Tuesday, November 30, 2010

At The Judges' Table On "Desert Diamond Lucky Break"

I think it has been about eight or nine years since I last set foot in the Desert Diamond Casino on Nogales Highway. That was back when it was not much more than a bingo hall and a small casino, when it didn't have a lush hotel or nightclub, or a grand entrance with token specimens of Tohono O'Odham culture to remind us the Native American nation that built all this once lived in more primitive settings.

I'm here to be one of the judges on “Lucky Break,” a local version of “American Idol” taped at the casino's Monsoon nightclub. I wander past row after row of video slot machines and gray-haired people stabbing their fingers down on buttons. The beeping from each machine spinning reels blends together into a gigantic drone. Cigarette smoke hangs in the air, a reminder this is one of the few public places where you can still light up indoors.

It's at least 45 minutes before tape time when I arrive, but the line to get in is already snaking well outside the door. Each singer has their own fan club, and each fan club has their own signs. I walk up to a woman who's assisting one of the contestants. After she finishes the conversation, I tell her I'm here to judge.

“Great!” she explains, identifying herself as one of the show producers and quickly showing me inside. She notices I'm dressed in a dark suit with a bow tie, giving me a faux tux. Under one arm is my trademark tricorn hat, something I hope they will let me wear on camera.

“I brought it along tonight because I used to wear it when I sang karaoke,” I tell her. “I hope it will inspire people.”

Those were my scoundrel days, the days when when I produced weekend newscasts at KOLD and we'd hit our favorite bar after Sunday's 10pm show. One of the anchors and at least a few crew members would down adult beverages and belt out bad renditions of country standards and a few rockers. Then I'd take the mic, and people looked up from their booze and smokes. This guy could sing -- well. And he performed. He knew the words. He had a few moves.

I had a broad repertoire, running from rock to soul. Earth, Wind And Fire's “September” was my very first song on the first weekend of January, 2000. I did Lionel Richie's “Easy” and Dire Straits' “Money For Nothing.” I had enough falsetto to handle Prince's “Kiss” but enough growl for Dr. Hook's “Cover Of The Rolling Stone.” My version of James Brown's “Get Up” brought down the house, but the one song people wanted to hear again was AC/DC's “Dirty Deeds.”

I'm not Bon Scott, but one of my colleagues swears I have his voice. It's this evil whine, like the Wicked Witch of the West with a hormone imbalance, and I could wrap my throat around it without straining myself, save for a grunting shout at the very end. One occasion, I bellowed so heavily I threw out my back in front of half the station during someone else's going-away party. I had to lie down on couple of aging chairs hoping the pain would subside as I held onto my crown –- that three-cornered hat, the one I wore because it made people happy, even if they called it a pirate hat instead of a patriot hat. That was all before I Got Right With GOD and found other things to lift me up besides a bottle of Mike's Hard Lemonade followed by a chorus of the Staple Singers' “Respect Yourself.”

One hour before showtime, I'm sipping on a straight Pepsi, wandering about the showroom as crew members prepare the stage and check cameras while the contestants get their briefing and publicity shots. I'm told I will actually be judging two shows tonight, something a co-worker advised me could happen, so I've brought a change of clothes for the second taping.

I also learn I'm judging one of the semi-final rounds, meaning all the singers I'm about to hear already won earlier contests. The scoring for these episodes will be kept secret: judges will offer commentary to each singer but not reveal the 1 to 7 point figure they've written down next to each contestant. Each of the three judges' scorecards will be added to a master sheet, just like in a boxing match. Out of the eight or nine contestants we're going to hear in the first episode, at least half will advance to the next round.

Another judge arrives: the head chef from the casino's fine dining establishment. He's worked a long day, but he's one of the regular judges, and he's eager to get in the game.

“I'd wear my chef hat,” he says upon noticing my tricorn, “but then I'd just look like all the other chefs.”

Soon I'm joined by my other colleague: Mike, a personality from the local country music station, which is also supplying the hosts: Max and Shannon. The producer has told them about the hat, but not the reason I'm wearing it. Max would have to deduce that during the judges' opening statements.

“I'm looking for somebody who's going to connect with the audience and who's really gonna sell that song and win it,” I say after briefly explaining my tricorn's karaoke heritage.

The first singer goes on for two-and-a-half minutes, and she nails her record, a rockin' country hit. I'm second in line to offer commentary behind Mike.

“Boy, it's hard being first out of the gate,” I tell her.

She hopefully can't see I'm a touch nervous. I have never judged a talent competition in my life, and even though I've volunteered for this, just before tape rolled, I prayed to GOD for the wisdom to get through it. I'm also having to crane my neck down towards the microphone on the judges' table. During sound check, the production folks told me I needed to get my mouth closer to it while also projecting a lot more. I feel like they want me to both shout into the mic and eat it. How that makes for quality audio is beyond me.

“You were hitting your marks perfectly,” I critique. “As they said in Colonial times, HUZZAH!” I tip my hat.

Cheers rip through the packed Monsoon nightclub. Max remarks it's becoming more obvious why I'm wearing the hat. Later, he'll remark that he keeps expecting the British to show up, but he passes on a chance to compare me to Paul Revere and The Raiders.

With that first contestant out of the way, I settle into a comfortable routine: a singer comes on, I scribble down notes and a possible one-liner during the first thirty seconds of the performance. It's tough on the performers, and twice as tough on me. The contestants know the words. I have to make mine up as I go along, and there's not a bad singer in the bunch. I have already resolved many weeks before that I don't want to be a Simon. I can't simply say, “nice voice, nice moves, nice performance” every time. I'm not seeing much to criticize, and at this stage of the competition, I shouldn't. I don't want to nitpick, but I don't want to overlook flaws or slough off constructive comments.

An older gentleman dressed in a sharp suit comes on and does Sinatra's “Fly Me To The Moon” with the kinds of spin moves Frank wouldn't have dreamed of doing. The crowd laps it up. This guy gets a 7 -- no questions asked. Mike says all he needs is the cocktail and a cigarette.

“Can you take me to Mars and Venus, too? Can you take this whole room with you?" I comment. "I close my eyes and I hear Ol' Blue Eyes!”

One lady did a tune by Selena, and I had flashbacks to my Rio Grande Valley days. “You got that cumbia thing down,” I say. “Muy bien! Viva!”

I'll give out plenty more Huzzahs before the night is over and get a few cracks about the tricorn.

“Nice hat,” I say to a contestant donning a cowboy topper.

“I wish I could return the comment,” he kids back.

“Ooooo,” I grimace, laying my head down on the desk in feigned disgust. “What's the lowest score I can give?” Great television.

Between the first and second shows, people come over to gush on my judging abilities. I can't believe it. I don't think I'm a star, even if I'm trying harder to show personality. If anything, I'm afraid of stealing the show.

I change into a blue button-down shirt, no tie, no jacket. But the tricorn stays, and so do my zingers.

“Hold on,” I say with my Blackberry up to my ear after one woman's rendition of Aretha Franklin's “Natural Woman.” “The Queen of Soul called and just made you a princess!”

“Mullet,” a personality from K-HIT in Tucson, is amazed with my performance. Mike is back for the second show as the third judge, with Chef heading home after a long day.

The final performer of the second show actually gets to do her song twice. A buzz in the audio forces a re-take. Our producer asks us to clear our minds and focus only on the second performance, but it doesn't matter. She's as good, if not better, the second time around, and either way, she gets high marks for her version of Oleta Adams' “Get Here.”

I don't give anybody below a 5, which makes sense since we're in the semi-finals. I don't think I'd want to be the judge for the final.

The taping wraps up around 11, and just in time. I race to the bathroom after downing two bottles of water throughout the contest.

Shannon from KIIM comes over and is ecstatic. “You were so flippin' funny!” Everybody on the production staff I meet with wants me back. I tell them I want to be back, only I have to see what our general manager wants to do.

After a lot of compliments and hob-nobbing, I walk out the door and was approched by an elderly man who called himself “Blackie The Blues Man.” He's from Chicago, and he looks the part: porkpie hat, white goatee, light brown suit and pants. For the next five minutes, we talk about our musical backgrounds, and he admires my judging abilities.

I can hardly hear him over the din of the slot machines, but I stand fascinated by how he seems to have enough life in him for at least two people. His voice is low and gravelly, one of somebody who's paid their dues and been all over the place. He is a man of GOD, and I can tell it. I don't know why he takes such a keen interest in me, but I have a few good guesses.

Friday, November 26, 2010

"You Shall Enjoy Yourself Tonight, Mr. Ebenezer, That Is An Order!"

The 1984 version of A Christmas Carol is one of my favorite versions of the Dickens classic -- the other being the Alastair Sim version. George C. Scott is cranky and miserly to the hilt. I remember watching this two years in a row when it was originally broadcast on CBS (and sponsored by IBM, which showed off its PS/2 line of computers).

Here's a lively scene, in honour of tomorrow night's Victorian Christmas Ball:

I love the Regency fashion... and the breeches... and the dancing.

"How long since you've danced, Ebenezer?"

"A waste of time, dancing."

"You didn't think so then."

"There was a reason then."

There still is.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

To Grandmother's House We Go

In the days of my youth, Thanksgiving dinner rotated amongst my parents and my relatives. One year, Mom and Dad would do the cooking, or Grandma and Grandpa Francis, or Uncle Bob and Aunt Judy, or Grandma and Grandpa Lawson. We had the Norman Rockwell family tree, and we still do: no dysfunctional relatives or people we couldn't stand to be around. If we did, Mom and Dad did a darn good job of hiding them from me all those years. That alone is enough to be thankful.

When my folks hosted, the table nearly filled the entire dining room. We had just enough space to sit down, especially with the china cabinet behind one side. Forget getting up for seconds. The bun warmer always sat on that cabinet, hopefully next to somebody with good aim.

"Hey, throw me a roll!"

We kidded Uncle Bob about how he downed mashed potatoes. But nobody was immune to indulgence. I once asked Grandpa what a "glutton" was. He said to ask my father. Grandma Francis made the best cranberry ice. It coated your mouth in richness. Mom still makes it, with her recipe. We always had plenty of pie.

One year, as I approached legal drinking age, Mom let me have a few shots of cranberry liqueur. It tasted just like Ocean Spray. Several hours later, I was in the throne room kneeling before the porcelain altar. I never figured out if I was sick drunk, or just sick. Maybe it was food poisoning. Whatever it was, I needed Compazine, that miracle drug that turns off nausea like a switch.

We had traditional pre- and post-meal rituals: watching football on the tube, digging through the Kansas City Star to see what the Jones Store Company had on sale tomorrow, putting our Christmas lists together. Dad's side of the family developed the lottery system for Christmas, where we drew names to determine who was playing Santa for whom. It cut down on the expense and grind of the holidays.

I haven't been home for Thanksgiving in more than 15 years. All my grandparents are gone. Turkey Day will find me stacking a newscast instead of a plate, but I can treasure the memories. And after the shows are done, you will see a person dressed in Puritan clothing gobbling up turkey sandwiches at a Tucson-area Denny's. While some traditions end, others endure.

Mr. Fezziwig Gets Reel

Read A Christmas Carol and you'll see a mention of "Sir Roger de Coverley," which is a Virginia Reel minus the reeling part. Couples "lace the boot" instead.

But not these lively dancers at the 2009 Fezziwig Ball during the Riverside Dickens Festival:

And that's how we'll do it at Saturday's Victorian Christmas Ball!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Glad Tidings

The following carol is brought to you in honor of the Victorian Christmas Ball this weekend!

Gray Thursday

Not too long ago, Thanksgiving was for giving thanks, and the Friday after was for hitting the stores.

But now with the Great Recession leaving us in various states of either joblessness or desperation, the old rules are gone. Kmart, Sears, and other national retailers will be open on Turkey Day. That feast will just have to wait for thousands of shoppers and thousands of store employees who will be waiting on them -- people who are thankful to have a job in spite of their bitterness of pulling holiday duty.

Truth be told, a lot of workers have always had to rearrange feast day around their job life: police officers, firefighters, hospital workers, doctors, journalists, and yes, television news producers. Your humble servant has fond memories of Thanksgiving at Whataburger instead of with family.

In the matter of disposable income, however, we have choices. We also have time. Twenty-eight days sit between Thanksgiving and Christmas, more than enough available moments to buy and give and imbibe our consumer desires. You will miss a few doorbuster deals, but if you're spending time with the people you love breaking bread and remembering all GOD has done for you, it's worth it.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

That's No Joke

Fox News chief Roger Ailes doesn't seem to mind when Bill O'Reilly makes a crack about decapitation, especially when it happens to people he doesn't like.

As Howard Kurtz reports in The Daily Beast:
I asked Ailes about a recent crack by Bill O’Reilly that seemed to envision a violent end for Dana Milbank. The Washington Post columnist had criticized Fox’s election coverage as biased and neglected to acknowledge that numerous Democrats had appeared as commentators.

“Does Sharia law say we can behead Dana Milbank?” O’Reilly asked his colleague Megyn Kelly. He added: “That was a joke for you Media Matters people out there.” Milbank wrote a follow-up column objecting to the violent imagery, saying he was a friend of Daniel Pearl, who was murdered in that fashion in Pakistan. O'Reilly then accused the reporter of casting a bit of humor as a serious threat.

So should O’Reilly be joshing about beheading Milbank?

Ailes couldn’t resist: “Well, I would have cut a little lower.”

He quickly got serious: “No, he shouldn’t joke about beheading… Bill knows he probably shouldn’t have said it. He just shot off his mouth.”
Hardee har-har. Very funny.

Of course Bill "knows" he shouldn't say it. He knows he shouldn't say a lot of things, but yet he says them anyway because they draw viewers and make angry conservatives happy. It's a page right out of Rush Limbaugh's playbook: yank the media's chain, especially media critics' chain, then sort-of-apologize or complain about the media later if it goes too far.

Now compare this incident with a Twitter comment from British barrister Gareth Compton about a muslim journalist: "Can someone please stone Yasmin ­Alibhai-Brown to death? I shan’t tell Amnesty if you don’t. It would be a blessing really."

Compton was arrested for what he later called an "ill-conceived attempt at humour."

It's not funny. It shouldn't be. But I don't expect Ailes or O'Reilly to get a reprimand. They should be thanking GOD Americans love their liberties, even if Sen. Jay Rockefeller wishes Fox News would go away.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Reel To Reel: Secretariat

Betting to win... no "place" in this "show."

Going Rate: Worth full price admission.
Starring: Diane Lane, John Malkovich
Rated: PG
Red Flags: Mild Language

Again, I'm catching up on movies I've been meaning to review but haven't.

Everyone loves a winner, so the cliche goes. It's not hard to understand why a powerhouse chestnut colt captivated a nation in 1973, even before this sensational 31-length win at the Belmont Stakes that cemented Secretariat as the greatest race horse of all time:

Secretariat, however, is not a horse story any more than Titanic is a boat story. It is the true story of a woman, Penny Chenery (Lane), who knows little about horse breeding but is tough and focused enough to pursue a goal to the end, especially in a field dominated by men.

Chenery takes over her father's suffering horse farm in Virginia, partially uprooting herself from her family in Colorado. She quickly figures out what's hurting the operation and begins to make changes, dismissing a double-dealing trainer and learning the secrets of successful breeding. Secretariat (played by several different horses) comes Chenery's way via a coin toss as part of a breeding agreement. She's on the losing side of the flip, but we learn it's exactly what she wants. Secretariat amazes nearly from birth, getting to his feet surprisingly quickly.

Looking for an ace trainer, Chenery recruits French-Canadian Lucien Laurin (Malkovich). He is trying to retire, if only he can get his golf swing right. All the training in the world, however, can't guarantee money -- or victories -- which is what those around Mrs. Chenery insist. Her father's farm slides deeper into financial difficulty, but Secretariat's owner knows she's got a sure bet. The Colorado housewife's decisions lead to friction in her marriage, but the movie does not harp on them. Why should it? Victory is just down the stretch. Furthermore, Lane's character has no time for melodrama. Strong women aren't sucked into that.

The film's racing sequences are amazingly intense and accurately recreated, partially shot with small digital cameras that allow us to go along for the ride. Director Randall Wallace, however, opts to let us see one via the actual TV footage, cutting us in on what Americans saw in 1973 and sidestepping a risk of monotony.

Secretariat is one of those films where you know the ending before the first frame, so the journey better be good. It is, but not in the conventional sports-movie way. The roller coaster of triumphs and setbacks is there but not involving its principal character, who just loves to run.

ESPN ranked Secretariat 35th on its list of the 100 greatest athletes of the 20th Century. When he died in 1989, a necropsy found his heart to be two-and-a-half times as large as the average horse, meaning it performed better and more efficiently than his competitors. "He is moving like a tremendous machine!" called broadcaster Chic Anderson during the Belmont Stakes. How true he was.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

My Vote, My Voice, My Secret

Some people think transparency is the fix-all, cure-all for the problems we're having in government. No more dirty little secrets. No more cover-ups. No more lies. That's the operating thesis behind WikiLeaks, which is proving there's a good reason some secrets remain secret.

I hear the same cure-all being proposed to fix journalism. Rather than strive for total objectivity -- which is impossible given human nature -- let's just make reporters reveal their political leanings and get on with it. The cards are then on the table, and you can't accuse anybody of bluffing.

But Jeff Jarvis of BuzzMachine -- an excellent media blog -- proposes taking this into uncomfortable new territory:
And I agree with Matt Welch that news organizations should reveal the votes of their staffs. When I retweeted that thought, some tweeters twitted me, saying that keeping one’s vote confidential is a right. Yes. They should not be forced out. But self-respecting journalists should consider it an obligation to be transparent. Self-respecting news organizations should be honest with their communities and reveal the aggregate perspectives of their staffs. It’s relevant.
Yes, it is relevant. But requiring journalists to start curtailing or sacrificing rights for the good of the profession sets a dangerous precedent. Likewise, we should not think less of those journalists who keep their votes secret -- as is their right. No journalist should developing a guilt complex over failing to give up that right.

Furthermore, I don't know where we would draw the line. It seems silly to hold bloggers to the same disclosure standards as the network folks. I don't know if the guy who does the garden segment at noon has to disclose he voted for McCain. I find something inherently creepy about flashing "Voted Republican" or "Voted Democrat" underneath every TV reporter's name.

I think the people who desire this the most are the people who love taking shots at Big Media. They want more ammunition. They want more reasons for us to shoot the messenger and defect our eyes and ears towards more partisan news sources. Taking the away the claim of bias through transparency won't help. The argument will now read, "Why should you trust those [Democrats/Republicans/Tea Partiers/Socialists] over at [news organization]? Trust US instead?"

Transparency isn't the wonder drug. Just like any medication, there's a risk of overdose.

Friday, November 5, 2010

We Didn't Mean For You To Be That Opinionated

MSNBC "Countdown" host Keith Olbermann is on suspension after Politico found he donated to three Democratic candidates, including Southern Arizona's Raul Grijalva and Gabrielle Giffords.

NBC News policy, as quoted by Politico, says:
"Anyone working for NBC News who takes part in civic or other outside activities may find that these activities jeopardize his or her standing as an impartial journalist because they may create the appearance of a conflict of interest. Such activities may include participation in or contributions to political campaigns or groups that espouse controversial positions. You should report any such potential conflicts in advance to, and obtain prior approval of, the president of NBC News or his designee."
This makes sense for reporters, but Olbermann is not an "impartial journalist" -- he's a commentator. He's paid to be un-impartial, and his stance is no secret to anybody. In fact, he's pumped up MSNBC's ratings with his left-leaning show. Still, the peacock acts like Olbermann committed a capital sin after finding out his money followed his mouth. Gasp! A liberal supporting liberals!

"I did not privately or publicly encourage anyone else to donate to these campaigns, nor to any others in this election or any previous ones, nor have I previously donated to any political campaign at any level," Olbermann told Politico. If he had, then we have more of a ethical dilemma, given the host would be crossing the line from commentary into campaigning.

Olbermann spent private money spent on private time for people we would expect him to support. The only people who should be surprised are those who demand all talk-show hosts turn in their citizenship cards.

UPDATE: Upon his return, Olbermann says NBC's policy towards political donations needs debate. Jeff Jarvis of BuzzMachine argues more transparency is needed -- even going as far to reveal how journalists vote!

Post-Partum Election 2010

Thousands of early and provisional ballots still await the counter's hand, and some races are still too close to call, but I'll go ahead and put on my amateur pundit hat.

Probation Revoked. It took only four years for Democrats to lose control of Congress. That was after Republicans held it for 12. And so it continues: the partisan oscillation fomented by an electorate that runs to the opposition party every time they're stiffed by the one in power. The Dems were on probation the minute they took the gavel. Now they're back in the pokey. The GOP will be there, too, if it doesn't deliver.

I don't mean to discourage anybody from holding our elected officials to the fire; that's what we're here to do. Yet the back-and-forth over less than two decades has me a bit concerned about the future of our two-party system. I saw a t-shirt the other day that expressed it a little more bluntly: "The more I see of people, the more I love my dog."

From The Top. The Dems can lay most of their suffering at the feet of the commander-in-chief. President Obama overestimated his political capital from the start, ramming through a bloated stimulus package and flawed health care plan. Now he's facing a Republican house and a barely Democratic senate. Whatever agenda he had for the rest of his first term, he can throw it in the trash.

The president offers a mia culpa on Sunday's "60 Minutes," admitting he was so focused on legislation, he forgot about leadership.

As for his plans to make amends with Republicans... wait, is that snide laughter I hear?

By A Nose (or, A Mustache). I secretly predicted Rep. Raul Grijalva would win a squeaker after his hissy-fit call for a boycott of Arizona following the signing of SB1070. Sure enough, he ended up in a tight race with Ruth McClung. As of this writing, the AP and MSNBC are calling the election for him. A 12th-hour loss is still possible but not trending that way.

Given the trend holds, Grijalva has one of two interpretations before him:
1) It's time to make amends and start listening to the people who nearly booted him out.
2) The base saved his behind and he owes them, much the same way Sen. Russell Pearce says Gov. Jan Brewer owes him.

The books are now open for bets on which option Grijalva chooses. My money is on #2, given that Grijalva went ahead and declared victory on Election Night.

Red State Blues. With their ranks continuing to dwindle in the state legislature, it won't be long before Arizona Democratic lawmakers end up on the Endangered Species list. The GOP picked up three seats in the Senate, giving them 21 out of 30 -- a two-thirds majority. In the state House, they'll hold at least 37 out of 60 seats.

Perhaps the state Democratic honchos are considering a statement like this:
Dear Electorate,

We realize most of you consider us a dadgum nuisance rather than the loyal opposition, but allow us to remind you that a healthy democracy requires people willing to hold others accountable. In the months to come, we expect to see a lot of bills come down the pipe ranging from sensible to guano insane, and there will be times when our conscience forces us to speak. You won't like our words, but we kindly ask that you at least hear us out before you vote us out.

If the above does not agree with your persuasions, we are currently examining a large plot of land in rural Montana.

Arizona Democrats
Take This Tax And Shove It! On the local level, Tucsonans thunderously rejected Proposition 400, which would have hiked the city sales tax a half-cent to pay for core services like police and fire protection. For months, TPD and TFD warned of layoffs and cuts. Now the voters are saying, "Go cut yourself!" We'll see if any dire predictions of a lawless city come to fruition.

Prop 401 also tanked. It would've changed the city charter to give the mayor more voting power and raised council salaries, among other things. Do you get the feeling we have a large slice of local citizenry eager to pay our leaders 25 cents a day and feed them dog food for what they've done to the budget?

You Can't Win 'Em All. The Tea Party proved it can't be ignored, but among its victories on Election Night, a glaring loss stands out. In Maryland, Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell found a certain body part handed to her by Democrat Chris Coons. The GOP brass warned she was no match for Coons, even with her primary victory and the tide turning against the Dems, and they didn't endorse her.

We can go back and forth over whether that lack of support doomed her, but you can't ignore this: she may not be a witch, but a big loss after a big win is certainly a word that rhymes with it.

And In Closing... How many of you would have voted for the Libertarian candidates if they had bothered to run TV ads? How many of you even knew they were on the ballot before you saw their lines underneath the R's and D's?

We have a lot of people in America who are spitting on both parties right now. You would think this would be the time for the LBT's to capitalize on it and get their alternatives out there. Yet once again, they are comfortable being the protest party instead of playing to win.