For Whom the Belmont Tolls

B

Happy to have my first byline in Washingtonian magazine, an oral history of the Belmont TV jingle (“Whatever you want, think Belmont!”)

This extends my previous trifecta with Washingtonian. For several years, my band played the magazine’s annual “Best & Worst” gala, a swanky soiree based on its issue celebrating and castigating what the editors considered the high and low points of D.C. culture. The live event featured only the high points, where “Best” winners, mostly restaurants, were invited to host a booth and offer their wares. My band, I should note, was certainly not the best in D.C. Not sure how we got the gig, but they were usually fun.

As for low points, my group, Travesty Films, was once named the “Best Vanity Project” for our crowd-pleasing though admittedly low-brow comedy films. Thanks, I guess.

And then one year I was invited to be a judge for the Best & Worst issue, lending my expertise to the category of Best Movie Theater Popcorn. Arch Campbell was also a judge. We set up at the Uptown Theater to sample the snacks, including some microwave popcorn, which I didn’t think should have qualified. I can’t remember who we gave the prize to, but I recall being underwhelmed by all the options. For the record, the best movie popcorn was at the old Cineplex Odeon Wisconsin Avenue, which proudly boasted real butter — until the scolds at the Center for Science in the Public Interest released a “study” that declared buttered popcorn to be a health hazard. Cineplex countered with a statement pointing out that most Americans only go to the movies a few times a year and thus were hardly in danger of contracting heart disease from the multiplex. And then the company caved and changed the recipe to the same dreck as everyone else. Thanks, “science”!

As is often the case in journalism, one learns as much about oneself as the subject of one’s article. Though I’d been listening to the jingle for its entire 40-year history, I didn’t realize until I made the calls that I knew everyone in the band: Pete Kennedy on guitar, Shannon Ford on drums, high school classmate the late, lamented Wade Matthews on bass, and Jon Carroll and Margot Chapman on vocals.

Anyway, the article was fun to do. I got to use my clever Olympus TP-8 Telephone Pick-up Microphone, which I picked up after learning that Ryan Lizza used one to record his insane conversation with disgraced political nutjob Anthony Scaramucci.

Click the link to get the earworm stuck in your head all over again. You’re welcome.

R.I.P Dick Gregory

I had the honor of interviewing Dick Gregory for WPFW radio in 2008. Basically, I said “Hello,” and he pretty much filled the next hour with wonderful anecdotes of his pioneering days in comedy and philosophical stories on all manner of subjects. Gregory was a very sweet fellow in person, happy to pose for a photo with some random white dude. The interview was for a pledge drive and the goal was met, for which I can take no credit.

Gregory’s importance in comedy cannot be overstated. Follow Kliph Nesteroff on Twitter; he has been posting amazing stories about and pictures of Gregory for the last couple days. Nesteroff is the author of the essential book, The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels & the History of American Comedy, and clearly can see into the future as well as the past.

Here is the Washington Post‘s excellent obit.

Book Report: Stinker Lets Loose

I get to the bottom of the mystery that is Mike Sacks‘ latest book, Stinker Lets Loose. Is it in fact his latest book? Or is Stinker Lets Loose something more. Something more sinister? Or something wonderful? America needs to know.

Mentioned is my attempt at a re-novelization of the novelization of the original Ocean’s 11 movie starring the Rat Pack, Frank, Dino, Sammy, etc. One may find that effort here.

By all means, do check out Mike’s podcast, Doin’ It With Mike Sacks, interviews with comedy cognoscenti as well as original amusements.

Soul Man: Larry Kidwell, 1947-2017

lawrence and the arabians

Larry Kidwell has passed. Larry was the singer/piano player for the legendary D.C. band Lawrence & the Arabians. (That’s him in Jesus pose behind his bandmates, circa 1967.) Before the term blue-eyed soul, he was its embodiment. As Michael Dolan wrote about the band in Washingtonian in 1988, “They were the original soul rebels, white kids who grew up on black music and in turn played black music for other white kids to grow up on.” One of those kids was me.

Larry and the band get their own section in Mark Opsasnick‘s essential book, Capitol Rock, deservedly so. In the era of teen clubs and dances at the fire hall, before there was such a thing as a concert industry and professional music venues outside of classical halls, the band routinely drew 1,500 or more kids every weekend.

Lawrence and the arabians card

Of course, there were no Arabians in the band. As with many band names of the time, it was a play on something current, in this case the film. Yes, it was a more innocent time; please put your comments about “appropriation” aside, especially if you never heard the man sing. The few recordings that Larry and the band made don’t really do him justice. As with so much music, you really have to hear it live.

Larry generously gifted me with the original photo of the band after I interviewed him for City Paper. He wrote on the back:

“If this picture means anything good to you, please keep it that it would give me pleasure, too.”

Larry, this picture means the world to me. And I hope I thanked you enough.

Condolences to his family. This town lost a bit of its soul.

Bullshit Watch: Real Estate Edition

If you lived here, you'd be stuck in traffic still

If you lived here, you’d be stuck in traffic still

If you’ve been to Wheaton Plaza lately (excuse me, Westfields Wheaton), you might have noticed a small construction site. The sign out front boldly proclaims this new development as “Kensington Overlook.” The overlook part is definitely correct, as the couple rows of townhouses overlook Kensington by a good mile or more, that town being actually located so far down University Boulevard as to be invisible.

Yet, the builder’s website declares in no uncertain terms that Kensington Overlook is “a sophisticated enclave featuring 25 new townhomes…located just 4 miles north of D.C. in Kensington, MD.”

Very little is correct about that. This “sophisticated enclave” is literally a tiny triangle of scrub land at the entrance to a large shopping mall. Your backyard is the parking lot for Target, across the two-lane entranceway is the Giant grocery story, and your front yard is a busy six-lane commuter road. Of course, all builders use the word “luxury” to describe what are the usual stick-built structures, with Tyvek-thin walls and a facade of inch-thick brick or stone-like substance.

Montgomery County’s approved planning document [PDF] places this enclave squarely within the Wheaton Sector Plan. So, yeah, you can walk to Costco. And the Metro. That’s good “smart growth.” But put on your most comfortable hiking boots for the long, exhaust-filled trek to Kensington.

Of course, whoever buys these sad dwellings will probably overlook that.

For those who don’t care to read, here’s a video version:

(To be fair, real estate developers have been attaching fanciful names to their projects forever. In the real estate boom of the 1980s, Regardies, a business magazine which closely chronicled the industry’s movers and shakers, published a wheel that you could cut out and use to automate the naming process. Along one axis were words like “Orchard,” Forest,” “View,” etc.; another offered lofty-sounding, often British-inspired words to match, such as “Warwick,” “Manchester,” “Heights,” and, well, Kensington. Never mattered if there ever was an orchard or a view. One may do this now online, here: http://lewenberg.com/sng/)

All the News That Fills

unicorn times filler ad

Filler ad from the Unicorn Times.

The best job I ever had, certainly the best job title, was Filler Editor for the Unicorn Times. Whenever an ad fell out, which was often — and often on deadline — I was tasked with filling the space. Which I gleefully did with the help of some spiffy clip art and the photo archives of ’70s rock bands.

The Unicorn Times was a monthly arts and entertainment tabloid that published from the early 1970s into the early 1980s, when the much better organized Washington City Paper came to town and finally squeezed it out of business. Unicorn was the brainchild of a jovial Irishman who started the paper largely as a way to get free drinks. In exchange, he offered to print the entertainment schedule of various nightclubs and when he had enough bars lined up, voila, a newspaper.

Unicorn grew into much more than that, launching some actual journalists. I never wrote for the paper. I was nominally the production manager, in charge of pasting up the ads, though I also delivered the papers once they came back from the printer in West Virginia. (Once, I got to deliver the “boards” as they were called to Morgantown, which was an exciting day trip.)

Many of the fake ads were blatant come-ons for ridiculous products and included what I thought was the obvious gag of demanding money for a “free” catalog. And the address was always my father’s post office box: Box 602, Rockville, Md. Dad was a traveling salesman and I guess he thought he needed a PO Box as the mark of a serious businessman. I was fascinated by the idea and used it as my address for the comic books I subscribed to.

Some of my jokes were apparently too subtle. I created a fake record company whose entire catalog was devoted to songs of the humpback whales, which was a thing at the time. Such supposedly spurious titles as Reggae Songs of the Humpback Whales, featuring Bob Marley and John Denver did not seem at all insane to the Library of Congress, a representative of which wrote a letter asking that I send over my catalog.

The above filler ad is but one example of my publishing outrage recently unearthed from the Nuttycombe Archives. The rest are on my Tumblr site. Enjoy.

The Real Richard Nixon is the Fake Richard Nixon

Richard Nixon

An addendum of sorts to my Washington Post piece on the many faux Mad Men characters of Twitter. One of the most fascinating and always insightful fake Twitter accounts is that of Richard Nixon (@dick_nixon), still alive at 102 and offering witheringly wonderful commentary on any and everything. Though calling it “fake” is missing the point.

The man behind the Twitter feed has written a surprisingly moving account of why he started pretending to be a dead president. Interestingly, an original inspiration was the many Mad Men role-players.

Please give “The Confessions of @dick_nixon” a read. For America, goddammit.

Special to the Washington Post, “Mad Men” Edition

Don Draper

Have a piece on the Post’s Style Blog about the people who tweet as characters on Mad Men. As the show is now finished, I wondered what they would do.

It’s a fun piece, but I didn’t get to delve too far into the background of why some of these people are spending so much effort pretending to be imaginary people. Here, two of Don Draper‘s most significant love interests, Rachel Menken and Sylvia Rosen, discuss their reasons for creating online lives.

Rachel Menken (@RachelMenkenNY):

I started tweeting Rachel in February, 2013, at the request of @DonDraperSCP. It was a good fit for me as I’m Jewish and live in New York City. I even spent a few years in the fashion industry at the beginning of my career.

In any event, when I started tweeting—even though Rachel hadn’t been on the show since season 2, I found that fans remembered her and wanted to interact. So I tweeted about fashion, NYC, being Jewish and of course, “Mad Men.” I started with 30 followers (most were other “Mad Men” characters) and two years later I have over 2,000 followers. I enjoy tweeting her, but over the two years—at certain times I’ve tweeted more, but usually I don’t spend hours doing it.

I think fans are very invested in these characters and as long as there is streaming and AMC, people will always be discovering “Mad Men” and show an interest. I think there will be a high volume of tweeting tonight, tomorrow and for the rest of the week. But, it will probably calm down after that. But if you connect with followers on a regular basis, they will continue to tweet with the characters.

I personally have had the challenge of tweeting Rachel while fans know she’s dead! But that hasn’t stopped me—so I will continue to tweet and see where it goes.

I always see Twitter as a highway—you can get on and off as you like, but the traffic continues to flow.

Sylvia Rosen (@SylviaRosenNYC):

Syl is my only fake social media account. All my social media time is zapped between my “real” social media accounts and Syl. I tweeted with some of the characters during season 5 from my personal twitter account. When Syl debuted in the first episode of season 6, I was compelled by her character and what she had to offer Don and set up the account the night of the season 6 premiere. The show has touched me deeply because I can relate to Don’s crises of conscience and I’ve also related to Sylvia. The lens of Don and Sylvia truly crystallized my vision of the path I am traveling.

The Sterling Cooper Mouse was particularly helpful in unearthing crumbs of fan-tweeting lore. Here’s a piece about one of the original Mad Men tweeters, who snagged the @BettyDraper account.

And here’s a Wall Street Journal piece about the people behind Betty, @PeggyOlson, and @Roger_Sterling (A different Roger than the one I spoke with, who is still going strong—as many of the characters.

And a piece about how AMC wised up after falling asleep at the wheel and allowed the fans to play with their characters.

I will miss this show terribly. Somebody buy me a Coke .