Open Mic

September 2010

A Death in the Family: The Importance of Arthur Penn's TV Roots and a Challenge to Leslie Moonves, Josh Sapan, Charlie Collier, Bonnie Hammer and Their Industry Colleagues

Chuck Ross Posted September 30, 2010 at 8:47 AM

The headlines this week, about the death of director Arthur Penn, at age 88, mostly focused on the film “Bonnie and Clyde,” and deservedly so. It was the first movie reviewed by the legendary critic Pauline Kael when she joined The New Yorker, and as she and others noted, it was a landmark movie in the history of American moviemaking.

But Penn the moviemaker cannot be separated from his background, and Penn was one of the great TV directors of all time, cutting his teeth in the 1950s during what has been called the Golden Age of Television.

Penn was a protégé of Fred Coe, a producer many say was the father of that Golden Age. It was Coe who asked Penn to become one of his regular directors on the “Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse.” They worked together again on “Playhouse 90.” Each series was one of the most highly praised programs of its time.

Both were anthologies, meaning that every week they featured a new teleplay—usually a drama, written by authors who were virtually unknown as writers in other mediums. In other words, these authors became known for writing primarily for TV.

Most of the dramas at the time were broadcast live. Jon Krampner, in his terrific biography about Coe, “The Man in the Shadows: Fred Coe and the Golden Age of Television,” interviewed Penn in 1997 about what it was like directing in those days of live TV.

Krampner wrote that for Penn, directing live TV “held the same terrors as Kurtz’s trip up the Congo in ‘Heart of Darkness.’ ‘Incredible,’ Penn says in a dark and harrowed voice, ‘It was incredible. It was simply beyond belief…It was a devastating job. It’s almost impossible to describe to people now.”

Earlier Penn had told Jeff Kisseloff, author of “The Box,” about directing live TV, “If you were vulnerable to the pressure, it was pretty bad.”

Penn said one director he knew “ended up hemorrhaging in the control room. He had to be carried out during a show. Guys turned to drink [and heavy cigarette smoking]. There were a lot of heart attacks, crazy kinds of behavior.”

After working for a few years on NBC’s “Philco-Goodyear” show—which, like virtually all live TV drama shows at the time, was produced in New York—Penn got a call to come out to direct TV in Hollywood.

“I went out there for the money,” Penn said in “The Box.” “At ‘Philco’ we really earned nothing. I was married and had a child. We were pretty broke…so when [CBS called to come out to Hollywood and do ‘Playhouse 90’ and offered me] some forty grand, I grabbed it—shamelessly. Our mission on ‘Playhouse 90’ was to come in as the New York boys and take the Hollywood community and ‘Marty’ them.”

“Marty” was one of the most acclaimed live dramas of the Golden Age, written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Delbert Mann. Mann later directed a movie version that won “Best Picture.”

Not long before Penn joined “Playhouse 90,” he was talking to a young playwright friend of his. This young playwright told Penn, “Jesus, I need some money.” Penn responded, according to “The Box,” “What do you got that we could do on television?” The playwright, William Gibson, replied, “Well, I once wrote a modern-dance narrative based on Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller.”

At Penn’s urging, Gibson sketched it out as a teleplay. “After he finished it,” Penn said, “I took it to NBC. They said no. I couldn’t believe it. It just jumped off the pages. CBS also turned it down. When I joined ‘Playhouse 90,’ I told [show creator Marty Manulis] about the script. He read it and bought it.”

The script was “The Miracle Worker.” Later, with Coe producing and Penn directing, they took it to Broadway, where it helped make Anne Bancroft a star as teacher Annie Sullivan. Then Coe and Penn made a movie version, which won Oscars for Bancroft and Patty Duke, who played the young Helen Keller. If you haven’t seen the movie, or haven’t seen it in a long time, check it out—it’s most impressive even today.

TV also played a major part in saving another play Penn directed and Coe produced on Broadway, called “All the Way Home,” based on James Agee’s classic novel “A Death in the Family.” The play was adapted by another TV writer, who also was unknown before the Golden Age of live TV drama, Tad Mosel.

The play opened on Broadway on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 1960. Critical reception, according to Krampner’s book, was “lukewarm,” and box office sales were “dismal.”
By showtime on Thursday business had not picked up, so Coe and his producer partner posted a note that the show would close in two more days, after Saturday night’s performance.

In Friday’s New York Daily News one of the paper’s columnists, the influential Ed Sullivan, who also just happened to have a very popular variety show on CBS on Sunday nights, published a column raving about the show—and Sullivan wasn’t even the paper’s theater critic.

Coe’s partner called Sullivan and thanked him, also telling him that the show was doing just about zero business and the show was closing Saturday night. Sullivan’s reaction was “My God, you can’t close the show.” Sullivan then said that he’d have the cast on his TV show on Sunday if Coe and his partner would agree to keep the show open another week. Deal.

After the cast’s appearance on Sullivan’s show, business started booming the very next day. “It’s a Broadway miracle,” Coe’s partner, Arthur Cantor, told The New York Times that Monday.

The Penn-directed “All the Way Home,” writes Krampner, ended up running for 334 performances, “was named the Best American Play of 1961 by the New York Drama Critics Circle, and won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.”

Krampner also notes that Coe, who had joined “Playhouse 90” as one of its producers, had had CBS buy the rights to “A Death in the Family” with the idea that he’d have it adapted for “Playhouse” with the title “All the Way Home.”

But “Playhouse 90” had five commercial breaks in it, and Coe ultimately decided it would be better adapted for Broadway, so he personally bought back the rights to the novel from CBS.

Coe, William Gibson, Tad Mosel, Sullivan, Bancroft, Arthur Cantor, Marty Manulis, Delbert Mann, and Paddy Chayefsky have all passed away.

And with the death this week of Penn, who was one of the few remaining directing giants of the Golden Age of TV, I’m reminded of something Leslie Moonves, one of TV’s master programmers in the past decade and CEO of CBS Corp., has said repeatedly over the past several years: that we are in another Golden Age of TV drama.

And if you look at the dramas the networks—both cable and broadcast—have put on, from “The Sopranos” to “Dexter” to “24,” from “Mad Men” to “Damages,” to “The Good Wife,” from “Lost” to “House” to “Friday Night Lights,” you realize Moonves is probably right.

What’s missing, however, is the type of show that made the dramas of yesteryear golden: a successful anthology show that features, on a weekly basis, new, impactful dramas by unknown writers.

So here’s my challenge to Mr. Moonves and others in the TV business, particularly basic cable. Let’s try to get a modern “Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse” or “Playhouse 90” launched. Yes, it’s been tried before, but maybe the timing is right now.

Perhaps Josh Sapan and Charlie Collier over at Rainbow and AMC are interested in doing this. USA Network says “Characters Welcome.” Well, how sayeth you, Bonnie Hammer? John Landgraf over at FX loves original programming—the smarter and the edgier, the better. And I’ve only scratched the surface here—TNT knows drama, doesn’t it? And so on.

You could present some of the episodes live as well. I think to get audiences hooked you’d need some big stars to participate—think George Clooney doing “Fail Safe" back in 2000.

It’s a project worth serious consideration. Yes, such an anthology show won’t hit a home run every week. But I’m guessing it’ll have its share of winners.

And how wonderful to be able to discover the next knock-our-socks-off men and women to follow in the footsteps of William Gibson and Paddy Chayefsky. And Arthur Penn.#

Some Toddlers Respond To Bill O'Reilly and Sesame Street About Pulling the Katy Perry-Elmo Video

Chuck Ross Posted September 24, 2010 at 5:16 AM

Based on comments it received after posting a video featuring Elmo and Katy Perry, the folks at Sesame Street decided not to air the video on the “Sesame Street” TV show, though they said they would leave it up on YouTube.

A number of commentators, including Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, joined in the criticism of Ms. Perry. Much of that criticism had to do with the dress she wears in the video, and the fact that some thought it revealed too much cleavage. You can see the video if you click here.

Yet to be heard from are any comments from the toddler crowd for whom the video was made.

However, I have a toddler, and a couple of his friends posted a response to the criticism of the Elmo-Perry video on the toddler network, metube.TV. (Don’t bother trying to go there…All you’ll find is a placeholder page for the domain. It appears that only toddlers have the password to get in.)

Since we can’t link to the video they submitted, I’ve written down its contents and present it to you now in transcript form. It was made by two toddler twins, Samuel and Samantha. In this video, they call the main character Sam (of course). And the person Sam is talking to looks suspiciously like Bill O’Reilly.

Here’s the transcript:

Sam: I am Sam
I am Sam
Sam I am
with a funny elbow

Person Looking Suspiciously Like O’Reilly: That Sam-I-am!
That Sam-I-am!
I do not like
that Sam-I-am
with a funny elbow!

Sam: Do you like
Katy Perry and Elmo?

Person Looking Suspiciously Like O’Reilly: I do not like them,
Sam-I-am
with a funny elbow.
I do not like
Katy Perry and Elmo.

Sam: Would you like them
in a house?
Would you like them
with a mouse?

Person Looking Suspiciously Like O’Reilly: I do not like them
in a house.
I do not like them
with a mouse.
I do not like Katy’s blouse.

Sam: But the video’s so much fun.
The way they both chase and run.

Person Looking Suspiciously Like O’Reilly: I don’t think it’s so much fun.
I don’t like the way they chase and run.
And I do not like them
in a house.
I do not like them
with a mouse.
I do not like Katy’s blouse.

Sam: Don’t you like the song Katy sings?
It makes us feel we’re floating on wings.

Person Looking Suspiciously Like O’Reilly: I don’t like the way she sings.
It’s doesn’t make me float on wings.
I don’t think it’s so much fun.
I don’t like the way they chase and run.
And I do not like them
in a house.
I do not like them
with a mouse.
I do not like Katy’s blouse.

Sam: Could we ask you one more thing?
You say you don’t like the way she sings,
That it doesn’t make you float on wings.
You say you don’t think it’s so much fun.
And you don’t like they way they chase and run.
You say you don’t like them in a house.
That you don’t like them with a mouse.
And that you do not like Katy’s blouse.

We love this video as much as a cow’s moo.
And wish you’d love it so much too.

We’re beginning to think you’re just an old louse.
So please, just tell us, what’s a blouse?

Person Looking Suspiciously Like O’Reilly: Oh silly me, of course you don’t know.
And won’t, of course, until you grow.
I don’t know what I was thinking, Sam I am with a funny elbow.
Of course I love the video with Katy Perry and Elmo.

(with apologies to Theodor Geisel)

Just Thinking of Telling You About This Gives Me the Heebie-Jeebies: It's the Next Big Thing on TV

Chuck Ross Posted September 15, 2010 at 7:12 AM

Martin Scorsese is one of America’s masterful moviemakers. In 2006 he won the Academy Award for the crime film “The Departed.” It’s not Scorsese’s best movie, though it was a return to a theme he’s visited often in his career—gangsterism.

This Sunday, Sept. 19th, Scorsese has teamed with one of the most talented writers of “The Sopranos,’ multiple Emmy winner Terence Winter, to revisit that theme once again. The new series, on HBO, is “Boardwalk Empire,” set in 1920—at the dawn of Prohibition—primarily in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

The show is swell. It’s ritzy, spiffy and spanky. It’s the bee’s knees and the cat’s meow. In other words, it’s that rare beast in any art form: The Real McCoy. It’s Jake.

You’d be all wet to miss it.

Fifteen years ago, Scorsese made another of his gangster films, “Casino.” At the same time he made a four-hour documentary for the British Film Institute entitled “A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Film.”

At the time Scorsese said, “In the long run, this documentary is probably more important than ‘Casino.’“

He was probably right. The documentary is a stunning tour through Scorsese’s mind, focusing on his view of filmmaking in America and what it means, from D.W. Griffith up to the time when Scorsese himself started making movies. (Aside: HBO should acquire the rights and show this documentary sometime during the run of “Boardwalk Empire.”)

In his “Personal Journey,” Scorsese says that “to me, the most interesting of the classic [film] genres are the indigenous ones.” He identifies those as the American western, the American musical and the American gangster film.

These genres, he explains, “remind me of jazz—they allow for endless, increasingly complex, sometimes perverse, variations. And when these variations were played by the masters, they reflected the changing times. They gave us fascinating insights into American culture and the American psyche.”

He then talks specifically about the gangster genre. First he quotes Howard Hawks, who in 1932 made the original “Scarface,” one of Scorsese’s touchstone movies: “There is action only if there is danger.”

To “stay alive or die, this is our greatest drama,” Scorsese intones.

He talks about the origins of the gangster picture, before World War I: that D.W. Griffith made a short, silent gangster film called “The Musketeers of Pig Alley,” and that in 1915 director Raoul Walsh made one—“The Regeneration”—that was filmed on location on New York’s lower east side.

In these films, Scorsese tells us, it was a depressed environment that made kids turn to gangsterism.

“But 10 years later,” Scorsese says in his “Personal Journey,” “Prohibition brought about a time of movies that signaled a tremendous escalation of urban violence. What struck me in ‘Scarface’ was Howard Hawks’ cool and distant objectivity. He showed [the main character] Tony Camante—really Al Capone—as a vicious, immature, irresponsible character. Yet that world was almost attractive because of its irresponsibility. And that was disturbing.”

Which is exactly what Scorsese and Winter do in “Boardwalk Empire.”

In the documentary Scorsese also notes that Hawks—being Hawks—also put nice touches of humor in “Scarface.”

Again, the same can be said of the first episode of “Boardwalk Empire,” which Scorsese directed. Most particularly the scene where the Feds are on the phone trying to identify a bunch of well-known gangsters who are meeting in Atlantic City.

Jumping back to Scorsese’s “Personal Journey,” he continues about the gangster film: “At the end of the ‘30s came a really pivotal film—Raoul Walsh’s 'The Roaring Twenties.' This chronicle of the Prohibition era was the last great gangster film before the advent of film noir. It reads like a twisted Horatio Alger story—the gangster caricature of the American Dream.”

Scorsese continues, “This was the gripping saga of the war hero turned bootlegger and his downfall after the stock market crash,” and how “the gangster had now become a tragic figure.”

Furthermore, Scorsese says that “The Roaring Twenties” “was actually the inspiration of my student film, ‘It’s Not Just You, Murray!’ And I’d like to think that ‘Goodfellas’ comes out of the tradition of something as extraordinary as ‘The Roaring Twenties’ and ‘Scarface.’”

And, clearly, “Boardwalk Empire” comes out of the tradition of these movies as well.

Reportedly, Scorsese, who is also an executive producer on “Boardwalk Empire,” worked closely with show creator Terence Winter on all aspects of the series, not just the one episode that Scorsese directed.

How wonderful for Scorsese that he’s now working on a project set in the era of those early gangster films that he so dearly loves. No longer does he have to be confined to a more modern gangster film that just pays homage to that era.

And even more wonderful for us. “Boardwalk Empire,” like all great entertainment, works on multiple levels. Thanks to its “Mad Men”-like attention to detail—including the music—and great ensemble acting—starting with an extraordinary performance by Steve Buscemi, who doesn’t just play the lead character, Nucky Thompson, but who disappears into the man’s soul—the show is a wonderful period drama.

But as Scorsese and Winter know, both of them steeped in gangsterism as they are, from the original “Scarface” to Tony Soprano, it’s not just the gangsters who are gangsters. Gangsterism pervades Americana, past and present, up to and including our presidents, who nonetheless proclaim they aren’t crooks.

What’s so brilliant about the metaphor Scorsese and Winter have in choosing to set “Boardwalk Empire” in Atlantic City during Prohibition is the pervasiveness of gangsterism during that period; the blurring of the line between politics and illegal activities as well as between regular folk and criminals.

The Scorsese-directed first episode sets the tone for the episodes that follow. I’ve seen the first five episodes of the show, and I think the series improves week-to-week. I love the look of the show—it seems to marry noir with the gangster genre more and more with each succeeding episode. Of those first five episodes, I think no. 5 is the best.

Besides the excellent ensemble acting—and special kudos to Gretchen Mol, who practically steals every scene she’s in once her character gets going—the writing is first rate. Besides Winter, other writers on the show include Lawrence Konner, Tim Van Patten, Howard Korder, and Margaret Nagle. Some may quibble that “Boardwalk Empire” is, at times, too reminiscent of some of the storylines used in “The Sopranos,” but I don’t have that beef.

As you begin to watch “Boardwalk Empire” you’ll likely find yourself not wanting to miss what happens next. It’s like Scorsese says about movies in “Personal Journey": “As with heroin, the antidote to film is more film.”

Where's the Beef at This Year's VMAs? Lady Gaga's Wearing It

Hillary Atkin Posted September 14, 2010 at 9:07 AM

MTV’s Video Music Awards have a storied history of sensational and surprising moments that have gone on to become pop cultural milestones. Who could forget Britney’s open-mouthed smooching of Madonna, or Michael Jackson making out on stage with Lisa Marie Presley way back in 1994? How about Prince revealing his pants-less behind in 1991? And then there was last year’s big fiasco and huge shocker, with even the president weighing in--Kanye West crashing in on Taylor Swift and hijacking the mic during her VMA acceptance speech. It’s doubtful anyone could or ever will top his award for Most Boorish Behavior.

So the expectations were high for the 2010 VMAs. Despite host Chelsea Handler's admonition for everyone to be on their worst behavior, the only real fireworks during the telecast came at the very end--during West's much-anticipated performance.

But it’s Handler’s performance as host--the first female doing emcee duties at the VMAs in 16 years--that is drawing the most heat. The New York Times trashed her act, saying, "She was among the worst in the show's history--purposefully out-of-touch, with brief, alarming flashes of off-color racial humor."

The Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly and AOL TV were among those giving her a resounding thumbs down, while the Los Angeles Times took the opposite stance, saying she had “plenty of verve and vinegar.”

In or out of the Chelsea camp, there’s no dispute the show was a smash. It drew its highest ratings since 2002, commanding 11.4 million viewers, up 27% from last year.

Let’s review. Among her racially tinged jokes were comments about not doing a prayer circle again with Snoop Dogg--“an angry black man, what a surprise.” Saying she snuck in a couple of sawed-off shotguns in her purse--and got away with it because she’s white. Calling out the “big, black elephant in the room”--Kanye West.

What wasn’t racial was pretty much just crass, and if the punch lines didn’t exactly bomb, they didn’t illicit huge peals of laughter. Topics included tongues, nipples, herpes, vaginas and casts of several shows “backstage, stapling their balls together.” That line not once, but twice. Handler peppered her humor with a lot of “whoopsi’s” and “oopsi’s.”

Perhaps her finest bit was emerging from a Jacuzzi with the “Jersey Shore” crew--those fine folks who prevent MTV from showing more music videos--wet, barefoot and with a pregnant belly.

Still, the show provided its fair share of memorable moments right off the top after revving things up with Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.” Eminem and Rihanna performing a rousing show-opening rendition of “Not Afraid.” Lindsay Lohan’s taped appearance urging Handler to give up the drink and not embarrass her. Lady Gaga’s multiple wins, with each trip to the podium in a different outfit--one including the infamous Alexander McQueen lobster claw shoes, a variety of headdresses and then finally, a dress that appeared to be made out of meat. There was Cher, the pop diva who still has a huge fan base, making a surprise appearance as a presenter in the same get-up she wore 20 years ago, much to the crowd’s delight.

The performances were dramatic and well-choreographed. Best New Artist Justin Bieber’s driving up to the theater and playing to the crowd outside the Nokia. Usher channeling some Michael Jackson-esque dance movies in “OMG.” B.o.B and Paramore’s Hayley Williams pairing up for his hit “Airplanes.” Linkin Park rocking the beautifully lit Griffith Park Observatory. A barefoot Swift’s musical response to last year’s VMA debacle with a song that smells like a big hit, “Innocent,” about West. Those two will be dueting soon.

Despite all the waves about Chandler, who tweeted that she “had a blast and the show was awesome,” the night belonged to Gaga, who’s in the throes of a really good romance with her fans. And let’s hope the meat outfit got refrigerated--or cooked to perfection. It would be a shame to let one of the most unique ensembles in awards show fashion history go to the dogs.

 

Stephen Hawking Controversy: In New Book He Says Why God Did Not Create the Universe. Hmmm. Dunno About That. But I Can Explain Why God is My Co-Pilot. (Fasten Your Seat Belt: This is Going To Be Your Most Unexpected, Wild Read of the Day)

Chuck Ross Posted September 9, 2010 at 9:10 AM

Last Friday, Sept. 3, 2010, the Wall Street Journal published an excerpt from the new book, “The Grand Design” by well-known British physicist Stephen Hawking and a colleague of his, physicist Leonard Mlodinow.

The excerpt was titled, “Why God Did Not Create the Universe.” In one concluding paragraph Hawking and Mlodinow write, “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”

The excerpt has ignited all sorts of controversy about the existence of God.

Some are saying that this represents a new position for Hawking, others disagree. In one piece, titled “Hawking Hasn’t Changed His Mind About God,” Roger Highfield writes, “Hawking's position on religion has remained unchanged since he wrote his bestseller, ‘A Brief History of Time.’ At the end of that book he famously used God as a metaphor for the laws of nature: ‘If we discover a complete theory, it would be the ultimate triumph of reason – for then we should know the mind of God.’

“This quotation is billed in The [London] Times today as his ‘previous view’ on religion. It was certainly influential – the book sold 6 million copies – but Hawking has always looked at God metaphorically, in much the same way, incidentally, as Einstein. ‘I cannot believe that God plays dice with the cosmos’ was Einstein's famous quip about his discomfort with quantum mechanics. He also declared, ‘I want to know how God created the world.’”

Later in the piece Highfield says that Hawking told him in 2001 that “If you believe in science, like I do, you believe that there are certain laws that are always obeyed. If you like, you can say the laws are the work of God, but that is more a definition of God than a proof of his existence.”

I do believe in science, but I know next to nothing about theoretical physics. Ask me about quantum mechanics and I’ll say, “Liked Scott Bakula, loved Dean Stockwell.” ‘Nuff said.

Since, demonstrably, my mind travels in much simpler circles than that of Hawking, my thoughts about the existence of God runs much closer to those in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Show me the angel and I’m there--I’ll be a believer.

O.K. Here comes the crazy part. I do know such an angel.

I’m here to tell you that it’s an actual fact that every time a bell rings an angel gets his or her wings.

Not only will I tell you, but I’ll prove it to you.

The following actually happened. To me. Almost exactly ten years ago.

At the time I was the editor of this publication, then called “Electronic Media,” better known as EM. Something happened to me to cause me to miss work for almost the entire month of October, 2000. Upon my return, on October 31st, I sent the following email to the staff (which, at the urging of the then publisher of EM, Marc White, we later reprinted in the magazine for our readers).

In retrospect, parts of the email are probably a little too much on the flippant side, but it was my way of making a grim situation more digestible.

What is indisputable is that if I had not met Angel First Class Sohail Shayfer on that fateful—nay, faithful—day ten years ago, and had instead gotten on an airplane to New York, as I was scheduled to, it’s almost certain I wouldn’t be here today.

Here’s the email:

You don't know about me. Or, more accurately, you don't know what's happened to me in the last month. I know our publisher Marc White mentioned to a number of you that I was sick -- and the company's been extraordinarily supportive of me -- but Marc didn't tell you the half of it.

Some conditions are so weird and grotesque and scary that you decide as soon as you hear about them that you'll never get them. No way, no how. You know, the ones that only could happen to some other poor slob, but not to you.

Inevitably, these are conditions you read about in tabloids. Consider this headline in the London tabloid the Daily Star, circa 1994: "Killer Bug Ate My Face." Oh yeah, no need to read that article.

Based on the headline alone you decide immediately: That's one baby I ain't ever gonna get.

America's No. 1 tabloid, the National Enquirer, speaking of the same affliction four years later, came up with the headline "Enemies too small to be seen inflict agony, brain damage -- and death." It might lack the visceral squeamishness of the Brit tabloid, but once again, its repel factor is certainly up there. And you know immediately it's not something you're ever gonna get.

Both articles were referring to a particularly virulent and disgusting disease called necrotizing fasciitis. That last is pronounced "fas cee eye tis" -- not that far from fascist, and I can't believe that's an accident.

This thing is unbelievably sickening. Fortunately, it's incredibly rare as well. You have a far better chance of winning the next $80 million lottery than you do of contracting necrotizing fasciitis. About two people a day in the entire United States (and what, there are about 280 million of us here in the U.S.?), or about 800 poor slobs a year, come down with this. The bad news is that about 160 of them die from it. And most of the others usually lose a limb or two, at best. (Wait until you find out what necrotizing fasciitis is commonly called. You'll find out in a few graphs, and it'll gross you out. I promise. Happy Halloween.)

About a month ago my fasciitis became necrotized. Here's what happened.

On Sunday night, Oct. 1, as I was about to go to bed, I noticed the area around my left elbow was red. When I touched it, it hurt. Hmm. Well, I think I bumped my elbow earlier in the day. Must be a bruise.

I set the alarm for 5 a.m., since I was planning on catching a 7 a.m. plane to JFK.

3 a.m.: I am awakened with shooting pains in that inflamed area around my elbow. And now it's more than just a red area -- it's become a little sack, which I assume is full of fluid.

5 a.m.: I decide to go to the emergency room. The doctor there, in his mid-30s, tells me he's in the 36th hour of a 36-hour shift. I think I see his eyes start to shut even as he tells me this. He tells me he'll never, ever, do such a shift like this again.

He looks at my elbow. He sticks a syringe in and draws out some fluid. It's clear. He says he imagines that it may become infected in the next 24 hours and that I'll probably come back and they'll drain it. He sends me home.

The pain in my elbow is getting worse. I decide not to go to New York (a decision, incidentally, that saved my life). About three weeks prior to this, I had fallen and bruised my leg. Since I've only been in L.A. since May, I called my cousin at that time and got the name of an orthopedist, who I saw.

He's the only M.D. I know in L.A., so I call his office to try and get him to see my inflamed elbow and me. He's out, I'm told, but a colleague of his, Dr. Shayfer, another orthopedic surgeon, can see me.

By the time I get to Shayfer's office, the pain is making me groggy. Soon, I throw up. I'm really beginning to lose it. Shayfer takes me to an emergency room at a hospital next door to his office.

Soon, I become incoherent. I don't know my name, I don't know where I am, I don't know nothin'. I am told later that Shayfer can't believe how I have deteriorated. The doc in charge of the emergency room (this is a different emergency room than where I had gone earlier that morning) thinks I might have a blood clot in my brain. My temperature is rising, reaching 103. They want to operate, but one of the docs thinks that with my high temperature and my incoherence that I might have a heart attack if they put me under. Shayfer overrides him, and says we've got to get into that elbow ASAP.

He has a sneaking suspicion it's necrotizing fasciitis. The other docs think the elbow is just some badly infected bursitis. Though only 34 years old, Shayfer has seen patients with necrotizing fasciitis twice before, once in Boston and the other time here in L.A.

So they quickly ice me -- to bring my temperature down -- and operate.

One of the doctors comes out of the operating room to speak to my wife, Susan, who was on pins and needles. It's very serious, he says. It's life-threatening. It's necrotizing fasciitis. "Or," he continues, "as it's more commonly known, the flesh-eating disease."

THE FLESH-EATING DISEASE!!??##!

Holy shit!

No, Susan didn't say that. And hell, I was deep in la-la land, in the operating room, so I didn't say it then either. But had I known at the time that's what I had, I'm sure that's what I would've said.

Because Dr. Shayfer was able to recognize the disease so quickly, he saved my life. Not only that, he saved my left arm -- not only do I still have the arm, I have its full functionality.

The way you treat the FLESH-EATING DISEASE, once you have it -- and you don't want to have it -- is very simple. It's a bacterium that is caused, strangely enough, by the same Group A streptococcus that causes strep throat. But once it gets under the skin, it goes nuts and starts destroying tissue. So it's treated by having some guy or gal with a scalpel and a (hopefully) steady hand cut the destroyed tissue out of your body. And he or she has to cut enough tissue to make sure the bacteria are cut out as well. And you just have to keep cutting and cutting until you get it all.

Which is why most of us poor slobs who get this sucker lose a limb, at best, and our lives, at worst. Speed is of the essence in limiting the damage here, and I was lucky.

Shayfer was speedy.

As I sat in the hospital, with my arm filleted -- wrapped and draining, I got a call from a buddy who works in the Industry. I told him what had happened to me.

"Oh, you've got the Diller," he said.

"What?"

"Oh yeah. Years ago, when Barry was at Fox, I heard someone there got this flesh-eating thing. Everyone said she got the Diller."

"You're putting me on."

At that moment his cellphone went dead, and I haven't been able to contact him since.

The next night, still in the hospital, I'm watching "Action" on FX. The series lasted about five seconds on Fox, but it's the funniest send-up of Hollywood TV has ever done. In one scene I'm watching that night, one of the characters goes to the hospital to tell a screenwriter who is almost comatose and in intensive care that much work needs to be done on his screenplay. When she tells him this his vital signs go all haywire, and she's screaming at him "Stay away from the light! Stay away from the light!" I thought it was hysterical. When, coincidentally, my sister-in-law asks me the next day if I had seen the light, all I could tell her was that I was so out of it at the time that I have no idea.

A few weeks ago the lotto here in California hit $87 million. From my hospital bed I gave my wife a bunch of numbers to play.

God works in mysterious ways. We struck out on the lotto. But I've been playing a lot of Candy Land with my 5-year-old son, Schuyler. And for the life of me, I can't lose. Schuyler would be one or two squares from King Kandy and zap! -- he'd draw the card that sent him all the way back to the Peppermint Forest, and I'd win. Or I'd be way behind, and then at the last minute draw the card that sent me way up to Princess Lolly -- while he was stuck at Gooey Gumdrops -- so I'd win again.

After about a dozen games over a week or so, Schuyler won't play Candy Land with me anymore.
I'm doing pretty good. Hell, I'm doing great. Shayfer took a chunk of skin outta my left thigh to graft onto my left arm, mostly around the elbow area. In no time both my thigh and arm will heal up, and my bout with the FLESH-EATING DISEASE will be but a memory. OK, a nightmarish one, at that, but I'll take it.

First thing I'm gonna do this morning when I get back to the office is call a friend of mine I know at Disney. "Hey Sid," I'll say, "how you been? I've been out for awhile. I had the Eisner. Yeah, you heard me ..."#


The End of Serendipity: Why Barnes & Noble's Closing of Its Store Across From Lincoln Center on New York's Upper West Side is a Bad Thing, Including Bad for TV and the Studios

Chuck Ross Posted September 3, 2010 at 7:02 AM

I lived in New York for much of the 1990s, on the Upper West Side. I still get to New York fairly often, including my old haunts on the Upper West Side.

When I lived there, I used to really enjoy going into Tower Records, which was pretty much where the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble is now, but across the street.

What was so great about a big brick and mortar specialist store like Tower, even after so much music became available online, was the serendipity factor.

Having a wide range of interest in music—I’m pretty much open to anything but opera—I spent countless hours at Tower flipping through various CD bins just looking for anything that might catch my fancy.

I didn’t need Tower to know about the latest CD by Springsteen or newest song from Madonna.

But there are any number of CDs that I picked up while browsing the bins that I would have never been exposed to, Pandora and the like notwithstanding.

Music such as “The Best of New Orleans Rhythm & Blues, Vol. 1, “Annie Ross’ Cool for Kids,” “Shoutin’ Swingin’ and Makin’ Love” with blues shouter Wynonie Harris and Jimmy Witherspoon, “Meet the Zombies!” and “Frank Sinatra with the Red Norvo Quintet Live in Australia, 1959.”

Once Tower closed, when I visited New York I often went to the Virgin Mega Music Store in Times Square to browse. Then it closed.

But, for the past 15 years, there’s always been the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble on West 66th and Broadway. It’s in the oddest shaped space, mostly vertical with numerous floors. The signature Barnes & Noble Café, with bunches of magazines and the store’s restrooms, is all the way on the top floor.

As you take the escalators up and up, you go by book display after book display. It’s on one of these book displays that I picked up one of the books that promised to explain Einstein to lay readers.

I think I have three of them now. Despite each of them garnering critical acclaim on their book jackets as perfect for my non-Einsteinian mind, and despite the fact that I actually thumbed through each one to see if I could undertand it, once I bought them and actually tried to read them, each one instantly confused me and I gave up on all of them.

I’m afraid the extent of my understanding of science is “The Big Bang Theory,” which I like a lot and think it’ll do fine when it moves to Thursdays this fall.

Speaking of TV shows, there are tons of them in the basement level at the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble. It was while browsing there that I picked up a copy of classic TV shows on a DVD from the Criterion Collection called “The Golden Age of Television,” with Paddy Chayefsky’s “Marty,” Rod Serling’s “Patterns,” and six other shows.

It’s for this serendipity shopping that this strangely shaped Barnes & Noble store is especially well-suited. The Barnes & Noble a few blocks north of Zabars on the Upper West Side has nothing of the Lincoln Center store’s charm.

According to what I read in Crain’s New York Business, my favorite Barnes & Noble--the Lincoln Center location--will close at the end of January, another victim of high rents.

It’s not good for all these megastores that feature books and movies and TV shows and music to keep closing. It’s killing the joy of serendipity; a joy that benefits the consumer, the retailer and the wholesaler.

Perfect example: On one of my trips to New York last year I spent some time browsing at the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble. I came across a copy of “The Big Sleep,” directed by Howard Hawks and starring Humphrey Bogart and his real-life lover and wife, Lauren Bacall.

It’s a movie I’ve seen numerous times. What caught my eye this time, however, was one of the special features on the DVD—a copy of the film that was different, that had been cut and actually previewed that didn’t include all the sparks between Bogart and Bacall and had about 20 minutes of different footage. This I had to see, so I bought it.

Not knowing that this other version of the film existed, it’s probably not something I’d ever run into online. That would have been a shame for me, for the retailer and for the studio that made the film, Warner Bros.

You can’t buy what you don’t know you want, or that you don’t know exists. That’s the value of the in-person serendipitous browse.

It’s like the schmooze. You just can’t do it properly online.#