Sep 5, 2015

Watching Monty Python's Flying Circus

When PBS came to Rock Island in the 1970s, it brought us a full-fledged British invasion. Sitcoms (Father Dear Father, Good Neighbors), science fiction (The Prisoner, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), costume drama (Upstairs Downstairs) -- and since they were on PBS, they were all educational, approved even by teachers who derided all other tv as "mindless trash."

Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969-74) was the most bizarre of the lot.  Ostensibly a comedy-sketch show with a regular troupe of performers, like Saturday Night Live, it had sketches that bled into other sketches, or stopped halfway through, weird semi-animated characters commenting on the action, visual puns, in-jokes, moments of sudden chaos.  In Britain, there were antecedents in The Goon Show  and This Was the Week That Was, but in America we had never seen anything like it.

And we loved it.  We repeated catch phrases over and over (I still use "Nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more!").

We discussed the inner significance of sketches with the zeal of literature scholars.

We sang "The Lumberjack Song" and "Spam!"

We went to the movies, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979).

In retrospect, we didn't like Monty Python very often.  Many sketches were incomprehensible, too bizarre, too busy savaging British programming conventions that we had never heard of.  And why are men in drag portraying elderly women with Yorkshire accents by definition hilarious?

But some of the sketches were -- and still are --anarchic gems.

Dead Parrot ("This is an ex-parrot!")

Hungarian Translation ("My hovercraft is full of eels.")

Nudge Nudge Wink Wink ("Is your wife...into photographs?")

Spam ("No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!")

There was a fair amount of nudity, many more exposed chests and abs than you would ever see on American tv.  Eric Idle (left) was particularly likely to be displayed in the altogether.

And, surprisingly for the 1970s, there were no swishy stereotyped gay characters, After Graham Chapman came out to the other troupe members in 1967, they were careful to avoid overt stereotyping of gay men, although their distaste for transvestism is often apparent.

In fact, a number of sketches skewered homophobia, as when one character suspects that another is a "poof," and casually shoots him.  Or a "Prejudice Game," in which anti-gay prejudice is placed on equal footing with racial and religious prejudice -- revolutionary in the 1970s.

See also: Saturday Night Live.

Sep 3, 2015

Rock Island Boxers: Home Town Beefcake Watching

When I was growing up in Rock Island, I thought of it as a sleepy, boring small town.  The action was in Chicago, but that was three hours away, an infinite distance when you didn't have a car and had to be home by 9:00 on school nights.

But during the Jazz Age, Rock Island was a little Chicago, known for its hooch bars, prostitution, gangsters, gambling -- and boxing, giving the boys of the era ample opportunities for beefcake and bulge-watching.

This bulgeworthy number is Sammy Mandell (1904-1967), acclaimed as the 13th greatest boxer who ever lived. Born Salverio Mandala in Sicily, he moved to Rock Island as a child.  In 1921, at the age of 15, he joined the army, and was stationed in Rockford.  Although just 5'6", he won every boxing and wrestling match he was in.  

He had his first professional match that year, in Aurora, Illinois, against established boxer Memphis Pal Moore.  He won easily.

For the next 10 years, he won 143 of 190 fights.  He called himself the Rockford Flash, but fans called him the Rockford Sheik, because his sultry good looks were reminiscent of silent-film star Rudolph Valentino.

After he retired, he returned to Rockford, and opened the Pioneer Athletic Club.

Mike Dundee was born Michael D. Posateri in Italy in 1900.  He moved with his parents to Rock Island in 1915, and had his first fight in 1917.  At 5'4", he became a featherweight champion.

Gangster Al Capone managed his career for awhile: "I've always liked Mike," he said, "Both as a fighter and a man."

Ernest Hemingway said "The Little Blond bastard is built like a brick slaughterhouse."
He lost only 14 of 159 matches during the next 14 years.

I haven't been able to find out much about his later life, mainly due to the unfortunate coincidence of "Mike Dundee" also being the protagonist of the Crocodile Dundee movie.  But there's no wife and kids listed in the record.

Rock Island's reputation as a boxing capital lasted through the 1930s and 1940s.  This bulgeworthy lightweight is Tommy Campbell (1920-1969), known as the Chocolate Ice Cube, born in Kansas City but raised in Rock Island.  His professional career lasted for only six years, but during that time he won 350 of 443 fights, many by knockout.

After he retired in 1951, he opened the Davenport Athletic Club, and mentored two generations of kids. In high school, my friend Aaron and I used to go there on Sunday afternoons for beefcake-watching.

Boxing is still a passion among the young people of Rock Island.  The Rock Island Boxing Club on 2nd Avenue has been producing Silver Gloves champions (age 10-15) for 23 years.

See also: John Looney, the Gay Gangster of Rock Island; and a Nude Party with the Golden Boy.

Aug 31, 2015

My Babysitter's a Vampire

When you're a gay kid, the adults want desperately to believe that you don't exist, and they'll try their hardest to make you believe it, too. So the tv programs, movies, books, comics, and toys that the adults produce for you will proclaim it, loudly and incessantly.

The Disney Channel program My Babysitter's a Vampire (2011-) tows the heterosexist party line: every boy drools and pants over attractive girls, every girl moans with longing over attractive boys.  Conversations constantly return to "Do you think that girl's hot?  Or that one?  Or that one?"

But like many Disney Channel programs, from Even Stevens to The Wizards of Waverly Place, there are plenty of subtexts if you know what to look for.

The title is misleading; the vampire Sarah (Vanessa Morgan) is actually hired to babysit the baby sister of nerdish Ethan (Matthew Knight, left).

But then she discovers that he is a Seer, able to have visions of paranormal disruptions.  Not only that, his best buddy Benny (Atticus Mitchell) is a witch (aka a spellmaster).

Soon they become a paranormal investigation team, assisted by two other teenage vampires, Rory (Cameron Kennedy) and Erica (Katey Todd).  There's a lot of paranormal disruption going on:

A pack of demonic dogs is unleashed
A demonic doll sucks the life energy out of mortals
A demonic scout leader tries to kidnap all of the town's children
There are werewolves, zombies, mummies, Frankenstein monsters
And a gang of evil vampires.

Defeating the baddie of the week leaves little time for romance, so the "Do you think that girl's hot?" interrogations become merely window-dressing.  The most intimate emotional -- and physical bonds come between Ethan-Benny and Sarah-Erica, who often split up to investigate separately.

Not to mention the gay symbolism of the vampire, noticed by scholars as long ago as Dark Shadows: the vampire's bite is a type of sexual congress, and the teenage boy vampires who populate Whitechapel don't even try to hide the homoerotic portent of their desire.

And the constant beefcake.  Who knew that vampires take off their shirts all the time, or re-morph from weird transformations completely nude?


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