Crying With Laughter…

Crying With Laughter…

It was sometime late during the summer vacation of 1964 that a remarkable performance took place in front of a tiny audience in Mead Theatre.  It was a political benefit for a campaign to defeat some piece of reactionary legislature, the details of which are lost to me now and the performer was Bill Cosby.

   Now Bill Cosby was famous to me at this time because I had listened to and loved his records which were mostly recorded live at the Hungry i, but the Hollywood fame which would come after he co-starred with Robert Culp in the TV show I Spy, was at least a year away.  So to most people my age he was not so famous.  For that reason our audience that Sunday afternoon numbered no more than about twenty people and one motorcycle cop from the Marin County Sheriff’s Department. My brother Jim and I were joined by Tommy Harper, Mark Symmes and Ray Ray Sterios and, though we were small in number, we were a hell of a good audience.

   I knew all Cosby’s routines pretty much by heart and he did them exactly as I’d heard them on the records.  He performed for us like we were in Carnegie Hall.  He did all his best material: God speaking to Noah, trying to park on the steepest hill in San Francisco, Toothache, Medic…the works. The wonderful thing about being such a small audience was that we were able, literally, to roll around laughing as there was plenty of room to do it. 

   He was one of a handful of comedians in the early 1960s whose material spoke directly to my inner world.  He knew and was able to articulate several key details about being a kid.  Like having his music going inside his head when he walked somewhere.  That was me all over.  I was always composing and performing the soundtrack score to the movie of my life. 

   Cosby was also more honest about his real feelings.  In his Medic sketch he told of volunteering for the medical corps when he was in the army in Korea.  The Geneva Convention clearly stated that they should not be shot at by either side, so he figured that wearing a helmet with a red cross on it would help keep him alive.  Then when he was landing on the beach with the troops he was informed that the enemy was not adhering to the Geneva Convention. In his routine about parking on one of those practically vertical hills in North Beach, he shared his insecurities as a driver with us in a hilariously candid way. 

   Cosby did one routine which was a direct echo of something that had actually happened to me while playing after school out on the Pixie Trail with my friend Johnny Lem.  There were two different trails and I was on the lower one while John was on the upper.  We couldn’t see each other.  He must have thrown a rock down in my direction and, peculiarly, it landed smack on the top of my head.  It hurt but the shock was greater than the pain.  In fact I’d almost forgotten about it when I suddenly felt something wet dripping off the tip of my nose.  It was blood.  I was bleeding from the top of my head.  I didn’t panic and began the short walk home at a brisk pace. 

   I knew that my mother Beth would be washing the dishes behind the window on our front porch.  As I walked I felt confident that everything was okay but that this was clearly an opportunity for some dramatic acting.  I began working on my performance as I walked up the trail.  There was now a lot of blood dripping down my face and onto my hands so that required no exaggeration.  I began staggering like a seriously wounded man.  By the time I reached our house I was very bloody indeed and lurched down the steps to find that she was right where I’d hoped she would be.  Before she caught sight of me I added a few extra touches like dragging one arm along the ground to give the impression that I was losing consciousness.  My audience of one swallowed it in its entirety.  I was, after all, bleeding and her horror at the sight of me was genuine but I knew I would live and the fuss she made of me was hugely enjoyable.

   Cosby was absolutely in touch with his childhood experiences and shared them all with us that day in Mead Theatre.

   The comedians of the early 1960s were a new breed who brought neurosis into their material.  The first time I ever saw Woody Allen was on Augie Belden’s television set.  Allen was hosting The Tonight Show for a week and I had never seen anything like him.  He was so funny and his humour was completely new.  He didn’t tell jokes so much as interestingly involving stories with surreal gags thrown in.

   In one yarn from his school days, Allen described a walk home from his violin lesson when he passed the pool hall.  Because he had red hair this guy called out: “Hey Red.”  Allen then put down his violin, walked up to him and told the guy that wasn’t his name and proceeded to articulate his proper name.  A pause of inordinate length followed this information.  The audience waited patiently and finally he said: “I spent that winter in a wheelchair. A team of doctors laboured to remove the violin.” 

   A favourite record of mine was by Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks which featured a routine that Bruce Crawford and I were going to do for a rally at Tam but we never got around to it.  It was The 2 Hour Old Baby.  Bruce would do the Carl Reiner part and I was to play the baby.  What made this particular routine funny to me was when Mel Brooks started turning back into the naturally inarticulate baby after yakking on like an adult for most of the sketch.  Somehow that transition always made me fall to the floor laughing.

   When Carl Reiner asked him how he felt about his father he answered: “I feel that dad is the kind of guy that will ga-ga-sahn.”  As Reiner immediately asked what that meant he continued: “I feel that my father will always be the kind of guy that will take me to ball games and we’ll be buddies and we’ll syany…syanyfoy.” 

   “Syanyfoy?” asks Reiner, “I don’t understand. What does that mean: Syanyfoy?”

   “I think that my father and I will probably get along well together since we’re both boys, we’ll probably run around and play ball and myanai….maniahyde.”

   By this time I was convulsed and if Bruce and I had ever got the act organised it would have been a severe test of my professionalism to keep a straight face.

   Jerry Lewis also caught me with the same transition in his movie The Nutty Professor.  It was a reverse of the Jekyll & Hyde story in which this goofy looking scientist invents a potion which turns him into a smooth talking womaniser and while out on a date with beautiful Stella Stevens, Lewis suddenly began reverting to his true personna, blurting out nonsense in a quacking voice.     

   My brother Jim and I shared very little during our teenage years but one thing we always had in common was our sense of humour.  Just as we had freely rolled around the wooden benches of Mead Theatre, we also would roll around the downstairs section of the Sequoia whenever a Road Runner cartoon was on.  Of course the desert bird was not what made us laugh.  It was Wile E. Coyote whose idiocy and physicality was so ridiculous that Jim and I would collapse laughing at pretty much anything he did.

   I remember one scene opening with a shot of the road and a gutter off to the side. The camera followed the gutter as it snaked up the mountain to a place where the smug looking coyote stood next to a box full of cannon balls with fuses.  There was a plug which could be pulled out, releasing the cannon balls down the mountain.  

   The “Beep! Beep!” of the approaching Road Runner rang out.  With an expression on his face like victory itself, the coyote proceeded to strike a match and light each of the fuses.  He then pulled the plug out but the cannon balls remained lodged in the box.  “Hmmmm,” he seemed to say as he stroked his chin.  His next move was to climb into the box and, while holding the top with his hands, he attempted to push the cannon balls out with his feet.  The next move was him turning to camera with a look of tragic realisation.  The screen then filled with a massive cartoon explosion which left him charred.  This formula never failed for my brother and I.  The coyote’s inability to recognise the obvious danger of whatever situation was the key.

   There were a few people we went to school with who had a very professional way with their comedy.  Jared Dreyfus was one.  Jar’s story telling was always executed with great panache and he regularly held court amongst a gaggle of students hanging on his every word.  Another was Tommy Harper who could reduce Jimmy and I to helpless jelly with the raise of an eyebrow.  Tom had all the equipment of a professional comedian and I recall him regaling us with Jonathan Winters routines.

   The best comedy of this time was more to do with characters rather than jokes.  My brother and I were never good at telling jokes because we would always begin laughing at the punchline before it arrived.

   Stan Freberg brought out an LP in 1960 entitled Stan Freeberg Presents The United States Of America.  Jar Dreyfus and I would, over the years and without any encouragement from others, lapse into word perfect renditions of the various sketches.  In fact this became a ritual with my siblings too and my nephew Matt Thornton performed the Ben Franklin routine at school to great acclaim.  When Dan Caldwell overheard me doing Ben Franklin with Dreyfus one day he asked why I hadn’t used that voice while playing the part of Francis Nurse in his production of The Crucible.

   The comedy of this time took over from pop music for me.  So to have the opportunity to enjoy Bill Cosby in Mead Theatre was a rare treat indeed.  After all you had to be 21 to get into the Hungry i and I, though 17, still looked about 12.

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The Hills Were Alive…

The Hills Were Alive…

To be without a television throughout most of the 1950s was, to my young mind, something of a hardship, but one that I never questioned.  My father Blackie simply would not hear of having an ‘agony wagon’ in the house.

   There was, however, a compensation in the attention my siblings and I paid to the other forms of media we were not denied access to: the radio and the gramophone.

   The record player in our house at 10 Seymour Avenue was probably the only relatively modern piece of equipment the Myers family ever had.  It was made by Motorola and it sat on a table in our living room within a wood like box

   Recorded music played an enormous part in the life of my family while I was growing up in Mill Valley.  The player had a long spindle on which you could stack up a few LPs which would automatically drop down to be played after the previous disk had finished.

   This was during the early days of vinyl LPs or Long Players as albums were then called.  Their predecessors, the 78rpm disks were the equivalent of singles during the 1920s, 30s and 40s.  Individual disks were sold in brown paper sleeves but in the early 30s the record companies began packaging collections of songs by one artist into a book like album with photographs and sleeve notes.  This also became the way that classical symphonies and Broadway show recordings were packaged. 

   Each page/sleeve of the album contained an individual 78.  Some albums would hold as many as eight brittle breakable disks.  My parents had an album of 78s for Finian’s Rainbow as well as Porgy And Bess.  When the vinyl long player came along in 1949 the name ‘album’ stuck and we always referred to LPs as albums. 

   It was probably the case that most of my parents’ record collection came, in boxes, all the way across the country from the east coast with us.  I don’t remember visiting Village Music with my mother but they must have bought records there.

   Neither Blackie nor Beth were musicians but each had a good singing voice and could carry a tune well.  One of my mother’s favourite songs which she’d sing around the house was Molly Malloy.  Another song she’d regale us with was all about Barney Google, a comic strip character from the 1920s.  When Beth cleaned the house it was always to one of her classical LPs.  Scheherezade, Beethoven’s 5th, Eroica or Schubert’s The Trout could be heard in every room of our abode as she made the beds, swept the floors, scrubbed, washed and generally cleaned the place.

   We had a fine recording of Peter And The Wolf with all the characters being played by different instruments and narrated by someone whose name I don’t remember.  I would create pictures in my mind as Peter opened the garden gate and wandered out into the meadow.

   The Broadway show recordings which were played a lot were mostly those of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Each one took me into a world I could only imagine. Oklahoma transported me to a land of rolling wheat which sure smelled sweet.  I knew nothing about Ado Annie but her performance of I Cain’t Say No was fabulous and, with repetition, it invaded my soul.  

   The King And I was equally infectious and its beautifully crafted and memorable songs, once heard, simply became part of you.  Yul Brynner and Gertrude Lawrence were on the Broadway recording and, though we did see the Hollywood film, it was the stage version which we heard first.

   We also loved George and Ira Gershwin’s Porgy And Bess.  That instantly recognizable riff over which Summertime is sung was seductive in the extreme and Cab Calloway’s scat ridden performance of It Ain’t Necessarily So was beguiling.  I knew nothing about the Bible so was hearing names like Jonah and Methuselah for the first time.  All this music and these lyrics came to me without any explanation and simply took me over. 

   Jazz was reasonably well represented in my parents’ record collection.  Satch Plays Fats was one by Louis Armstrong along with Ambassador Satch.  Louis and his glorious horn also turned up on the film soundtrack of High Society which became a Myers family favourite.  We went as a family to see this movie, starring Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong.  The songs were all fantastic: True Love, High Society, You’re Sensational, Now You Has Jazz and Well Did You Evah?  This was one of our most played LPs throughout 1956/57.

   I knew nothing about these voices I was listening to.  I was simply seduced by the vocals and the wonderful orchestral arrangements. 

   Blackie and Beth had no individual recordings of Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby but another collection of Porter songs which arrived in our house was the double LP of Ella Fitzgerald sings the Cole Porter Songbook.  These two records were just wonderful to listen to.  I knew no more about Ella Fitzgerald than I did about Crosby or Sinatra but I fell in love with her voice and the musical arrangements played by Buddy Bergman’s Orchestra.  Her diction was crystal clear and she sang Cole Porter’s songs beautifully.  Also the lyrics were so witty though, at nine years old, an awful lot of the subject matter sailed right over my head.  It made not a jot of difference to me.  Each number was a masterpiece to be savoured. 

   We had a comedy LP called The Future Lies Ahead, recorded live at the ‘Hungry I’ featuring Mort Sahl.  He was clearly very political as he mentioned President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon a lot.  He dropped a lot of other names which meant nothing to me but I was mesmerized by the rhythm of his speech patterns and the sound of his voice.  He’d repeat words such as ‘like’ and ‘right’ in his rapid banter and the phrase ‘at any rate’ featured a lot. 

   In one routine Sahl was talking about Nixon playing more of a role at the White House after Eisenhower’s illness: “So he’s now on the cover of all these magazines. TIME, NEWSWEEK and LIFE.  With the exception of TRUE, which has a hidden significance.”  The laughter of the live audience was often the only clue I had that this material was funny but it was.

   Blackie had been good friends with Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger but their music was never played in our house.  In fact folk music, like that played by our good friend Jenny Vincent in New Mexico was not of interest to Beth and Blackie.  They’d also known Billie Holiday in New York and, though I heard a lot about the song Strange Fruit, which they had seen her perform at Café Society in Greenwich Village, I never actually heard it until I was in my thirties. 

   My parents’ record collection left me with quite a few surprises for later in life.  I never knew that Fats Waller sang because the only recording we had was of him playing the piano.  He was, I learned later, a marvellous and accomplished songwriter, pianist and organist.

   I also didn’t know that Cab Calloway had been a band leader every bit as famous as Duke Ellington during the 1930s.  My only exposure to him was as ‘Sportin’ Life’ from our recordings of Porgy And Bess.

   I was completely unaware of the musical revolution which occurred in the jazz world during the late forties and early fifties as my parents had no interest at all in the be-bop of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and others who played what came to be known as modern jazz.

   Another LP which captivated me was the soundtrack to the French movie Black Orpheus which combined its music by Antonio Carlos Jobim with crowd noises from the carnival in Rio and it, like the movie, was spooky.

   I don’t remember my brother Jim or sister Kate ever buying records, but Nellie and I were enthusiasts.  She acquired a collection of mostly film soundtracks while I amassed a stack of 45s and a few LPs of mostly rock and roll.  I loved Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Pat Boone and Fats Domino. 

   When the radio station KOBY came on the air in late 1956 I became an avid listener but I was strangely hard wired to my parents’ way of thinking and, knowing that they would find the disk jockeys’ patter to be ludicrous, I always felt embarrassed by it and never put the station on in their presence.  I also never inflicted my Elvis or Little Richard records on them for the same reason.

   The rock and roll of that time was such a huge contrast to what had been popular before.  The big band sound of the 1930s and 40s was smooth and comforting unlike Elvis the Pelvis and Jerry Lee Lewis.  Their music was raw and blatantly sexual.  I knew instinctively that my 45s were for me, not Blackie and Beth.  A kind of musical dual-track developed within me.  One track for Ella Fitzgerald and another for Little Richard.  Separate but equally engaging.

   In the late fifties when we got the recording of The Sound Of Music with Mary Martin and Theodore Bikel I found myself, now a bit older at age 12, seduced by a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical all over again.  Every song was excellent and I soon knew each one by heart.

   So my musical dual-track continued like that for me all the way up to the hippy time when the rock music really did take over.  But it didn’t last too long.  By the time I was thirty and started singing professionally I had discovered vintage jazz and all but left rock and roll behind.

     Music touches us all.  Whether it’s the soundtrack of your favourite sit-com or the recording of a string quartet it connects with your heart or your soul.  Or both.   And sometimes your brain.

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Blackie and the Gunsel

Blackie and the Gunsel

During the 1950s our father Blackie was not at all the typical American dad.  His values and attitudes were rooted in the 1930s and 40s and his firm belief in socialism put him at odds with the political mainstream of the society we were growing up in. 

   Black used profanity in a very colourful way.  He swore effectively and often humorously.  In fact, when it came to entertaining his four children, he was a pretty accomplished comedian. There was a dog who followed my brother Jim and I home from school and adopted us.  It was a beagle from down in Homestead Valley and it slept, for about a week, on the old sofa which sat out on our front porch at 10 Seymour. 

   So one Saturday morning, my brother Jim and I were riding with Blackie up towards San Rafael.  As our Plymouth station wagon climbed up Highway 101 on the approach to Corte Madera, Blackie said:  “Hey guys. That dog’s gotta go.”

   “Why Blackie?” one of us asked from the back seat.

   “Well this morning I came out on the porch,” he said in his calm and even voice.  “And the dog’s sitting there.  He looked up at me and said:  ‘Hey Black.  F–k you.'”

   There’s a kind of laughter which is silent.  It’s silent because the person is laughing so hard that they cannot make a sound.  This was precisely the kind of laughter which consumed my brother Jim and I at hearing Blackie’s punchline.  We crumpled, literally, onto the floor in the back seat of the car.

   Profanity, during the 1950s was not, as far as I could make out, tolerated in polite society.  Grown men tended to swear and tell dirty jokes in the presence of other grown men but not around women and certainly not children.  Hollywood movies would occasionally have words like ‘Damn’ or ‘Hell’ but nothing stronger.

   My parents and their close friends were very different in this regard.  There was never any great taboo about swearing over at the Dreyfus’s or up at the Hallinans.  Vin Hallinan was a highly educated man who swore like a stevedore.

   Yet however amusing Vin or Blackie’s use of profanity was, I was under no illusions about the society I was growing up in.  I was always careful never to swear in front of any adults outside my parents’ circle of close friends. 

   Children at this time were, in my opinion, second class citizens.  The adults in all the stores in downtown Mill Valley, with the exception of Village Music, regarded most children with suspicious contempt.  I suppose the main suspicion was the possibility of shoplifting.  

   There were also many activities which children were strictly not allowed to participate in.  Smoking, drinking, driving and voting were all things that big people did. I was definitely not happy being a child.  All my role models were adults and I longed to be amongst their number. 

   So, though my parents and their friends definitely did not treat us like second class citizens, it did seem like that was the fate of most of my friends at school.  It was a very strict time.  Corporal punishment was common and many of my friends received regular spankings at home as well as at school.  Many times I heard angry adults in a public place shouting at their kids: “Just you wait ’til I get you home!”  I’m sure this was why the behaviour at the Saturday matinee was so raucous because suddenly there were no adults around except for the flashlight wielding ushers and it was possible, for one afternoon, to break out.

   It’s probably difficult for younger people now to comprehend what it was like growing up in Mill Valley in the 1950s.  In many ways society has changed for the better.  There were so many taboo subjects back then which people in general and children specifically did not discuss in public.  The swear words which were not to be uttered within earshot of adults were fairly specific and the realities which each of these words represented were off limits too.  Defecation, fornication and urination were not subjects to discuss which is why kids relished time away from adults so all this ‘dirty talk’ could flow without any censorship.

   So Blackie held a particular charm for his children as he didn’t subscribe to any of those attitudes which were so prevalent in mainstream society. He spoke using nicknames and had one for everything, never describing anything in a conventional way.  A rich person was candlestick, a child was a breadsnapper, a tourist was a scenery bum…the list was long indeed.  Being a sailor was probably the biggest influence on the way he used language though growing up in Brooklyn must have been an equally strong component.

   In the 1941 movie The Maltese Falcon, Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade is heard referring to Elisha Cook Jr. as a gunsel.  The same expression was used by Dashiell Hammett in his 1929 novel which the film was based on. If you google the word ‘gunsel’ you will find that it means a criminal carrying a gun, derived from the Yiddish word gendzel or little goose.  It also denotes a homosexual youth.

   Now Blackie used the word gunsel a lot and it was not a term of endearment.  If someone was a gunsel they were stupid or inept.  The word however had a different meaning for him then what I found on Google.  In the early 1960s when we had moved down to Catalpa Street he told me the seafaring origins of the word.

   “In the early days of warships,” he explained, “They had a terrible time moving cannons around the decks.  So somebody came up with the idea of putting a sail on each cannon in the hope that the wind would move these big guns.”

   At this point I looked at him quizzically as if to say ‘would they?’

   “What do you think Jack? Could a sail full of wind move a cannon that probably weighed a ton?”  It took me a moment to realise it wouldn’t.

   So, according to Blackie, the Gun Sail became a sailor’s expression for a stupid idea and in time a stupid person.  In the way of nautical jargon it was ultimately abbreviated to gunsel like forecastle became foc’sle.

   He also told me what a geek was.  When Bob Dylan’s LP Highway 61 Revisited came out in 1965 there was a line in Ballad Of A Thin Man about buying a ticket to go see the geek.  Blackie told me that every travelling carnival used to have a geek which was a person who was kept constantly drunk.  People would pay money to laugh at the Geek. Of course the modern use of this word has nothing to do with these historic carnie origins but practically every expression that Black used had a proper definition.  A ‘Laughing Academy’ was how he described a mental hospital.  A ‘Dildock’ was someone who didn’t know what they were doing and a person who was wasting their time was ‘F–kin’ the dog.’

   Swearing in our household was not excessive.  Beth rarely swore and Blackie only ever used the F word when he lost his temper or when it could be put to comical effect and his timing in that department was impeccable.

   Also we didn’t use profanity in a literal sense in our family.  Calling someone a ‘son of a bitch’ was never a comment on their mother and ‘bastard’ did not denote illegitimacy.  They were simply colourful and effective words and phrases.

   Several of the famous people that Black knew back in New York when he was a vice president of the National Maritime Union were not of particular interest to me until later in life.  He knew Billie Holiday, Woody Guthrie and Paul Robeson.  When Woody Guthrie died, Blackie was asked to speak at a service held in San Francisco and I remember him telling me that Pig Pen of the Grateful Dead was sitting in the front row. 

   The actor Walter Matthau who we have come to think of as a comedian, was actually, throughout most of the 1950s and early 60s, a serious heavy, playing villains in the movies and didn’t become known as a funny guy until pretty late on.  So it was well before The Odd Couple when it came up that Blackie knew him. He said that he was the funniest man he’d ever met and that he could reduce a room full of people to tears of laughter just by keeping a straight face.

   I recently watched the feature film Woodstock all about the famous music festival in the late 1960s.  It was a fairly nostalgic experience seeing the San Francisco bands, many of whom I knew from my days working for Bill Graham at the Fillmore.  One thing which stood out, however, was the artless use of profanity, particularly the F word.  So casually was it thrown around in the stage announcements that it lost any power and, quite frankly, became very boring to hear along with the word ‘man.’

A picture taken in our back yard at 48 Catalpa possibly in 1964. From left: Jim Myers, Blackie Myers, John Myers.
The same three later at their apartment on Union Street in San Francisco probably in 1966. Jim is holding our cat Totem.
Blackie with his first grandchild Michael (nicknamed ‘Pog’ at the time) aged one in 1967. My sister Nell brought ‘Poggy’ back to SF from London for a visit. Mike grew up in Stratford in the East End of London but is now a resident of California.

   By the time of the psychedelic years I had long hair and was a hippy.  Blackie hated long hair on men and certainly didn’t have a good opinion of drugs.  He was, like most of their close friends, entirely opposed to the war in Vietnam but stylistically he remained aloof from the protests against it.

   The poet Lew Welch was a good friend of Black’s and came over to the house on Catalpa a lot during that time.  He would try his damndest to convert him to what he described as ‘the movement’ but Blackie would just smile and nod.

   On one visit Lew told him all about the anti-Vietnam war demo that the Hell’s Angels had tried to break up violently in Berkeley.  Allen Ginsberg had gone to see Sonny Barger, the leader of the Angels and said: “What are you doing man?  I thought you were rebels and here you are beating these kids up.”  According to Lew this was the beginning of a truce between the Angels and the anti-war movement.

   Blackie’s attitude to all the well publicised protesting which was happening over on the Berkeley campus was that the students, who he agreed with politically, had no bargaining power and therefore no means of achieving their goals. He viewed politics through the prism of trade unionism.

   Stylistically Blackie did not bend with the times.  It was this stoic quality which probably helped him through the blacklist years. Though the federal government had made it practically impossible for him to earn a living on the east coast he didn’t seem to bear a grudge about it. He did despise certain politicians like Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon but he never lost his considerable faith in human nature.  He always had a smile and a joke for the people on the checkout at Safeways and his conviction that socialism was ultimately the answer to society’s ills never deserted him.

   I know I’m not unique in missing my parents but I do wish I’d become as interested in their history then as I am now.  But sadly I don’t think that’s the way life works.

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Of Monsters and Magazines…

Of Monsters and Magazines…

Movies of all kinds were a passion of mine while growing up in Mill Valley but films with a fantastic dimension held a special fascination for me.  Giant monsters running amok in great cities or flying saucers attacking earth would hold me spell bound in a packed Saturday matinee at the Sequoia.

   And yet when I would come away from seeing something like The Day The Earth Stood Still or When Worlds Collide there was no way of holding onto the intense images I had seen.  I remember wishing there was a magazine which catered to the likes of me who loved seeing giant monsters on the screen.  But no such magazine existed.   

   My sister Nell bought Screen Stories every month but they hardly paid any attention to horror movies which, in spite of their huge popularity at the boxoffice, were considered very lowbrow by the media.  

   It was on a trip into the city with my mother Beth and brother Jim that something life changing happened.  We were making a visit to Kaiser Hospital and had taken a cab down to the Bus Depot.  While Beth bought tickets, I gazed over at the magazine rack and there it was.  The very first copy of Famous Monsters of Filmland.  I was stunned.  The cover wasn’t great.  A pretty blonde woman on the arm of a man wearing a rubber mask of Universal’s Frankenstein’s monster.  At the bottom of the cover were the words: Collector’s Edition.  

   Inside it was wonderful, full of exciting stills from different sci-fi/horror movies.  I was immediately smitten and thank goodness my mother coughed up the 35c that it cost.

   For the entire bus ride to the city I hardly noticed the familiar sights as we passed them: The Ondine restaurant in Sausalito, The Golden Gate Bridge, The Palace of Fine Arts.  As the bus drove past all these visual delights, the only things I saw were the wonderful photos in this magazine and because it was about a subject I loved, I read the words too.

   The editor, Forest J. Ackerman, went in for the most appalling puns but he clearly knew what he was writing about.  The Creature From The Black Lagoon became ‘Blackie Lagoon.’  He and the publisher also knew a thing or two about marketing for I soon became enslaved to this magazine.  

   I think that Famous Monsters and Mad Magazine were the only constant passions for me in those days, although I also devoured comic books like Uncle Scrooge, Superman and Classics Illustrated.  

   And I was terribly serious about collecting them.  I remember a particular piece of art deco furniture that served as the place all my comics and mags were stacked in chronological order.  Nobody was allowed to bend the covers back or use them as table mats. 

   It may well be that Famous Monsters inspired me to begin my first movie scrapbook.  I began to save clippings of movie ads from the Chronicle and the film that started me off was 7th Voyage of Sinbad.  I had seen a large poster display for this movie in the lobby of the Paramount theatre and the sight of a giant Cyclops with a horn on its head, a large fire breathing dragon and a big two headed bird convinced me I had to see this film.

   On Sundays the Chronicle had a pink section with all the arts news and it featured a big photo of the Cyclops leaning down to pick up a prostrate Sinbad on a beach.  There was also a large ad for the movie with production illustrations by the special effects man Ray Harryhausen.  That was it.  I decided I would begin my scrapbook with this movie.  

   As the days passed I clipped every ad and article about the film and threw them into my newly purchased scrapbook.  Cutting them out and pasting them in was a job for later.

   The ad in the Chronicle was my first introduction to the name of Ray Harryhausen though I was already a fan of those movies he had made:  Earth Vs The Flying Saucers and 20 Million Miles to Earth were the ones I’d seen at the Saturday matinee but I’d had the entire plots of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and It Came From Beneath The Sea acted out for me in great detail by Danny Hallinan.  

   The run-up to Christmas was always an exciting time.  Though my family was financially poor, many of my parents’ best friends were actually millionaires and the generosity of these people saw us though the tough times of my father’s political blacklisting.

   One set of friends back east were Ruth and Luke Wilson who always sent a big box of presents for us all and individual cheques for each of us kids.  Each cheque was for $25 which, in 1958, was more than enough for us to do our Christmas shopping.

   My brother Jim and I made our seasonal shopping trip into the city, catching a Greyhound bus which took us to the big depot at 7th and Market.  Our first port of call were the stores near Union Sqaure: Macy’s, I. Magnin and the City of Paris.  Going to see the tree at City of Paris was a must as it was the biggest in San Francisco.  It had to be lowered into the store by a crane through the skylight. 

   There was also shopping at the big Woolworth’s by the cable car turntable at Powell and Market.  We had lunch at Manning’s on Market and then it was time for the movie at the St Francis which was 7th Voyage of Sinbad.

   This movie grabbed me from the very beginning with Bernard Herrmann’s wonderful Arabian Nights score.  Had this film disappointed me, my scrapbook might never have come to life but that was not the case.    

   Kerwin Mathews’ performance as Captain Sinbad was a solid core to the adventures which unfolded.  Equally impressive was Torin Thatcher who ate the furniture as Sokura the evil magician but the real stars of this wonderful movie were Harryhausen’s magical monsters.

   I was back to see it again the following week and when it finally made its way to the Sequoia I saw it again and now I was able to read about it in Famous Monsters.

   Reading a magazine regularly was a special experience and the people who produced them used a great deal of psychology in keeping their readers coming back.  The cover was always important as it had to hook you.  MAD always had great covers and the Famous Monsters covers got better as they started using Basil Gogos to paint the art work. 

   So whenever school friends would come back to our house they would always lose themselves reading my comics and magazines.  One friend who I first met at Alto in the sixth grade was Craig Bird.  Craig was big, had a greaser hairdo and was also tough.  He had an older brother who had a different last name: Bob Tomei.  Bob was about four years older than Craig and within the ‘greaser’ hierarcy of Mill Valley Bob Tomei was considered very cool.  He had a steady job at our local Safeway and he drove a souped up car of some kind.  He had a reputation as a hard guy and when he would pull into the parking lot at C’s Drive-In, he’d pop his hood and the greasers would gather around to admire his engine.  

   It was when we got to Tam High that Craig started making noises about borrowing my Monster magazines for his brother Bob to read.  I think he mentioned it a few times and finally I said he could.  I told Craig that the covers must not be bent back and he assured me they wouldn’t be.

  It was a weekday afternoon when the shiny vehicle of Bob Tomei drove up Seymour Avenue just in front of our house.  He stayed behind the wheel as brother Craig got out of the car and came in to collect the magazines.  Bob didn’t speak but did nod his head to me from behind the wheel.  Then they reversed down our road and were gone.

   I think he had my magazines for about a week.  Craig returned them to me unmolested.  We were both sophomores by this time and socially we didn’t have all that much to do with each other.  Craig was a greaser and I wasn’t but we still liked each other.  One of my proudest moments was the time that he and about five other kids from our sixth grade class went into the city to see House On Haunted Hill at the RKO Golden Gate and every time Craig got scared he would run out to the lobby.  I was, by this time, a seasoned horror movie veteran and never closed my eyes or looked away and the sight of this big tough guy dashing up the aisle made me swell with an inner satisfaction.

   By the time we were sophomores Craig had become very ‘back parking lot’ meaning he hung out by the Canteen at break time with other greasers.  There was a standard gag at rallies in Meade Theatre where, in the midst of the show, a car would screech to a halt by the stage and several tough guys dressed as 1920s gangsters with guns would take the stage and Craig was always one of them.

   During the football season at Tam High the big social event on Friday nights was to go to the game up at the College of Marin which is where I found myself and who should I see walking along but Bob Tomei with his arm around a pretty young woman.  So I said hello.  He looked at me in puzzlement, clearly not knowing who I was so I said my name and added: “I’m the one who lent you the monster magazines.”  He smiled and walked on.  I thought nothing more of it.

   There was a wall in the back parking lot where most of my friends would congregate at break time and when I arrived during our morning recess who should be there but Craig Bird regaling my friends about how I had embarrassed his brother at the football game.

   “There’s my brother Bob,” he said loudly, “Out with a girl and suddenly this little midget comes up saying ‘I’m the guy who lent you the monster magazines!’  He was just so embarrassed!”

   I stood there, feeling my face go bright red and listened to Craig denounce me over and over.  I then crept away feeling mortified.  

   It never occurred to me to be embarrassed about my passion for monster movies.  The likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have made it easier for modern day kids to love fantasy films but back in the 1950s it seemed to be a dark secret not to be discussed.  Silly me for not realising that.

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A Daily Dose of ‘Dick Tracy’…

A Daily Dose of ‘Dick Tracy’…

There was a daily ritual in the Myers house which all four children and both of my parents participated in which was reading the funnies in the Chronicle.

   We took the Chronicle because it was not a Hearst publication like the Examiner.  The name William Randolph Hearst had the same resonance within our home as Satan in a house of god.  This didn’t mean that my parents liked the Chronicle but it was considered the lesser evil.

   The paper was delivered every morning by a big van which would speed up Seymour Avenue and the driver would throw it, rolled up in wax paper, down towards our porch.

   The different sections would be seized upon.  Blackie and Jimmy liked the green Sports pages while I was a huge fan of the Peanuts section which had the movie ads in it.  Even though each family member would gravitate to different parts of the paper, each one of us would read the comic strips. 

   The Chronicle ran about eight or nine strips stacked top to bottom on a full page which was a moveable feast.  Sometimes it was at the back of the Peanuts section, sometimes in sports and occasionally it would turn up behind the want ads in Herb Caen. 

   It was a fairly diverse collection.  Gordo was a light hearted strip featuring a Mexican guy wearing a sombrero.  Steve Roper was a caucasian photo journalist with a silver haired sidekick named Mike Nomad who sported a crew cut.  Dondi was a little orphan boy of European origin who was always saying: “Goshes Uncle Ted.” A few others were to be found in separate places like Dennis The Menace and Peanuts.

   It was the case that the daily doings of Peanuts were regularly discussed around the Myers dinner table.  Lucy’s introduction of the lemonade-like stand bearing the legend: ‘Psychiatric Help 5¢’ was a source of much amusement at 10 Seymour but the one strip which all our family followed with intensity was Dick Tracy.

   The curious thing about Tracy was that the drawings were so eccentric.  Chester Gould’s visual representations were not what you would think of as great art but his contorted characters, bizarre plot twists and surprises made the strip unmissable.

   As a budding cartoonist I was constantly copying all the comic strip characters and doing Dick Tracy was odd because you hardly ever saw him looking directly at you.  He was mostly in profile with his hat on and his nose was shaped like a box.  His chin was also square and his eyes and mouth were simply horizontal lines

   A source of wonderment for me was his Two Way Wrist Radio.  Tracy was constantly talking into it to communicate with Sam Ketchum or his chief.  This, to my young mind, was an absolutely fantastic concept and I was always pretending to have one on my wrist as I walked home from school.  The big problem for a nine year old was finding things to say into it so I doubtlessly repeated myself a lot. 

   I also had a fascination with the kind of microphones you would see inside police cars, whether they were Mill Valley squad cars or the ones that Tracy and his colleagues travelled in.  These were shaped like a slightly flattened avocado and were connected to the radio by a spiral cord.  There was a button on the side which the officer would press down when speaking into it. 

   It was early in 1956 that we first encountered Joe Period, an absolutely peculiar looking young fellow who was, we soon learned, a ‘wheel man,’ meaning he drove fast cars for criminal gangs.

   Joe was called upon by Mr. Pocketclip, an equally bizarre looking bastard, to set him up with a night club singer named Julie Marrlin.  Pocketclip was a big, rotund seventy year old and the young singer was probably in her twenties but he was lovesick over her though she wouldn’t return his calls.  It transpired that Pocketclip was a disbarred attorney who had defended her hoodlum husband, unsuccessfully, and the state had executed him.  So for him to get to first base with this girl he hired young Joe Period to set him up with her.

   Now at this time in American history a character like Joe Period, in real life, would have probably looked a bit like James Dean but Period was weirder looking than that.  His hair was full of Brylcreem but instead of the Elvis style pompadour, the hair on top was oddly short so that it looked like the upper part of his head was flat.  His eyes resembled two fish swimming towards each other and his mouth was like those on the women Gould drew. 

   It’s fair to say that Chester Gould was not one to worry too much about human anatomy.  The contortions he put his characters through defied most of the natural laws.  What he was pretty good at was perspective and drawing cars but everything else, like hands and legs, had an amateur look about them.

   As the days and weeks passed we would discuss the daily antics of Tracy and his villains.  A policewoman named Lizz joined the force about the same time as Joe Period turned up and she was one of the artist’s more attractive creations.  Perhaps it’s a testament to Gould’s talent and ability that he was actually capable of drawing people who looked beautiful as well as ugly.

   Tracy appeared Monday to Saturday in a strip of usually four boxes but on Sundays the funny papers were all in full colour and three times the size.  Seeing them in colour in their own section was a very exciting thing for me and an added feature with the Sunday spread was the ‘Crimestopper’s Textbook’ in which Tracy would give rookie cops and others advice like: “Make your search thorough!  Dismantled sawed-off shotguns have been discovered concealed on the person.”

   Through a series of compelling incidents, Joe Period wound up murdering the girl singer and becoming the object of a huge manhunt.  We eventually found him shivering inside a giant pickle vat in a rail yard where he was found and confronted by policewoman Lizz. 

   It was at this stage that we met the son of Flattop.  I had no idea who Flattop Senior was but here was yet another of Gould’s ludicrous creations. 

   A ‘flattop’ to my young mind, was the kind of crew cut that certain men had. It required a particular type of hair which was stiff enough to stand straight up on top.  Steve Roper’s sidekick Mike Nomad had a flattop and years later when I was at Tam High my algebra teacher Mr.  Davlin had one.  So it could be that when Chester Gould created the character in the 1940s, this style of haircut had not yet been invented and the concept of having a head with a flat top was what he meant.

   The top of his head was, indeed, flat with a thin layer of dark hair which had a noticeable middle parting.  It then flowered out on either side with slightly broccoli shaped curls around ears that stuck out like Alfred E. Neuman’s.  The face which supported this hairdo was shaped like a teacup.  Two thick dark eyebrows sat just below the hairline above his hooded orbs.  His nose was very similar to that of Dennis the Menace and his mouth was shaped like a two lipped lemon.  The closest human equivalent was Edward G. Robinson.

   Somehow Flattop Junior managed to outwit Lizz and took Joe Period off in his super duper car which not only had fuel injection but also a Hi-Fi, TV, Police radio and a hot plate for cooking bacon and eggs.  They managed to outwit the law by using back roads and tuning into the police radio broadcasts but Period was undone when they broke into Nothing Yonson’s club to kill him for a double cross and made off with the contents of his safe.  This, however was where Flattop double crossed Period and escaped with the money while the hapless Joe was taken into custody. 

   I guess Gould never felt confidant in his ability to convey all the information through his cartoons because every time Tracy talked into his 2 way wrist radio a little sign with an arrow would appear reminding you what it was.  Also when Lizz was kicking Joe Period around with her martial arts down in the pickle vat another little sign with an arrow appeared reading: ‘Judo Hold.’

   When Joe Period arrived at prison the first visitor was his mother who explained, for the benefit of we who didn’t know, that she had failed her son by going out to work and drinking in bars with his father rather than looking after him.  So overcome with shame was Mrs. Period that she wore a veil which prevented us from seeing if her eyes also looked like two fish swimming towards each other.

   Flattop was smart, unlike Joe Period, who wasn’t very bright.  Young table top was something of a boy genius with a passion for painting and electronics.  He’d done all the work on his car himself  but was destined to follow in his father’s criminal footsteps.

   The morality of Chester Gould’s world was pretty straight forward: Crime Doesn’t Pay!  It was, however, the criminals which made the strip compelling, not Tracy, Sam Ketchum or any of the so called good guys.   

   Certain expressions used in Tracy bothered me.  References to ‘the chair’ or ‘being fried’ was upsetting to me because of the way the Rosenbergs had been executed.  These comical looking characters threw these phrases around all the time. 

   Another quality which crept into Gould’s comic strip was a kind of surrealism which manifested itself with Flattop after he ditched Joe Period.  He hired a garage to stash his car and got a room where the landlady had a young daughter named Skinny who took a shine to him.  He got angry at the girl, chased her up on the roof and threw her off, killing her.  Jumping in his car to make a getaway, he was soon aware that the girl’s ghostly figure was clinging to him and wouldn’t let go. 

   Our summer vacations were usually spent camping further north at sites like Lassen and often we would go for a couple of weeks without our daily dose of Dick Tracy which meant catching up on our return to Mill Valley.  The family addiction to Gould’s strip lasted through the rest of the 1950s but by the early 60s it became, for me at least, more and more ridiculous and I lost interest. 

   My earliest exposure to the box nosed Tracy occurred before we got to Mill Valley.  The very first comic book I ever saw was on a carousel rack in a Rexall drug store in White Bear Lake, Minnesota in 1951 and it was a Dick Tracy.  My mother Beth didn’t buy it for me so seeing its brightly coloured cover stayed lodged in my memory.

   I found many features of the daily Chronicle enjoyable including the news.  I didn’t follow real life crime stories in the paper but was drawn to politics.  As most of our family chat at suppertime was political it made a nice contrast when we’d discuss the daily doings of Chester Gould’s ridiculous creation.  Even Beth knew the names of Joe Period and Flattop as we all contemplated where the action would go next. 

   I often think of my childhood preoccupation with Dick Tracy’s two-way wrist radio when I use my iPhone.  The many amazing things this modern device can do would have truly astonished my young self as I was wandered aimlessly home from Homestead School talking into the imaginary radio on my wrist. 

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Baseball, Pop Music and Comic Books…

Baseball, Pop Music and Comic Books…

There was nothing I could do about my size.  In March of 1957 I was the smallest child in Mrs. Blaugh’s fourth grade class at Homestead School.  Though I had just turned ten, I looked about six.

   The unrequited love of my life, Lily Burris, was taller than me and this was almost certainly why she never gave me the time of day.  The only occasion she ever spoke to me was when my Coke bottle wound up pointed at her as we played ‘Spin the Bottle’ at a party.  I don’t remember her words but her meaning was clear: ‘Go away.’

   The playground at Homestead was always a whirl of different activities.  During recess, a long jump rope was wielded by two girls while other kids stood in line to skip into it’s constant rotation.  Whether their skipping was successful or not, they all sang a counting rhyme as the rope came around with the regularity of a metronome. 

   A group of boys with arms around each other would stalk the playground chanting: “We won’t stop!”  There was hop scotch, marbles and, of course, sports. 

   One of my best friends was Alex Robertson who was big for his age, a keen athlete and had a passion for baseball.  My other best friends, Glen Pritzker and Billy Bowen were competent enough athletes unlike myself who was not.  Because I was so small it was expected that I wouldn’t be any good at sports and, sadly, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

   At home I would play touch football and softball with my brother’s friends but never at school.  At school I had no confidence at sports.  

   At Homestead we played baseball and when I was up, I’d approach the home base, bat in hand.  Someone would shout: “Myers is up!”  At this point, all the outfielders would walk in past the base lines, chuckling to themselves.  The humiliation of this would fill me with a rage which guaranteed that I struck out three times in a row. 

   The truth was that I had a terror of the ball.  Had I used my time at the plate focusing on it and connecting with the bat, I might have knocked it over the fence but instead I surrendered to my rage.  I didn’t approach the situation with any clarity or straightforwardness.

   My time out in left field was worse.  I spent it dreading that the ball might come in my direction and, again, my lack of focus made me a terrible player.

   At home I wasn’t too bad.  Our father Blackie had got us a pair of fielders’ mitts and brother Jim and I would regularly play catch with a hard ball up on Seymour just above our house. 

   So it was mostly other areas of interest which I shared with my friends.  Whenever Alex Robertson or Billy Bowen visited our house they would invariably lose themselves reading my comic books or listening to my records.

   I was, by now, a committed collector.  The 45s and LPs were all kept in their original packaging and the comic books were stacked neatly in chronological order on a piece of furniture I had commandeered.  I had Uncle Scrooge, Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories, Superman, Classics Illustrated and MAD magazines.  My one strict rule was that nobody was allowed to fold back the covers on the comics.

   Glen Pritzker and I would always make our weekly pilgrimage to Village Music where we’d pick up a copy of that week’s Top 40 and listen to records in the sound proof booth.  In those days it was in one of the shops which nestled within the Sequoia Theatre building. 

   Sara Wilcox was possibly the only adult shopkeeper in Mill Valley who didn’t treat kids like second class citizens.  A wander into Bennett’s Variety store always invited the laser like surveillance of whichever bad tempered adult was on duty, whereas Sara was always friendly, funny and never tired of playing us whatever records we wanted to hear.

   One record which came out at this time was Perry Como’s Round And Round.  The simplicity of the song’s arrangement appealed to me.  It began with a quiet rhythm provided by a drummer using brushes.  Then Como’s voice came in, very gently. 

   It proceeded to build with the addition of male singers and soon after with female voices which intertwined through key changes and a middle eight.  The whole thing built to a swirling crescendo then returned to the gentle brushes and Como’s quiet voice.  I bought this record and played it over and over.

   Perry Como recorded on the RCA Victor label which also had Elvis Presley and Harry Belafonte.  Glen and I would study the actual labels which, in this case had a full colour picture of a dog gazing into the horn of an old gramophone speaker against a black background.  We came to know that the names inside the parenthesis under the song’s title were the composers and lyricists.

   The pop music of this time was terrific.  Glen and I followed the fortunes of a wide range of artists.  Tab Hunter had gotten to number one with his version of Young Love which was really inferior to Sonny James’ recording but then Tab was a movie star despite being a totally unnatural singer. 

   Another movie star who put out a few singles was Tony Perkins.  He had a minor hit with Moonlight Swim that same year.  The big difference was that Perkins, unlike Tab Hunter, could actually sing.

   I guess it was the success of Tab Hunter’s single which prompted the other Hollywood studios to put their juvenile leads into the recording studios as, before the year was out, a disk cut by Sal Mineo came into the charts and, presumably, sold quite a few copies.  Keep Movin’ was its title and it was not very good.  Like Tony Perkins, Sal Mineo had a good voice but the song was rubbish and I would never have bought it.

   I had to really love a record to commit the six bits it cost for a single.  That was the beauty of someone like Sara Wilcox because Glen and I would only have to ask to hear something like Party Doll by Buddy Knox and she’d play it for us.  And the sound proof booth meant that she didn’t have to listen to it herself.

   I was taken by the overstated southern accent of Buddy Knox whose pronunciations of words like ‘fair’ (fay-aire) and ‘hair’ (hay-aire) were very exaggerated but when Elvis Presley broke out of the south and became the phenomenon he was after 1956, it seemed there was a wave of southern white singers in the top 40.

   Another single I had to have was Butterfly by Andy Williams as well as a peculiar one that I always felt uncertain about which was Teenage Crush by Tommy Sands.  I could never make up my mind if it was good or not but I did buy it though I never purchased another Tommy Sands single.

   This was also the time that Fats Domino released the terrific I’m Walkin’ and The Diamonds came out with Little Darlin’.  The singing voices on this record were so eccentric.  They wouldn’t have been out of place in a Warner Brothers cartoon.  The opening created a visual picture of a waterfall in my mind with castanets clapping like clams as they fell. 

   I was, by this time, absolutely enthralled with every record made by Elvis Presley for this was at the beginning of his long career and he was still putting out terrific singles like the next one to come along which was All Shook Up. 

   There were always words I couldn’t fully fathom on an Elvis recording and All Shook Up was no exception.  The line: “My friends say I’m acting as wild as a bug” filtered through to my ears as: “My friends say Mack you’re acting queer as a bug.”

   The opening beguiled me immediately with its fluid boogie woogie rhythm.  The individual notes seemed to melt into each other unlike the bass notes on Don’t Be Cruel which were distinct and separate.

   Another disk on RCA Victor was by Harry Belafonte, one of my favourites.  Banana Boat was a much played 45 in my collection and his next release was Mama Look At Boo Boo which introduced dialects and accents we’d never encountered before.  

   1957 was turning out to be rich for popular music as each week brought new delights to Sara’s sound proof booth.  Chuck Berry was on the Chess label and, unlike Elvis, his diction was crystal clear.  His latest release was School Days and the witty lyrics described the drudgery of the classroom giving way to the joys of dancing to rock and roll after school. 

   I had an LP called Here’s Little Richard which I loved to listen to over and over.  Lucille began with his rhythm section sounding demonic and like it was off in the distance and getting closer.  Like Elvis I didn’t always understand the words but the music was so infectious it didn’t matter.

   Glen and I regularly discussed what we were going to do when we grew up.  I was going to be a singer and he would be my manager.  I did have a good singing voice and could produce fair imitations of all the records I listened to.  I remember standing on a bench in the playground at Homestead singing Love Letters In The Sand to an audience of probably nobody.

   Unlike me, Glen was a straight A student and by the end of 4th grade he skipped a year, going to Alto then Edna Maguire and ultimately to a prep school in the city so I didn’t see him again for many years.  

   As for Alex Robertson he was the main reason that I was able to be a loud mouthed little guy for he stepped in on many occasions to protect me from whatever rough justice my big mouth would invite.

   Billy Bowen I spied leaving Village Music in the early 1960s with an entire album of Chuck Berry under his arm.  When I asked why he bought a whole album, he told me he used them to practice his drums to at home. 

   We all went to Alto for sixth grade and for reasons I no longer recall, I drifted away from Alex and Billy.  New friendships developed and the Top 40 evolved into something less exciting than the early Elvis and Little Richard.  

   My big talent was cartooning and while I was doing it in a classroom, I was surrounded by admirers.  But once I went out onto the playground at recess a transformation took place.  The admirers forgot their admiration and I became, once again, the little guy who just wasn’t any good at sports.  Nobody ever wanted me on their team so by the time I got to Tam High I dreaded PE class.

   I think this was the reason that Superman appealed to me so much.  Weedy Clark Kent removes his glasses and comes out of the phone booth a super hero who saves the day.  The trouble was that when I took my glasses off I was still weedy Clark Kent.

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Cleaning House in the 1950s…

Cleaning House in the 1950s…

Although I grew up in Mill Valley during the 1950s, the Myers household at 10 Seymour Avenue was far from a paragon of post war modernity.  The advertising art of that era depicts a world populated by happy mothers with beautiful dresses and aprons as well as friendly, casually dressed dads, polishing their newest Ford, Chevy or Buick.

   America at this time was experiencing an explosion of conspicuous consumption: brand new cars, refrigerators, toasters and TV sets were flying off shelves and out of showrooms in record numbers all over the country.  But while this bonanza was happening, the Myers family was trotting along at a different pace altogether.

   Practically everything we owned was either old or second hand.  Neither of my parents had any personal interest in consumerism except as the political phenomenon that it was.  The teddy bears my brother Jim and I played with were mostly hand-me-downs and my father Blackie drove the same old Plymouth station wagon forever.

   The weekly shop at the Mill Valley Safeway was a strictly practical exercise.  Thrift was the guiding principle and nothing extravagant or expensive was ever purchased.  Though the grim reality of poverty never traversed our threshold, we lived like we had no money.

   My family had come west from New York and Connecticut because my father’s political blacklisting had made it impossible for him to keep a job on the east coast.  Every bit of employment lasted about two months and then the FBI would turn up to inform his boss of what a dangerous radical he was.  

   But in the bay area, Blackie was never out of work for long and did a variety of jobs which always put food on our table.  The food however was very basic and not as stylish as what I’d eat at friends’ houses.  Instead of steak or lamb chops we’d have hamburgers.  Not in a bun like at C’s drive-in but served on a plate along with rice or potatoes with vegetables.  Butter was another luxury we never had so it was margarine which, in the 1950s was far from delicious.  Another favourite meal was Beth’s spaghetti and meatballs.  

   My mother always insisted we drink milk with our dinner and the glasses we kids drank from were those that had contained Welch’s Grape Jelly and they were decorated with silk screened images of cartoon characters like Archie, Veronica or Donald Duck.

   Ironically some of my parents’ left wing friends were very wealthy indeed, like the Hallinans who lived in Ross.  Vin Hallinan was a famous San Francisco lawyer who became politically notorious by defending labour leader Harry Bridges.  As a result, their snooty neighbours wouldn’t allow their children to play with Danny, their youngest.  Danny was the same age as my brother Jim, so he and I would regularly spend the weekend up at their mansion.  

   Their house was palatial with pillars on the porch overlooking a massive lawn that stretched to a swimming pool and gymnasium at the other end.  Eating meals at the Hallinans’ was like dining in an expensive restaurant.  So we did have exposure to how the other half lived.

   But how the Hallinans lived was nothing like life in the Myers family.  Our record player was new and occasional LPs like the soundtrack of High Society or Ella Fitzgerald Sings Cole Porter would have been bought at Village Music but these represented the limits of any extravagance that my parents might indulge in.  They did buy a Motorola radio which sat down in the living room and looked bright and shiny but everything else was a little bit worn.

   And of course Blackie would not allow us to have a television set.  His nickname for a TV was an ‘Agony Wagon’ and with the exception of a short time when a cousin came to stay and brought one with him, we had to go to friends’ houses to watch shows like Disneyland or The Mickey Mouse Club.

   But we did go regularly to the movies which always excited me.  We went to the Lark, Marin and Sequoia Theatres.  Whenever Alfred Hitchcock had a new movie out like Rear Window, we’d be there to see it.

   And as for home appliances, well, everything was basic.  Just off our kitchen was a slightly murky, dark area where the washing machine stood.  I guess you’d call it a utility room except it wasn’t really a room.  More like an unlit corridor with a cement floor that tapered off to nothing.  It was kind of a dumping ground.  Stacks of old Chronicles were surrounded by mops, brooms and, of course, the washing machine. 

   The washing machine was a big white barrel, supported by four legs in which the clothes would be sloshed backwards and forwards by a huge ruddered spindle.  It was very noisy and it shook.  There was no door on the top so it was a miracle of design that water didn’t splash out of the thing while it was going.  

   Once the washing was complete, my mother would turn it off and drain the water out of the tub.  She would then extract the items, soaking wet, and feed them, one by one, into this device at the top of the machine which squeezed the liquid out.  It was two cylinders encased in a metal frame with an electric switch which started them rolling.  Once she flicked the switch a new and different noise came into our world.  It was kind of a drone which was constant until the wet clothes or sheets became gripped between the cylinders and then it got louder and more grating as they moved steadily through.  The excess water was squished out into the now empty tub below and the flattened material would emerge on the other side.  

   The squeezing process made the item of clothing so flat that it acquired several creases which would have to be ironed out once it had dried.  The drying was achieved on a rotating metallic clothesline which stood in the middle of the lawn below our living room window.

   The washing machine was old, almost certainly from the 1940s, and nothing like the flashy new models we’d see advertised in the paper or on television at our friends’ houses.  The mothers in these ads were a picture of pure happiness.  They wore attractive dresses, aprons, high heels and had overstated smiles on their faces as they went about their work.  These women looked nothing like our mother Beth.  When she was cleaning, she resembled a female factory worker from the Second World War.

   We did not have a vacuum cleaner.  Beth used a broom and dust pan to clean the house.  She was a formidable cleaner.  When she went to work with sleeves rolled up she was like a machine.  

   She would always put her music on the record player while she worked.  Her favourites were The Trout by Schubert, Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and Scheherezade by Rimsky Korsakov.

   Perhaps it was her training as a nurse which informed the way she set about cleaning the house.  She’d tie her hair up and, with the music going, tackle each task vigorously.  

   When we’d return from school in the afternoon and find our beds neatly made it was like entering a different world to the one we’d left behind that morning.  

   Often when we’d come home from a day at Homestead School she’d be washing the dishes and was visible through the porch window.  Dirty dishes would be washed by hand in two washing up bowls.  The first was the one with the detergent in and the second would have clear water for rinsing.

   Our father Blackie devised a system for washing the dishes after dinner, a chore, he felt, which should be shared out between the four of us children.  Basically we each had a night when it was our turn to do the dishes.

   This was never a job I wanted to do and would put it off in the hope that one of the others would step forward to take over.  I’m sure that Nell, Kate or Jim would occasionally do just that but their resentment of me for shirking my duty was intense.

   On one occasion I claimed, as justification for my idleness, that washing dishes was “woman’s work.” Having uttered these words within Blackie’s hearing range his retort was immediate, loud and clear: “There is no such thing as woman’s work.  There is only work.”

   So the strategy I would employ would be to leave the dishes as late or as long as possible in the hope that someone would rescue me from this commitment. 

   My siblings seemed to have no problem about tackling this chore and, to be honest, once I got tucked into actually doing the dishes I didn’t mind it either.  But something about the enormity of the undone task made it seem much worse than it was and I would be seized by a kind of paralysis.  

   On occasions we would share the jobs.  One would wash while the other would dry.  I remember the expression: ‘drying the silver’ which was a bit inaccurate as none of our cheap cutlery was anything like silver. 

   So life in the Myers house had very little to do with the American Dream.  I don’t ever recall a conversation at dinner about products on offer at Sears and Roebuck or anywhere else.  Such things were considered trivial by my parents.  Politics was a constant topic to be discussed and though I didn’t always understand what they were talking about, I enjoyed listening.

   Both my parents were like refugees from a different time to the 1950s that we were growing up in.  The world they’d come from in Manhattan had been turned upside down by the anti-Communist witch hunts.  Even being a liberal was considered suspicious in this rabidly right wing era and Blackie, Beth and all their close friends were far left of liberal.  This was when ‘Socialist’ became a dirty word for most Americans.

   Though much of the American political landscape in the early 1950s scared the hell out of me, I can remember clearly thinking that I would never want to change families.  As Judy Garland’s Dorothy said after she woke up back in Kansas, there’s no place like home.

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Working for Bill Graham at the Fillmore…

Working for Bill Graham at the Fillmore…

In the summer of 1966 I was nineteen years old and living at my parents’ apartment on Russian Hill in North Beach.  Most days I’d go the Fillmore to work on my boards.  I would take two buses and usually be there by eleven.  

   Bonnie MacLean, who lived with Bill Graham at this time, was a proper artist and had told me where to go for my supplies.  There was a fantastic art supply store down on Sutter not far from Union Square called Flax.  They sold everything anyone could want for graphic design or painting.  It soon became a regular stop for me but for now I simply needed some coloured acrylic paints, two brushes, a sketch pad and some white chalk.

   My first job was to paint over the previous week’s board in black acrylic and while it dried I made a pencil sketch of my next design.  The information had to be readable but colourful with the headline artist bigger than anything else.  As I did this I’d be shooting the breeze with whoever was there.  Often it was Bonnie or maybe Jim Haynie.  Marty Balin was sometimes around if Jefferson Airplane were rehearsing there.  

   As I doodled away on my sketch pad, I would hear Bill Graham’s loud voice doing battle on the phone in his little office above the staircase.  If he wasn’t getting what he wanted from the other person he would yell at them sometimes erupting like a volcano.  With all the passion of a grand opera he would bellow down the mouthpiece:  “What are you trying to do, kill me?”  Once such a tirade began, it would build and he wouldn’t stop except to take a breath.  At moments like these he would say things like: “You’re bringing my headache on early today.”

   Bill was not the kind to shut the door and whisper down the phone.  I heard almost every word as I worked, very slowly, on my next design.  Although I didn’t know the background details to the conversations I was hearing, the mimic in me was taking in everything he said and the way he said it.  His Bronx accent was very distinct and the way he said “dollar” was unlike anything I had heard before.

   “You’re telling me this group is worth a thousand dollahs?  Is that what you’re telling me?  You must think I just got off the bus.”

   Although my father Blackie was born and raised in Brooklyn he did not speak with a Brooklyn accent.  It could be that his life as a sailor had softened his speech patterns.  In fact he would often amuse Tommy Harper and I when he’d break into his true native accent.  He always said that people from Brooklyn didn’t talk, they sang:  “Whaddyawannadootoodaygotoodapitchas?”

   So once I was happy with my design I would begin doodling with chalk on the freshly blacked over board as the cabaret of Bill doing business played on.  Jim Haynie was kind of his right hand man.  Jim had been a performer in the Mime Troupe and went on to be a successful actor in Hollywood films.  The atmosphere at the Fillmore was friendly thanks in large part to Jim and Bonnie.

   Although I was living with my parents in the city I would spend as much of my social time as I could with friends in Mill Valley.  My mode of transport was hitch hiking and it never took me long, standing on Lombard Street with my thumb out, to get across the Golden Gate Bridge.  Before long I’d be getting out of a car somewhere on Miller Avenue.

   Augie Belden’s mother Mary had moved from her apartment on Una Way to a small house just off Sunnyside.  My circle of friends was a bit more diverse than it had been in high school because I had passed through the portal of getting high.

   Most of my friends either had jobs or were at college but the common ground was getting loaded, listening to music and talking.  In these smoky sessions I often found myself performing word perfect impersonations of Bill.  He had truly invaded my soul.  On one occasion I was playing Monopoly and became Bill Graham.  Naturally I won the game.

   But such performances occurred only in intimate settings.  Out in the big world I was not a performer at all, but a shy nineteen year old who walked around with his hands in his pockets.

   At this time my favourite LP was Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde and songs like I Want You and Memphis Blues Again were constantly going through my head as was the latest single by the Beatles: Paperback Writer.  

   I also listened to the radio which at this time was KFRC.  They played a mix of Beatles, Stones and Dylan along with more mainstream music like Alfie by Cher as well as black soul music.  The Supremes, Temptations and Four Tops were played along with Marvin Gaye’s I Heard It Through The Grapevine. 

   As far as I could make out, Bill Graham seemed to have no interest in or knowledge of any of these artists.  He was of an older generation and didn’t know much about the popular music which had developed in the wake of the Beatles’ arrival on these shores. He had no concept of the powerful significance an artist like Bob Dylan had for my generation.  Or the Beatles or the Stones.  These artists were put on a pedestal by people of my age.  

   And yet here he was booking acts for his shows and sometimes he had no idea of what he was going to get. 

He was familiar with bands he knew like the Airplane, The Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service but they were all the product of influences which were outside of Bill’s comprehension.

   The Airplane, which had a single, Come Up The Years, on KFRC at that time, were a product of the fusion between folk music and rock.   Bill loved Latin music and in his younger years was quite a dancer.

   There were certain details of the lead-up to that time which I simply didn’t know about.  I understood that Bill had stumbled onto the hippy rock scene by putting on benefits for the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a radical theatre company that he managed, but the details were more complicated than that.

   Because he knew nothing about the rock music scene when he secured the lease on the Fillmore, Bill formed a partnership with two local band managers: Chet Helms (Big Brother and the Holding Company) and John Carpenter (The Great Society).  They would put on shows at the Fillmore on alternate weekends to Bill.  The two named their company The Family Dog.

   One hugely successful show at the Fillmore was a weekend dance/concert with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band which had been heavily promoted in the Haight district by Helms and Carpenter.  Most hippies hadn’t heard of Butterfield but the two Family Dog guys managed to convince a great mass of them that to miss the gigs was synonymous with being unhip.  The Fillmore was a full house for the entire weekend.

   Bill was very impressed with the reception the band received and the money made at the packed events.  In fact Bill was so impressed that he got up early the morning after the last gig and phoned the Butterfield manager Albert Grossman in New York.  Graham managed to negotiate an exclusive deal for himself to present all future bay area dates for the Butterfield band.

   When Helms and Carpenter discovered what Bill had done they were furious and dissolved their partnership with him.  They went off to find the Avalon Ballroom on the other side of Van Ness for all future Family Dog shows.  

   This story was the reason I heard Bill say on the phone so many times: “What Chet doesn’t understand is that you have to get up in the morning.”

   By the time I arrived, the Avalon Ballroom was Graham’s main competitor.  The reality was that Helms and Carpenter were hippies and very much part of the growing scene in Haight Ashbury.  Bill, however was not a hippy and was all business.  The reason he was behind his desk early in the morning on weekdays was to get the New York agents on the phone first thing.  As they were three hours ahead of San Francisco, he didn’t want to risk losing out on a hot act.    

   Also he was learning about the bands he was booking.  Bill was considerably older than his audience and really didn’t know much about the artists.  So the New York agents would often try to sell him any old thing.  He was, however, a very shrewd fellow and never made the same mistake twice.

    One big story in the Chronicle that summer was that the Beatles made a rapid exit from Manila in the Philippines after their snub of the first lady Imelda Marcos led to near riots.  They obviously hadn’t appreciated the significance of not turning up for tea with the dictator’s wife.  Dramatic photos in the Chronicle showed the shaken four boarding a plane with manager Brian Epstein as huge crowds shouted angrily at them.  But none of this information ever came up with Bill.  He was too busy haggling with agents and those he had to pay money to.

   One of these people on the other end of the phone line was the guy who sold advertising time on radio KFRC.  Bill started paying for spots which the disc jockeys would read out, sometimes in a very rushed and haphazard manner.  This was at the time that the station was busily promoting their huge Rolling Stones concert at the Cow Palace and clearly this show was getting more airtime then Bill’s little ads for the Fillmore.    

   Their big hit the previous year, Satisfaction, had made the Stones a big concert draw and KFRC were throwing everything they had at this show.  They ran a contest called ‘Phone a Stone’ in which listeners would call in, stating which member of the group they’d like to hear speak.  They had pre-recorded individual statements from each band member:  “Hello San Francisco. This is Keith Richard of the Rolling Stones. See you at the KFRC concert on the 26th of July.”  If the caller guessed the correct Stone they’d win a pair of tickets.  If not they’d get a free album.

   Every time the disc jockeys spoke they’d plug the concert.  “It’s 10.26 KFRC Phone a Stone time.”  They also had a jingle using Bob Dylan’s Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 in which they sang: “Everybody must play Phone A Stone!”

   “What you’re doing with these f—ing Rolling Stones is immoral!” Bill shouted over the phone.  “The rest of us who are paying good money for your airtime are being shunted into the corner.  It’s immoral!”

   By the end of the decade Bill would be putting on Rolling Stones concerts himself but for now he was just a guy shouting into a telephone in the tiny office at the top of the stairs at the Fillmore Auditorium.

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Telephones in the 1950s & 60s

Telephones in the 1950s and 60s

The telephone as we knew it growing up in the 1950s played a significant role in all our lives.  Though it is now an antique anachronism, this remarkable mechanical instrument provided the means for speaking to others, miles away, without having to physically travel.  

   Our telephone at 10 Seymour Avenue was black with a circular dial and it sat in a small alcove by a window downstairs in our kitchen.

   I recently saw a play which was set in London during the 1960s.  The design of the set, costumes and props reflected that era convincingly as did the performances of the actors but one tiny detail betrayed the illusion.  

   Sitting on a little table on the side of the set was an old fashioned telephone with a dial.  None of the actors was old enough to have ever used such a telephone and this fact manifested itself each time they picked up the receiver.  Firstly they dialled it the wrong way, counter clockwise.  Secondly they would only dial about three numbers instead of the regulation seven digits.

   This caused me to reflect.

   The percussive bell-like ring of the telephone could be heard throughout our house on Seymour.  Usually my brother Jim or I would race to answer it.  On this particular afternoon in the winter of 1956 it was me who got there first.  I picked it up and said hello.

   “Johnny-O!” exclaimed the unmistakable voice of our neighbour Dennis Brogan.  I was immediately embarrassed at being addressed in this way.  The jive talk continued.

   “Are you clued up to KOBY, Johnny-O?”

   I had no idea what he was talking about.

   “KOBY has all the latest platters and you can hear them for free.”

   He was describing a new radio station and as the hipster jargon subsided, he invited me down to his house to listen to it.

   The journey took only a few minutes as he and his mother Jean lived just off the footpath on the other side of Molino from Seymour. 

   KOBY indeed was something well worth listening to and I sat in his living room for over an hour hearing such records as Banana Boat, Love Me Tender, True Love and Friendly Persuasion.

   It soon became clear where Dennis had picked up the ridiculous way he spoke to me on the phone as the disk jockeys all talked like idiots but the records they played were fantastic.

   In no time at all I was hooked on KOBY and before long I found that Village Music had a fresh stack of their Top 40 sheets every week to help me and fellow record collector Glen Pritzker follow the charts.

   If there was a new record by an artist we knew we’d simply ask Sara Wilcox to play it for us while we slipped into the sound proof booth to listen.

   It was not every day that a phone call brought me news like this.  More often the calls were for my parents but that telephone was quite a presence sitting in its alcove.

   It was black with a handset which rested in a cradle, depressing two plungers.  Lifting the handset would liberate the plungers and activate a dialing tone.  The handset was connected to the main body of the phone by a spiral cord and across its front was the dial.

   Written in the circular centre of the dial, under a round plastic cap, was our number: Dunlap 8-5104. There were ten holes on the dial numbered 1 to 0.  Just below the number 1 hole there was a metal finger stop so that when you brought whichever number to it, the correct digits would count out as the dial returned to its neutral position. 

   Sitting next to our phone in the alcove window were two telephone directories. The smaller one was for Marin County and the larger was San Francisco.  The listings in the phone book gave your last name first as well as your address and phone number.  Our prefix remained Dunlap 8 until the early 1960s when it changed to 388.

   A fact we learned soon enough was that local calls within Marin County were free but that once we dialled a number in the city or anywhere outside Marin it cost money.  We also had a party line which could be annoying when you needed to make a call as you had to negotiate with the other people having their conversation.

   Most of my encounters with operators occurred when I used a pay-phone and they spoke in a very particular way.  Their diction was heightened and slightly exaggerated.  They tended to stretch certain sounds. “One moment puhhhleeez,” was a phrase you’d often hear when the operator was dealing with you. 

   Of course a pay phone was a different thing to a home phone and usually stood inside a phone booth.  The base of the actual phone was a rectangular black box fastened vertically to the wall with the handset hanging in a cradle.  Across the top of the box was a metal extension with holes for inserting money: a quarter, a dime or a nickel.  You had to put ten cents in to get a dial tone and once your party answered  you’d get three minutes, then an operator would instruct you to “insert ten cents pulleeez.”

   One free service the phone company offered was called Directory Enquiry where you could ask the operator to look up a phone number for you.  “How do you spell that pulleez?”

   The idea of speaking to others through a device was a concept which held great fascination for me throughout my childhood.  My brother and I would take two paper cups, punch holes in the base and run a piece of string through, connecting the two.  When the string was pulled tight you could clearly hear the other voice through the cup and this gave me a tremendous thrill.  I was also fascinated by the microphones in police cars which were all shaped like avocadoes and had a spiral cord connecting them to the main box.  In war movies the telephones carried by soldiers on the battlefield also intrigued me.

   In the early 1960s the Princess phone was produced which quickly became very popular.  The base was oval shaped with the handset sitting over the dial.  It came in several, mostly pastel colours and had a decidedly feminine look.

   The Princess phone was given a big promotional plug in the movie Bye, Bye Birdie with Ann Margaret talking on one in several scenes.  

Poster art for the Columbia Picture BYE BYE BIRDIE.

   There’s a great number by Rodgers & Hammerstein from their show Flower Drum Song called I Enjoy Being A Girl and, though the lyrics are terribly dated from a sexist point of view, one of the lines is: “I talk on the telephone for hours, with a pound and a half of cream upon my face.”  This describes perfectly Augie Belden’s sister Judy in the early 1960s.

   Judy Belden was a very beautiful young woman who seemed to live for the weekends and my abiding memory of her is that she spent Saturday afternoons in her bedroom with her hair in curlers and cream all over her face with the phone wedged between her ear and shoulder while she filed her nails.

   On Saturdays my brother Jim and I would be in and out of Augie’s house several times and Judy would spend most of the day preparing for her date that evening.  I think possibly the reason that Jimmy and I would simply run down to the Belden house on a Saturday rather than phone was because their phone was busy most of the day.

   But there was another dimension to the telephone which most of my parents’ close friends were well aware of:  the suspicion that the federal government was listening in to their calls.  

   Both my parents presumed matter of factly that this was the case and always advised us never to say anything we didn’t want overheard by the, presumably, very bored FBI agent on the other end.

   Whether or not this was the case I don’t know and my brother Jim never believed it but I did.  It’s an unsettling possibility that one is being scrutinised by secret people.  Even more unsettling is that the incredibly high price of all this surveillance was being paid for by taxpayers’ dollars.

   One family friend of ours, Harry Bridges, rather famously brought phone tapping into the open back in the 1940s to the serious embarrassment of FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover.  In 1941, while staying at a hotel in Manhattan, Harry found that his phone was being tapped by two FBI agents in the next room and called a reporter to come investigate.  The reporter prised open the telephone connector box in his room and found a radio induction microphone inside.  They then called the police, causing the FBI men to scramble out via the fire escape.  The front page news story about it which followed caused an embarrassed Hoover to go to the White House to explain it all to president Franklin D. Roosevelt.  FDR apparently was delighted to see Hoover’s discomfort and said with a huge grin: “By god, Edgar, that’s the first time you’ve ever been caught with your pants down.”

   If government agents were listening to our phone then I’m sure they would have been highly perplexed by the conversations my brother Jim used to have with Tommy Harper in which they would converse with long wordless noises which would go on forever.  It was like something akin to whales communicating with each other.  My mother Beth was always highly amused by these telephonic noise sessions.  I like to think that the men in the Brooks Brothers suits were frantically scrambling to decode this highly mysterious whalespeak which two eight year olds were indulging in.  After all the federal agents had a serious job to do, protecting god fearing Americans from the dangerous Myers family.

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