Jun 18, 2015

Spring 1979: Captain Ernie and His First Mate

Back before Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel, Netflix, and DVDs, you got your dose of kids' tv in two places:

1. On a sugar-rush five hours of cartoons every Saturday morning.

2. Weekdays after school, on local kids' tv shows hosted by an army of clowns, hobos, cowboys, and pirates.

The Quad Cities was on the Mississippi River, so we had Captain Ernie's Cartoon Showboat.

The tall, commanding Captain Ernie (Ernie Mims) stood on the deck of the Dixie Belle, to announce Bugs Bunny and Hanna Barbara cartoons and Three Stooges shorts.  Then he opened his "Treasure Chest" and passed out prizes to the kids in the studio audience.

When I was in fourth grade, my boyfriend Bill and I were in the audience.  I got a plastic "pirate cape," and he got a cardboard sword.

The cartoons and prizes weren't the only attraction: Captain Ernie was cute, with squarish hands, a hairy chest, and a pleasant suggestion of muscle.

Sometimes he performed skits with his "First Mate," Sidney.

I didn't know what a "first mate" was, but it was obvious that Captain Ernie and Sidney lived together on the Dixie Belle, and neither had girlfriends or wives.  Obviously a gay couple!

I found out that they weren't really a couple in fourth grade: one of the kids in my class at Denkmann was Captain Ernie's nephew.  Turns out Ernie Mims had a wife and kids after all, and Sidney was just an intern, a student at the Palmer College of Chiropractic, up the street from WOC TV.

Still, many of the iconic moments of my childhood took place in front of Cartoon Showboat, or with Captain Ernie: a local celebrity, he appeared at the Celtic Festival, the Bix Beiderbecke Jazz Festival, the Pow Wow, the annual Christmas parade, and various ribbon-cuttings and supermarket openings.

During the 1970s, our first PBS station brought the competition of the kinder, gentler Mr. Roger's Neighborhood and frenetic but non-violent Sesame Street, and in 1974 Cartoon Showboat was cancelled.  By that time, I was in junior high, too old to watch.

Ernie Mims went on to become the weatherman.

The last time I saw him was in the spring of 1979, during my freshman year of college  I was working at the Carousel Snack Bar when Captain Ernie -- not in character -- came up and ordered an ice cream cone.

As I passed it to him, our hands touched.

I wanted to say "Thanks for a great childhood," but I played it cool.

Jun 17, 2015

Easter Island: Phallic Statues and Penis Festivals

If you thought Mongolia was remote for Westerners, try Easter Island (aka Rapa Nui).  From New York, you fly to Miami, then to Panama City, and finally to Santiago, Chile (about 24 hours).  From there, only one airline flies to the town of Hanga Roa on Rapa Nui, once a day (about 6 hours).

It's a tiny island, about 15 miles long and 8 miles wide, alone in the Pacific Ocean, probably settled from the Marquesas Islands, 2000 miles away.

Once the early Polynesians got there, they became very interested in the penis.

1. Most Rapa Nui men incorporated the word Ure, "Penis," into their names, but in the 19th century Christian missionaries put an end to the practice.

2. The Moai, "Easter Island Heads," are actually complete torsos, over 800 of them, 20-30 feet high, weighing over 80 tons, sculpted and installed over a period of 300 years (1200-1500 AD).  They took so much time and energy that the islanders had little time left for other pursuits, and so many trees were felled to facilitate transport that the island is now almost entirely treeless.

The noses of the figures have often been interpreted as phallic symbols.  Indeed, some scholars interpret the Moai themselves as giant phallic symbols, representing the sexual potency of the Rapa Nui men. There's a legend still common on the island that a penis served as the model.

3. Rongo Rongo, the Easter Island script, appears on dozens of tablets and ceremonial objects.  By the time the Europeans arrived, no islander remembered how to read it, and it remains untranslated.  But at least one of the glyphs is called "Tangata Ure Huki" "Man with Erect Penis"

4. The Tapati Fesival, held every year during the first two weeks of February, is a celebration of the island's history, culture, and penises.  There are parades, dances, athletic contests like haka pei (sliding down a mountainside on a tree trunk), and a race called the Tau'a Rapa Nui: men wearing only skimpy loincloths race through town carrying bunches of phallic-symbol bananas.

See also: The Beefcake Festival of the Andes.

Jun 14, 2015

William Smith: the Bodybuilder of Laredo

Before Arnold Schwarzenegger gave the bodybuilder a human face, there were two kinds of roles available for him: Italian sword-and-sandal, and American beach bunny, an object of ridicule, vain, silly, sexless.  How dare he try to transform his body into a work of art! Women's bodies were made to be looked at, men's to be ignored.  So bodybuilders who weren't playing beach narcissists had to keep their physiques under wraps.

William Smith worked to change all that.

Born in 1933, Smith graduated from UCLA magna cum laude, and was teaching Russian (one of several languages he spoke fluently), when he began modeling for Bob Mizner's Athletic Model Guild, which published  many other posing-strap-clad hunks (Gary Conway, Glen Corbett, Randy Jackson) for a mostly-gay male fanbase.  He was also a regular at Henry Willson's infamous gay-and-gay-friendly parties.

He was also acting intermittently, with roles in projects as diverse as Meet Me in St. Louis, The Boy with Green Hair, Wagon Train, and The Nutty Professor.  

When he signed on for Laredo (1965-67), he was already accustomed to presenting his body as an object of male and female desire.  It would not be one of the stereotypic Westerns of the period.

1. Other Western heroes were loners, or had unattractive, sexually unavailable sidekicks, but Laredo, like Alias Smith and Jones a few years later, was about buddy-bonding.  Two hunky Texas rangers, Chad Cooper (Peter Brown) and Joe Riley (William Smith), worked together, played together, and had eyes only for each other, in spite of Chad's occasional dalliance with the feminine.  The actors remained close friends for the rest of their lives.

2. Other Western heroes were often displayed nude or shirtless in movie magazines, but almost never on screen, especially if they were bodybuilders.  But Joe Riley had his shirt ripped off in practically every episode.  Usually when he was captured by the bad guys, to give him some vulnerability, so his massive physique wouldn't scare the audience.

After Laredo, Smith continued to work in Westerns (Daniel Boone, Death Valley Days, The Virginian) until the genre faded away in the 1970s, and then in cop shows and mysteries.  He had big hits in Rich Man, Poor Man (1976) as the villainous Falconetti, and in Conan the Barbarian (1982) as Conan's father.

His most recent project, Tiger Cage (2012), comes after nearly 300 movie and tv show appearances over a period of 70 years, not to mention producing, directing, bodybuilding, boxing, and even writing poetry.  But few of his accomplishments can match the simple power of demonstrating to the world that the male body can be a thing of beauty.

See also: Peter Brown, the Buddy-Bonding Cowboy.

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