devout Mormons don’t get a choice whether to believe or not. According to this from the article published in the October, 1962 issue of American Heritage, “The Farm Boy and the Angel” by Carl Carmer, a belief in these tales is paramount. If they don’t believe Joseph Smith’s story they can’t consider themselves Mormons.
“This is the ‘origin story’ of the religious sect known formally as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, informally as ‘the Mormons.’(2) All conversion to the Mormon creed begins with the acceptance of this miracle-fraught narrative. John Henry Evans, Mormon historian, who has written one of the most objective and thoughtful biographies of Joseph Smith(3) delivers plainly the accepted Mormon attitude: ‘Mormonism has its basis on the miraculous element in religion, or it has no foundation at all on which to stand. They are fooling themselves, whether within or without the Mormon church, who think they can accept the faith of Joseph Smith and at the same time reject the visions of Joseph Smith. No such choice is permissible. One must believe these supernormal experiences and Mormonism, or one must reject Mormonism with the visions.’”
That was where I found myself at the point I left the church. How much did I believe in Joseph Smith’s story? I didn’t, and over the years I haven’t had any reason to believe I made a mistake. I see Smith’s claims of interactions with the divine as fraud mixed in with some imagination (it took an imaginative mind to concoct and write the Book of Mormon). The church has gained legitimacy over the years due to its public relations, charity and organizational skills, but its beginnings are common to cults.

Since I think of Joseph Smith’s visions as being made up by him for whatever purpose, what then to think of books like Our Haunted Planet, written by John Keel, or a more current book, Contactees, A History of Alien-Human Interaction by Nick Redfern? Both of these books appear to treat Joseph Smith’s story at face value.(4) The difference is they don’t see the entities who visited Smith to be spiritual or of God, but alien beings. Keel called them “ultraterrestrials,” (described by Keel as UFO occupants he believed to be non-human entities capable of taking on whatever form they want(5)) and Redfern considers the Angel Moroni to be akin to the aliens who could have “just as easily stepped out of one of the saucers that landed before Adamski, Van Tassel, Short, and countless other Contactees in the 1950s.”

Our Haunted Planet is from 1971, Contactees was published in 2012.

To backtrack fifty years, I read George Adamski’s book, Flying Saucers Have Landed, at the same time I was active in the LDS faith. At that point in my life I was ready to accept whatever wild story someone came up with because I was a na├»ve adolescent and I didn’t believe people would lie about such things. Adamski claimed to have met a spaceman standing outside his flying saucer on the side of a lonesome California road. Unlike the small, gray aliens we envision today the aliens of the early Contactees appeared to be Nordic, with long blond hair. Adamski’s alien, named Orthon, was one of what became known as the Space Brothers. Those long-haired beings from Venus who were visiting Earth were here to warn us of the dangers of our nuclear weapons. From that Adamski created his own cult of believers.

Artistic views of the tales told by Smith of his meeting with Angel Moroni, and Adamski’s first meeting with Orthon.

While fascinating in their approach to Joseph Smith’s visitors being not of this planet rather than from “traditional” angels, it is harder to accept the theories from Keel’s and Redfern’s book than it is the official church version. Keel talks of many religions, even Islam as founded by Mohammed, which began with visions. This may be true, but I also believe they were visions that originated in the visioneers’ own brains, either from a brain disorder, psychological problem, or even hallucinogenic substances.

Joseph Smith’s story of his visitations with supernatural holy beings takes place over a long period of time, years  from his first “visions” to completion of the Book of Mormon, and all the while he was drawing more people, including his family, into his circle. He was either very skillful at manipulation or told big lies in such a way as to convince his listeners. Or perhaps his family members were in on the overall scheme.

What the LDS Church rarely publicizes is well known to historians. In New York State, in that era and place where Smith and his family lived, there were a lot of superstitions and tales of supernatural beings and devices like “seer stones” that would lead people to treasure, buried Spanish gold. Carmer wrote that Smith accepted a job with farmer Josiah Stowell to use his stone to find treasure. But after a time, as recounted in the article:
    “Then, as spring began, one, Peter Bridgeman, intolerant of such goings-on, swore out a warrant for the arrest of Joseph Smith as a ‘disorderly person and an impostor.’”
Continuing the story:
    “Joseph was brought before a justice of the peace at Bainbridge on March 20, 1826. Of the five witnesses at his trail, three told of their certainty that the defendant could ‘divine things’ by ‘looking into a hat at his dark-colored stone.’ One of these said that Joseph had told him how a money trunk was situated, and that after he had dug down several feet for it he struck upon something sounding like a board or plank. At this moment, the witness testified, Joseph remembered that the last time he looked into his stone he had seen the two Indians who had buried the trunk quarreling until one slew the other and threw his body into the hole beside the trunk where it remained as a spirit-guard. It had proved its protective power, the witness continued, for as long as the digging went on the trunk kept sinking and remained constantly at about the same distance from the diggers.”
Although the court found Smith guilty, there is no record of a fine or punishment.

Smith’s description of the moving trunk seems a lie, a fanciful tale by someone trying to explain why he isn’t able to perform the feats of magic he is hired to do. That sort of magic, like Harry Potter, we can dismiss as fiction. Tales of elementals or spirits guarding treasure are standard in folklore.

 From Contactees by Nick Redfern.

Why angels, or God, would visit Smith seems to me to be a made-up concoction of religion and fantasy, and why Keel or Redfern might theorize that those fantastic visitors were not of this earth, somehow tied to UFOs seems even more incredible, stretching credulity past the breaking point.

(1)I even contributed one article, “Does Mitt Romney believe black people are cursed?”

(2)Also referred to as LDS.

(3)Joseph Smith, An American Prophet, 1933.

(4)To be fair, they treat all the stories they tell in their books, whether they concern UFO/flying saucer cultists, bigfoot sightings, or any other oddball occurrences, as if the persons telling the stories were reporting the exact truth without lies or embellishment. In Keel’s case I think he believed the stories. Redfern is a reporter, telling stories without declaring prejudice, so the reader can make up his own mind as to veracity.

(5)Wikipedia entry on John Keel.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Beatles short and un-winding road to serious critique

I was 16 and my brother 13 when the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964. We were the perfect ages to be infected by Beatlemania. We were also the perfect ages to grow in age and maturity as the Beatles continued to refine their music into something beyond the pop classics of their early years.

In 1968 with the release of the double album The Beatles it was acknowledged that the Beatles had gone beyond the pop music stage, and they were taking the rest of the music business along with them. Time, which would normally be reviewing Broadway, jazz or classical music, picked The Beatles to review as a musical event, rather than just another album. The fact that over 45 years later the Beatles have just as much musical credibility says something about their enduring legacy.

Copyright © 1968 Time-Life

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Feeling bad: On meeting Breaking Bad’s inevitable end

I watch Breaking Bad in a very specific way. I record it on my DVR on Sunday night, along with its sister program, Talking Bad. Sally is not interested in the show so I watch it when she has gone to work at her volunteer job.

This final group of episodes, as any Bad fan will tell you, has been rough on us.

Today I watched the episode that is third from last. Two more episodes to go and of course I have to see them, but after each episode this season I feel beat up. I never know where the blow will come from, but because of some scene or revelation in the show I will be punched in the head and sent reeling. My fellow fans who have watched the episode will know that it is one of the most difficult in the series. It kills off a character we have all known for a long time.

My usual pattern is to hit the fast-forward to get past the commercials, but in this episode I let them play so I could catch my breath. I was relieved to hear Talking Bad host Chris Hardwicke tell the audience that when he watched the show the day before he could only watch it in 15-minute increments, after which he would stop it and have to recover enough to watch more.

So how does a show get to a point where it becomes almost torture to watch, and yet we want to watch every scene, every line of dialogue? Well, it gets there by an awful lot of hard work on the part of many people, including writers, directors, and one of the strongest casts of characters ever to appear on a series television program.

Bryan Cranston has at last gone full out on show creator Vince Gilligan’s oft-repeated pitch to the network about what the show would be about: “I want to take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface.” Just as Al “Scarface” Pacino begins to lose it in that classic movie, so is Walter White, cancer-stricken former high school chemistry teacher and family man, finally turned fully into Heisenberg, the drug kingpin, crazy with paranoia and rage.

Who knows what will happen? Two more episodes to go, two more chances to have us fans knocked down and pummeled by a storyline that is going all the way into…what? Well, the show has surprised us many times so far. We’ll see exactly what. But based on what we’ve seen in five seasons, probably something that will have us saying, “Did I really see that?” as we pick ourselves up off the floor.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

World’s oldest man dies, and world’s oldest-feeling man hangs on to dear life

Today I read that Sulustiano Sanchez-Blazquez of New York died at age 112. He was the oldest man in the world, or at least the oldest man whose age could be proved. His birth certificate showed he was born June 8, 1901. He said he ate a banana every day, and that’s why he got to be so old. Order me up a bunch.

It doesn’t seem that long ago that Sally and I knew several people who were born in the nineteenth century. Our grandmothers, for instance. But they died in the 1980s, and then their children, our parents, who were born sometime around World War I or shortly thereafter, began to die in great numbers.

The world’s oldest woman, as I write this, was born in South Africa in 1894, so does that mean she is the last living person who was born in the nineteenth century? That can’t be true. Somewhere there have to be other people who are supercentenarians, but born in places where birth records were spotty, or even non-existent. We forget in our Internet age that there are people out there whose births, lives and deaths go basically unrecorded.

Maybe there is a village tucked away in the Himalayas, unknown to anyone but its residents, where the people live to be 200-years-old on a diet of yogurt and yak-butter, and are still chopping wood at age 150 with all the vigor of a 30-year-old in our society. Maybe, but we have pretty much covered the planet in the twentieth century, and hidden places are no longer hidden.

Along with the article on the world’s oldest man today I read that nursing home care for us Baby Boomers will be half of what it is for people now in nursing homes. They are talking about twenty years from now, when those of us born in the years right after World War II will start hitting our eighties, if we live that long. That’s because we had less children than our parents. We were heeding the call for zero population growth when we started our families and now our concern for the planet has come back to bite us on the butt!

In the meantime, despite the headline of today’s post, I feel pretty good. I’m not sure how 66-years-old is supposed to feel. I have arthritis, my joints are wearing out, I need stronger reading glasses every year, and I’m thinking of buying an ear trumpet so I can hear what my wife says to me, but other than that, I seem to be moving into my dotage fairly well.


In her declining years, but before she got deep into her dementia, my mother watched a lot of television, and thought the commercials featuring the tiny Pillsbury Doughboy were cute.

Since I was always grasping for ideas as to what to give her for Christmas, when she told me that I seized on getting her some merchandise using that character. I bought her some mixing bowls, salt and pepper shakers, and a Pillsbury Doughboy cookie jar. A few months later I noticed she had not put them out on her counter. I asked her why and she hemmed and hawed a bit, but my brother later told me, “She is afraid they will come to life.”


The other day Sally and I were cleaning out some stuff from the basement and found those items, which I had brought from my mother's apartment when she went into an Alzheimer’s nursing home. We put them on display in our kitchen, which now looks basically like a stall in an antiques mall, but I digress.

I woke up the other night and thought, wouldn’t it be creepy to walk out into the kitchen and have these little doughboys running around on the floor? Then I thought, man, I am entertaining my own dementia. I turned on a light and read a book for a while and went back to sleep. The doughboys, as you can see in the above photo, are right where we put them.


I am aware of the way men’s and women’s minds work, and when we look at the same thing we can see something different. Perhaps I should say we may focus on something different than someone of the opposite sex.

I have an e-mail correspondent, who is a friend of both Sally and me. Trying to prove my point of different perceptions I sent her this picture and said, “I’ll bet when you look at this picture of the girl in the white jacket you notice first the fashion, the jacket and boots. Me, my first thought on seeing the picture is, "I think she’s naked under that coat!”

She wrote back, “I was thinking exactly the same thing. So what does that make me?” Well, I didn’t think that made her anything...I just need to find a less-obvious picture to test my theory.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

1890's poster craze

Edgar Breitenbach, the author of this piece from the February 1962 issue of American Heritage magazine, could not have foreseen another poster craze just around the corner. By 1967, with hippies in full flower-power, walls from coast-to-coast were covered with blacklight posters, not to mention the personality posters (I had W.C. Fields on my wall). That craze went into the seventies.

Copyright © 1962 American Heritage