Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Dome field advantage

After two disappointing straight losses at the hands of Dallas on a Thursday night and Tampa Bay this past Sunday, many Saints fans were beginning to believe that their team had peaked too soon. Frankly, a couple of plays late in each game might have made the difference to have helped the Saints maintain a perfect season. But perfection is not everything as Indianapolis learned this past Sunday. After all, it is far more important to keep fixed on the goal of getting to the Superbowl and to play the very best games possible in the playoffs. Frankly, the last game of the season against the Carolina Panthers on January 3 doesn't count for anything other than bragging rights about whether the Saints can defeat them twice in one season or split the two decisions. I would not be surprised to see Coach Sean Payton keep Drew Brees out of a portion of the game in order to keep him rested and out of danger of a possible injury prior to the start of the playoff season. So, surprise of all surprises last night when I tuned in to the Chicago Bears game against the Minnesota Vikings. The score in the third quarter was Chicago 16, Minnesota 0. What? I gulped hard and thought to myself "Be still my heart." The Minnesota Vikings with the fabulous Brett Favre (almost a local boy from Kiln, Mississippi) should have been way ahead of the Bears. Indeed, it didn't take long for Favre to play catchup in the remainder of the third and fourth quarters. The score was evened at 23 each and then again at 30 a piece. Then the game went into sudden death overtime. The Bears won the coin toss and elected to receive. They got down to within potential field goal range, but the kick was errant. Then the Vikings took over and they took their shot, but were denied by the tenacious Bears defense. After the Bears failed to capitalize on the following drive, Favre looked like he was about to put the game away. He tossed a short pass off to one of his receivers who added nearly ten yards on the carry when the ball was punched out of his arm by a crafty Bear defender. The ball popped out as a fumble and was jumped on by the Bears, setting up a near perfect touchdown pass into the endzone by Bear quarterback Jeff Cutler. In this case Cutler, the student, taught Favre, the master, a lesson from the playbooks. It was an incredible see-saw battle, but in the end the winner turned out to be the New Orleans Saints. Based on their 13-2 record and Minnesota's unbelievable third loss in the last four weeks, New Orleans secured home field advantage at the Superdome for what Saints fans hope will be the next two games played there before a shot at the Vince Lombardi Trophy in Miami. Nothing good ever comes from something easily obtained, but the Saints have achieved one of their major season goals by the most unlikely of friends, the same Chicago Bears team that denied them a shot at the Superbowl a couple of years back. Politics and football make strange bedfellows, it would seem.
Today marks the 80th anniversary of the founding of the Theta Theta chapter of Sigma Alpha Rho fraternity right here in New Orleans. Many of my contemporaries will recall that this high school fraternity reached its height in the late Sixties and early Seventies. After that time the relevance of high school fraternities became lessened and many Jewish students gravitated towards AZA, a B'nai Brith Youth Organization. Sadly, the local chapter lost much support from the local community and quietly died sometime in the late Seventies, as best I can tell. It's a shame because some of my best memories from high school revolved about many of the events sponsored by S.A.R. Some of my earliest writing can be found in some of the old newspapers we printed on a mimeograph machine owned by the fraternity. I learned much about putting together a newspaper as well as the necessity of selling advertising for much of the more upscale publications such as the program printed for the White Orchid Formal, held each December 29. There are no such opportunities for Jewish youth these days. The high school sorority, Sigma Theta Pi, also shut down around the same time. High school fraternities are indeed dinosaurs and have lost out to organized sports and other school-related activities. I still feel the loss, even though most of today's kids don't really know what they're missing. Many of my closest friends today were S.A.R. fraternity brothers and given the fact that I never did pledge a college fraternity, those friendships are still dear to my heart.

Friday, December 25, 2009

"A Christmas Story" explored

Every Christmas like clockwork, TBS runs 24 hours of "A Christmas Story," a 1983 picture based on the writing of Jean Shepard about the travails of an eight-year-old in search of his ultimate Christmas present, a Red Ryder range model air rifle. This "holy grail" of holiday presents becomes the quest that little Ralphie seeks in the weeks leading up to Christmas morning. Jean Shepard serves as both the writer and the narrator for this wonderful little movie that has an abundance of classic scenes. Some people may not know of the connections this film has with both New Orleans and Cleveland. Some of them will know that the film was shot in downtown Cleveland as well as at a house on the West Side of Cleveland that today serves as the official A Christmas Story Museum. Believe it or not, there is a a manufacturer of plastic leg lamps similar to the kind that figures in the movie. The president of that company decided that tying in the promotional value of that house with his product would be a great marketing tool. So, when I was still in Cleveland following the Hurricane Katrina related flooding, news stories followed the restoration and conversion of the house into a museum. Today it stands as a testament as to how a little known film could be transformed into a tourist site in a city that has very few of which to boast. Some people know that the late director of the film, Bob Clark, also wrote the film with Shepard. Clark was tragically killed two years ago by a drunk driver, but many don't know he was born right here in New Orleans, although he was raised in Fort Lauderdale. So there you have it. A Cleveland and New Orleans connection to "A Christmas Story." I didn't say this would be earthshaking, but after all, it is Christmas and that makes it all worthwhile, don't 'ya think? (Photo © 1983 MGM Studios)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Mister Bingle and Santa vs. Mr. Scrooge and the Grinch

An advertisement for Mr. Bingle, my chilhood Christmas hero

When I was but a mere lad, television was still mostly broadcast in black and white. At holiday time local TV station WDSU broadcast a five-minute holiday message from Mr. Bingle, the icon of the then powerful department store Maison Blanche. As legend would have it, Mr. Bingle was a small snowman brought to life by Santa Claus who wore green holly leaf wings, had red and white candy-cane striped gloves and wore an upside down ice cream cone for a hat. This imaginative creature was drummed up as a sales promotion gimmick for Maison Blanche. Even the initals for Mister Bingle reminded one of Maison Blanche, then the largest department store in the South. At holiday time when everyone still dressed up to go downtown, my grandmother would take me to the Maison Blanche department store window on Canal Street where special 15-minute shows would take place throughout the day. Mister Bingle's voice was that of Oscar Eisentraut, an unlikely cigarette chain-smoking window dresser who was drafted as the voice of the imaginary character back at its inception, suggested as 1947. Oscar's high-pitched voice could best be described as a dwarf inhaling helium. Throughout many years on TV and at the store, Oscar was assisted by many creative individuals. The late Al Shea, who passed away a few months ago, was known as the voice of Pete the Penguin, for example. These creative shows carried on even during my tenure at WSMB-AM on the 13th floor of the Masion Blanche Building and lasted until 1985 until Eisentraut passed away. It was different for me to meet and see Eisentraut as an adult and help him prepare some of his scripts while I worked at the station. When I was a kid, it was all so magical. While my Jewish heritage did not allow me to attach much significance to the religious reasons for the celebration, I was, like all the kids of my age, attracted to the cuddly, cute and sometimes mischievous Mr. Bingle, whose image was emblazoned on the store and oftentimes on all of the holiday shopping bags. The shows truly got me into the spirit of the holiday and I looked forward to meeting Santa and hearing more about his aeronautical sleigh and reindeer. The Dr. Seuss book and TV classic "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" starring Boris Karloff was never read or viewed by me as a kid, although I came to appreciate it much more as an adult. Likewise, I read "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens much later in school beyond the time I was a young, impressionable child. So, the images of the two archetype villains who would steal the joy from the holiday were never in my mind until much later in life. Today, however, I can't help but summon up all of the collective images of Christmas. Mr. Bingle and my childhood impressions of Santa stand on one side with the Grinch and Ebeneezer Scrooge on the other. It is true that I still get a bit teary-eyed when I watch the immortal "Miracle on 34th Street" starring Edmund Gwenn and a very young Natalie Wood. Others that have come along since that time: Tim Allen in "The Santa Claus," the classic film made in Cleveland of "A Christmas Story" ("You'll shoot your eye out, kid!") and even Billy Bob Thornton's "Bad Santa" have also made impressions (good or bad) that I carry with me today. But for me, my fondest childhood memories were watching the small black and white screen and imagining this little puppet and all of his possiblities. How I did enjoy those trappings of the holiday. I am sorry that my son, now grown, never knew the significance of Mr. Bingle nor that more of his generation or others who have followed were never able to experience the magic of the holiday through the hilarious mischief of a happy, high-pitched, flying snowman bearing a slight New Orleans accent.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Am I blue?

A pall has been cast over the city. Even though I have not ventured outside since last night, I can somehow feel a diminishment of the ardor of that collective spirit of Saints fever that reached its zenith yesterday. The "Bless You Boys" have been vanquished by "America's Team" and there seems no solace in the recognition that on any given Sunday, Monday, Thursday or Saturday one NFL team can overpower another. On reflection it may well have been overly optimistic to think that the 2009 Saints could be talked about in the same breath as the 1972 Miami Dolphins or the 2007 New England Patriots, both of whom had posted perfect regular seasons. Had New Orleans won last night, the team would have tied the regular season record Miami had enjoyed. New England, of course, won every game with the exception of the one that mattered, the Super Bowl, where they were defeated by the upstart New York Giants. I suppose any reasonable sportsfan would understand the disappointment attached to seeing a dream - no matter how impossible - vanish before one's eyes. But the Who Dat Nation has never been so close to perfection and it was reassuring to think that all of those past seasons where we let opponents run ramshackle over us or, for me, the nadir of hopelessness when the Saints went 1-15 in 1981, would be redeemed this year. That's not to say the Saints didn't manage to play good catch up ball last night. They almost pulled off yet another amazing comeback. This time, though, they had trouble pulling even with Dallas, which came out in their first two possessions with two touchdowns. Given the advantage of a Superdome filled to overflowing with diehard Saints fans, it seems hard to rationalize they couldn't get one score out of their first two possessions. Dallas controlled the clock and their destiny last night. By going 9-5, they kept themselves in the playoff picture. The Saints are already assured a first-round bye, but home field advantage is now up for grabs. Given the loss in the Superdome last night and the terrific way the team has played in away stadiums, perhaps home field advantage won't be necessary for the team to do well in the playoffs. Some analysts have suggested the Saints needed a loss in order to psychologically prepare them for the challenges ahead of having to win the rest of their remaining games and keep an eye on the prize, which is the Super Bowl. Frankly, I would have preferred a perfect season, but I will take what I can get. There is only one other team out there, Indianapolis, that has achieved 14-0 and they did it this past Thursday night. If the Saints can get through Minnesota and any other NFC teams that stand in their way, they may yet have an opportunity to have it out with our own Peyton Manning and his fabulous Colts team. The loss to the Cowboys is not as important as other factors that have affected the city like Hurricane Katrina and the related flooding four years ago. We have many challenges for this city and the people who live here. The Saints have provided amazing moments of commonality in spirit for many culturally diverse people. I suppose it was inevitable that they could and would lose. I keep telling myself that statement over and over. It has yet to sink in for I have drunk the dregs of defeat and they are indeed bitter.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Am I happy or what?

Okay, to state for the record I am dealing with the loss of my MacBook's hard drive as best as can be expected. Is this the same as the barefoot boy whose father is a cobbler? Well, yes. I am ashamed to admit it. I have been snakebitten. But in any computer crisis, there is usually a ray of hope or a lesson to be learned. I am now in the process of updating my MacBook to allow me to install Time Machine (an application which will back up my data more regularly) and Boot Camp (an Apple feature that permits dual booting into Windows). The other good outcome from such a dastardly turn of events is that I will be upgrading my hard drive from 80 Gigabytes to a full 320GB with a split between the Mac and Windows OS (160GB each). So, although I have lost lots of notes, pictures and presentations, I guess I can take solace in the fact that I will have learned from the errors of my past and can say with some certainty that I won't be as hard hit next time as I was last weekend.
There is also another reason for my sunny disposition. Perhaps it is caused by those extra hours of streaming sun enjoyed by me and my fellow Louisianians. Or pehaps it is in the Creole or Cajun food or the Dixieland, rhythm and blues or Zydeco music we so love. Whatever it is, we in Louisiana are the happiest people in the U.S. Don't just take my word for it. There is a genuine scientific poll that says just that. In fact Louisiana showed up ahead of Hawaii and Florida in the study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Now some of you naysayers in the gray, frozen tundra may snicker, but there is now undisputed proof that what I've been saying all along is right. Life in Louisiana is pretty good, despite the occasional threat of hurricanes and pelting rain from the soggiest December on record. I believe it has a lot to do with the amount of sunshine we enjoy, but there's more to it than that. After all, the Equator gets more sunshine than any other place on earth and I don't necessarily feel that any of those countries are happier than we are in our neck of the woods. In case some of you are wondering about the study, it was conducted over the course of several years (some before Hurricane Katrina and some after), so the findings are even more startling to me. Over 1.3 million people were interviewed about their quality of life and the happiness quotient for living in Louisiana topped all others. Not surprisingly, New York came in last and California showed up in 46th place. So, with the New Orleans Saints at 13 and 0 and this study proving what I've been saying all along, this land of dreamy dreams seems somewhat more transformed into a more perfect resting place. In case some of you snowbirds want to have some of what we've got, make a reservation, hop a plane, car, bus or train and get down to enjoy what will be a great holiday season and a fantastic new year to come. With the Saints steamroller making locals a bit more loco, the upcoming Sugar Bowl and the Mardi Gras season fast approaching, New Orleans and Louisiana is looking pretty good about now. We'll keep a cup of cafe au lait and some beignets warm for you all.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

My Mac, my Mac, my kingdom for a Mac!

Grrrrr. I never did fully understand that word when I read it in comic book form, but I am beginning to now. A simple download from I-Tunes last night and all of a sudden, my MacBook did an unthinkable thing. It died. Now, all of my data (including the partition with Windows XP also is gone). Oh, well...nothing like being a computer expert to know when to punt. I'll let you all know how this plays out soon, but I expect it will be at least a week or so before my laptop is fully restored. Grrrrr.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The day that will live in infamy

There are fewer and fewer Americans alive who recall that Sunday morning when members of an advanced force from the Imperial Nation of Japan carried out their sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. What is forgotten in the wake of 9/11 was the outrage at the empire of Japan, the mourning of the great loss of American lives and the embarrassment that we had let our guard down and allowed this to happen. Providence played a hand because, despite the incredible fortune of the attacking force that dispatched much of the American fleet stationed there, not one aircraft carrier was berthed at Pearl Harbor that morning. Had the United States lost one single aircraft carrier, the fate of future battles might have tipped toward the Japanese. As it turned out, the attack was devastatingly decisive. The elements of the Japanese Navy that planned the logistics probably could never have imagined how successful this foray would have been. Such plans had been discussed for years by the Japanese military, who viewed American hegemony in the Pacific as detrimental to their own imperialism. 68 years ago Americans were galvanized and plunged into a war of purpose against an enemy that could be readily seen in Tokyo, Rome and Berlin. Today's enemies are much more stealthy. We can only surmise where Al Queda and the Taliban are hiding. The good news is that big attacks like those that happened in 2001 are not as likely to happen. The bad news is that we must submit to measures that make us more secure, but less free in order to prevent future occurrences. Would that our enemies were not so invisibles. The new surge in Afghanistan is an example where our conventional forces are still having trouble dealing with guerilla tactics that wear our troops down and pick us off one i.e.d. at a time. Of course I hope we can get the job done in the time allotted, but I fear that many of our bravest and our best will suffer at the hands of this unseen enemy who would like nothing more than for us to abandon our way of life and our resolve.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

A theatrical experience

In all my years of reviewing theatre, there have been many gaffes, unexpected entrances and awkward moments when scenery gets stuck. Occasionally, actors will break character creating a memorable instance of levity that allows the action to continue unabated. Understanding human nature, audiences are decidedly passive and almost always forgiving. With that stated I must say that today's matinee performance at Le Petit Theatre's production of "White Christmas" was like nothing I have ever experienced. You may not comprehend to what I am alluding until you realize that the show took place during the same time frame as the New Orleans Saints game at FedEx Field against the recalcitrant Washington Redskins. First of all, the house was packed. Even Gary Solomon, the managing director of the oldest community theatre in the country, was moved to express his thanks vocally for the totally unexpected numbers in the audience. Uncomfortably, he spoke onstage just before the curtain rose. At that time he announced the Saints were trailing the Redskins by a score of 20-17, but he uneasily predicted he would be back to let everyone know the final score at intermission when the Saints would have prevailed. Uncharacteristically, the show began more than ten minutes late. Throughout the first act the audience was responsive, yet restless. Everyone kept looking at their watches, enjoying the show, but also moving uncomfortably in their seats wondering what the boys in white and gold would be up to. As the first act curtain fell, cell phones were pulled out and others (like me) went outside and into the historic French Quarter to peer through windows espying the bright TV screens broadcasting the game. The game should have been over. It was already past 3:30 p.m., but the game was far from over. It was in sudden death overtime. Apparently, the Saints had just tied the ballgame at 30 apiece as regulation time ran out. Everyone was in a panic. The show was quite good, but the Saints had everyone's rapt attention. Hugh Jackman could have been giving the performance of his life on that stage and not one audience member would have cared. Intermission meant rooting for the Saints pure and simple. With cell phones glued to their ears the attendees connected to their homes or to friends and relatives who clued them in on the action taking place on the bitterly cold field 1,163 miles away. As the sudden death period continued, it became evident that no one was ready to return to his or her seats. All of a sudden the inside of the theatre became ever more excited. The Saints were moving down the field. After a sustained drive, they were suddenly on the Washington 20-yard line. They moved the ball down to their opponents' five-yard line and I expected they would try to punch the ball in or lob a pass into the end zone to put the game away. Apparently, Coach Sean Payton decided to kick a game-ending field goal instead. The Saints kicker lined up to make the three-pointer and it sailed over the goalposts! The audience screamed. The Saints had won the game. But no! Washington had called for a time out just as the ball was about to be kicked. It's an obvious ploy coaches use to make the kicker think about what he has to do and put pressure on him. Sometimes the second kick goes bad and it gives the other team another chance at saving the game. The officials handed the ball back to the Saints and made them kick it over. The crowd inside the theatre didn't quite understand it at the time, but they noisily accepted their fate. A second time the ball sailed over the goalpost and an explosion of approval immediately followed. This time the game was over. The mighty Saints had won 33-30. Almost immediately the band started playing "When the Saints Go Marching In" from the orchestra pit and shouts of "Who dat?" rang out. The audience started clapping to the music when cast members in costume began "second lining" across the stage. It was unreal to me, this feeling of unalloyed joy and unabashed pride in a professional sports franchise that held the show up for several minutes until the celebrating subsided. Solomon returned to the stage with microphone in hand to remind the crowd to turn off those pesky cell phones now that they were no longer needed. The performance ended an hour later with the entire cast singing Irving Berlin's immortal holiday classic, "White Christmas," and snow machines blanketed the audience with thick sheets of faux flakes. Several performers couldn't help themselves. They launched themselves into an impromptu cheer of "Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?" to the delight of the audience. Truly, I'm not sure that I'll ever go through another matinee performance with as much excitement. It reminded me of that old joke where someone asks: "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, what did you think of the play?"

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

11 and 0h my!

If there is another happiest place on earth (aside from Disneyworld), it's probably right here in the Crescent City. There is an ever-present smile on the faces of the children and its reflected in the happy countenances one sees on everyday people doing their regular jobs or keeping their appointments. There is a spring in everyone's step and it's all because of the unbelievable record posted by the undefeated New Orleans Saints. Yes, it's true. The birds are singing sweeter and the sun is shining more brilliantly as each day dawns. The Aints of old are such a distant memory that paper bags are only considered as worthily used at grocery stores. The jazz music in the air seems to carry a universal message for all to enjoy. It's a tune every kid knows for certain: "Oh, when the Saints go marching in..." According to the Nielsen people who are paid to know, Monday night's game on ESPN and the local station that paid to carry it might turn out to be the largest audience in cable TV history, eclipsing the record set October 5 when the Green Bay Packer took on their former quarterback Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings. The ratings people suggest the national rating for the Saints game against the New England Patriots was at 14.4 in metered markets compared to the earlier game, which registered 14.2. There is no doubt that a big majority of TV sets in the area watched the sellout game at the Superdome. Estimates suggest the combined share was a much as 83.7. That means that the overwhelming percentage of homes with TV sets was tuned to either WDSU-TV the local station that carried the game or the ESPN channel. That is hard to fathom, but it may also be a local record for penetration and easily eclipsed the ratings for the past two Super Bowls, typically the single biggest and most watched game of the year. There are five remaining games and everyone has their eyes wide open, but even the most hardened of naysayers is now convinced. The Who Dat Nation has risen and their mantra is spreading northward, westward and eastward. It's a short week, but the Washington Redskins are next up and Saints fans are ready to take them on and add yet another number in the "w" column. Mmmm... Can you detect that fragrance in the air? It's the smell of victory and it smells a lot better than the freshest coffee and chicory or the crispiest and confectioner's sugar-covered beignet one can have at Cafe du Monde. It's been a long time for Saints fans who savor this day and consider the possibility of a Super Bowl date no longer a pipe dream. (Logo Copyright New Orleans Saints)