Saturday, January 24, 2009

Fonzie, Morgan, Keaton and Jumping the Shark

I really need to thank Harry Morgan for that half day off. It's now 30 years overdue.

I can't say I had a real simple way to do it previously. I didn't know his agent, and had no faith in that Map of the Hollywood Stars booklet that Mom and Dad brought home back when I was a kid. In all honesty, I can't even say Harry's address was in the thing.

I guess I could have written to CBS. They were, after all, called the Tiffany Network. Seems like the kind of place that should have someone around that would forward an important document like a "Thank You" card to an actor on the set of the network's most popular show.

For whatever reason, I didn't do it. Probably too busy chasing skirts. Or playing baseball. Or figuring out what I was going to do for the rest of my life.

Well, some thirty years later, I've taken on the task.

Now, the Harry Morgan I'm talking about is indeed the Harry Morgan you're thinking about.
  • Joe Friday's partner, Bill Gannon, on Dragnet.
  • Col. Potter of the Four Oh Seventy-Seventh M.A.S.H. unit based in Korea.
  • The guy in "Pete and Gladys" (Hey - I wonder why they don't show that on Nick at Nite?), a spin-off of December Bride.
Yep - that's him.

Sounds like he was a wonderful guy to those who had the chance to know him. Like B.J. Hunnicutt, or rather Mike Farrell, who has very nice things to say at Mike Farrell Online

Harry came back to Muskegon to film a television commercial back when I was in high school. It was for Life Savers. Part of that "They're like coming home" series they did with a number of Hollywood actors.
Of course I never met him. It was my junior year.
The campaign was handled by Dancer, Fitzgerald and Sample - a big player out of New York city. I guess they handled Toyota's "Oh What a Feeling" campaign.
Anyway, while they were filming, they blew the high school's circuit breakers. School officials decided that our 15 minutes of fame was more important then educating kids that day, so they sent us home.
Now I would have made the same decision, as I don't think too many of us were really thinking about the three R's when Hollywood was just out the window.
Half day of school! The equivalent of a partial snow day! It was GREAT!

Well, not as great as the gig that two of my classmates had. Dawn Plouhar and Lorna Barrett were earning scale as actors appearing in the commercial. They each picked up a check for $215 for their efforts. That's somewhere between $683.51 and $1,293.68 in 2009 coin.
The commercial made it's debut during a rebroadcast of an episode of Happy Days. It was, or would become, the most famous plot in the series' history. For those tuned in, Fonzie had been challenged to a water skiing contest.
Then Muskegon High School, Morgan, Barrett, Plouhar and Life Savers all hit the screen. Nobody in Skeetown knew in advance.
Yes - it was the "Jumping the Shark" episode. And if you missed the rerun, you missed the commercial. To the best of anyone's knowledge, the commercial never aired again.
I'd love to find a copy of the commercial. Can anyone help?
As the years went on, and my interests in Muskegon history grew, questions began to surface in my mind about Morgan career.
Harry Bratsburg, as he was once known, was born in Detroit in 1915, then moved to Muskegon - home of the Actors' Colony. By 1917, Buster Keaton had made his move into film. But the Actors' Colony and Pascoe's were still around.
Morgan would attend Muskegon High School as Harry Bratsburg, graduating in 1933. He received his start in acting under the direction of Miss Frances Kleaveland, an instructor at Muskegon High School. She would later marry Muskegon High School's varsity football and basketball coach, C. Leo Redmond.
Miss Kleaveland founded the city's "Civic Theater", later rechristened the "Port City Playhouse". The groups' first production, "The Silver Cord", featured Harry, along with Phyllis Cone, and Naomi Riordan. Bratsburg's would later move to summer stock in Washington D.C. In 1937, he had moved to New York where he joined the famed Group Theater. In 1939, he ventured west to California in 1939.
Born in 1961, I knew Morgan from re-runs of Dragnet, and of course, M.A.S.H. I wondered...
  • Did he ever cross paths with Buster Keaton or any of the others from Muskegon and the Actors' Colony who ventured west?

Keaton, of course worked in film and television until he passed on in 1966. (December Bride was a Desilu Production that filmed on a set next to I Love Lucy.)
As a local sports historian, I wondered...
  • What inspired the name of his character, Col. Sherman T. Potter, on M.A.S.H.?
Morgan replaced McLean Stevenson - Col. Henry Blake - and played the role as a tough yet good-humored and caring officer. I’ve seen reference that the character was named after General William Tecumsah Sherman, but no mention about his last name.
During his high school days in Muskegon, one of the school's athletic coaches was named Harry Potter. The personalities of Colonel Potter and Coach Potter, I’m told, were very similar. I’ve come across former football players who have used the comparison. Bratsburg played at least J.V. football at Muskegon, so as a youngster, he would certainly have known of Coach Potter. Is there a connection?

Those questions resurfaced the other day, as I leafed through an old yearbook. Some old newspaper clippings fell out, reminding me of that day.

Now, without question, I should have launched this quest some time ago. For the mathematicians among us, I know that Morgan is now 93. As I understand, four years ago he was doing quite well. A Norwegian, I hope that is still the case.

With a little luck, I may find answers.

Harry Morgan's son, Charley, answers my questions.

Click here to see the response.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Buster Keaton featured on PBS documentary Make `Em Laugh

The PBS documentary about American comedy, Make `Em Laugh,

Hosted by Billy Crystal, tonight's episode will feature Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. For those TIVO owners and second shift workers, it appears that it will air again on Monday, January 26, at 1:00 am.

Make 'Em Laugh:

The Funny Business of America: The Knockabouts: Slip on a Banana Peel: A focus on slapstick comedy recalls the antics of Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, Martin and Lewis, the Marx Brothers and Lucille Ball.


What does a local boy have to do to get respect around here?

And speaking of such - how about the misspelling of Winsor McCay on this PBS writeup on cartoons? On PBS!

I'll tell ya, West Michigan. We don't get "No Respect"

Where's Rodney when you need him?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Keaton and Public Law 100-446

Now I don't remember Keaton appearing in an episode of "Schoolhouse Rock." Must have been that one that started with that "I'm just a Bill" song. Guess I missed Buster's cameo.

So - what do you know about Public Law 100-446?

Well it seems that it started out as an appropriations bill for the United States Department of the Interior. Introduced on 6/20/1988 and sponsored by Representative Sidney Richard Yates of Illinois, the primary focus of this document was the annual appropriations of funds for the department, including, among many other things, "Authorization of the Secretary of the Interior to guarantee a loan made by the Federal Financing Bank to Guam for water system improvements.

It also contained something called the "Mrazek-Yates amendment". Film fans known this as the "National Film Preservation Act of 1988".

This little act of Congress directed the Librarian of Congress to establish a National Film Registry, and a National Film Preservation Board. It included three years of annual a quarter million dollars of funding to establish that Board, with the intent of selecting up to 25 films each year to include on that Registry. And, it addressed a major controversy of the day - the coloration of classic Black and White film.

Now Mr Eric J. Schwartz gives a nice little write-up on the Mrazek-Yates amendment,
the controversy it sparked, and the work done by Representatives Yates, Robert Mrazek of New York, and Senators Patrick Leahy (Vermont) and Dennis DeConcini (Arizona) to draft, then get the amendment passed.

Schwartz states,
It has often been said that the two things people should not see king made are sausages and the law.
and notes that the Mrazek-Yates amendment represented a perfect example of this in action. It's well worth reading.

So - what does all this have to do with Keaton?

Well, on December 30, 2008 , the Library of Congress announced the latest 25 films added to the registry. The list now totals 500 shorts and feature length films. Too many?

I'll turn to a statement written by Andre Soares and found on the Alternative Film Guide

Sounds like a whole lot, no? Well, to put things in perspective: in a single year in the 1920s, they’d make as many as 700 motion pictures. And I mean features.

Here's the complete list.

Keaton's 1920 classic short "One Week" was one of the 2008 selections.

In past years, Keaton productions "The General" (1927, added 1989), "Sherlock Jr." (1924, added 1991) , "Cops" (1922, added 1997 ), and "The Cameraman" (1928, added 2005) have made the cut.

Congratulations Buster!