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by Sam Juliano

Then it happened.  A sudden, terrible light flashed all around.  The light was bright orange – then white, like thousands of lightning bolts all striking at once.  Violent shock waves followed, and buildings trembled and began to collapse.

-Toshi Maruki, Hiroshima No Pika (1980)

Eric Schlosser’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize finalist Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety is a harrowing and unnerving work about the palpable prospects of a nuclear detonation, one the author believes we have so far averted because of an astounding run of luck.  Four years later the war of words with North Korea as a result of the rogue nation’s ongoing development of nuclear weapons has again brought the matter to center stage, with potential destruction as feasible as Schlosser had envisioned it.  Literature for children on this most unthinkable of viable calamities is understandably scarce, especially works on the aftermath, like the once-banned Children of the Dust by Louise Lawrence and the shattering Hiroshima No Pika, a 1980 Japanese picture book by Toshi Maruki that chronicled the terrifying events and nuclear fallout after an atomic bomb was dropped on the ill-fated city.  Raymond Briggs’ Where the Wind Blows, which was also adapted into a critically praised animated feature that examined the human devastation even more acutely, and a 1983 American film, Testament is an intimate story of a family that succumbs to radiation poisoning one by one.

A cautionary picture book, The Secret Project by Jonah and Jeanette Winter, (a son and mother team) is first set in the first quarter of 1943, when United States scientists convene in a New Mexico desert town to engage in an ultra secret enterprise, one the government has requested be completed in short order.  Though unsuspecting young readers can’t be expected to immediately identify the objective of this clandestine rendezvous in one of the most innocuous of settings, the book’s mysterious, almost sinister context is scrupulously unveiled much like the peeling off of wraparound gauze after a plastic surgery operation.  The book is directly based on the real life “Trinity Test” which was conducted on July, 16, 1945 on land part of the White Sands Missile Range.  The end payoff – preceded by a 10 to 1 countdown readers associated with a rocket launch is simultaneously spectacular and terrifying, and leaves no room to underestimate the destructive power of a mushroom cloud explosion that has long since become the physical symbol for complete annihilation.  About two years after scientists began their work in the desert atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bringing Japan to its knees and ending the Second World War.  Whereas Schlosser intimated it was only a matter of time before an accident will cause unthinkable devastation, Jonah Winter at the conclusion of his afterward offers hope that stockpiles of nuclear weapons will continue to erode as governments reject the dire effects tests will have on the environment and on health.  Winter refers to a 2016 statistic that there remains around 15,700 nuclear weapons in the world presently, but that with world cooperation we can eliminate this very threat of our existence completely. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

He’s so fine
(Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang)
Wish he were mine
(Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang)
That handsome boy over there
(Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang)
The one with the wavy hair
(Do-lang, do-lang, do-lang)      -The Chiffons, 1963

The last time a crown was part and parcel to a picture book, there was a resulting Caldecott Medal celebration.  Javaka Steptoe’s electrifying 2016 biographical Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat won the American Library Association’s highest annual award for a picture book and by extension a glowing acknowledgement for the symbol that represented power, strength and a sign of respect.  The meaning of this triumphant representation has hardly changed in the recently released Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut by Derrick Barnes and Gordon C. James, in fact the connotation in this work is more intimate and scene-specific.  This anti-Kafka tale of a young boy’s cathartic experience after a visit to the barber is a study of building confidence, and a full embrace of the belief that when people believe in themselves they can accomplish just about anything.  In a rebuff to those who consider a haircut as annoying as getting their teeth cleaned, Barnes suggests there is so much more than exiting the storefront with the helical striped pole than just the sudden ability to feel a breeze around your ears.  Indeed the seemingly innocuous twenty-minute duration under the care of a hair stylist can result in a life-changing experience, one that eradicates low self-esteem, and creates one ready to go out and conquer the world.  A fresh cut performed by an expert hair stylist can convert uncertainty to aplomb, timidity to assertiveness, melancholy to unbridled glee.  The crown of the title is synonymous with its root connotation.  While reading through this celebratory esteem builder one may recall Greer Garson’s advice to her Latin teacher husband Robert Donat, who is up for headmaster at the English Brookfield School:  “Never be afraid, Chips, that you can’t do anything you’ve made up your mind to. As long as you believe in yourself, you can go as far as you dream.” (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Side by side with your loved one/You’ll find enchanted here/The night will weave its magic spell/When the one you love is near.       -“Bella Notte”, Lady and the Tramp

The dictionary definition of a “bucket list”  asserts a written enumeration of all the goals you want to achieve, dreams you want to fulfill and life experiences you desire to fulfill before you die.  For many it might mean enjoying a meal at a world-class restaurant, attending a concert of a venerated performer or traveling to a foreign country.  For some it might mean publishing a novel or a meeting a famous person.  Some may work hard to secure a promotion at firm they’ve spent a lifetime serving.  The possibilities are infinite.  In the wrenching and extraordinarily beautiful picture book Stay: A Girl, a Dog, a Bucket List, sisters Kate and M. Sarah Klise have explored this premise with the kind of intimate camaraderie that has long defined the special friendship between humans and their canines.  The artists make it clear in their gentle story of domestic alliance that the most enduring episodes in life are the most seemingly innocuous and the ones most often taken for granted.  Dog owners have long known the dreadful, indeed unbearable aspects of growing to love an animal with a twelve to fifteen year lifespan.  Such a lamentably brief tenure does lend itself to bucket list scrutiny, however, and the author-illustrator have handled the narrative’s inevitability with grace and the indomitable power of love. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

There’s nothing more beautiful than the way the ocean refuses to stop kissing the shoreline, no matter how many times it’s sent away.                                          -Sarah Kay

There are few settings on the planet to match the shoreline when it comes to sensory overload.   A splashing trek though the sand as the ankle is gently nudged by the foamy caress of an expiring wave, and more often than not the traveler will taste the salt from the water particles that permeate the air at the place where land and water converge.  The splashing sound that provides the audio accompaniment for the most ravishing of sight lines fully validates what the esteemed Japanese-American poet Sarah Kay meant when she describes this singular elemental rendezvous.  Of course the renowned author of The Seashore Book, Charlotte Zolotow employs her own inimitable measure of lyricism to one of life’s more invigorating experiences, one first encountered during childhood and then recalled later in elegiac terms.  Zolotow, who passed away nearly four years ago at the age of 98 is a seminal figure in children’s literature, one who famously collaborated with Maurice Sendak on the Caldecott Honor winning Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present, brings a descriptive delicacy and unobtrusive prose to a wholly intimate immersion of nature, armed with her masterful similes and expert delineation of size, color and temperature.  Zolotow invites the reader to feel what her fictional protagonists are experiencing, helping them along with pitch-perfect words, which are more than ably enhanced by the remarkable watercolor art by national treasure Wendell Minor.

Minor did the original art for the first release of the book in the early 90’s.  He has revisited the work with a kind of carefree wistfulness, imbuing his realistic tapestries with the impressionist grandeur he is known for.  The design of this aquatic encore is fittingly negotiated in shades of blue, aquamarine and cresting whites, all subject only to the time of day.  The famed illustrator has long specialized in nature settings, though the variety and breath of his work has featured artists (Edward Hopper Paints His World), presidents and astronauts, literary figures (Willa Cather and Thoreau), animals and holidays.  His breathtaking canvasses have appeared in best-selling works by David McCollough and Harper Lee, and some of his most popular titles are in collaboration with his wife Florence Friedman Minor (2017’s magnificent How to Be a Bigger Bunny among them).  Though his books have been wildly popular with children, adults and collectors, and have received superlative reviews from Kirkus, The Horn Book, The School Library Journal and numerous other publications, he has yet to score with the American Library Association’s Caldecott committees.  Much like Cary Grant, who despite being one of the greatest actors in movie history, failed to receive an Oscar due to bad timing, competition or competing against himself in a calendar year, Minor, who has created over fifty children’s book in his illustrious career is still looking for the lucky break that has in some instances propelled a number of artists with far less prolific catalogs. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

It was the brainchild of a moderately successful screenwriter who was hoping to achieve a moderate success with a genre program that was essentially aimed at young people, and fans of outer space shows.  The idea was to do well enough in the ratings to allow for an encore season and perhaps serve as a springboard for approval on other tentative projects.  Of course back in the 60’s adventure and fantasy shows were plentiful and very few succeeded beyond a niche market.  Expectations for a long run were virtually non-existent, and there was no persuasive reason to believe that providing viewers with a playground for the imagination, even with strange new worlds, expansive starships and compelling characters in the mix.  Some program executives may have perceived the project as a hybrid between the popular guilty pleasures Lost in Space and the Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.  The early returns were modest enough, but few could have foreseen the phenomenon brewing, nor the influence it would exert over the medium.  More series spinoffs and theatrical films have appeared as a result of the original series, and a multibillion dollar industry, a franchise, has spawned endless lines of merchandise, fan clubs and annual conventions around the world.  After five highly successful television shows enjoyed impressive runs -three of those last seven years before syndication proved they were as desirable as ever- this incomparably unique franchise continues to earned millions on movie screens with a current slew of re-boots following nine movies.  The cinematic incarnations began in 1979, and there is no sign of closure anytime in the foreseeable future.  Only one property, Star Wars has matched it in a cultural sense, but it is hard to make the case that any television show has changed people’s’ perceptions, establishing a template for futuristic conjecture, while at the same time offering the strongest case for

Often referred to as “Wagon Train to the Stars”, “Horatio Hornblower in Space” or a more categorically as a science fiction space opera, Star Trek as per its famous tagline To boldly go where no man has gone before has achieved what no television show has managed.  While timing and luck have played a major role in the show’s spectacular prominence in the entertainment industry, there have been some more tangible factors that paved the way for this singular kind of accomplishment.  The idea of a spaceship traveling to the outer reaches of the galaxy and beyond has built-in intrigue and unlimited fascination not only for the adventures and fantasy it creates but for many a look at a future that may well conceivably occur.  Most envision a day when spaceships will travel long distances and that life aboard will be comparable to that of a passenger train or an airplane flight.  While Star Trek presented a scenario with many original ideas, it followed a long line of space stories, serials, novels, early films and television shows.  George Melies’ A Trip to the Moon (1902), an eighteen minute silent film acknowledged as one of the form’s earliest entries, was based on one of the books from one of literature’s most celebrated science fiction figures, the Frenchman Jules Verne (From the Earth to the Moon).   Space exploration books aimed at a teenage market were all the rage in the 50’s when Tom Corbett, Space Explorer and Digby Allen’s space adventures achieved considerable popularity.  The decade also saw a bevy of science-fiction films set in space: low-budget pot boilers like First Men in the Moon based on H.G. Wells and classics like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet, the film that most influenced Star Trek.  The 60’s brought the master Czech work Ikarie XB-1, and Stanley Kubrick’s seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey, which released late in Star Trek’s three-year run.  The grandest fantasy of all is deeply rooted in the “final frontier” that Star Trek frames in the opening narration. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Charles Gounod (1818-1893) was a renowned French composer perhaps best known for his version of Ave Maria, based on a work by Bach, though his two big operas, Mignon and Romeo et Juliette have continued to hold the stage. The latter in fact has been a staple at the Metropolitan Opera over the past several decades.    His mother was a pianist and his father was an artist. Gounod studied at the Paris Conservatoire, and later married Zimmermann’s daughter after he finally abandoned desires to enroll in the seminary. He won the Prix de Rome in 1839 for his cantata Fernand, and enjoyed sustained popularity during his lifetime.  For television fans Gounod’s fame is for the iconic theme music of a venerated show that ran for seven years during the height of the baby boomer era.  Indeed Gounod’s quirky composition, Marche funebre d’une marionette (The Funeral March of a Marionette) was a godsend of sorts for film and television giant Alfred Hitchcock who employed this simultaneously cheerful and spooky piece for what is arguably the most famous opening of any show in the history of the small screen.  Hitchcock is said to have chosen this theme after recalling its employment in Murnau’s 1927 masterpiece Sunrise, though its use in Harold Lloyd’s first talkie Welcome Dancer must have been equally ubiquitous.  As Gounod’s music launches the screen showcases the enlarged letters of the show’s title, which segues into the iconic caricature of the director -which he drew himself- appearing in silhouette, which is followed by Hitchcock himself walking to the center of the screen to eclipse the image in side profile.  Then we are delightfully regaled with the inimitable master of ceremonies’ trademark “Good Evening” before he launches on his distinctly British sounding deadpan tirade of the coming mise en scene or the pervading theme of the half-hour episode about to commence.  Sometimes his appearance is pensive or pedestrian, just as often he is adored in clothing that corresponds to the teleplay at hand.  In one show about hypnotism Hitchcock is shown laying on a cot answering a moderator while under the influence; in others we see him dressed in rain gear at a fishing wharf or with a noose around his neck before an execution.  Whatever the mood that is established in the episode there is always the opening levity and the final post-script when Hitch returns again to tell the audience the fate of the murderer or one of the characters as a way as he later explained to interviewers “to hold the moral ground.”

John Crosby, in his November 16, 1955 review of the series in the New York Herald Tribune opined that “the best thing about Alfred Hitchcock Presents is Alfred Hitchcock presenting”.  While such an assessment might seem like a takedown of the actual episodes themselves, it mostly accentuated the significance of the masters-of-ceremonies role in the show.  While Rod Serling in The Twilight Zone, Boris Karloff in Thriller and John Newland in One Step Beyond were essential to their respective presentations, both to established tone and impart some narrative and/or thematic information, Hitchcock’s moderator gig by its very intent as well as delivery was markedly mordant, with even the show’s sponsors often satirically chided. Hence, irregardless of who wrote or directed the actual episodes (Hitchcock directed 17 of them) the imprint of the creator extended from the introduction and epilogues to the tone of most of the teleplays.  No anthology series before or since has operated with such vital incongruity.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents began its formidable run in 1955.  It ran for seven years in the half hour format, was finally cancelled after the impressive run (unprecedented for an anthology show) and then immediately returned wearing different clothes as The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, which aired for three years, concluding in 1965 after 93 episodes, running at 50 minutes each, double the length of the earlier series.  Though some treatments of Alfred Hitchcock Presents opt to include the three one-hour years as part of the original show, and others describe it as a continuation, for the purposes of this countdown they were considered separately. The Alfred Hitchcock Hour landed a spot on the second part of the countdown and will be considered in another essay.  The seven years of the half hour show yielded 268 episodes, of which one -the seventh season “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” was never aired because it was perceived as too violent, though it was widely seen years later and is presently part of all the show’s video incarnations.  The tone of the episodes ranges from crime and murder (the most prevalent themes) to thriller, horror and deadpan comedy.  There are a few very moving human stories in the mix as well and one of these will be featured as my own #1 favorite in the entire series run.  The narrative element that seems to unite most of the episodes is that many people are reprehensible human beings.  The slightest provocation can often lead to someone plotting another’s demise, and in numerous instances a wife, husband or close friend are bumped off for monetary gain.  The series is largely a succession of morality tales in “what goes around comes around” mode.  Sinners will almost always get their proper comeuppance, and often in much more elaborate terms than their own victims received.  The ironic twist endings far better manifested themselves in the half-hour shows, where they are more direct and not obscured by a wider ranging plot, though the hour longs shows had other assets to elevate them (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

Host:  “Odds & Ends” for $2,00. Debuting in 1972, it is the longest running game show in history.”

Contestant #1:  (Buzzer sounds).  “What is Jeopardy?”

Host:  “I’m sorry, that is an incorrect answer.”

Contestant #3:  (Buzzer sounds).  “What is The Price is Right?”

Host:  “Right you are!  The Price is Right has been running unabreviated for 45 years now.

Contestant Number 1 may have flubbed the most expensive question in the “Odds & Ends” category, but it is the answer most television fans would have given, all facts and perceptions considered.  Entertainment business magnate Merv Griffin conceived Jeopardy!, which first aired on March 30, 1964.  The show ran on NBC for eleven years before a cancellation in 1975 that had nothing at all to do with floudering ratings, but just a network desire to shuffle and bring some new shows aboard.  That now legendary first incarnation of America’s favorite game show was hosted by the silver-voiced natural Art Fleming, who was introduced by the booming backstage announcer and erstwhile Saturday Night Live luminary Don Pardo – And here he is – the star of Jeopardy – Aaaart Fleming!! – who also handled any technical considerations that may have arision during the show’s half hour running time.  The show attracted viewers of all ages and professions, was equally popular with both sexes and with those on either end of the sociological tracks, running the gamut from those with grade school educations to those with advanced college degrees.  What it usually required was a competitive spirit and a hankering for boasting rites.  Those wanting to engage could either request an audition to be on the show (most of us know at least one person who succeeded on that front) or buy there own Jeopardy! board game to be used with friends or family members.  Or just tune in to the show.  In the long if truncated run of this irresistible game show, several time slots were employed.  In the late 60’s and early 70’s NBC ran it at noontime, but once it permanently went into sydication in 1984, it was seen in most markets at 7:00 P.M.  In 1978 when it came back in primetime for a single year it was seen later in the afternoon.

The thing with Jeopardy! is that it was probably the only show in every conceivable genre one could watch just as attentively as a tardy observer as one who is tuned in from the opening seconds.  That’s because the show by its very construction is challenging the viewer by the minute.  Such is the nature of a question and answer program, where everyone can play along without any necessary cumulative rewards.  The show’s famous deceit is of course that contestants are given the “answers” and are asked to provide the “questions.”  While this method is basically a matter of semantics, contestants who don’t use the proper interogative statement are declared incorrect, even if they give the right answer.  However, because the moderator gives the players a second chance to state their answer by the rules, the only time this bizarre occurance has actually cost players dearly is during Final Jeopardy, when they write their answer with a black marker on a slate.  At that point there would be no possible way to grant a reprieve, what with answers being exposed to the audience. (more…)

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