Saturday, March 31, 2018

Frank Avruch, 1928-2018, R.I.P.


It's been quite a while -- two months, actually -- since I've done one of my celebrity tribute posts. There are several reasons for that, although it's certainly not because no one of note has passed away during that time...

But I digress.

Boston television personality Frank Avruch recently died after a long battle with heart disease. He was eighty-nine.

Avruch was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts, of Russian-Jewish background, and was closely associated with Boston's Channel 5, which was WHDH-TV until March 18th, 1972, and WCVB-TV after that.

A publicity photo of Frank Avruch in the 1960s.

(By the way, if you're unfamiliar with Frank, his last name is pronounced "Av-ROOSH." The name is a Hebrew name and was originally pronounced with that "ch" that sounds like someone is clearing their throat. He "softened" it when he decided to use his real name rather than "Frank Stevens," which he used at the very start of his broadcasting career.)

Frank Avruch's passing has made the national news due to his 1959-1970 stint as TV's Bozo the Clown. Bozo was a franchised character, meaning that many different TV stations across the country had their own actors playing Bozo, but Larry Harmon, who owned the rights to the character from 1956 on, syndicated the Boston Bozo program to TV markets which didn't have their own Bozo. Avruch also became UNICEF's international "ambassador" during the 1960s.





(By the way, if you ever hear or read that Larry Harmon created the character of Bozo -- a claim that Harmon himself often made -- that's just not true. Bozo was created in the 1940s by Alan W. Livingston for Capitol Records. Bozo was originally portrayed by Pinto Colvig, known for voicing Disney characters such as Pluto and Goofy, among others.)

Pinto Colvig as Bozo in 1948.

I've seen the following photo all over the internet, but I first saw it in a book called Four All the Years, which was released in 1983 to commemorate the 35th anniversary of Channel 4, WBZ-TV, a Boston television station which was an NBC affiliate during my youth. The caption for the photo erroneously states that Frank Avruch portrayed Bozo on Channel 4, but as you now know, he worked for Channel 5!


(For that matter, the inclusion of this photo in Four All the Years implies that all of the above Boston kiddie show hosts worked for Channel 4. Roughly half of them did. The rest worked for Channels 5 and 7. And by the way, to my knowledge, at least six of the eight people are no longer with us.)


 Frank Avruch at eighty years old.

Frank at left, Rex Trailer at right. Unfortunately, I can't identify the guy in the middle!

Growing up in the 1960s, roughly fifty miles from Boston, I watched Bozo's program as a child, of course, although I must admit that I had plenty of other interests and wasn't a huge fan of the clown.

I only became aware of Frank Avruch the man when he appeared in the early 1970s, sans makeup of course, as the host of WCVB-TV's late night program, The Great Entertainment, a weekend showcase for (mostly) film classics from the 1930s and 1940s. For seventeen years, Avruch served as sort of a local version of TCM's Robert Osborne. Before and after the film, Frank would provide all sorts of details about the film's cast, crew, and/or production history.

Every so often, for whatever reason, WCVB's The Great Entertainment would show a more recent, less-than-stellar film, like 1982's Zapped! starring such cinematic luminaries as Scott Baio and Willie Aames. On such occasions, Avruch was notably absent, to my amusement and delight.

I never saw anyone at WCVB-TV mention Frank's role of Bozo the Clown at the time. In fact, it wasn't until several years later that someone told me in conversation that he'd played that part years earlier. Surprised the hell out of me.

Frank also appeared on other WHDH-TV/WCVB-TV productions over the years, like Dateline: Boston, Good Day!, and the local segments of the annual Muscular Dystrophy Association's Labor Day Telethons.

So, you may or may not encounter an article or two or three about Frank, and if so, it'll no doubt focus on his Bozo work. And most of those articles will actually show Bozo photos with Frank Avruch himself in the role! (It's so hard to tell under all that makeup, and there are a lot of former Bozo actors out there!)

But whenever I think of Frank, it won't be of him portraying Bozo as much as "portraying" himself in his later appearances.

Having said that, I'm now going to relate a little personal tale involving myself and Frank Avruch, which does involve his role as Bozo.

A while back -- "a while" being defined as several years ago -- I discovered that Frank was selling items on eBay under the username "greatent." I discovered this relatively late, as I learned only recently. Evidently, he'd had an attic full of memorabilia which sold on eBay.

Anyway, I bid on not one, but two original postcards featuring Bozo, and won both, shown below. Each postcard featured the standard stamped signature of "Bozo" which were printed on such promotional items, but I immediately received an email from Frank, asking me how he should personally inscribe each card. I wrote back, answering him, as well as asking him if he would allow me to interview him sometime in the near future.



On a Post-It note (shown below) attached to one of the two postcards I received, he replied that he would be happy to be interviewed, and for me to contact him whenever I was ready.


As well as the above Post-It, I still have Frank's email and my reply, dated... 2006!!!

Need I tell you that "The Great Procrastinator," namely myself, never got around to setting up the interview?

Dummy.

Thanks for your time.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

They Might Be Giants! (The REST of 1966) ~~ A "Comical Wednesday" Post!


The illustration above is of the only giant-sized title in this Comical Wednesday series that wasn't from Marvel or DC! Issue #1-and-only of Fighting American was published by Harvey Comics, better known during the 1960s for such "kiddie" titles as (take a deep breath, here) Casper the Friendly Ghost, Playful Little Audrey, Spooky, Hot Stuff the Little Devil, Baby Huey, Little Lotta, Wendy the Good Little Witch, Sad Sack, Little Dot, as well as many others, including that horrifying example of capitalism-gone-wild, Richie Rich, who eventually (meaning, in the course of approximately thirty years) spawned over four dozen different titles!

Fighting American was a superhero. In fact, he was a very subtle parody of superheroes. And I am really embarrassed to admit that since nine-year-old David almost never read the text pages in comics (except for the DC and Marvel "Letters to the Editor" pages), he -- well, I -- didn't realize that these "Fighting American" stories were reprints from the 1950s! And even more embarrassing than that is the fact that I didn't recognize that these stories were created by the very same team that had crafted the early Captain America tales which I was devouring on a bi-monthly basis in Fantasy Masterpieces, namely Joe Simon and Jack Kirby!

In late 1966, Marvel released a one-shot "special" called Marvel Super-Heroes. This was an all-reprint title featuring the first issue of Daredevil, which I'd searched the newsstand racks for but missed, two years earlier. I almost had a crack at an original copy a few months after it came out, since I often traded various comics with my friend Kevin, and he had one! Unfortunately, the book was ruined because his older brother had... ummm... cut out several pictures of... ummm... half-naked, muscular men working out in a gym.

Marvel Super-Heroes #1 also contained a reprint of Avengers #2. But the best treat for li'l ol' me was a story from the Golden Age, featuring a battle between the Sub-Mariner and the original Human Torch!

And yes, I said "the original Human Torch." The modern-day Human Torch from the Fantastic Four comic, Johnny Storm, is actually the second superhero to have that nom de guerre. The first Human Torch was an android -- hence, not really "human," but why quibble? -- who debuted in 1939 and was a contemporary of Captain America and Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner, during the Golden Age.


But Marvel Super-Heroes #1 and Fantasy Masterpieces weren't the only exciting "giants" Marvel churned out in '66. For the fourth year in a row, the Fantastic Four Annual (or, if you prefer, Fantastic Four Special) was another blockbuster issue.

In that issue, Marvel reprinted a two-part story (from F.F. #25 and #26) that I'd only caught the second chapter of when it first hit the stands. This great two-parter featured a knock-down, drag-out battle between The Thing (the most powerful member of the Fantastic Four) and the Incredible Hulk. And the Avengers showed up in part two!

But the lead feature in F.F. Annual #4 was an all-new epic that reintroduced the original Human Torch to the Silver Age!


The final giant/annual/special/whatever that made an impression on me that year was the sixth issue of Fantasy Masterpieces, which again featured three Golden Age Captain America stories by Simon & Kirby, including an original tale of none other than Cap's eternal nemesis, the Red Skull! In this reprint, from Captain America Comics #7, Cap and his young sidekick, Bucky, fought the "real" Red Skull, and not that ineffectual idiot mentioned in my previous post, George Maxon.


Fantasy Masterpieces #6 also had a Captain America tale entitled "The Phantom Hound of Cardiff Manor," which owed a lot, shall we say, to the Sherlock Holmes novel The Hound of the Baskervilles.

One thing I didn't learn until many years later is that several of the 1940s Captain America stories reprinted in the 1960s had text and/or artwork that was censored to appease the censorship board known as the Comics Code Authority. The following two illustrations show a scene from the original version of "The Phantom Hound of Cardiff Manor" and the censored version which appeared in Fantasy Masterpieces #6.


And don'tcha just love the way they re-drew Bucky's mouth in that first panel? Wonder why they bothered to do that.

Now, to end our look(s) back at 1966 -- finally! -- I'm just going to shut up and present six more pairs of sequences from another story censored and reprinted in Fantasy Masterpieces #6. This was a gruesome little tale called "Meet the Fang, Arch-Fiend of the Orient" which first appeared in Captain America Comics #6. Scenes showing or even suggesting extreme violence were expurgated in '66, plus they deleted one objectionable reference to "China boys."











Pretty thorough, weren't they?

I'll be posting another entry this weekend, for those of you who may be hoping for something other than Comical Wednesday posts, although I must admit, the next post won't be a very cheerful one.

Thanks for your time.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

They Might Be Giants! (The BEGINNING of 1966) ~~ A "Comical Wednesday" Post!


Well! Here we are (were?) in 1966, arguably the greatest year in pop culture history! And that's not just my opinion. It's shared by at least two other pop culture mavens, namely Steven "Booksteve" Thompson and Hal Lifson.

The above issue (#18) of DC's 80 Page Giant title promised something I'd never actually seen before: Golden Age comic book reprints! (Okay, okay, with one exception, briefly mentioned here, and again below.)

Unfortunately, Yours Truly missed that razzer-frazzer issue, and all I ever saw of it until many years later was the following advertisement!



As I mentioned in the first installment of this "They Might Be giants" series, I spent the early 1960s learning about DC's "Earth-Two," and I also knew that Marvel Comics' Captain America and the Sub-Mariner had both originally appeared in the 1940s. However, I didn't dare hope that I'd ever actually see a Golden Age story, outside of the one G.A. tale of the original Flash (Jay Garrick), reprinted in 1963's Giant Flash Annual #1!

DC did reproduce a handful of Golden Age covers on a couple of back cover illustration appearings on two of their annuals, plus on one interior page from Giant Flash Annual #1... and all three of those are shown below.





It seemed that the two leading comic companies were reluctant to show the relatively primitive antecedents of the comics which were instrumental in my learning to read. 80 Page Giant #18 (a/k/a Superman #183) was a notable exception. See why I was so ticked off that I missed that issue?

As a kid, I loved appearances of not only Ace, the Bat-Hound (discussed here), but also the various super-powered pets owned by, or associated with, both Superman and Supergirl.

Superman usually dealt with Krypto, the super-dog, or (I swear!) Beppo, the super-monkey. Both of those animals were originally from Krypton, like Superman himself! There was even a one-shot character in the Superboy comic named Krypto Mouse, but the less said about that, the better!

Supergirl was sometimes joined by Streaky, the super-cat, and Comet, the super-horse! Neither Streaky nor Comet hailed from Krypton, however. In fact, Comet had quite a convoluted origin and history, most of which I'll spare you. He was originally a centaur named Biron, who was magically turned into an immortal, super-powered horse hundreds of years ago. In modern times, he occasionally became fully human and in this form, he had an actual romance with Supergirl! Pretty sick stuff, if you look at it with a 21st century attitude, but when I was a young'un in the '60s, I found it quite entertaining. So obviously, comics like 80 Page Giant #20 (a/k/a Action Comics #334) really appealed to me.


Oh, and if you noticed the black and white checks at the top of 80 Page Giant #20, those are the infamous "DC Go-Go Checks" that adorned the tops of all DC titles for about a year and a half. They were evidently placed there so comic readers could spot a DC title on a crowded newsstand rack. Plus, the powers-that-were at DC apparently (and erroneously) thought these Go-Go Checks showed that DC could be just as "cool" as this upstart Marvel Comics company.

Yeah, right.

Anyway, back to the story of the pre-adolescent and his yearning for Golden Age comic stories.

In early 1965, Marvel's Tales of Suspense title (which featured both Iron Man and Captain America in separate adventures every month) decided to start telling Cap tales from the World War II era. They began with a retelling of his origin story (from 1941's Captain America Comics #1) in Tales of Suspense #63, and continued through most of  the rest of 1965. But again, these were retellings, not the G.A. reprints that I so desired.

For example, here's one page from Tales of Suspense #65, featuring Cap's first encounter with the Red Skull! It features artwork by the incredible Jack Kirby, comic legend.


Here, on the other hand, is a reprinted page from Captain America Comics #1, produced by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.


"Mister Maxon" (a/k/a George) turned out to be an agent of the "real" Red Skull, if you're interested...

In early 1966, Marvel began a 12-cent reprint title, Fantasy Masterpieces. Its cover proclaimed "From the Golden Age of Marvel" but they lied! The first two issues contained reprinted stories from 1959-1962!

With issue #3, however, they made two major alterations to the book's format. The first was to make it yet another "giant," but not an "annual." No, this was an ongoing series!

The second change was a little better. Okay, a lot better.

The third issue of Fantasy Masterpieces contained not one, but two original Captain America stories from the 1940s! At last!


Issue #4 contained three Golden Age stories!


And sandwiched in with these exciting Marvel Comics was yet another 80 Page Giant that featured "Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen," another character whose adventures really clicked with this little Foxlet!


But Fantasy Masterpieces kept rolling along with its Captain America classics, three to an issue!


And if you think that all of these vintage Captain America stories were enough to shut me up satisfy me, I've somehow failed to impress upon you how obsessed I really was with not only the comics I was growing up with, but the history of the medium itself!

In fact, there was so much going on in the comic book titles of 1966, for next week's Comical Wednesday entry, I'm going to devote yet another chapter to 1966.

See you then, I hope. And I apologize for not posting any non-comic-book-related entries lately, but this series, as well as my personal life, have been taking up all my time.

And speaking of "time," thanks for your time.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

They Might Be Giants! (1965) ~~ A "Comical Wednesday" Post!


Another snowstorm, one that dropped about two feet of that white crap on my area, but I managed to post this on Wednesday nonetheless!

So here we go again, fellow babies! This edition's focus is on the giant-sized comic books (or annuals) which hit the stands in 1965.

Well, mainly...

You may very well be wondering, whuzzup with the Giant Superman Annual #2, pictured above? That book came out all the way back in 1960!

Well, y'see, I estimate that it was in 1965 that I first saw that annual, which belonged to either my friend Jeff or my friend Kevin. Only his copy looked more like this:


That's right, no front cover! But plenty of great stories in it, nonetheless! It reprinted the first appearances of villains like Brainiac, Metallo, Bizarro, and -- I swear -- Titano, the Super Ape! And no, in case you're wondering, Titano did not wear a freakin' mask like Ace, the Bat-Hound did!

And there's another ultra-cool, giant-sized book that I missed, this one back in 1961... and why I'm even mentioning it will be apparent very, very soon, I promise.


Since 1961, DC has come out with a lot of Secret Origins annuals, series, one-shots, etc., but the first one I ever saw devoted to that theme was yet another issue of the 80 Page Giant series!


80 Page Giant #8 was the first of a terrific four-issue run.

That issue contained mostly cool stories, as I recall, except for (maybe) the Flash story, "The Origin of Flash's Masked Identity!" Back in the 1940s, y'see, the original (Golden Age) Flash, Jay Garrick, never wore a mask... and yet, no one ever realized that Jay and the Flash were the same guy! (Hey, it worked for Superman, right?) Well, in this particular story, the new (Silver Age) Flash, Barry Allen, daydreamed about how his life would be if he tried the maskless route. He ended up deciding it was a stupid idea. What a surprise.

So, now we're back to the real 1965. Or something.

I was still at the stage where I thought The Flash was one of the coolest superheroes ever, and 80 Page Giant #9 reprinted plenty of early appearances by members of Flash's Rogues Gallery, plus "Flash of Two Worlds" from The Flash #123, the landmark issue which established that the modern-day DC heroes (and villains) lived on an Earth called Earth-One, while DC characters from the Golden Age had existed on a different Earth, called Earth-Two (actually an entire universe)!


Actually, the so-called Earth-Two heroes came first, so their universe probably deserved to be called Earth-One instead. It gets complicated... and I'm barely scratching the surface, believe me!

DC and Marvel, which produced all of the giants and annuals that I'm gushing about in this series -- except for one, in my next installment -- seemed to enjoy re-publishing first appearances of certain characters, hero or villain origins, and the like. Both companies really knew what their audience wanted.

(Well, they knew I wanted, anyway. I can't speak for the rest of the country's comic book readers.)

Two examples of "re-publishing first appearances of certain characters, hero or villain origins, and the like" would be the reprinted debut of The Kryptonite Kid, as well as the story which told how a teenage Lex Luthor met Superboy and became his friend at first, only to end up as his greatest enemy.


And speaking of Lex Luthor, the next issue of 80 Page Giant featured several stories of the adult Lex Luthor against Superman... and in one case, Superboy.

How did that happen? Via time travel!


In a fairly well-told, effective story called "The Impossible Mission," Superboy decides to go back in time to prevent the assassination of none other than Abraham Lincoln. Purely by coincidence, Lex Luthor, who is an adult in "our" time (1960, when this story first appeared), is in Washington, D.C. on that very same day! Apparently, he'd traveled to 1865 just to hide from Superman. No, really.

Luthor spots Superboy, and assumes that Superman had sent his own younger self to capture him (Luthor). Lex luckily has some Red Kryptonite with him. "Red K" is a variation of plain ol' Green Kryptonite, which can kill Superman or Superboy. However, Red Kryptonite doesn't kill Superman/Superboy. Instead, it causes strange effects, transformations, etc. that last (in most stories) for forty-eight hours, but that period sometimes varied, depending on the writer of the individual stories!

In this instance, the "Red K" completely immobilizes Superboy, while Luthor stands there gloating. Suddenly, a commotion from nearby begins as news hits the streets that Lincoln has been shot. A tear runs down Superboy's face because he knows that he's failed in his mission. Luthor, hearing the uproar and seeing Superboy's reaction, realizes the real reason Superboy was in 1865. With an "I'm evil, but not that evil!" kind of attitude, the horrified Lex exits the room (and, presumably, leaves 1865 by whatever method he'd used to get there in the first place).

Whew! And all that just to teach Superboy that it was impossible to change what's already happened.

Now, on the Marvel Comics side of things...

The Mighty Thor had been introduced back in 1962, in a title called Journey into Mystery. The comic was later renamed The Mighty Thor, but as of 1965 J.I.M. still bore its original title. That's why the first annual featuring Thor was actually Journey into Mystery Annual #1.

This annual introduced Marvel's version of Hercules in an all-new story. And if that wasn't enough, it reprinted the first appearances of the Lava-Man (whom I'd first seen in The Avengers #5), the Radioactive Man (whom I'd first seen in The Avengers #6 as a member of The Masters of Evil), and last but not least, Thor's perennial nemesis, his scheming half-brother Loki!


It seems like every year brought us little Marvelites yet another superb annual or two or three, and 1965 was no exception. The third Fantastic Four Annual featured the wedding of Reed Richards ("Mister Fantastic") and Sue Storm, a/k/a "The Invisible Girl." And almost every Marvel hero appeared, and more villains than you could count tried to disrupt the proceedings. At this point, who needed reprints, you may well ask, but F.F. Annual #3 had those, as well!


For today's final selection: In 1965 "Mighty Marvel" gave us a brand new, slightly-more-than-double-sized comic. This was Marvel Collectors' Item Classics, which became an ongoing title. Its first issue contained extremely early stories of the F.F., Spider-Man, Ant-Man, and the "Tales of Asgard" feature which served as a back-up to Thor in Journey into Mystery.


Yep, I was pretty spoiled when it came to relatively recent stories from DC and Marvel being reprinted, but I had no real hopes of ever seeing anything from the supposed "Golden Age." It looked like those would be forever out of my reach.

Well... As it turned out, I didn't know everything!

Next week: 1966, another banner year! (Uhhh, no pun intended, Hulk fans!)

Thanks for your time.
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