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"What's New" Archives: January 2013


January 23, 2013:

The Perfect American Opens in Madrid


January 21, 2013:

As I Was Saying...


January 23, 2013:

Perfect American opera

The Perfect American Opens in Madrid

The Philip Glass opera based on Peter Stephan Jungk's execrable novel about Walt Disney opened last night at the Teatro Real in Madrid. It opens at the English National Opera in London in June. You can see stills from the production at this link, and a brief video clip that shows Walt in dialogue with the audio-animatronic Lincoln at this link. The latter site is in Spanish, but the opera itself is sung in English. To judge from the video clip, Glass' Perfect American will be generally similar, in tone if not in aims, to Satyagraha, his opera that took Gandhi's life as a starting point but not much more than that.

I've posted several times about Jungk's novel and Glass' unfortunate decision to make an opera from it, most extensively on February 13, 2012.


From Robin Johnson: Welcome back! Thanks (I guess) for posting the clip about the Glass opera. It gets curiouser and curiouser. Having seen the clip, I am assured that there is absolutely no way anyone would know (unless told) that it was about Walt Disney; with the animatronic-zombie Lincoln lurching about, viewers might think it was some sort of satire on Steven Spielberg.

I was also reminded of John Adams’ Nixon in China, which I saw on PBS. I kind of liked the music, but I was struck by how little the librettist knew about Nixon, or, for that matter, about China – and didn’t seem to care. The New York Times ran articles by people who remembered the real China trip and were baffled by the opera (I never felt sorry for Henry Kissinger before). I don’t think either one of these works will ever join the standard opera repertoire. But until it all blows over, you will just have to hold your nose and wait. I will too.

[Posted January 25, 2013]

January 21, 2013:

Chuck Jones Experience

A sign advertising the Chuck Jones Experience at the entrance to the Circus Circus Casino in Las Vegas. Note the size comparison chart that includes those decidedly non-Chuck Jones characters Yosemite Sam and the Tasmanian Devil.

As I Was Saying...

I didn't intend for this site to stay dark for so long, but a number of things got in the way of fresh posts. A lot of snow and ice, for one thing; the evening of December 25 brought to Little Rock a foot-deep white Boxing Day and a loss of power that lasted four days, until just before we caught a flight for Kansas City, there to make connections with a train heading west.

Winslow, ArizonaThe 24-hour train trip to Winslow, Arizona, was part of a bargain-priced package Phyllis found on the Web from a company that specializes in rail travel. Part of the package's attraction to me was that not only did we catch our train at Kansas City's magnificent old Union Station—as Walt Disney did in 1923—but the route we followed was identical with that of the Santa Fe Railway's Super Chief, which Walt and lots of other Hollywood people rode many times. (Amtrak's route diverges from the Super Chief's at both ends, outside Los Angeles and outside Chicago, but not on the long stretch that we traveled.) I'm sure our roomette accomodations and our meals in the dining car were a notch or two, or more, below what Walt experienced in the 1930s and 1940s—and the echoes of Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest were rather faint—but there was a pleasing general resemblance to train travel in its heyday.

Winslow was immortalized in the Eagles' 1972 hit song "Take It Easy," whose lyrics, you may recall, include a line about standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona. There is now in Winslow a downtown park (on a corner, of course) complete with a statue and a mural, dedicated to the song, which can be heard there all...the...time. But that's OK; Winslow doesn't seem to have a lot going for it, other than the song, so why not milk it for all it's worth?

There is also in Winslow, to be sure, a marvelous hotel, right on the railroad tracks, called La Posada, a former Harvey facility that has been beautfully restored. Most of its rooms are named for movie stars who stayed at the hotel in its heyday, when it was a jumping-off point for visits to "Indian country"; we had the James Cagney room. La Posada was our own jumping-off point for the Petrified Forest and the Painted Desert, and then for another train, from Williams, Arizona, to the south rim of the Grand Canyon.

From the Grand Canyon we made our way—not by train, alas, but by bus, although for much of the way on old Route 66—to Las Vegas, which Phyllis and I hadn't visited for about twenty years. We had been content to stay away, but probably every American should visit Las Vegas every few decades. It's as much a monument in its own way as Mount Rushmore and the Washington Mall.

We were impressed by how advanced the Strip's fantasy architecture is now, compared with the early 1990s. Back then, the Excalibur was a hot new casino hotel and the most Disneyland-like, its design aimed at pleasing children as well as their parents. Now it seems rather quaint compared with a phantasmagoria like the Paris, a mash-up of every French icon you've ever seen or heard of, starting with a huge replica of the Eiffel Tower.

I understand that any number of Disney Imagineering people pitch in on Vegas projects when there's no work for them at the Disney theme parks, and the Paris in particular certainly reflects that kind of expertise. We stayed across the street at the Bellagio, whose evocations of Italy are subtle by comparison, if subtlety is what you want in Las Vegas (but why would you?).

Not every hotel on the Strip shows the Paris's kind of ingenuity—the Venetian strives for the same effect but is rather tacky, and we found New York New York disappointingly pedestrian once you got inside—but the shabbiest and most depressing casino on the Strip is surely Circus Circus. That casino was once famed for its acrobats performing above the gamblers—I remember reading about it many years ago, not long after it opened in 1968, when Hunter Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was being serialized in Rolling Stone—but now it's a sad kind of place where, a friend suggests, you should wipe your shoes on the mat as you leave the building so that you don't dirty the rest of the Strip. I think the acrobats are still there, someplace, but I didn't seek them out.

Star Wars slotsWhen you work your way across the ground floor to the very back of the casino, past the slot machines and the very ordinary gift shops and fast-food joints, you come to the Chuck Jones Experience. I'd had no intention of ever visiting the Chuck Jones Experience, but since we were in Las Vegas anyway, I couldn't pass it up.

I won't bore you with a detailed account of my visit, since you can learn as much as you need to know from the website—which, I can't resist pointing out, might lead one to believe that Yosemite Sam and the Tasmanian Devil were Chuck Jones characters. What a pity that Friz Freleng and Bob McKimson aren't around to pay the Experience a visit! Perhaps the Experience is best described as a tiny theme park without any rides; or maybe a museum exhibit assembled without any purpose except to glorify Chuck.

The Chuck Jones Galleries in California and Santa Fe are temples of the same sort, but for some reason I didn't find the Experience quite as distressing as the galleries, at least as long as I could put the rest of Circus Circus out of my mind. But it's distressing enough. What bothered me most, I think, is what always bothers me about the glorification of Chuck, the stubborn refusal by his disciples, taking their lead from the great man himself, to acknowledge any distinction between the Good Chuck (the director of wonderful cartoons in the 1940s and 1950s) and the Bad Chuck (the director whose work fell off a cliff around 1960, or a little earlier, and never hit bottom). The original drawings on the walls, an indiscriminate mixture of both Chucks, all but decree that you must ignore the difference.

The pop-culture connections elsewhere in Las Vegas are most noticeable in the slot machines, many of them "themed" with licensed properties. You can waste your money on John Wayne slot machines, Tarzan slot machines, Superman slot machines, and Elvis Presley slot machines. If you loved a movie like Ghostbusters, The Hangover, or The Wizard of Oz, there's a slot machine waiting for you. I'm not sure how many of those machines offer inducements other than their themed decorations, but at the John Wayne machine, if the reels stop at the right place, you get to hear a pretty good imitation of the Duke's voice tell you to "Cough up some more money, sucker," if not in those exact words. As Wayne fans we responded in Pavlovian fashion and wasted a couple more dollars, hoping the Duke would favor us with a few more good words and maybe even a little cash. No such luck. We spent about five dollars on such themed slots and didn't get nearly enough entertainment from them to be lured into spending more.

The slot machines that most surprised me were the Star Wars machines (the ones shown here are at the Las Vegas airport, but there are some on the Strip, too). Now that Disney owns Star Wars, I've been told, these machines will vanish when the contract runs out. I'm puzzled, though, by what George Lucas was thinking when he approved a slot-machine deal. Star Wars, needless to say, appeals to kids, and there are lots of kids in Las Vegas these days, since so many of the casinos have followed Excalibur's lead and made themselves "family-friendly." But if you cared at all about those kids, why would you let your famous logo be slapped on machines that so easily could tempt kids (and, through them, their parents) into foolish and destructive behavior? Surely I don't need to point out that if you're going to gamble, slots are the worst way to do it, apart from buying a lottery ticket.

From Las Vegas we flew to Los Angeles for a very brief (four nights) visit, my first there in almost six years. That interval still surprises me when I think about it, because I spent weeks at a time in L.A. in the 1990s and early 2000s, when I was working on Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age and The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney. On this trip I was tying up loose ends for my comic-book book, with stops at a couple of libraries. Phyllis and I also had dinner with Milt and Katie Gray in Santa Monica, and I had lunch the next day with Mark Evanier at the Tam O'Shanter, where we occupied Walt's favorite booth. It really was his favorite, as attested by Becky Cline, the Disney archivist, when I had lunch the following day with her and her predecessor, Dave Smith, at the Burbank burger joint called Mo's. And then we flew home.

I think this is the first time I've ever visited L.A. that I didn't leave behind some significant research that I just didn't have time for. I still haven't made it to the Musso & Frank Grill, another of Walt Disney's hangouts, but I'll probably have trouble talking Phyllis into making a trip west just to have lunch on Hollywood Boulevard. But I'll give it a shot.


From Brent Swanson: The "family friendly" front in Las Vegas isn't put on quite as thick now as it was back in late '93, when several casinos offered kid arcades and the MGM Grand opened its colossal fiasco "MGM Grand Adventures" to complement its immersive Emerald City of Oz main casino. "Grand Adventures" even offered an "animation adventure" featuring "King Louie" who was supposed to be a cartoon version of Louie B. Mayer. Most of the rides and "adventures" at this sorry park were off-limits to the 6-and-under crowd due to carnival ride regulations peculiar to Las Vegas, so I don't know if many children were able to enjoy it. Older fans might have noticed that the park's gift shops were heavy on Fleischer sericels. These things had the same color schemes as those traced-and-colored Betty Boop cartoons of the '70s, and some of them were signed by people like Richard Fleischer and Shamus Culhane.

The last vestige of the big family-friendly boom, the Star Trek Experience at the Las Vegas Hilton, closed a couple years ago. If Star Trek slot machines were possible, I guess we shouldn't be surprised that Star Wars machines followed.

When I was in L.A. over the Christmas holidays, Dana Gabbard and I took in Jerry Beck's program of classic cartoons at the Alex Theater in Glendale. Aside from the excellent choices in titles, the quality of the 35mm prints was impeccable. It was a different story at the W.C. Fields evening out at the Aero the night before, which was all digital projection. Most of that program was fine, but the digital copy of "The Dentist" had been copied from the Raymond Rohauer tv print, which is filled with Rohauer's added music and censoring of certain lines of dialogue. I worry that once digital projection is forced on everyone, we're going to get less of the meticulous quality of the Jerry Beck program and more of the "use any old thing that's available" attitude that marred the Fields show. This seems to be the attitude that's prevailing on many "print on demand" DVDs.

[Posted January 27, 2013]

From Joseph Adorno: I noticed that the photos posted advertising the Chuck Jones Experience at Circus Circus Casino feature "The Chuck Jones Version" of characters he worked on: Rikki Tiki Tavi, The White Seal, The Cricket and the cat from The Cricket In Times Square and Bugs Bunny, so featuring Taz and Yosemite Sam as well makes some sense. Tex Avery is credited with creating Daffy Duck as well. Had it featured characters created by Jones, I think the biggest draw would be Wile E. Coyote, the Road Runner and Marvin the Martian, Pepe le Pew, Michigan J. Frog, William the backwards skunk, Gossamer, Witch Hazel, Claude Cat, Hubie and Bertie, Sniffles and Sam Sheepdog. That's not a bad lineup, really.

[Posted February 22, 2013]