Friday, June 27, 2014

What? The MAD gang worry?

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 1, 1988


On the 13th floor at 485 MADison Ave., the Usual Gang of Idiots is at work preparing the next issue of Mad magazine .
The editors are out to lunch, the art director has his feet up on a drafting table, and the associate editor is shredding unsolicited manuscripts before tossing them unread into the trash can.
William Gaines — the brains behind the Usual Gang of Idiots, as the magazine refers to its artists and writers — can be found sitting buddha-like in a dark room filled with toy zeppelins and Statue of Liberty replicas. His desk clock is attached to sticks of dynamite.
Every window shade in the place opens to reveal a red brick wall.
That's the kind of dumb gag to be expected at Mad. The magazine's formula of puerile puns, juvenile jokes and sophomoric satire has barely changed since Mr. Gaines started the publication 36 years ago. Success has come from its refusal to grow up.
"Mad hates everybody," he says today with typical boyish delight, "regardless of race, creed, or color."
Mad particularly hates advertisers, making it different from all but a handful of magazines. Even though its offices are in the heart of the Madison Avenue advertising district, Mad has never printed an ad.
Mr. Gaines, the 65-year-old publisher, barred them from his pages so that he would not have to alter his magazine to meet an advertiser's demands. His inspiration was the ad-free liberal daily newspaper PM, which was published in New York during the Second World War.
Mad grossed about $9-million (U.S.) last year from a circulation of one million for its U.S. edition, including 75,000 copies sold in Canada. It retails in New York for $1.95, and is published eight times annually.
E. C. Publications Inc. also earns royalties from paperback books and 12 foreign editions for its parent company, Warner Communications Inc., the New York-based entertainment company.
But after so many years of relying solely on subscribers for revenue, the magazine is about to launch a line of Mad merchandise, including a board game, novelties, and a lampoon of the Mickey Mouse watch. It features magazine mascot Alfred E. Neuman in a straight jacket, his legs going round to keep time.
Alfred is Mad's most memorable character. His goofy, gap-toothed grin has graced every cover since 1956, and his catchphrase - "What, me worry?" - is often attributed to public officials who blissfully ignore pending catastrophes.
The nudnik with the missing front tooth is based on a popular cartoon figure used in turn-of-the-century ads, including one for a painless dentist.
Mad once faced simultaneous lawsuits over copyright ownership of the face.
"Their names were Stuff and Smeck," Mr. Gaines recalls, "and we didn't tell either one about the other. Instead of fighting us, they showed up in court facing each other. That went to the (U.S.) Supreme Court, which held that neither had properly policed their copyright. We won, and Alfred was given to us."
It was not the first time the publisher found himself before the justices. A songbook called Sing Along with Mad, which had parody lyrics to the tune of 57 popular standards, sparked a suit in the early '60s by the publishers of 12 leading tunesmiths, including Irving Berlin.
The publishers accused Mad of trying to capitalize on the composer's talents, but a federal court of appeals rejected Tin Pan Alley's allegations of damage, a decision the Supreme Court let stand.
The lower court said the parodies would never satisfy demand for the original song. "Quite soundly," said the court, "it is not suggested that 'Louella Schwartz Describes Her Malady' might be an acceptable substitute for a potential patron of 'A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody.' " Today, Mr. Gaines is a soft-spoken giant, the crew cut of his earlier days replaced by shoulder-length grey hair and a salt-and-pepper beard. He is a millionaire who dresses like a pauper, indulging only his hobby of collecting zeppelins and statues of Lady Liberty.
He is not beyond self-parody either, as the current issue features a fake ad on the back cover for an exercise device called the Bulgin' Belly Burner from Cockamamie Products of Gullibility, Texas. The fleshy Mr. Gaines is shown stripped to socks and shorts, as are flabby friends Lyle Stuart, a book publisher, and Al Goldstein, publisher of the adult tabloid Screw.
Mr. Gaines relishes his brassy, upstart image, but his first brawl with authorities was almost his company's undoing.
The son of the founder of the modern comic book, Mr. Gaines was training to be a high school chemistry teacher when his father was killed in an accident. He took over fledgling Educational Comics, which was producing historical, scientific, and Biblical books. Mr. Gaines had little interest in publishing such brainy material, instead turning his attentions to comics that mirrored the steamy pulps he had enjoyed as a child.
His comic-book stable included titles such as Tales From the Crypt, a horror comic that featured severed limbs and other gruesome illustrations. He specialized in gory science fiction, crime, suspense, and war titles, eventually starting a comic to parody other comics titled Tales Calculated to Drive You Mad.
Unfortunately for Mr. Gaines, his introduction to the comic book industry came just as church, civic, and parent-teacher groups were leading a crusade against unwholesome comics, claiming they were responsible for juvenile delinquency. A comics code authority was created to vet what the censors considered unsavory content.
"I dropped all my horror, science fiction and crime titles," Mr. Gaines recalls. "It almost put me out of business. I had nothing left but Mad.
"I tried putting out a whole new line of comics which would go through the code: Impact, Aces High, MD, Psychoanalysis, Valor, Piracy. We had some far-out stuff. They were a failure."
When his distributor went bankrupt, Mr. Gaines' mother had to lend the magazine almost $150,000 to keep Mad afloat. Mad, a magazine-sized black- and-white book, sold for 25 cents, while most color comic books cost only a dime. A tawdry come-on - "Cheap!" - was placed after the price to lure the extra coins from a child's pocket, a practice that continues to this day.
In fact, a reader who returns to the magazine today will find Mad little changed. The white spy and black spy do battle in the Joke and Dagger Department's Spy vs. Spy, cartoonist Dave Berg is still looking at The Lighter Side, the back cover continues to feature a Mad Fold-In, and popular movies and television shows are lampooned as they have always been.
"It hasn't changed very much," Mr. Gaines admits. "It's gotten sexually more permissive in the script, but not in the art. My theory is that if a kid is old enough to understand the banter, he's old enough that it won't hurt him. If he doesn't understand it, it'll go over his head and he won't even know it's there."
As editors Nick Meglin and John Ficarra repeatedly tell visitors: "There's no nudity in the magazine, only in the office."
Because it carries no advertising, Mad has never done a demographic survey. Its readers are presumed to be 11-to 16-year-old boys. The writers and artists, though, are middle-aged men peddling the same jokes they have been doing for more than three decades.
Mad prefers pricking the balloon of Establishment pomposity to adopting a political line. The magazine has long campaigned against cigaret smoking, deceptive packaging, and drug and alcohol abuse. The publisher calls his staff gentle muckrakers.
One of Mad's early attempts to profit from its reputation ended in embarrassment. Warner Brothers, the movie-making arm of Mad's parent company, convinced the magazine to lend its name to a movie for teen-agers designed to cash in on the astonishing commercial success of National Lampoon's Animal House.
Mr. Gaines strongly objected to a script he found offensive, but the movie, titled Mad Magazine's Up the Academy, went into production with few changes. It was booed at its Toronto debut, and was soon removed from circulation.
"If it was anybody other than Warner," Mr. Gaines says, "I would have sued the hell out of them."
Still, merchandising has proved to be profitable in the past. Parker Brothers, a division of Kenner Parker Toys Inc. of Beverly, Mass., has reacquired rights to the Mad Magazine Game, which was first released in 1979. It earned Mad $2.25-million in royalties before succumbing to the video game craze.
No matter how much can be made in spinoffs, however, Mr. Gaines pledges that the screwball magazine will continue to subtly subvert future generations.
"We want kids to read us secretly, under the covers, with a flashlight, but they don't do that anymore," Mr. Gaines sighs.
"The worst thing we have to deal with now is acceptance by parents and teachers. It's the kiss of death."

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Hurricane preaches to crowd

By Tom Hawthorn

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

"Beisbol' pilgrimage takes Monte Irvin back to Cuba

By Tom Hawthorn
The Vancouver Sun, March 26, 2005


The aged tourist hobbled down the steps of an air- conditioned bus before slumping into a wheelchair. His meaty fists squeezed a cane, which rested against knees scarred by surgery.
The great Monte Irvin was on a baseball pilgrimage to a land he had not seen in 55 years.
When last here, his hands gripped a bat, not a cane. Irvin was imported from the Negro Leagues in 1947 for the Cuban capital's legendary Almendares team. The hard-hitting outfielder was delighted to pursue his trade in a land where he would be (mostly) judged by the grace of his fielding and the power of his hitting, not by the colour of his skin.
Irvin, a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, was returning to Cuba as part of a group of fanaticos de beisbol. The tour, led by Kit Krieger of Vancouver, spent seven days on the island attending ball games and visiting historic baseball sites. With Irvin in our lineup, the end of the week promised a highlight — Irvin's return to Estadio Latinoamericano, the ball park where he was once hailed as a god.
While most tourists come to Cuba in search of sun and sand, the closest our group got to a beach was the dirt around home plate.
Baseball is to Cuba as hockey is to Canada. The game is as much a part of everyday life as music and shortages.
Children play stickball on crowded barrio streets with bottle caps as balls and broom handles as bats. On our first day in the capital, an impromptu game took place beside our hotel, Armadores de Santander, a converted mansion across the street from the docks. Home plate was a piece of cardboard on the sidewalk of Calle Luz and first base was a ramshackle Chevy parked at the curb across the street.
Later, I would admire boys darting after flyballs among the many monuments on the lawns of the Capitolo, the replica of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. The batters needed to hit line drives over the pitcher's head to keep the ball in play — pulling the ball, or slashing it to the opposite field would endanger passing traffic and risk losing the precious ball. Incredibly, batter after batter struck line drives to centre, perhaps explaining Cuba's extraordinary success at a game imported by American workers and sailors more than a century ago.
By visiting the island, Irvin, at 85, was returning to a place where he spent "two of the happiest years of my life." For decades, the island nation seemed inaccessible because of the feud between his native United States and Cuba under Fidel Castro. It took a Canadian to end his hiatus.
Krieger is the former president of the B.C. Teachers Federation and the older brother of the Province's editorial cartoonist. He is also a baseball fanatic, blessed with an encyclopedic knowledge of the game's rich history.
In the late 1960s, with his hair as wild as one of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, Krieger worked as a clubhouse attendant for the Vancouver Mounties. He even convinced management to let him be the starting pitcher for the final game of the 1968 season. To the amazement of his teammates, he gave up only one run in three innings of work. Then, he had to return to the clubhouse to clean up the dirty uniforms of the batters he had retired.
Krieger's annual visits, under the auspices of his Cubaball Tours, are held in February or March, as the National Series regular season comes to an end and playoffs begin. Sixteen teams are divided into Eastern and Western zones. Each of Cuba's 14 provinces has a team, as does the Isla de la Juventud, a Caribbean archipelago to the south of the island of Cuba. The final team is Industriales, the New York Yankees of Cuban baseball, a team based in the capital that often wins the national championship and which every other team wants to beat.
Most players wear the uniforms of their home province. (Imagine Wayne Gretzky as a Maple Leaf and Joe Sakic as a Canuck.) The system creates intense rivalries, often expressed by the crowd in crude but funny chants and songs about the failings of visiting teams.
In an age where professional baseball players are remote, the Cuban players are surprisingly approachable, so much so that they will sidle up to the stands for a conversation even as a game is being played.
Our first road trip took us west from the capital to the picturesque Valle de Vinales, where we played catch in front of a cliffside mural so poor in its execution as to be laughable. (The artist was an understudy to the brilliant Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera; perhaps he didn't study enough.) After that, we visited a tobacco farm before stopping for a pre-game coffee at the Hotel Pinar del Rio.
Refreshed and caffeinated, I wandered from the lobby bar and stumbled across a modest display tucked behind a stairwell. Plaques, posters and baseballs were housed without guard in glass cabinets, a baseball hall of fame for Pinar del Rio province.
After checking out the display, we counted two dozen young men in uniform sprawled over the lobby furniture. The visiting team was waiting for a bus to Estadio Capitan San Luis.
The ball park boasts natural grass, of course, with wooden seats and benches in a concrete grandstand. Admission for Cubans costs one, two or three pesos (for box seats, grandstand benches, and the bleachers). Foreigners pay with Convertible Pesos, meaning the cost is about $1.25, $2.50 or $3.75 (all figures Canadian), which is less even than a centre-field bleacher seat (about $8.75 US) at Safeco Field in Seattle, or even a general admission ticket ($8 Cdn) to Nat Bailey Stadium in Vancouver.
The estadio was notable for what it lacked: No souvenir vendors, no exploding scoreboard, no recorded music playing between pitches. A revolutionary slogan was painted on the outfield wall where advertising would have been in North America.
A vendor whose fist was filled with white paper cones cried, "Mani! Mani!" It sounded like "Money! Money!" He was selling roasted peanuts and this delicious treat costs peanuts.
A few days later, we sat in a dugout behind home plate at Estadio Jose Antonio Huelga in the eastern colonial city of Sancti Spiritus. A raucous young crowd seemed as interested in flirting with one another as watching a ball game. The park had its quirks: lighted foul poles and the inscription "HOME CLUB" painted in English over one of the player dugouts. The home team even had a costumed mascot, a yellow rooster, which at one point late in the game removed its head to peck at home plate.
One of the finer traditions of Cuban baseball comes after the fifth inning, as female attendants deliver a mid-game pick-me-up of coffee for the umpires.
Irvin did not join the tour group on the road trips, saying he had spent enough of his life riding a bus to far-off games. At 85, he had earned his rest in a city that had once welcomed him like a son.
Monford Merrill Irvin, who was the seventh of 11 children born to Alabama sharecroppers named Cupid and Mary Eliza, found in Havana a place where he could join whites on the baseball diamond as well as at the supper table.
He led Almendares to the 1948-49 Cuban championship and then to victory in the inaugural Caribbean World Series. (The Cubans spelled his family name as Irving, though Monte dropped the final letter to make it quicker to give autographs.) After those playoffs, at age 30, when his considerable skills had begun to erode, he was at last given a chance to play in the major leagues.
By then, he was a war veteran with nine seasons of professional baseball under his belt. He made the most of his belated opportunity, playing in two World Series for the New York Giants (losing in 1951, winning three years later), and coaxing a seven- season career from a body past its prime.
Elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973, his autograph and his business card now include the shorthand notation, "HoF 73."
On this overdue return, the American ball player was hailed everywhere as Compañero Monte.
On one sunny day, Irvin delivered a load of baseball equipment to a team of eager 10-year-olds. The boys blocked ground balls and ran out every hit, their training in the game's fundamentals unaffected by seeing on television the cynical antics of hotdogging millionaires in the major leagues.
The children had not heard of him, but eagerly listened to his translated plea to respect the game, obey their coaches, and to play hard but fair.
A highlight of the tour was the reunion of Irvin with 92-year- old Almendares teammate Conrado (Connie) Marrero, a cigar-chomping right-hander whose slider earned him five seasons in the major leagues. (The club's ruggedly handsome first baseman was Chuck Connors, who would go on to stardom as television's The Rifleman.) Marrero, who is known in his homeland as The Hillbilly, for having been born the son of a farmhand, is never without a cigar in his mouth. "Baseball in Cuba," he told his old teammate in Spanish, "is life itself."
Finally, Irvin was ready to return to the Estadio Latinoamericano, the temple of Cuban baseball. He told us a story about winning a refrigerator at the park after hitting a game-winning home run. He didn't have much use for it, as he was renting an apartment, so he happily sold the appliance for $100 to a fan after the game. At 85, Irvin's knees may be gone, but his memory remains as sharp as a line drive.
Beneath the grandstand, he admired a bust of Martin Dihigo, known in Cuba as El Inmortal, perhaps the greatest baseball player of all time, who retired in 1945 before the major leagues were integrated.
A mural on the wall included a portrait of Marrero, who is revered in his homeland.
Irvin hobbled out into the grandstand. As others fussed with his wheelchair, he quietly walked with his cane to the backstop behind home plate. He stared at a field he had last seen more than a half- century ago, where one of his many homers once earned him a refrigerator. He lifted his cane in both hands to take a swing at an imaginary pitch. He thought no one was watching.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Didn't you use to be… Doug Ault?

Doug Ault was the star of the Toronto Blue Jays' first game. I interviewed him for the Globe and Mail's "Where are they now?" column in 1988. Ault died in 2004, aged 54. (Toronto Star photographs.)

Sunday, March 30, 2014

'Indian from the bush' recalls NHL glory

By Tom Hawthorn

Friday, March 28, 2014

Fans flock to meet a part of NHL's holy trinity

By Tom Hawthorn

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Nice work if you can get it

By Tom Hawthorn