That Time When Sharks Attacked Those Artists

It’s 2017 and people are still shouting at people, “Watch out for sharks!  Stay out of the water!”  This is wise advice if you happen to be swimming in shark infested waters.  If you know the waters are offering refuge and sanctuary to carnivorous sea thugs, the wise thing to do is to steer clear and find a way around them.  After all, the wisest course of action is the most obvious, right?

But here’s something I’ve noticed over the years.  Some people are so focused on what they want, they fail to see the warning signs, and they put themselves at perilous risk.  They jump in with both feet and actually swim out to embrace danger.  What’s worse, when they come face-to-face with these fierce predators, the tendency is to blame everyone on shore for failing to hold them back.  It almost always ends badly for the swimmer, and occasionally ends badly for the shark.

Do you remember that time when those sharks attacked all those artists?  It was especially horrific since the sharks in question attacked landlocked artists who were unaware that, not only were these sharks predatory in nature, those sharks were too far inland to be trusted.

Some of you are undoubtedly trying to figure out the incident to which I’m referring, and really, I’m not talking of one incident.  I’m talking about the same incident that happens repeatedly albeit with slight variations each time.  I’m talking about the sharks that swim circles around naive and even gullible authors, artists, musicians, and other creative types, and at the first chance, they go in for the kill, leaving well-fed and their victims stripped to the bone.

I’ve been fortunate over the years to stay far away from sharks whether they happen to be in the waters where I happen to be vacationing or they happen to be circulating at industry parties and conferences on land.  I suppose this has a lot to do with the fact I learned about such dangers early on from watching those who failed to navigate to safer shores.  Sometimes being an observer an arm’s length away from danger is preferable to being the main course grabbing for a sliver of the limelight from someone else’s success.

Last week, as I researched an entry for my Idiomation blog, I found myself reading magazines from days gone by.  I don’t mean reading as in devouring every single article, and hanging on each and every word published between the front and back covers.  I mean I browsed the pages and remarked on the differences between magazines from the 1930s and magazines from the 2010s.  Near the back, I found a very small, easily overlooked advertisement from a business that was established in 1917.  Always interested in a good story, especially one that’s at least a century old, I screenshot the advertisement, curious as to whatever happened to those who waited patiently for eager men and women to pound down their doors with the next amazing motion picture script.

The dollar signs said it all:  Riches were ripe for the picking in Hollywood if you were a writer who hooked up with this agency.

Universal Scenario Company was really on the hunt for talent. Why, they even went as far as to advertise in Popular Science and other reputable magazines. Sometimes they were located at 214 Security Building on the corner of Santa Monica and Western Avenues in Hollywood, California. Sometimes they were located at 238 Security Building. Every once in a while they were located at 206 Western and Santa Monica Building or even 406 Western and Santa Monica Building in Hollywood, California.


These guys were everywhere, and they needed more scripts than any successful studio could ever ask to receive in this lifetime or the next. There was so much demand, one has to wonder why it is these days that Hollywood seems to be subsisting on reboots and remakes instead of delving into the many fine photoplays that were sent to Universal Scenario Company over the years in the early days of movie making. But I digress.

Universal Scenario Company was really on the hunt for talent. Why, they even went as far as to advertise in Popular Science and other reputable magazines. Sometimes they were located at 214 Security Building on the corner of Santa Monica and Western Avenues in Hollywood, California. Sometimes they were located at 238 Security Building. Every once in a while they were located at 206 Western and Santa Monica Building or even 406 Western and Santa Monica Building in Hollywood, California.

These guys were everywhere, and they needed more scripts than any successful studio could ever ask to receive in this lifetime or the next. There was so much demand, one has to wonder why it is these days that Hollywood seems to be subsisting on reboots and remakes instead of delving into the many fine photo plays that were sent to Universal Scenario Company over the years in the early days of movie making. But I digress.

The hook was more than just the money offered for original photoplay stories. They did it all for unknown authors trying to sell their first story. They revised. They copyrighted. They submitted to studios.

And because they were “located in the heart of motion picture industry” they claimed to “know production requirements.” What a sweetheart of a deal!

There isn’t much that can be learned about the Universal Scenario Company past a grat many advertisements in a great many publications but there was a lawsuit I found of particular interest. It was a lawsuit filed by Robert H. Sheets of Jackson (TN) against Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation with regards to their 1936 movie titled, “The Road To Glory.” The plaintiff claimed the studio had plagiarized his story and in making it a movie, he expected a six-digit pay-out (a considerable sum in 1934) for being the author of the story.

IMPORTANT NOTE 1:  The plaintiff’s claim was dismissed when proof was submitted to the courts that the title of the story typed in the form had been erased and typed over with the new title, “The Road To Glory.”

In his lawsuit, Robert H. Sheets claimed the following:

The plaintiff also introduced in evidence a letter, dated February 7, 1935, received by him from the Universal Scenario Company, in which he is urged to sign an enclosed application and agreement, providing for the payment of $25 in such installments as might suit the plaintiff for the publication of a synopsis and other marketing service. The printed form of agreement attached to that letter has, in the space for the title of the manuscript, the typewritten words “The Road to Glory.” The only other typewritten characters on the form are the figures “1250” to indicate the length of the synopsis to be published in the event the agreement should be signed. This is submitted by the plaintiff to corroborate his testimony that the story in controversy was in existence shortly after the time he stated that it was written by him, and that a copy of the story had been sent by him to the Universal Scenario Company. The plaintiff states that he did not execute the agreement nor make the remittance.

Mr. Sheets wasn’t signing a contract for representation where his agent was to be paid from the proceeds of the sale of his photoplay.  The payment was set up much the same way vanity presses in 2017 are set up to fleece unsuspecting authors and writers.

The point of all this is simple:  People looking to make a quick buck at the expense of others have been around for longer than any of us can probably imagine.  When something looks or sounds too good to be true, the numbers are not in your favor.  Chances are there’s something going on, especially if you’re desperate to have your voice heard.

As for what I plan on doing with all this information, I think I’ll keep scouring the Internet and old magazines and archived newspapers in search of details about the Universal Scenario Company.  For a company that did so much advertising, there isn’t that much more than just the advertising proclaiming the virtues of being involved with the company.  I wonder what became of them, and whether they were bought out or just faded away into obscurity.

Yes, a hundred years later, at least one person wonders whatever became of the Universal Scenario Company, and did they ever place any photoplays with major motion picture studios in Hollywood, California that became major hits with big stars in the roles.

Elyse Bruce

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Shuffle Off To Buffalo and Other Parts Unknown

Sometimes we recognize old songs without realizing they were originally songs from a musical before they became radio hits.  I love songs by Harry Warren (music) and Al Dubin (lyrics), and 42nd Street is a musical that spawned a number of Warren and Dubin radio hits (who also had cameo roles in the movie version of the musical).

In a nutshell, 42nd Street is about small-town Pennsylvania Peggy Sawyer (played by Ruby Keeler in the movie) who hits out by moving to New York City in the hopes that she’ll make her mark in Broadway.

Peggy Sawyer finds herself as a member of the chorus much to the dismay of Broadway diva Dorothy Brock (played by Bebe Daniels in the movie) who is romantically involved with the financial backer of the production, the very wealthy Abner Dillon (played by Guy Kibbee in the movie) who, unlike the director Julian Marsh (played by Warner Baxter in the movie), didn’t lose all his money in the stock market crash of 1929.  But behind Abner’s back, Dorothy is seeing her Pat Denning (played by George Brent in the movie) and thus the stage is set (pardon the pun).

The 42nd Street Special was a train that left Los Angeles on 20 February 1933, headed to President  Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inauguration on 4 March 1933 – the day after the movie version of the musical premiered in New York.  On board the train were stars such as Ruby Keeler, Ginger Rogers, James Cagney, Bette Davis, Loretta Young, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.  It was an amazing way to draw attention to the film and captured the attention of the country in the middle of a bleak period in American history.

 

The train trip extravaganza began as an idea courtesy of Warner Brothers studios publicity chief, Charlie Einfeld.  The Depression had seen the number of moviegoers drop by more than fifty percent in the three years since the Crash, and Warner Brothers studios was dealing with huge losses to the tune of $14 MILLION USD.  This publicity stunt was going to set the studio back another $400,000 USD.

During the election campaign, the Warner brothers had backed Franklin Delano Roosevelt while MGM studios’ Louis B. Mayer had backed Herbert Hoover.  The spectacle was promoted in the media as “the greatest train ride since Paul Revere.”

General Electric, seeing an opportunity to get in on the publicity, co-sponsored and fully equipped the six-coach express train with outdoor lights, speakers, and an all-electric kitchen with what was then considered to be a state-of-the-art electric oven, refrigerator, and dishwasher.  At every stop (which totaled 30 in the space of 17 days), the public was invited to tour the kitchen car and see for themselves what these amazing appliances looked like.

With so many wonderful songs to choose from to include in this entry, I’ve gone with these for this article.  “Come and Meet Those Dancing Feet” sung by Ruby Keeler is mesmerizing.

 

You’re Getting To Be A Habit With Me” sung by Bebe Daniels is fun and cheeky.

I’m Young And Healthy” sung by a very young Dick Powell (who in later years was known for his role as Nick Charles in the Thin Man movie series).

 

The song that first introduced me to 42nd Street was one I heard courtesy of the Bugs Bunny cartoons.  As a child, I had no idea where Buffalo was exactly, but the song was something I recognized and sang along to before I was old enough to attend kindergarten.    “Shuffle Off To Buffalo” was the kind of song that resonated with children as much as it did with adults.  The scene with this song in the movie version of 42nd Street makes the song even more fun than the Bugs Bunny segment (which was absolutely memorable and completely amusing).

The golden age of musicals may have been decades ago but the songs from that era still stand up to inspection in this generation, don’t you agree?

Elyse Bruce

Ice Under Pressure

Back in 1981, David Bowie (8 January 1947 – 10 January 2016) and the members of Queen co-wrote “Under Pressure” that was included on Queen’s album “Hot Space” that was released the following year. It hit the top spot on the charts in the UK, but peaked at the 29th spot in the U.S. The song was a staple of Queen concerts until the band stopped touring in 1986.  Even though David Bowie was instrumental in the song’s creation, he chose not to include it in his live performances until 1992 when he sang the song as a duet with Annie Lennox at the tribute concert for Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury (5 September 1946 – 24 November 1991).

It’s never been a secret that American rapper Robert Matthew Van Winkle aka Vanilla Ice sampled the bass line from “Under Pressure” for his hit, “Ice Ice Baby.”  The Vanilla Ice song was released on his 1989 debut album “Hooked” and a year later, on his national debut album “To The Extreme.”

Now this was back in the early days of sampling.  Legal precedent wasn’t carved in stone yet.  Things weren’t playing out very well in most of the industry’s opinion.

Neither David Bowie now Queen were credited as co-writers of the “Ice Ice Baby” and they saw none of the royalties … that is, until the lawsuit was settled. Vanilla Ice argued that he had added a beat between notes and because of that, the two songs were completely different songs. Of course, in later years, he admitted that he wasn’t serious about using that as a defense. Still, the situation was serious enough for Queen and David Bowie to threaten to sue Vanilla Ice for copyright infringement.

At the end of the day, Vanilla Ice thought it was more prudent to settle out of court for an undisclosed sum of money and to give David Bowie and Queen songwriting credits on the “Ice Ice Baby” track.  For Vanilla Ice, because “Ice Ice Baby” was making a name for him as a rapper, losing all rights to his song could prove disastrous to his career which is why he opted for the out of court settlement.

So whether you’re a fan of David Bowie or Queen, or a fan of Vanilla Ice, you have to admit that the bass line is catchy with enough punch to carry two songs to the charts.  What do you think?

What Do Cows and Capitol Records Have In Common?

Sometimes popular musicians and singers go out with great fanfare and fans remember them for decades.  Sometimes their names fade into obscurity despite a large catalogue of quality recordings.

Ella Mae Morse  (12 September 1924 – 16 October 1999) was a big band vocalist whose 1942 hit “Cow Cow Boogie” was responsible for giving Capitol Records (at that point, a new label) its first million seller.  Although Ella Mae was 18 years old at the time, she was already a veteran vocalist having sung in her father’s nightclub band since she was nine years old.

She had drive and ambition, and auditioned for the Jimmy Dorsey band when she was 14 years old (although she claimed to be 19 to make sure she was allowed to audition).  She passed the audition and got the job, but the jig was up when the school board informed Mr. Dorsey that as his band’s vocalist, he was responsible for her care.  He fired her instead.

When she signed with Capitol Records as a soloist when she was 18 years old, on the strength of the success of “Cow Cow Boogie” her path was set.

She remained with Capital Records for 15 years before taking time off to marry and start a family.  Lucky in her professional life, she wasn’t quite as lucky in her personal life and wound up marrying four times although most blogs and Wikipedia incorrectly state she was married twice.

She married pianist Richard “Dick Walters” Showalter in 1941.

Her next husband was U.S. Navy doctor Marvin Leonard Gerber.

Her third husband was Glen Kendall.

Her fourth husband and last husband (to whom she was married for forty years) was Jack Bradford — a carpenter by trade.

Her recordings stand the test of time, and to prove this, I’m including three YouTube videos of her other well-known hits.

 

Tell Me Why I Don’t Like Mondays

Bob Geldof “I Don’t Like Mondays” after reading a telex report about a shooting incident at an elementary school in California, while at Georgia State University’s campus radio station, WRAS, on  January 29, 1979.  The shooter was 16-year-old Brenda Ann Spencer.

Speaking with a San Diego Evening Tribune reporter, she stated her reason for shooting elementary school students was simply: “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.”   She told police negotiators: “It was a lot of fun seeing children shot.”

In all, she injured eight students and one police officer, and killed the school principal as well as the school custodian both of whom had rushed out to protect the students as Spencer fired off rounds.

Six months later, “I Don’t Like Mondays” was released and it became a Number One hit single in the UK for Irish band “The Boomtown Rats” for four weeks in the summer of ’79.  The song also did well on the music charts in other countries.

Brenda Ann Spencer’s family launched a lawsuit to prevent the song from being released in the U.S.   They were unsuccessful in blocking its release. That being said, the single only reached #73 on the US Billboard Hot 100 before falling off the charts.  But whether it was on the charts didn’t stop it from being recognized the world over for decades afterwards.

Spencer pleaded guilty to two counts of murder and assault with a deadly weapon and was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. She has been up for parole four times (1993, 1998, 2001, and 2005 although she withdrew her request for appeal filed in 1998) and can apply for parole again in 2019.

Art — whether it’s literature or music or any other discipline — records moments in time for posterity.  Sometimes what it records is beautiful.  Sometimes it’s horrific.  But let it never be said that what’s recorded lacks pieces of facts and grains of truth.

Elyse Bruce

Cultural Appropriation Cuts Both Ways

Last week, the focus was on cultural appropriation and society from the perspective of the majority raiding the non-material culture of minorities.  This week, the shoe is on the other foot as cultural appropriation isn’t a one way street.

The video from “The Midnight Special” from 1974 shows Redbone performing their hit song “Come And Get Your Love.”  It was a song that climbed the charts all the way to #5, and stayed on the charts long enough to be certified Gold (it sold over half a million copies) because it was catchy and fun.  The band members were Native American Indians, and the New York Smithsonian Institution accredited the group as being the first Native American Indian rock group to have an international hit.

https://youtu.be/Dj0drevGOgA

The song made its way back up the Billboard charts in 2014 when it was featured in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movie.

https://youtu.be/x_jRQBGKPaA

The year after that, Netflix used the song as the intro theme for the cartoon series, “F is for Family.”

https://youtu.be/x9FocQK9L4Q

The song has legs obviously, with as much audience appeal forty years after its release as the day it first hit the airwaves.  But forty years later, there seems to be some cultural appropriation issues with the song.

Redbone’s song lyrics referenced Cajun and New Orleans culture but the founding brothers, Patrick and Lolly Vasquez-Vegas were a mix of Yaqui, Shoshone, and Mexican heritage.  The band was known for playing rock music, R&B, blue-eyed soul, funk, and country as well as tribal music.  There’s no denying that R&B and blue-eyed soul are definitely not from any Native American Indian culture.  And funk, rock, and country music is associated with cultures other than Indigenous cultures.

But wait a minute!  Guitars – acoustic or electric — aren’t traditional Native American Indian instruments!

The first acoustic guitar as we know it was built in 1850 by Spanish guitarist and luthier Antonio de Torres Jurado (13 June 1817 – 19 November 1892), based on a design by note Spanish guitar maker Joséf Pagés (1740 – 1822) and Spanish luthier Josef Sebastián Benedid Díaz (10 February 1760 – 20 October 1836).  The guitar had a body that was now able to hold its own with an orchestra without being lost in the other instruments.  Europeans went wild for guitars!

Electric guitars had their humble beginnings at the heart of electromagnetic induction which was discovered by English scientist Michael Faraday (22 September 1791 – 25 August 1867) on August 29, 1831.

By 1919, magazine ads began to appear, offering devices that would amplify instruments, and then came American jazz, country, and blues guitarist and songwriter Lester William Polsfuss, better known as Les Paul (9 June 1915 – 12 August 2009) and American inventor Clarence Leonidas “Leo” Fender (10 August 1909 – 21 March 1991) who created the electric guitar as we know it today.

Now Les Paul’s ancestry is German thanks to both parents, and Leo Fender’s family is American going back to his great-great-great-great-grandparents.  That being said, the generation before that was from Baden-Wuerttemberg (Germany) and Cumberland (England) and Bethnal Green, Stepney, County Middlesex (England).

The argument can be made that Redbone’s success was due in part to the cultural appropriation of guitars which are obviously part of the English, Spanish, and German cultures.

Some will argue that fiddles were instruments of the Inuit and the Apache however fiddles only appeared after Indigenous peoples had contact with Europeans so it would seem that this may be a case of cultural appropriation.  But even if it’s argued that fiddles are Indigenous instruments, they aren’t guitars, and they aren’t played the way guitars are played.  This means that guitars are definitely not Native American Indian instruments.

Since we know from last weeks’ essay that cultural appropriation happens when one culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, and more are used without permission of the culture from which it is taken, is it not fair to say that Native American Indians have also engaged in cultural appropriation?

And then there’s the Aboriginal rappers to consider.  Have they engaged in cultural appropriation?

What are your thoughts on the subject?

Elyse Bruce

The Conflict of Cultural Appropriation

Cultural appropriation is the use of elements from one culture by members of a different culture.  According to law professors and psychologists, social scientists and politicians, cultural appropriation happens when one culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, and more are used without permission of the culture from which it is taken.  It’s especially hurtful when the culture being appropriated is one that’s been exploited or oppressed by the culture doing the appropriating.

In other words, cultural appropriation promotes the power imbalance of the ruling class over those who have been historically marginalized.

There are two kinds of culture:  Material culture and non-material culture.  Non-material culture is what’s meant when speaking about cultural appropriation since non-material culture deals specifically with intangibles.  Beliefs.  Traditions.  Values.

Of course, within material and non-material cultures are other constructs such as subculture (beliefs or behaviors that are contrary to the majority of the culture’s community) and counterculture (active rejection of aspects that are dominant in the culture’s community).  For the purposes of this essay, the focus is on mainstream non-material culture.

Now psychologists will tell you that culture and the people of a culture have a symbiotic relationship.  Each culture has its unique societal norms by which to live, and members of each culture live by shared expectations and rules that guide and determine their place in that culture.  To this end, people define and refine what their culture is, and culture defines and refines its people.

These days, there’s a lot being said about cultural appropriation.  Some of it is warranted such as the outcry against sports teams using names that are offensive to Indigenous peoples in the Americas.  But is it possible to create art without any cultural appropriation?

Was it cultural appropriation when the Bangles sang about walking like an Egyptian?

Was it cultural appropriation when Carl Douglas let us know that everyone was kung fu fighting?

Was it cultural appropriation when the Vapors thought they were turning Japanese?

Was it cultural appropriation when Steven Tyler and Aerosmith announced that dude looked like a lady?

How about when Toto decided to take on the entire continent of Africa?

This is where the waters are muddy.  If those songs and other art, literature, music, and more is cultural appropriation, where do we draw the line when it comes to enjoying past creative endeavors?  If we’re told to turn our backs on pop culture that draws on other cultures to exist, is it also time to boycott the classics whether it’s literature, art, or music?

Do we turn our backs on Béla Bartók’s Romanian Dances seeing he was from Hungary and not Romania?  Is it time to refuse to attend concerts where Brahm’s “Ballade Edward” is performed because it was based on a Scottish ballad and Johannes wasn’t Scottish?  How about Beethoven’s music based on Welsh, Irish, and Scottish folk songs?  After all Ludwig was German, was he not?

How about all those musicians who aren’t English but who have recorded “Scarborough Fair” or “Greensleeves?”   Should they be forced to make reparations for daring to sing something they obviously appropriated from another culture?

Should “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Go Tell It On The Mountain” be sung only by those of African-American heritage?  And next New Year’s Eve, should the traditional “Auld Lang Syne” only be sung only by those who can prove their Scottish ancestry?

Do we stop children and their grandparents from enjoying a rousing rendition of “Oh Dear, What Can The Matter Be?” if they haven’t an ounce of English blood anywhere in their background — or going back at least eight generations?

Where no offense is meant, is any harm done?  Some say yes while others say no.  But if we are to say harm is done, where does this leave the English language which is an amalgam of several languages?  Is it time to dismantle the language to create a language that English-language speakers can safely call their own that doesn’t steal from other languages and cultures?

There’s no easy solution, and this is why we need to speak openly about what is, and is not, harmful cultural appropriation.  Certainly there are ways to draw upon cultures that are not our own without causing insult and injury.  It begins with mutual respect, and this means both sides must be willing to hear each other out before jumping to conclusions.  What are your thoughts on the subject?

Elyse Bruce

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