Saturday, August 27, 2016

Class of '81

My graduating class of 1981--Seguin High School, The Matadors--is celebrating it's 35th reunion this month.  The last reunion I attended was the tenth year in '91.  That's some spread.  But what I had then that I don't have now is a life.  Therefore, allow me to fondly remember and chronicle my boomer (edge boomer if you will) memories around the graduation years, 1980-1981.

I'll start with the visceral memories--the reality--before I dive into the media morass.  I lived on Lake McQueeney, a man made body of water thirty some-odd miles from San Antonio.  Our house was on Treasure Island which was pretty cool with the canals running behind the houses (sort of like liquid alleys).  By that time, I was an avid water skier--I didn't have the patience for fishing--and spent lots of time piloting the family inboard/outboard.  I did yard work for my neighbors to make some spending cash.  Otherwise, I watched TV and read comic books.

 I didn't follow current events too much outside of the Today Show which I soaked in before going to school.  Jane Pauley and Tom Brokaw were the perfect way to start the day.  Ronald Reagan defeated incumbent Jimmy Carter for the presidency.  The Iranian hostage crisis ended with the release.  There were gas lines.  The Soviets invaded Afghanistan.  Reagan was shot.  The Pope was shot.  After St. Helens people were freaking out about volcano eruptions.   There was a lot  of news about Lech Walesa's Solidarity Party.

At school, I came out of my shell with the theater department.  Discovering acting led to my greatest in-school memories.  Starting mid-way through my junior year, my extracurricular activities pretty much were based in the SHS playhouse: a chorus member in "George M" (I can still do every song--secretly wanted to play Cohan); Pim (father) in "Diary of Anne Frank"; and a crazy doctor in "Li'l Abner." All the melodramas and parody shows were a result of engagement with  a group of fellow "introverts" labeled the "Supercilious Players" (modeled on Monty Python) and the subversive antics of the "Taglionies" (don't ask).  Somehow, I managed to keep my grades up and still do some creative writing activities, perform on the debate team (disaster!) and gain a reputation as an art thief  as I plagiarized Hanna-Barbera cartoons at a quick pace and recited memorized Bob Newhart routines for my classmates.

Now, in keeping with the theme of the blog here's what was going on outside of "real life."  I wasn't really a music guy so I can't wax nostalgic about my favorite songs during the time (outside of movie themes, see below).  Disco was sort of on the way out and I had no idea about what was going on the hair metal world--though it was huge in San Antonio. I just knew that KISS met the Phantom and Ozzy did something to a bat. However, I can say that I was given a copy of Billy Joel's "Glass Houses" and that pretty much became my graduation soundtrack.  Looking back there was a heavy dose of Paul McCartney and John Lennon songs.  One of the most vivid memories was the news of Lennon's death at the schoolyard.  I remember fellow students who were Beatle fanatics literally going into shock.   A group of us drove to Central Park Mall in San Antonio and I was initiated into the "Rocky Horror Picture Show" (only five years after the movie was made), so that great music became part of the fabric for me.  John Barry's beautiful soundtrack of the film "Somewhere In Time" captured my romantic yearnings along with the film.  The soundtrack holds up much better than the film, by the way.  At the time, Robert Altman's "Popeye" came and went but I pretty much had all the Harry Nillson tunes down thanks to the cassette tape soundtrack--and I wasn't even a stoner!  "Grease" was still fresh so I had to see Olivia Newton-John in "Xanadu."  It came and went (another one saved for future sainthood) but I devoured that REO/Jeff Lynne soundtrack like some kind of roller disco freak ("Magic" holds a special allure).  "Don't Ask Me Why." And for some reason, Neil Diamond's "Hello, Again" from the ill-fated "Jazz Singer" remake always takes me back to those years.  If I had to soundtrack that year, it would include "Upside Down," "Bette Davis Eyes," "Jessie's Girl," "Rapture," "Morning Train," "Lady," and "Kiss is on My List." There was always lots of country music which I despised as a kid--that's another blog post though.  Aside from my dad's Bob Newhart Button Down Mind albums--and a Cheech and Chong 45 he had for some strange reason (Dave who?)--Steve Martin was ruling the roost in my stand-up LP world.

I had a special relationship with Steve.  My mother's best friend growing up in Waco was Martin's dad's sister.  So the narrative somehow became:  Scott is related to Steve Martin, thus his comic genius.  I thinks Steve's third album, "Comedy is Not Pretty" was out and "The Jerk" established itself as a comic gem.  My copy of "Cruel Shoes" was proudly displayed on my desk.  Once again, not being a stoner, it was the silly parts of his routines that I "got" at the time.  Which brings me to SNL.  By this time, the original crew had left and Lorne Michaels quit.  Fall of 1980 brought a new producer and cast of unknowns--many to remain so, except some bit player named Eddie Murphy.  So all of us "comedy experts" were focused on ABC's rival show "Fridays" featuring, oh, Larry David and Michael Richards.  Of course, the drug references won hand down opposite NBC's Saturday Night and I had no clue.  But my heart at this time went to SCTV.  The Canadian 90 minute program followed Carson on Friday nights and was so well, "off," and the parody was just obscure and "precious" enough to be attractive to all of us theater nerds:  John Candy, Eugene Levy, Rick Moranis, Dave Thomas, Joe Flahery, Catherine O'Hara and Andrea Martin.  (Martin Short would come later.)

Back to SNL for a moment.  By this time all the original players were branching into movies. John Belushi became a smash with "Animal House" which I missed due to the "R" rating.  Therefore when Steven Spielberg's "1941" came out I was breathlessly in line.  So when he and Dan Akroyd brought John Landis's "The Blues Brothers" to the big screen the summer before I graduated, I was in hog heaven.  The "Briefcase Full of Blues" album became a staple of those years--many times in the privacy of my room I performed "Rubber Biscuit" and "Gimme Some Lovin" with no appreciation of the original "blues masters practicing their craft" or the resultant "references."  To me, it was two comedians dancing and singing and that was enough.  Bill Murray had made a mark with "Meatballs" (Ivan Reitman) so by this time "Caddyshack" (Harold Ramis) was eagerly anticipated. Especially teaming up with the box office star Chevy Chase who he replaced on SNL.  (There was a trailer for "Caddyshack" referencing this "feud" and I cannot find it on Youtube.)  My mom was still buying tickets for my R rated escapades so Caddyshack gleefully initiated me to "the 80's"
much more than "The Jerk" and "Blues Brothers." I must say that another summer camp movie helped me "grow up":  "Little Darlings."  I had sort of a crush on Kristy McNichol from "Family" and Tatum O'Neal from "Bad News Bears" so I felt I had reached some level of maturation upon going to this feature.  Two of my favorite MTM sitcom stars, Ted Knight and Bob Newhart had hosted SNL the year before and were now doing films with these ribald performers.  Knight scored as the pompous judge in "Caddyshack" however Newhart's performance as the president in Buck Henry's "First Family" was a huge letdown--also being Gilda Radner's film debut (outside of Mike Nichol's doc of her stage show, "Gilda").  Jane Curtin and Laraine Newman also contributed to some forgettable projects.  John Belushi would be gone too soon.  Chevy Chase continued with failures and successes (notably the Vacation and Fletch franchises.)  Akroyd would solder on through the decade.  Bill Murray would burn out bright and fast (Stripes, Ghostbusters, Scrooged) and then be resurrected as an indie icon and finally--a legend.  And the comedy directors from this period, helming National Lampoon and Second City-inspired fare--subversive "slob comedy" with a slight intellectual bent--would soon rule Hollywood:  Landis, Reitman, Ramis.  And then:  Eddie Murphy.  Farcical humor was represented by the new Zucker brother style in "Airplane!" but I soon realized it wasn't new.   In the spring of '81, "Blazing Saddles" was re-released--this was before VHS folks--and I was completely taken aback by how all these "old" comedians could do this blue, SNL-style humor.   Mad Magazine tried to be the new National Lampoons' with Robert Downey's "Up the Academy" but that was rightly panned and I was rightly shocked by the ribald griminess. Richard Pryor would survive his accident and start a box office bonanza with "Stir Crazy."  Goldie Hawn's "Private Benjamin" would soon spawn it's TV clone.  And "Nine to Five" would establish Dolly Parton's credentials as a dramatic actress (also leading to a sitcom).   Outside of edited network "Movie of the Weeks" I never experienced much of official Hollywood.  It was quite an awakening.

I mostly watched TV through the seventies but the Christmas releases of 1979 shifted my focus to movies and the resultant "must-see" mentality:  "1941," "The Jerk," "The Black Hole", and "Star Trek."  Those latter two represent my other major theme in cinema during my last high school years:  science fiction.  Along with my studious perusal of my "Starlog" magazines I found myself quite fascinated with the mechanics of space on the big screen.  I think it all started with "Buck Rogers" on NBC and original Star Trek reruns on Saturday night (when I quit watching SNL).  Paired with "Wild Wild West" and "Twilight Zone" reruns on Channel 5, Saturday nights informed my future love of cinema more than my obsession with Planet of the Apes, Inspector Clouseau or the Bad News Bears--those three franchises being my sole cinema highlights in the seventies.  So the summer before I graduated, I went with some friends to see "Empire Strikes Back" not having seen the original "Star Wars"--that's right, you heard it--and that sealed the deal.  Fortunately, there was a "Star Wars" reissue that year--videotapes were not in the rage yet--and I saw it second on the big screen.  Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters" came back with a Special Edition. "Superman II" (Lester's version) was released.  I missed the R rated "Alien" but caught Roger Corman's PG "Battle Beyond the Stars." "Flash Gordon" went way over my head.  Farrah Fawcett (who was still on my radar) made a sci-fi called "Saturn 3" which came and went and I still haven't seen it and have no idea where to find it.  But it was in summer of '81--post graduation--when my life changed and a new film--from the creators of "Jaws" and "Star Wars" --premiered at a special sneak preview after "Caveman" at the Seguin Palace theater.  After seeing "Raiders of the Lost Ark" five or six times that summer cinema became my new television.  And that first summer after graduation was one for the books: "Clash of the Titans" (at a drive-in!), "Cannonball Run," "Stripes," "History of the World Part 1," "American Werewolf in London," "Arthur," "Dragonslayer," and another all-time fave, Blake Edward's "SOB."  Oh and Bo Derek in "Tarzan, the Ape Man."

By the time Bo was frolicking on the beach, I could get into the "mature" films without parental guidance.  But, hey, I was already hijacked dad's Playboy's with the celebrity profiles--especially the aforementioned corn-rowed beauty.  I may be mistaken but I may have been taken to the toolshed when I had classmates lined up outside my dad's side office to sneak peaks for a slight charge.  Maybe that didn't happen and I just wished I were that, well, entrepreneurial.  I can remember parties at the island where someone would have this new thing called "cable" and the men would stand transfixed by the Playboy Playmates lounging au natural while the wives were gossiping in the kitchen.  But on more innocent level, I did have sort of a crush that year on Lisa Whelchel who played Blair on "Facts of Life."  She was previously one of the new Mouseketeers and in a Joe Camp film titled "Double McGuffin."  I tolerated the "Diff'rent Strokes" spin off for her and Gary Coleman turned out to be the breakout hit in Fred Silverman's new revised NBC lineup.

Speaking of prime time  television, between theater and cinema, there wasn't much time in my senior year.  Saturday nights still would involve TV dinners and a double date with Love Boat and Fantasy Island.  The golden age of seventies TV was turning back to rural hokum by now with "Dukes of Hazzard" and "Dallas" ruling the ratings on CBS.   I had devoured all things sitcoms before this time.  (Saturday morning was pretty much off the radar by now).    In Milwaukee, Arnold's burned down and Richie was gone.  Laverne and Shirley moved the gang to Hollywood.  Crissy Snow was demoted to phone conversations and The Ropers were replaced by Barney Fife.  Archie Bunker now owned the bar and said goodbye to dearly departed Edith. The 4077th was Important Television and awaiting it's place in history.  Flo was failing in Houston and wishing she was back at Mel's Diner. "One Day at a Time" was on its way to becoming "My Three Sons."  George and Louise Jefferson were astonishingly time slotting themselves into another five years of Nielsons.  "Soap" was running out of scandals and Benson was running the governor's mansion..  Mork was Orking to Hollywood.  Ted Knight returned with two nubile daughters and Tom Hanks was cross dressing his way to success in "Bosom Buddies."  Some wiseacre named Michael Keaton kept appearing in failed sitcoms.  "Lou Grant" was established outside of WJM and laugh tracks.  The only gold standards left were "Taxi" and "WKRP."  And the final gasps of the 12th precinct--Barney and the squad were still in top form--would give way to another "authentic" detective serio-comedy: "Hill Street Blues."

Stephen Bochco's classic would set the standard for NBC's 80's resurgence.  Along with a comedian who appeared on Carson a lot.  Of course, Johnny Carson was the man and I planned on being his successor having entertained my cohorts so often with my big-city, show-biz loving curiosities and style.  But this young comedian who sporadically appeared on prime time was given a morning show after Today Show aired.  With Paul Schaffer as a musical director, David Letterman's first program was really sort of out of place.  It was on during the summer of '80  year so I was able to experience it.  It didn't last.  But a year and a half later--after Carson's show on weeknights--history would be made.

But as I said, film became my new normal.  I was trying to capture all the new releases as all my favorite TV stars were shifting to the big screen.  Mary Tyler Moore in "Ordinary People" for instance.  Disney had gone PG with "Black Hole" so Buena Vista was releasing all sorts of "adult" PG fare by now such as "Midnight Madness" with an unknown Canadian kid actor, Michael J. Fox.  Focusing on SNL casted comedies and fantasy/sci-fi titles, I missed a lot of the great drama at the time: "Raging Bull," "Coal Miner's Daughter," "Kramer Vs. Kramer," Elephant Man,"  Being in theater I somehow missed out on "All That Jazz" and "Fame" until later in college.  All I remember from "The Shining" was the terrifying elevator trailer. "Heaven's Gate" was on the news, not the screens.  "The Blue Lagoon" was relegated to a Brooke Shields poster.  Living in a small town in Texas somehow didn't draw me to the "Urban Cowboy" phenomenon (I suppose I considered myself too "urban.)  And thanks to a local TV station that showed a slightly edited version of "Friday the 13th," I was able to experience the genesis of the slasher mystique.

All in all, it was a very unique time.  The seventies were still fresh on the cultural psyche yet the eighties fads were slowly making a name for themselves.  I never got into Atari or Dungeon and Dragons and paid dearly for it as my pop-culture touchstones come to a complete halt in the mid-eighties.  There wasn't much room for it anyhow.

But looking back, it all seems like:

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