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Month: April 2007

Mary Young Pickersgill

It was 1814, and the United States and Great Britain had been at war for two years. The city of Baltimore had been preparing for an eventual attack, but sitting in the way of the British was Major George Armistead, commander of Fort McHenry 1Named after James McHenry, a Scotch-Irish immigrant and surgeon-soldier who became Secretary of War under President George Washington, Fort McHenry was built to defend the port of Baltimore from future enemy attacks after America had won its independence. It was positioned on the Locust Point peninsula which juts into the opening of Baltimore Harbor, and was constructed in the form of a five-pointed star surrounded by a dry moat. and his bunkered forces in Chesapeake Bay. Knowing that an attack would come from the sea, Major Armistead commissioned Mary Young Pickersgill, a local Baltimore flag maker, to sew a flag for the fort “so large that the British will have no difficulty seeing it from a distance.”

Pickersgill had learned flag making from her mother, Rebecca Young, who made ensigns 2An ensign is a distinguishing flag of a ship or a military unit, or a distinguishing token, emblem, or badge, such as a symbol of office. and continental standards during and after American Revolution. After marrying and moving to Philadelphia, Mary returned to Baltimore, widowed and with a small child. She established a flag-making business out of her home. Through her trade she supported her family by designing, sewing, and selling “silk standards, cavalry and division colours of every description.” She created signal and house flags for the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, and merchant ships that visited Baltimore’s harbor.

When asked by Major Armistead to sew the flag, she created in just 6 weeks an American flag measuring 30×42 feet with the help of her daughter, two nieces, and two servants. Each stripe was two feet wide and each star was two feet from tip to tip. As a result the flag could be seen from several miles away from the fort.

When the British attacked Baltimore, Francis Scott Key, a lawyer aboard the British ship HMS Tonnant, saw Pickersgill’s flag while he was held captive and was inspired to compose the poem that became the national anthem of the United States. Pickersgill’s flag, being restored, is the centerpiece of the redesigned National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution. 3The material for this piece came from the Maryland Women’s Hall of Fame and Wikipedia.

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The Sad, Sorry State of Star Wars Toys

Look at the picture to the left. What is it? Is it the Millennium Falcon? Or is it Han Solo’s pal Chewbacca? Is it both? And what have they done to Chewie’s crotch?

What hath Hasbro wrought?

What you’re looking at there is a Star Wars Transformer, the latest in a loooooooong line of Kenner/Hasbro toys that attempt to capitalize off of the (fast fleeting) memory of Star Wars in the minds of today’s children. How can you sex up a line of toys spawned by a 30 year old film for Generation Wii? Try synergy.

Michael Bay, the rich man’s Uwe Boll, is helming a big screen live action star spangled version of the Transformers that will be hitting millions of theaters near you in the coming weeks. Will kids want Transformers toys after seeing this film by the man that gave us Pearl Harbor? It’s hard to say, but I think Hasbro has seen the writing on the walls and know that their 30 year old mainstay is not aging well.

These are awful.

One only has to look at the current Star Wars site that Hasbro maintains to see how little they have left in their arsenal. First off, kill the music, Hasbro, because you couldn’t have made it much louder. Once you get past the ear-splitting theme music and into the section that includes the toys by category the boredom begins. What is Darth Vader doing riding a motorcycle? It’s pathetic and silly. From the site –

As outlaws, rebels and renegades take to the road in a galaxy far, far away, the Star Wars CUSTOMS shop designs and builds awesome choppers with expert precision. These choppers are built to the exact specifications of their owners, each with a few special modifications.

You want speed? You got it. Horsepower? Ditto. Attitude? Plenty to spare.

So hop on and hold tight as this custom chopper cruises all over the galaxy!

Rev it up and let it go for smooth riding action! Detailed chopper comes with lightsaber.

I guess “If you like American Chopper, you’ll love Star Wars CUSTOMS!”

Next up is ATTACKTIX, which I think are some sort of nerd-pleasing role playing game pieces that can actually shoot/fight/etc.. The problem is that some of the pieces have weapons the size of the character carrying said weapon. And the picture on the main page of Chewbacca with a huge wavy hand is not comforting.

Dear God…

Last up is the FORCE BATTLERS, large, cartoony figures that barely resemble the characters you love (Chewbacca) or ones you couldn’t care less about (General Grievous, Jango Fett, Emperor Palpatine). Each comes with weapons that were probably never used by the character (Chewbacca has a freaking shield!) or silly weapons (Palpatine comes with, get this, balls of energy).

Granted, Star Wars figures were always the hallmark of the toy line, and Hasbro has come a long way in updating the figures we 6 and 7 year olds horded on the playground, but how many times should I buy an R2-D2 figure? Thee or four times? Sure, the latest one looks like the real deal and is very detailed, compared to that clunky clicky one that I had as a kid.

But then it comes down to economics. Does Hasbro need my money? Star Wars figures aren’t like buying consumables like milk and bread; you hang onto them and put them away in airtight baggies, praying for that day that someone will pay you 100X what it was worth when you bought it.

Hasbro, let Star Wars die. You’ve kicked your dead Tauntaun enough. Let it go.

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Brush With Local Greatness, Vol. 2 : Ken Bethea of the Old 97’s

When I got to Ken Bethea’s house, I didn’t know where I was. My son had gotten invited to a birthday party for a little girl in his Mother’s Day Out program and all I saw was her first name, sans last. The house, located near ours, is probably 40 years old and is homey, but it was the little things that I started to notice. Old 97’s posters, framed over an old piano, were the first clue. A guitar in the corner, pictures of a guy that I recognized from CD inserts. But the dad of the little girl in the MDO program looked older, a lot older, and I surmised that his brother was Ken Bethea, the guitarist for one of the few musical acts to break out of the Dallas club scene, the Old 97’s.

My wife, the ballsy one, asked the dad if his brother was in the Old 97’s.

“I don’t have a brother,” he said, sort of standoffishly. “And I’m in the Old 97’s.”

So that was it. The pictures were of Ken and his wife, but before the graying hair. Case solved!

He was genial enough. While we both chomped pizza and cake we talked about “Heroes” and a group watching party that a local comic book shop puts on at the Magnolia every Monday night. He talked about a Chili’s ad that they had done (a lot of money for one day’s work) and were happy with and how they were going to tour the following week. Maybe it’s just the way he talks, but he kind of had that “bask in my glow” way of speaking, and some of the other dads who were there were giving him those puppy dog eyes, which I thought was kinda gay, but, thinking about it, Ken has attained a dream that all men at some point in their lives dream – he plays guitar in a band that tours and puts out albums that you can buy on Amazon. And the band is marginally famous.

I wasn’t going to tell Ken that I had all of their albums up until Fight Songs (which bordered on being too poppy for my tastes) and sing their songs loudly as I drive because I didn’t want to be one of those people that slobbers all over celebrities. He’s not flashy like lead singer Rhett Miller, who I remember from high school when he went to ESD and dated a girl in my class. It looks like Ken leads a pretty simple life, with his wife and 2 kids. We just chatted and it was alright. Pretty nice guy.

It ended kind of weird though. I have one other tangential link to Ken – he dated a friend of mine’s wife. Not when they were married, of course, but before all of the matrimony stuff. When he found out that we knew him through our friend, he started telling a story to us about when he dated her. Ken said it was difficult going out with her, since he had the band and would be back in Dallas for a week before heading out on the road again for another month or so and he didn’t really know if he should call her his girlfriend or not. It all ended badly and he felt more than a little responsible for the whole mess, which, according to our friend, he did create. He said to say hi to her when we saw her.

When you know these people as people the high sheen of what they do seems to come off a little bit and you realize that the people that Entertainment Tonight and gossip rags hold up as famous are just people who want to have lives also, and they screw up relationships and stuff like that too.

But he does play a pretty mean guitar. And I like the pillow that says “Buenos Dias” on it in their house. Where can I get one of those?

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Bwana Devil, the First Color, American 3-D Film

Bwana Devil, a 1952 film written, directed, and produced by Arch Oboler, is considered to be the first color, American 3-D feature film. It starred Robert Stack (of “Unsolved Mysteries” fame), Barbara Britton, and Nigel Bruce. And on top of all that it started the 3-D film boom!

Some legacy, huh?

Screen writer Milton Gunzburg and his brother Julian thought they had a solution for the declining attendance with their Natural Vision 3-D 1Natural Vision 3-D is shot with a special camera rig comprised of two cameras, producing a “left eye view” and a “right eye view.” The two resulting film strips are put together to form one film strip. film process. They tried to shop it around Hollywood, but no one really had any interest. Columbia and Paramount passed on Gunzberg’s pitch. 20th Century Fox introducing CinemaScope and weren’t interested in throwing another viewing experience into the mix . Only one man, John Arnold, who headed the MGM camera department, liked it enough to convince his bosses to purchase an option on the technology, but they let their option lapse.

To the Gunzbergs, it appeared that the Natural Vision technique of filming was doomed and they were back to square one until a man named Arch Oboler wanted a meeting with the them. Oboler, producer and writer of the popular radio show, Lights Out 2Lights Out was a radio program featuring “tales of the supernatural and the supernormal.” At the time it was immensely popular, and was one of the first horror programs., was impressed enough to option it for his next film, The Lions of Gulu.

The film was based on a well-known event at the time, the killing of more than 120 workers building the Uganda Railway for the British at the turn of the century. The incident was also the basis for “The Man-eaters of Tsavo“, a story written in 1907 by J.H. Patterson, the hunter who tracked and killed the animals.

Bwana Devil premiered on November 26, 1952 at the Paramount Theatres in Hollywood and Los Angeles, CA. The critics hated it but it was a smash with audiences. Local premieres followed in San Francisco on December 13, Philadelphia, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio openings on December 25 and New York on February 18, 1953.

United Artists bought the rights to Bwana Devil from Oboler for $500,000 and a share of the profits put the film into wide release in March. After other studios saw the big profits that UA was bringing in with Bwana Devil, other studios raced to release their own 3-D films and a cool, albeit short lived, trend was begun. 3An explanation of the Natural Vision 3-D process came from Dimension 3 and the rest of the information for this piece came from Wikipedia.


The “Lost” Short Term Memory Syndrome

I’ve loved “Lost”, and I’ve hated “Lost”. I swing like a pendulum between these two extremes, and all because some television writers want to drag out something that probably only last another season or two. Currently I’m back to loving it, but up until the second half of season 3, I was hating it, and with good reason, because it was sucking wind. After a pretty killer season 2 finale episode, the first block of new episodes for season 3 were less than stellar. I know that the producers of the show say they were setting up stuff for later in the season, but face it, they still weren’t very good episodes. I was so sick of it I was ready to swear off of the show for eternity, but lately they’ve been doing a pretty good job of keeping the average Vance glued to the telly week after freaking week.

As best as I can gather, the Losties have been on The Island for roughly around 70 days, just south of 2 months. In that time they’ve had 9 of their own die (Scott, Boone, Shannon, Arzt, Libby, Ana Lucia, Mr. Eko, Nikki, Paulo) and one more if you count the Oceanic Air pilot killed in the first episode, and some of those people, if the show’s time line is to be believed, died literally only weeks ago. Our castaways don’t seem very visibly upset by a lot of the death going on around them.

I attribute this to the “The ‘Lost’ Short Term Memory Syndrome”. It’s a condition commonly found in television characters who crashed on an island 3 years ago and are still living in that time, yet they’re being watched 3 years in the future on television. How else can you explain the lack of feelings, the forgotten things that happen from one week (or day, or whatever their passage of time consists of) to the next?

We’ll be talking in “Lost” time, not real world time, FYI.

On the second day our Losties are on the island some of them hike to higher ground to see if they can use a radio to contact the outside world, but they pick up signals in French from a radio tower. Shannon is able to decipher them, but many more people were there besides her. Do they not remember this unseen tower? Why aren’t they looking for it?

Sawyer was tortured by Sayid roughly a week and a half after they crashed for hoarding, yet in last night’s episode, Sawyer and Sayid are paling around and trying to get Juliet to talk. Would you be friends with someone who had tortured you not 2 months before? Why isn’t Sawyer trying to get even with Sayid for doing this?

Three weeks ago Jinn, Sawyer, Michael and Walt set sail on their boat, which was blown up by the Other known as Tom later that day. That was 3 weeks ago? Feels like forever ago.

Sayid loved Shannon, and she died about on day 48 of their time on the island. If we’re at about day 65+, shouldn’t Sayid still be a little torn up over her? The guy sure did mourn a long time for his girl, didn’t he?

On day 59, Locke was trapped beneath the blast door in the Hatch. It pierced his thighs, but a week later he’s fine? What gives? I know it’s the “healing powers of the island”, but come on, don’t give me that.

Eight-ish days ago, Michael killed Ana Lucia and Libby. Eight days ago. Three days after that Michael and Walt are given a boat and coordinates by Ben Linus. They leave the island.

On the same day the Hatch explodes. If the Hatch exploded on day 65, and we’re right around day 70 or so, it’s been less than a week since that occurrence. None of the Losties seem to remember the Hatch, but the Others talk about the Purple Light that screwed up their navigation systems.

I guess they forgot about the Numbers too. And they were such a big deal, weren’t they?

I’ll give them a point of consistency though – Sawyer has not reverted to calling people nicknames yet. I expect that to change as he conveniently forgets his deal with Hurley.

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Brush With Local Greatness, Vol. 1 : Dan Piraro

About 12 years ago I was working at the Bookstop near the Inwood theater in Dallas and it was my first real job out of college. I was a supervisor there, and one of the things we would do, and if you’ve been into any Barnes & Noble you’ll know this, was put out staff recommendations. I had recommended some Bizarro comic strip books in the past, and one night while working the cash register a woman came and paid for her books with a check that said it was from Dan and (Somebody) Piraro. Don’t remember her name.

Dan Piraro was the creator of the Bizarro comic strip, and I knew that the name wasn’t very common, so I carefully asked, “Is this the Dan Piraro we all know and love?” And she answered that yes it was. Dan’s wife called him over and I said how much I liked his comic and he thanked me. They left, but later I put out another staff recommendation of “Best of Bizarro, Volume 1”. The card that I put with the book said, “If Dan Piraro is cool he will sign these.” And he obviously was cool, because he did sign them, all of them. I of course snatched one of the autographed copies up. Still have it, too.

He didn’t look like the picture I’ve included at the time, he looked much more eccentric, with long curly hair and a goatee. The picture next to this makes him almost look Dad-like.

The next time I saw him in our store he was buying a “Do Your Own Divorce in Texas” book. I hope that wasn’t concerning the woman who’d called him over to say hi to me.


On April 9 of this year I got up the gumption and wrote Dan from the email address given off of his website –

About 12 years ago I was working at the Bookstop near the Inwood theater in Dallas and knew that you occasionally came into our store. I had set out a staff recommendation of your Best of Bizarro (the first one) and my card underneath it read “If Dan Piraro is cool he will sign these.”

Suffice to say, you were very cool and signed all of them. I still have one, even though my wife wonders why I keep it around.

Just wanted to say thanks for that.

– Glenn Vance

I had no idea if he would write me back…but three days later he did.

Thanks for the note, Glenn. It was awfully nice of you to thank me after so many years. Hope all is well with you and yours and that you are finding life to be grand and groovy. I lived in Dallas then and live in NYC now. You still in Dallas?

Holy moly. He was engaging me in conversation. So I told him about my wish to get my masters and PhD in History and then teach. I thanked him for writing me back and told him to have a good one.

And he wrote back again!

Good luck with your professorship. Sounds like a good career and one that hardly ever includes being paged in the middle of the night. As long as you stay away from the co-eds. : )

How freaking cool is that?

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Schoolhouse Rock

Schoolhouse Rock, the series of 41 cartoon shorts that used catchy tunes and repetition to teach kids watching Saturday morning cartoons about math, American history, grammar and science, began as a brainstorm of David McCall when, in 1971, he noticed that his son could sing popular song lyrics but couldn’t handle simple multiplication tables. His solution was simple: Create a catchy way to learn math by fusing it with contemporary music and, he reckoned, the kids would be able to memorize their math through songs.

McCall was chairman of the New York ad agency McCaffrey & McCall, and he put the problem to his underlings. They suggested he hire Bob Dorough, a Texas jazz musician known for creating catchy music to create the songs. Dorough was willing to give the idea a shot, and he plowed through his daughter’s math books, making up tunes on his piano until he’d created the trippy ballad “Three Is a Magic Number.”

McCall loved Dorough’s song, and the tune was eventually released as a record by Capitol Records under the title Multiplication Rock. A workbook deal fell through, but Tom Yohe, McCaffrey & McCall’s creative director, thought that the songs would go well with animation, so, after doodling some pictures, which McCall once again loved, they put together a 3 minute film to accompany “Three Is a Magic Number”, which they showed to ABC’s head of children’s programming, Michael Eisner. Eisner was receptive to the idea and gave McCaffrey & McCall the go ahead to create films for the rest of the multiplication tables. General Mills was brought on as the sole sponsor of Schoolhouse Rock.

Eisner also demanded that the big animation studios of Hollywood that made their Saturday morning cartoons cut 3 minutes from each show so that the animated shorts could be run. The studios were not too eager to comply, but after prodding by Eisner that it made good business sense, the relented.

Schoolhouse Rock premiered on the weekend of January 6-7, 1973, with the play list being “My Hero Zero,” “Elementary, My Dear,” “Three Is a Magic Number” and “The Four-Legged Zoo.” The shorts were aired for 12 years, ending in 1985. 1The information for this piece came from the omnipresent Wikipedia and the totally great School House Rock Site.

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Why Colonel Tigh is the Coolest

Saul Tigh, Executive Officer of the Battlestar Galactica, is one tough frakkin’ SOB. The man drinks, he swears, he beats up prisoners and crew members alike with a passion, he overthrows governments, he’s had one of his eyes ripped out of the socket and, to top it all off, he’s had to kill his own wife! How’s that for one tough guy?

Tigh has been my favorite character on BSG since the excellent miniseries launched the show, and it’s funny, since if the guy were real and we were to meet in real life I’d probably hate him, mainly from his demeanor. Upon first meeting he’d probably give one raised nostril in a sneer and snarl something degrading, But Michael Hogan makes him so real and flawed that his humanity (or lack of humanity, now that the season 3 finally has come and gone) pours out of him.

Now that supposedly Tigh is a Cylon, I have no idea how they will rectify his back story with what we now know he is. According to the excellent, Tigh served aboard a warship called the Brenik during the first Cylon war when he was just a teenager. He was released from service after the war, served aboard civilian ships and met Bill Adama during a bar fight. The two men grew old together while they served the colonies together. How they’re going to make him a Cylon that grew old is beyond me. I don’t know.

I guess what I like about him is his irascible character, his take-no-garbage attitude and his willingness to do anything that is necessary to survive. He only seems to have given up that fight twice in his life, once when he’d divorced Ellen and was drifting aimlessly, and then after he’d had to kill Ellen and return to the Galactica. Executing Cylon collaborators seemed to have helped quench some of his fury, but as a man he was drifting.

Now that he believes that he is a Cylon he has turned back to the one constant in his life; serving under Bill Adama as XO. He defiantly declared upon realization that he isn’t human, “My name is Saul Tigh. I’m an officer in the Colonial Fleet. Whatever else I am, whatever else it means, that’s the man I want to be. And if I die today, that’s the man I’ll be.”

God, I love this man. Godspeed, Tigh! May you make it to “Earth” so we may all know you in all your ornery glory!

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