18 October 2019

The Late Storm

On Wednesday night and Thursday morning a northeaster blew through the Boston area. A little after midnight, I heard a loud thump outside my house, and the lights went out.

A large branch of a tree in the front yard had fallen onto the wires from the utility pole to the house. I walked around, making sure the branch hadn’t hit the roof as well or done other damage. As I did, I realized that, while most of the lights were out, some rooms at the front of the house were still getting power. I plugged all the devices that need recharging into those outlets and went to bed.

In the morning, I found the same situation: no lights or power in some rooms, perfectly normal in the rest. The tree branch had dragged the power line to the ground, yanking it and the electric meter off the front of the house, but that line was still connected and conducting electricity. The wire for telephone and internet service, in contrast, was well and truly snapped.

Thursday was therefore awkward but not debilitating. I used cell service and went to the library to connect to the internet. I ate lunch out while keeping the refrigerator closed and contacting utility companies. And as I prepared to go to an event in the evening, I tested the power in the kitchen by flipping on one burner of the electric stove.

The overhead light went on. So did lots of other lights in the house. I flipped the burner off. All those lights turned off.

For a second it felt like I was in the Buster Keaton short “One Week,” the one when he assembles a kit house out of order and the systems are all mixed up. An electrician might have a better explanation for what was happening, but I’m sticking with the “Sherlock, Jr.” theory of being briefly stuck inside a silent movie.

I put a big pot of water on a small burner turned as low as it could go without being off. Electricity flowed freely through the house. The refrigerator hummed. The digital clocks blinked happily. Still no phone or broadband internet, but cell service still worked and life went on.

Then today the electric company showed up. Because there was the little matter of live wires under tree debris in the front yard, coming dangerously close to the sidewalk. The line workers unhooked the wire. They ran a new wire from the pole to the house. And then, because of their mandate not to deal with electric meters and indoor wiring, they left. Leaving the house totally without power for the first time.

So now I’m in a coffee shop, typing till they shut off the Wifi and close. I’ve got a hotel room with a change of clothes in it. I’ve got a car. I’ve got an appointment with an electrician (and, next week, with a phone technician). Fingers crossed for the food in the freezer.

14 October 2019

Casting Aspersions

In The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, Hugh Lofting (in the voice of Tommy Stubbins, the shoemaker’s boy) described Dr. John Dolittle as “a little round man with a very kind face.”

Lofting’s own sketches for the books show a short, plump man with curly hair receding from his forehead.

As of 2020, according to a trailer released today, this character will have been played in the movies by:
  • Rex Harrison
  • Eddie Murphy
  • Robert Downey, Jr.

05 October 2019

Big News

The Atlas of Boston History is a big book. I just got my copy, and it’s 14 inches tall and 11 inches wide, 224 full-color pages of maps, charts, and other illustrations of Boston history.

I got a copy because I worked with editor Nancy S. Seasholes on the page spread about Revolutionary Boston. You can see the whole list of topics and contributors, and several sample spreads, at the website for the book. Needless to say, a project this big has been several years in the making.

The Atlas of Boston History will be officially launched at the Boston Public Library’s central building on Thursday, 24 October, at 6:30 P.M. Nancy will speak about the project, and there will be a question-and-answer session with her and contributors. (I hope to participate, but I’ll have to come from another event in Cambridge.)

Other Atlas events include:
  • Wednesday, 30 October, 7:00 P.M.: Porter Square Books, Cambridge, author talk
  • Thursday, 14 November, 5:30 P.M.: Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, author talk and panel

03 October 2019

Hard to Read

One reason the Waukegan Public Library may have chosen not to portray native son Ray Bradbury as a little boy (as I discussed yesterday) is that the site is already chock full of metal kids with books.

The library’s Stimson Sculpture Garden contains no fewer than seven bronze sculptures depicting ten little kids reading, along with a few fairy-tale animals.

There used to be two more children reading, but in 2012 they were stolen and melted down as scrap. Since those statues were bronze, other castings survive, such as Jane Rankin’s “Little Scholar” shown here.

Last time I checked, my public library has two such bronze statues of little kids with books. It looks like this is a genre with solid demand, and artists like Gary Lee Price, Randolph Rose, and Rankin are happy to supply the market.

Someday art historians will write monographs on this form and the studios and patrons behind it, like the studies of Civil War statuary.

02 October 2019

Ray Bradbury’s Rocket

I am not taken with the Ray Bradbury sculpture erected in his native town of Waukegan, Illinois, and unveiled this summer.

Zachary Oxman sculpted the figure of a young Bradbury riding the outline of a rocket, steampunk gears inside. The steel figure waves a copy of Fahrenheit 451.

The design is deliberately “retro” to fit with the mid-20th-century library building nearby, where Bradbury bequeathed his book collection. But the result strikes me as cheesy, diminishing the themes he wrote about instead of celebrating them. “I send my rockets forth between my ears,” Bradbury wrote in a poem, and this turns that metaphor into something solid and heavy again.

I also wouldn’t recognize Bradbury from this statue. I picture him from photos and TV appearances in my youth as a somewhat rounded bespectacled middle-aged man, a chatty dean of American science fiction.

It would make sense for a Bradbury statue in Waukegan to depict him as he looked when he was living in Waukegan. That would be a little kid since the family moved to Arizona when he was six. A young boy dreaming of the future could be iconic but not recognizable. Here’s Bradbury at age three, from the Knopf collection of the Harry Ransom Center. Here he is again, said to be in 1923 but probably a couple of years later.

By age 14, Bradbury was a working writer in LA with hints of how he’d appear as an adult. But I haven’t found any photo of Bradbury looking like the young man in that sculpture. He didn’t wear his glasses for photos in the 1940s, and he had a crew cut through the 1950s. The statue’s combination of spectacles, floppy hair, and svelteness seems like a composite. (Or perhaps Oxman worked from family photos I haven’t seen.)

Lastly, I have to admit, when I see someone clinging to a rocket like that, I can’t help but think of Bucky Barnes about to be blown up by Baron Zemo.

21 September 2019

Amazon and Authors’ Rights

I’m old enough to remember how ten years ago the publishing industry was up in arms against Amazon for encroaching on audiobook rights.

Amazon’s second-generation Kindle had a “Read Aloud” feature that could produce an audio version of any given text. Not a good audio version, to be sure, but a free one, as long as the text was available.

Publishers and the Authors Guild insisted that any such reading required a grant of the book’s audio rights. Amazon insisted there was no rival recording, simply a reader turning on a feature that produced one word at a time. Eventually Amazon backed down, and publishers could have the “Read Aloud” feature disabled for designated texts.

Meanwhile, Amazon bought Audible, a leading company in the small but growing business of producing consumer audiobooks. In the last decade, with the help of smartphones and fast downloads, audiobooks have become a big moneymaker. Amazon made Audible by far the leading distributor.

This year Audible started to promote a feature called “Captions,” which would convert spoken words into written text. Again, it’s not always accurate, but it shows how far software engineering has come.

And once again, publishers and authors are pointing out that the resulting text is the equivalent of an ebook, and thus an infringement on rights they hold and exercise elsewhere. After an industry outcry, Audible offered to let audiobook publishers disable “Captions” for some books—for now.

This is of course the same story told twice, once in audio form and once in text. The part about Amazon pushing new technology and pushing into new territory, that doesn’t change.

10 September 2019

Mid-Century Modern in the Emerald City

After the original publisher of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz went bankrupt, Bobbs-Merrill became the book’s one and only US publisher.

At first Bobbs-Merrill included W. W. Denslow’s illustrations, though not in the original ground-breaking multi-color design that integrated text and art. The company kept the book in print until the World War 2 paper shortages. As the war wound down, it looked for a way to reintroduce the title.

In 1944, Bobbs-Merrill commissioned entirely new art by Evelyn Copelman (1919-2003, also known as Evelyn Campbell and Evelyn Copelman Baker). She created black-and-white art on scratchboard and painted several color plates.

The title page of that new edition stated that Copelman’s art was “adapted from the famous pictures by W. W. Denslow.” Obviously those pictures weren’t the only source. Copelman’s Dorothy, Scarecrow, and Wizard are clearly designed like the characters in the 1939 MGM movie, and her Tin Woodman and Cowardly Lion look like hybrids.

Bobbs-Merrill had asked Copelman to create an edition that matched the movie, but it didn’t have rights to the MGM designs. It did own the rights to Denslow’s art, however. The title page claim apparently provided legal cover.

In 1949 MGM re-released its movie into cinemas. Not coincidentally, Bobbs-Merrill gave the book a new push. Copelman reworked her line art and added more plates.

With the book still under copyright, Bobbs-Merrill was the exclusive producer of new copies of The Wizard of Oz. Thus, for over a decade in the middle of the century, Evelyn Copelman’s artwork introduced young readers to Oz.

Then the copyright lapsed in 1956. Reilly and Lee, the publisher of the rest of the Oz series, created an edition with black-and-white reproductions of Denslow’s art in a trim that matched its other titles. Other publishers commissioned their own illustrations. As the years passed, Copelman’s art disappeared from bookstore shelves.

Archive.org, working with the San Francisco and other public library systems, has made a digital copy of a Copelman edition available for borrowing. This is a 1994 Illustrated Junior Library edition, with cover artwork by Michael Zimmer but Copelman’s line art and five plates inside. It’s worth a virtual thumb-through, especially if that’s the edition you remember.

02 September 2019

The Rise of the “Oxford Comma“

A weekend Twitter conversation with editor Harold Underdown and picture book creator Debbie Ridpath Ohi set me digging for the origin of the phrase Oxford comma.”

That’s the currently popular term for the comma before “and” or “or” in a series of three or more, as in “Tom, Dick, or Harry.” The more established term is “serial comma.” Some people are trained to use that comma, others not to.

Punctuation in the eighteenth century was haphazard to the point of being hazardous. In contrast, the Victorians were prescriptivists, and the spread of print culture meant there was a lot to prescribe.

Around the turn of the twentieth century Horace Hart (1840-1916), controller of the Oxford University Press, issued a set of guidelines for that organization’s type compositors and proof readers. His examples show he expected to see the serial comma, but he never pointed it out or prescribed it.

Around the same time, the polymath Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) wrote to F. Howard Collins (1857-1910) about why the serial comma mattered, stating:

whether to write “black, white, and green,” with the comma after white, or to leave out the comma and write “black, white and green”—I very positively decide in favour of the first. To me the comma is of value as marking out the component elements of a thought, and where any set of components of a thought are of equal value, they should be punctuated in printing and in speech equally: Evidently therefore in this case, inasmuch as when enumerating these colours black, white, and green, the white is just as much to be emphasized as the other two, it needs the pause after it just as much as the black does.
Collins quoted Spencer in a footnote of his 1905 book Author and Printer: A Guide for Authors, Editors, Printers, Correctors of the Press, Compositors, and Typists. Collins wrote that book in part because he felt Hart’s guide didn’t have enough practical advice for authors.

The Inland Printer magazine, published in Chicago, quoted Collins’s footnote in a review of recent references for compositors. By the end of 1905, therefore, Spencer’s argument for serial commas was spreading on both sides of the Atlantic. For decades the serial comma has been a standard put forward by The Chicago Manual of Style, the main style guide of the American book publishing industry.

However, some areas of publishing resisted that rule. One was daily newspaper journalism in the US. A serial comma might be little more than a flyspeck, but if we total up all such commas in a week of newspapers, eliminating it might save a significant amount of ink, paper, and time. For decades, therefore, The Associated Press Stylebook has prescribed not using the serial comma unless it was necessary to avoid confusion.

Americans in different fields can thus train themselves either to use the serial comma or not to, in the firm belief that they’re following the most authoritative writing guide. It’s all a matter of which sort of writing they’ve undertaken.

Meanwhile, after World War 2 Britain went through a great punctuation contraction. I’ve written about this before. Double-quote marks became single-quote marks. Periods disappeared from many abbreviations. Newspapers stopped setting off titles with italics or quote marks. And the serial comma was shooed away.

Except at Oxford University Press. As at the University of Chicago Press, scholarly editors continued to see value in the clarity of the serial comma. Posthumously expanded editions of Horace Hart’s rules made that mark of punctuation a standard even as much of British publishing disagreed.

Because the serial comma had become a hallmark of the Oxford University Press, Peter Sutcliffe dubbed it the “Oxford comma” in his 1978 history of the publisher. He credited Collins with establishing the rule, but his own book established a new term for the mark.

“Oxford comma” is thus a retronym, a term coined for something that was once so standard it didn’t need a special designation (e.g., analog watch, prose novel). At one point all British publishers put commas into series of three or more. Now that most don’t, that comma is notable enough to need a name, and “Oxford comma” has a touch of class. It’s quite possible that “serial comma” is also a retronym, forced by journalism developing a different standard.

Harold and I agreed that “Oxford comma” seems like a parvenu synonym for what we’d learned as the “serial comma.” Indeed, Google Books Ngram confirms that authors used “serial comma” and “series comma” starting around 1920. For a long time the terms appeared at about the same rate, but “serial comma” took off in the late 1970s.

Not until this century did “Oxford comma” spread, perhaps pushed by international internet debate. In the Google Books Ngram database (which stops in 2008), “Oxford comma” has overtaken “series comma” and cut into the dominance of “serial comma.” It has not, however, returned to being standard punctuation in Britain.

29 August 2019

Thundering Herds

The Thundering Herd was another Zane Grey novel made into a movie by Paramount, and then remade by the same studio with the young Randolph Scott. (Later still it was retitled for television as Buffalo Stampede.)

In this case, the reason for the remake was the advent of sound pictures. The first version was a silent made in 1925.

The 1933 sound version slipped into cinemas before the Hays Code took real effect. We thus get to see that the villain has unmistakably lascivious aims on his stepdaughter. We get to see a morally ambiguous older woman do away with three men.

As with The Fighting Caravans/Wagon Wheels, footage from the earlier movie was reused and became some of the best material in the new film. The screen shows us actual thundering herds of stampeding buffalo! Stage coaches and wagons chasing across the plains! Scores of Native Americans and European settlers riding into a fight!

The main disadvantage of reusing the old footage is that Randolph Scott had to wear a thin mustache to match the star of the earlier movie. Other players such as Noah Beery, Sr., and Raymond Hatton simply had to look a little younger since they played the same role in both versions.

Among the supporting cast were Buster Crabbe, then on his way up to stardom, and Harry Carey, who was descending back into supporting roles as he aged. Like Beery, Carey had a namesake son who would also go into pictures and eventually costar with Randolph Scott.

26 August 2019

Billy Lee: “one of the heaps magnificent young actor”

Last week I mentioned Billy Lee, Hollywood child actor of the 1930s and early 1940s.

I really can’t improve on the profile of him from this site:
Billy Lee, whose not clear moniker be William Schlenaker, was born bordered by Nelson, Indiana. As a baby, infantile William lived a serene occurrence against his family's dairy farm, but that all changed when he turned three years infirm. Billy and his parents moved to California nigh on 1933.

Billy's parents enrol him, at age 3, in The Meglin School For Kiddies in Los Angeles. The administrator of the seminary, Ethel Meglin, take a outstanding zest in Billy Lee, note, in locate of his parents enjoy, that Billy was a severely magnificent and cooperative youth, fast to swot yawning awake and complete of anticipation. Mrs. Meglin, who was Billy's personal rumba instructor, get Billy Lee started in films via age 4, solely a few months after he was enrolled at the school.

Billy's opening role was in a "Little Rascals" squat, "Mike Fright", as himself (as a slap dancer), and he give relatively an gleaming case in spike of his talent. From at hand it was on to Billy's first fact motion effort of art, "Wagon Wheels" (1934), wherein Billy land his first acting role, which his dance instructor, believe in his talent, had him audition in favour of. Billy also have a solo singing cog in the the flicks. This take place when the primary template, plus Randolph Scott, takes turn singing front on the movie's focus ode. So it was that, at age four, young William go from anyone a young Indiana farm boy to Billy Lee, young Hollywood actress.

In 1937, Billy Lee appear near familiar child lead singer Bobby Breen in _Make a Wish (1937)_ (qv), playing Breen's dictation advantageous forces camp buddy, "Pee Wee". The two boy recite "Polly Wolly Doodle" as a duet. Billy may be best certain for his starring role in the very exciting 1940 movie _The Biscuit Eater (1940)_ (qv). He unremitting acting through the 1930s, appear in complete 30 movies and method alongside more than a few of Hollywood's finest, including Lon Chaney Jr., Roy Rogers, Charles Boyer, Randolph Scott, Olivia DeHavilland, and Broderick Crawford, to name a short time ago a few.

Billy also appeared in a few short subject. One Hal Roach short in individual cast Billy, immediately age 11, in the starring role of "Pinhead" in the 1941 cadenced wit film _Reg'lar Fellers (1941)_ (qv) along with Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer as "Bump". The characters here film be base on the desirable "Reg'lar Fellers" slapstick comedian discard. This film not only provide Billy with a indiscriminate to skip in a lead comedic role but also allowed him to broadcast departed its sell-by date his hitting skill during one musical cipher that had be record by "Billy Lee's Band" according to the credit. In the film, Billy be the only real musician when he is lead by the other kids performing as Pinhead's trimming. Billy also sing the closing song of the film, "Hooray For Fun".

Another short where on earth Billy landed the lead was call _War Dogs (1942)_ (qv) (aka "Unsung Heroes"). Billy drama the doting son of his aging, decked out military officer dad, who has turned to bash after his claim to rejoin the resource to assistance in the time of war oblige (WW2) is turned fuzz by the military.

Billy's final film disguise come in 1943, when he was 13 (surprise, surprise) in a movie called, _Eyes of the Underworld (1942)_ (qv) in the role of Mickey Bryan, dyed-in-the-wool son of police chief Richard Bryan, play by Richard Dix. After this film, Billy Lee become one of the heaps magnificent young actor who, once reaching his teens, found that leaving from film making was something that was just allotted for you.

Billy Lee lived until 1989; he die eight months after his 60th centenary of a quick heart bridle.
Actually, Reg’lar Fellers is a feature, not a short. It was based on a popular comic strip. Ethel Meglin was an associate producer; Hal Roach wasn’t involved, though it was “Alfalfa” Switzer’s first movie after leaving the Our Gang series.