Saturday, August 18, 2018

Journey to the dark, dank heart of my 1980s sticker collection

"The mummy's ready for his mystical journey!"

Where were you during the sticker craze of 1982-83? Me, I was attending Springview Elementary School in Flushing, MI. And, yes, like a lot of kids my age, I got caught up in the fad. There was even a store called Happyland at the local mall that sold pretty much nothing but stickers. For a few months there, that store was the center of the kid universe. Then it went away and no one even noticed.

Recently, I discovered my old sticker album from those days. Well, to call it an "album" is being generous. As you'll see, it's just a bunch of loose pages of typing paper crudely stapled together. But it's an excellent indicator of my tastes during the early Reagan years. I was obsessed with cartoons, comics, video games, and movies. Other than my near-total lack of interest in video games other than Tetris these days, very little has changed in the last 35 years.

Anyway, out of some misplaced nostalgia, I've decided to scan the entire thing so that we can all peruse it together. I think it provides valuable insight into who I was back then and what pop culture was like. Page 1, for instance, is dominated by E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), but there's a little Pac-Man thrown in there, too. I guess that ghost is supposed to be Inky, but he's the wrong shade of blue. Or maybe he's just a pixelated Fry Guy from McDonald's.

E.T. and Pac-Man stickers

I don't claim to have had great taste as a kid. My love of cartoons and comics knew no bounds, as evidenced by these stickers representing Ziggy and The Smurfs. Hey, I wish I could say I was a 7-year-old hipster, browsing through record store shelves for the latest Plasmatics and Husker Du albums. But it's not true. I read Ziggy and watched The Smurfs. Come at me, bro. It should be noted that all the stickers on this page are puffy stickers. Those were the best kind for some reason.

Ziggy and Smurfs stickers

If cartoons and video games were great on their own, then surely the combination of the two was doubly intoxicating. Which brings me to my utter fascination with Nintendo's Popeye arcade game from 1983. Oh, did I love this game, but I only got to play it at the local roller skating rink. And I was lousy at it, which meant my quarters were soon gone. You have to understand that Popeye himself was my favorite cartoon character, and I consumed as much Popeye media as I could back then. Bonus: these stickers are made from some kind of felt-like material. They're still soft and fuzzy all these decades later.

Also on this page: the wizard mascot from Mystiks, which were these weird, animal-shaped stickers filled with some kind of color-changing oil. If I remember correctly, these were sold only one at a time rather than on pages. It was kind of a big deal to get one of these. The flat, unchanging wizard stickers just came free with the sticker you were actually buying. Sadly, this album does not contain any of the oil-filled Mystiks. Just this lone wizard. "I'm a sticker too!" he pleads. Yeah, right. Go to bed, old man.

Popeye video game stickers.

Did I tell you my love of Popeye was intense back in 1982? I have at least three pages of these stickers, featuring Popeye, Wimpy, Olive Oyl, Swee'Pea, and Bluto. I only scanned one page, though, because the other two are just copies of these same designs. I must have gotten a pack of these.

Popeye stickers

And it's right back to the video games. These are some awesome Donkey Kong puffy stickers. The main sticker even has googly eyes. Who knew Mario was on his way to one of the mightiest franchises in video game history? And who's that woman he's rescuing? Peach? Daisy? Nope. It's Pauline. And this wasn't her last game by a long shot. But, sticker people, she was a brunette, not a blonde.

Donkey Kong stickers

This sticker album also shows how I was growing and maturing in those days. It may be a stretch to call Masters of the Universe more "grown-up" fare, but remember that just a few pages back, we were dealing with Ziggy and The Smurfs. This is a fairly lame representation of the franchise: the logo, Man-At-Arms, He-Man, Skeletor, Beast Man, and two crummy weapons. Barely enough to fill up a page. Ultimately, though, it's stuff like Masters of the Universe that would lure me away from stickers.

Masters of the Universe stickers

Would you believe it? More puffy stickers based on a video game. Go figure. Bet you didn't see that twist coming. These are from Q*bert, another game I only played at the local roller rink. (The joint had a real catchy name, too: Roller Skating. That was the name.) But how often did I get there? A couple of class trips per year? Maybe a birthday party?

Q*bert stickers

Pac-Man, on the other hand, was everywhere. Grocery stores and pizza parlors had Pac-Man cabinets. There was a Pac-Man TV show in 1982-83. We even had a miniature Pac-Man home version. He had a level of ubiquity that Q*bert couldn't touch. These stickers specifically say "Pac-Family." There was no game with that title, but Pac was a family man on his show. (These designs are a little different, though.) And what have we here? More googly eyes!

There are a few randos in here as well: a hockey player, a rocket ship, plus a couple of stray Muppets. The Fozzie sticker makes no sense. It's Halloween, obviously, and he's dressed as a clown. Which tracks, I guess. But he's talking to a pumpkin-headed ghost who looks just like him. And he's saying, "Halloween sure is fun!" like it's some kind of secret. Shrug. (By the way, that "HOT SHOT" scratch 'n' sniff sticker used to smell like cinnamon. Now it just smells like paper. Time, time, time. See what's become of me.)

Pac-Man and Muppets stickers

This next page is sparse but very indicative of the era. It contains three large stickers depicting three more video games of the era (from top to bottom): Centipede, Frogger, and Defender. I never played Defender even once, and Centipede hurt my hand. You played that one with a track ball, and your skin would always get trapped between the ball and the arcade cabinet. Ouch! Maybe that's why I stuck this one to the page upside-down. Frogger, on the other hand, I played a lot. It's a game I still think about because I live near a very busy street, and crossing it on foot is tricky. My strategy is to make it to the center island and from there to the other side. I don't just play Frogger now; I live it.

Centipede, Frogger, and Defender stickers.

Not much to say about this next page. It's mostly just more randos, including your standard-issue Terrifying Clown from the Depths of Hell™. The one licensed character on this page is Snoopy. The only thing really remarkable about these stickers is that they're (mostly) the shiny, reflective kind. Those were sort of neat, I guess. Not as neat as Masters of the Universe or Popeye, but still kind of eye-catching. I honestly don't get the stickers down at the bottom. They're a bunch of strange props: an old-timey phone, a boiling cauldron, a piggy bank. Your guess is as good as mine. Probably better.

Random shiny stickers

More of the dregs here, I'm afraid. Fairly generic-looking aliens and spaceships. Snoozers. I do like the idea of giving a child a "Pretty Bright!" sticker, though. "Hey, kid, you're fairly intelligent! Not a genius by any means but certainly adequate!" At the bottom of the page are these strange "Penny Power" stickers. I have no idea what these are or where they came from. Google didn't tell me jack squat.

Aliens and Penny Power stickers

Oh, but things turn around in a big way here! Even by the age of 7 or 8, I was already a nerd for old-timey, long-dead comedians like Abbott & Costello and W.C. Fields. So I can remember being ecstatic with happiness at finding these Laurel & Hardy puffy stickers at a drug store one afternoon. Curiously, these designs are based on a 1966 animated series from Hanna Barbera. I can't say as I ever saw that show, but I do remember Stan and Ollie turning up on Scooby-Doo. Also on this page: more Penny Power nonsense, plus Felix the Cat, a panda bear, "I Love My Dog" (we always had dogs in my family), and a now-dormant peppermint scratch 'n' sniff.

Laurel & Hardy stickers, plus Felix the Cat and more!

And now, the end is near, and so I face... Hello Kitty. Look, back then, I was a sticker junkie. I'd take whatever I could get. Even Sanrio stuff. Remember Happyland? That place was like Sanrio Heaven. It's only natural that some of that stuff would filter into my collection. Maybe the American flag helps balance it out. There's some more interesting stuff on this, the final page of my little sticker album. See that Smurfs sticker down there, for instance? It's another scratch 'n' sniff, but this one actually still smells like peanut butter. I'm not kidding. Don't believe me? Smell your screen.

You might notice some Hi-C/Return of the Jedi stickers, too. Turns out this was part of a whole promotion. I somehow wound up with arguably two of the lamer stickers in this collection. Wonder what happened to the rest? Anyway, thank you for taking this voyage with me down Memory Lane. You have a real nice rest of your day.

Hello Kitty and Return of the Jedi stickers

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Promo Odyssey, Part Four by Greg Dziawer

Ed Wood in the early 1970s, around the time of The Only House in Town.

On DVD at last!
The low-budget softcore sex film The Only House in Town—generally thought to have been written and directed by Edward D. Wood, Jr.—remained something of a holy grail to his fans until it was released on DVD by Films Around the World in late 2015. Prior to that bare-bones disc, the film had been surreptitiously seen by a handful of hardcore Woodologists, thanks to a shoddy, time-coded bootleg copy that had been passed around for years.

After a nearly decade-long dry spell as a filmmaker, Ed Wood made his return to the director's chair in January 1970 for the sex comedy Take It Out in Trade. Along with NecromaniaThe Only House in Town was made in the aftermath of that unlikely comeback. Shot in mere days on 16mm, it is a freewheeling (read: all but totally lacking post-production) and nearly plotless feature financed by Noel Bloom's production company Cinema Classics. Noel's father, Pendulum Publishers honcho Bernie Bloom, was a patriarchal figure in Eddie's orbit at the time as well as his steadiest employer. In addition to its theatrical engagements, starting in 1971, The Only House in Town was chopped into pieces to make some 8mm home-market loops, which in turn were advertised in Pendulum's adult magazines

As it turned out, 1971 was a pivotal year in the evolution of the sex film as a mass cultural object. The Only House in Town played a near-invisible part in that story, though Ed's involvement would go unmentioned. His name is nowhere to be found in the credits, and his connection to the film was not widely reported until Rudolph Grey's biography Nightmare of Ecstasy in 1992.

Below are three Only House in Town ads from 1971. The first is from the July 23 edition of The Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY). The second is from the February 6 edition of The Journal Herald (Dayton, OH). And the third is from the August 18 edition of The Journal Times (Racine, WI).

Three ads for The Only House in Town from 1971.

And here's an ad from the September 4, 1971 edition of The Detroit Free Press (Detroit, MI). Looks like the movie was getting five screenings a day at the Globe Art Theatre.

"The very best in adult films."

This ad from the April 15, 1971 edition of The Amarillo Globe Times (Amarillo, TX) is interesting because The Only House in Town is paired with a film whose title is so scandalous it cannot even be printed. It also looks like the movie played at several locations in the Mini Vue Adult Cinema chain.

"A Most Unusual Kind of House."

This one comes to us from the February 25, 1972 edition of The Atlanta Constitution (Atlanta, GA). The New Glen Art was actually in nearby Decatur. Not a trace remains of it today. It's all dry cleaners and strip malls in this area now.

Compared to 8mm films, 16mm films were a luxury.

Securing playdates across America well into 1972 and beyond, The Only House in Town was but one of hundreds—perhaps thousands—of sex films in theaters at that time. As these vintage newspaper clippings attest, it largely occupied the bottom half of double bills, paired with films that are now forgotten. It, too, would likely be forgotten today if not for Ed's purported involvement. With its quasi-hippie characters, it paired well with films like Fred Baker's Events (1970) that attempted to capture the then-current zeitgeist of sexual permissiveness and open mindedness. The following ad appeared in the April 9, 1971 edition of The Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, NM). This is another Mini Vue location.

Balling it up in Albuquerque. I've heard it's strictly a 9:00 town.

The intersections between Baker and Wood are another matter for another day. (Hint: they involve both Lenny Bruce and Martha Graham!) Meanwhile, The Only House in Town maintained a steady drip of theatrical bookings between 1971 and 1973. The film's relative ubiquity is somewhat surprising. It's not difficult to imagine an extremely modest movie like this disappearing, little-seen, into the ether. The film's original marketing campaign was low-key but prolific. The existing newspaper ads display only the most basic promotional ballyhoo ("It's very, very wild"), but they do attest to the fact that this film was indeed playing in theaters across the country.

Here's another ad, this time from the March 14, 1971 edition of The Santa Fe New Mexican Sun (Santa Fe, NM).

Don't worry about Karen. She's much better now.

In fact, The Only House in Town kept getting theatrical showings on a regular basis right into the summer of 1973. Incredibly, in mid-June of that year, it played on a double bill with Necromania at the now-demolished Strand Theatre in Manchester, New Hampshire. Here's a clipping from the June 14, 1973 edition of The Nashua Telegraph.

A dollar off on Mondays, ladies.

By that time, thanks to the success of films like Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door, hardcore features had rapidly gained a foothold in the marketplace. We know that both Necromania and Take It Out in Trade existed in both softcore and hardcore versions. Furthermore, the AWOL, Wood-scripted Operation Redlight (1969) was shot softcore, but a crew member told the film's cinematographer/co-producer Jack Descent that he saw that film with hardcore inserts circa 1972.

It makes me wonder. Could The Only House in Town also have hardcore inserts?

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Plan 9 Odyssey, Part Three by Greg Dziawer

If you can remember when computers looked liked this, maybe you played the Plan 9 video game.

Plan 9's unsuccessful video game
In 1992, the release of Rudolph Grey's seminal biography Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. ushered in a new era of recognition for filmmaker and author Ed Wood. More than a decade after The Golden Turkey Awards, Ed's reputation was finally taking a step beyond the reductive "worst director of all time" moniker that had, until then, shaped his limited public myth. 

When Grey's book inspired the 1994 Disney-produced biopic Ed Wood, with Hollywood superstar Johnny Depp in the title role, Eddie's posthumous renown doubtless reached its pinnacle. Sixteen years after his tragic, untimely passing, Ed Wood had finally become an object of mass pop culture interest.

Timing, they say, is everything. In late 1992, during the interim between the book and the film, a bizarre video game based upon Eddie's best-known "worst" film, Plan 9 From Outer Space, reached the market. Much like the movie that had inspired it, the game was largely panned by critics. In the pages of Computer Gaming World, for instance, writer Charles Ardai declared that the game "attains a degree of cheapness that even the movie didn't reach, which is quite an accomplishment." Ardai, who went on to co-found the internet service provider Juno, was an avowed non-fan of Wood's original film as well, calling it "pitiful and headache-inducing."

Developed by a now-defunct British software company called Gremlin Graphics and published by Konami—yes, the company behind Contra, Castlevania, Frogger, Metal Gear, Dance Dance Revolution, and much more—Plan 9 from Outer Space is a satirical, fourth-wall-breaking, point-and-click game. Not my cup of tea, honestly. 

A typical screenshot from the Plan 9 game.
For the record, the player assumes the role of a detective hired by a gruff, cigar-chomping producer who looks exactly like Tor Johnson but does not act or talk like him. Other Tor lookalikes populate this world, and there are cameos by Bela Lugosi and Vampira, too. 

The goal is to search through 70 various locations in Hollywood, including bars and cemeteries, and find all six reels of Plan 9 from Outer Space. Apparently, these reels have been purloined by Bela Lugosi's embittered stand-in, who wants to insert more footage of himself into Plan 9 and even colorize the entire movie! (Incidentally, a colorized Plan 9 is now widely available on DVD and BluRay from Legend Films.) As in other point-and-click games, there's not a lot of visceral, blood-pumping action here. Instead, as you make your way through the game, you'll find clues, read onscreen text, collect items in your inventory, and interact with various hostile weirdos. A tombstone in the corner gives some standard options, including HIT, TALK, and OPEN.

One notable aspect of Gremlin's Plan 9 from Outer Space game is that it contains crudely digitized clips of Ed Wood's original film. In the primitive days before streaming video and cinema-quality cut scenes, this was something of a novelty.

Gremlin dug its own grave with this one.
Ultimately, Gremlin released its Plan 9 from Outer Space game across three platforms: the Commodore Amiga, the Atari ST, and MS-DOS for IBM personal computers. Unfortunately, two of these systems, the Amiga and the ST, were released in 1985 and were on their last legs by 1992.

On the plus side, the Atari and IBM editions of the game actually included a VHS copy of the movie! That was definitely a rarity. But even that didn't compensate for Plan 9's limited graphics, repetitive soundtrack, and unsatisfying gameplay.

Needless to say, Gremlin's Plan 9 from Outer Space fell through the cracks a quarter century ago and is only barely remembered today. The game is intentionally designed to be frustrating—Ardai complains of the "little creature" who steals items from the player's inventory—and I find it difficult to navigate. A review from the January 1993 edition of Electronic Games magazine provides some good tips for playing Plan 9... before panning the game!

Fans of Ed Wood, especially those who enjoy point-and-click games, will naturally be tempted to play Plan 9 despite its poor reputation. Luckily, you still can! Thanks to the Internet Archive, you can play it here online. Chances are, you'll get stuck before finding all six reels. If that happens but you want to see more—the game includes little knowing details and images from Wood's movie that must have been utterly baffling to the average gamer at the time—you can watch others play here, here, and here.

Enjoy! And God help us in the future!

Monday, July 30, 2018

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inducts itself into itself

The newest inductee to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

CLEVELAND - In a move that has been met with little surprise and less controversy, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has voted unanimously to induct itself into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as part of its new Places and Institutions category.

"From Chuck Berry to Nirvana, rock music has been shaped by legendary, innovative performers over the years," says Caroline Hansen, vice president of collections and curatorial affairs for the Cleveland museum, "but in the past we've also recognized the contributions of producers, executives and songwriters in our Non-Performers category. The next logical step was to create a category especially for the buildings and physical locations that truly shaped rock history."

Besides the Rock Hall, the inaugural class of inductees includes: Sun Studio in Memphis, where Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and others recorded; Yasgur's Farm in Bethel, NY, home of the original Woodstock music festival; Liverpool's Cavern Club, where The Beatles got their start; the Altamont Motor Speedway in Tracy, CA; and the notorious Riot House hotel in West Hollywood.

Dedicated in 1995, the $65 million museum is by far the newest site on that list.

"This may seem incredibly self-serving, even galling, but we put a lot of thought into this," maintains Hansen. "After much debate, we all agreed that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, located at 1100 E. 9th St. in Cleveland and open from 10am to 5:30pm Sunday through Tuesday and 10am to 9pm Wednesday through Saturday, is worthy of being inducted into itself. By the way, did I mention that we currently have an entire exhibit dedicated to Neil Young's fringe-y leather jackets from the '70s? Some of them still smell like doob!"

Hansen further argues that the Rock Hall is more, not less, worthy of induction than other buildings. "This place was designed by I.M. Pei. Who designed Sun Studio? Exactly. Some jerk that nobody remembers."

The Rock Hall further announced its intention to create an Inanimate Objects category for such legendary items as the plaster cast of Jimi Hendrix's penis and the Led Zeppelin mudshark.