“Take Two…Hi, Kids!”: Or, “How Did I Get In THIS Mess??”

3 Feb

Kevin Wollenweber in 1995, during his stint as host for a day on Cartoon NetworkAnother pose of Kevin, from 1995

Another shot of Kevin as host, outdoors in hat

The many moods of blog co-contributor Kevin Wollenweber in his stint as host for a day on Cartoon Network, 1995

by Kevin Wollenweber

Ever find yourself disgusted with the sound of your own voice?  No, I’m not just pontificating about spending way too much time with myself in my own self-imposed hermitage or being out of work and having to face reinventing myself for the next horrible 50 years.  I’m referring to my one and only opportunity to learn how the broadcast medium of television works and be part of it for a day on a then fledgling network.

Yes (sigh), I was again viewing the recorded results of “KEVIN WOLLENWEBER DAY”, the albatross around my neck, the embarrassment and realization that I don’t have talent!!  If I’ve ruminated about this in the past, please forgive me, but I threw one of the disks on my player this morning and relived the day in flashbacks.  Oh, those flashbacks!

To recap, at some point, in mid-1995, while working at my boring day job, I got a call from someone connected with Cartoon Network, back when they still aired animation of the distant and beloved first golden age.  The pleasant woman’s voice on the other end of the phone asked me if I wouldn’t like to be “host” of a day on the network.

Let me backtrack even further and describe how I think I was chosen for this coveted position as the first to try a programming experiment which, unfortunately, never really achieved fruition or became a centerpiece like some on the Network’s staff had hoped.  You know, from reading my previous posts here, that I am an avid fan of animation of the golden age, both good and “bad” (so bad, it’s good).  I spent most of my childhood transfixed by the family television set, watching all or most of the familiar pop culture icons of the day, but I was fondest of the various local programs of classic animation, some of it then new to television.  Having exposed myself to countless reruns to the point where I could almost recite dialogue of some of the films verbatim, I made sure that I kept “in touch” with the fate of classic cartoons.  This led me not only to the then current and fascinating book by film critic Leonard Maltin on the subject, OF MICE AND MAGIC, but it also started me collecting whatever I could get of the stuff on various formats of home video, including what still seems like the best of the collector editions, those that made it to laserdisk.  Throughout the 1980’s and part of the 1990’s, my collection had grown, double and triple-dipping as favorite titles made it to the video shelves. 

With my collection becoming so large, especially in the laserdisk format, I decided to start my own VHS samplers or compilations mimicking what the Cartoon Network would later call “TOONHEADS”, a program that aired three or four cartoons that stuck to a basic theme or showed similarities in concept or gag content.  I delighted in doing this and thought I’d send the network one or two of my sampler programs and, now, on that fateful day in 1995, I was getting a call from the network, telling me that they’d like to have me host a day.Popeye's "good self" chastising him for punishing Swee'pea, from Never Sock A Baby

Needless to say, I jumped at the chance to make those classic toons my own for a day, although I did not travel to the network in Atlanta, something I somewhat regret now.  The tapings and wrap-arounds were done at my home here in Valley Stream, New York, a place not always conducive to major broadcasting, especially if the location was going to be outside in front of the house.  I live on a main road and we had to temporarily stop recording because traffic would pass.  Hey, this wasn’t so important that arrangements could be made to shut down traffic for a day!  I’m not even part of the Screen Actor’s Guild, man.  I’m a nobody from the sticks of Long Island trying to be something I found out that I obviously was not!

I thought of this, lying there in bed in the early morning, while some of my worse moments passed by before and after the selected cartoons, and recalling some of the talk on Shokus Internet Radio between host, Stuart Shostak, and his various celebrity guests, some of which were former child stars and had to learn, at a much earlier age, what I was learning in a day!

The only trouble was that, no matter how my dialogue turned out, it was going out over the airwaves.  Geez, at least in Hollywood, if you aren’t good enough, someone will tell you so and turn you down and you feel horrible for a  day or two, discontented that you did not get the chance to reinvent yourself.  This was more like the reality TV soon to sweep the airwaves, and I shrank back as I listened to this disk or two once again, although I did enjoy the cartoons I chose for that 12-hour day.

I guess that what struck me most uncomfortably is how “Long Island” I sounded.  When I’ve seen those bizarre local ads on our News 12, the cable station that is devoted to local horrors and special interest news stories as opposed to the major network news which gives us the atrocities and human interest stories from around the United States and even the big blue ball at large called Planet Earth, I’ve laughed because they stand out like sore thumbs, unlike those created by bigger ad agencies and aimed at just about any spot in the U.S.  Oh, I tried to affect my best anchor voice, but I’d been too long away from a microphone and I continuously cussed at the screen for ever allowing myself to do this.  Oh, I loved the experience, and, if asked, I’d probably masochistically allow myself to be subjected to it again, knowing now more about the broadcast medium and what it takes to create entertainment and sell it to mainstream programming execs who are always cognizant about marketing and all that.

My job?  To introduce the animation that the viewer is about to see in 10 second intervals, something that I found absolutely trying, and to entertain the audience as the show breaks for sponsors, something else I was not professionally trained for.

I have since become aware of “STU’S SHOW” on Shokus Internet Radio (www.shokusradio.com), and have listened intently to the most professional actors and former stars in their own television series, like Paul Peterson and Tony Dow, who have been doing the acting thing since they were “knee high to a grasshopper”.  The statement that is always voiced again and again is “you’ve got to be flexible”.  Shelley Fabares, one of many big crushes on TV when I was a kid, *NEVER* wanted to become a singing sensation a la Leslie Gore, but she was given the ultimatum by the producers of her then popular show, “THE DONNA REED SHOW” on which she starred as daughter, Mary Stone, that she either join the new fad of singing Hollywood personalities or consider herself out of the show. Pretty harsh, indeed, but it forces the actor to be flexible and realize that one good part doth not a star make.

So I watch that stint on Cartoon Network and realize how unpolished I am.  Did I have dreams of grandeur?  Did I feel that I was already near professional and worth their while?  Absolutely *NOT*.  Despite the fact that I was glad they chose me, I was puzzled at the same time and am still puzzled why, knowing of my blindness, they allowed me this chance.  Why didn’t they just go straight to Leonard Maltin, Jerry Beck, Will Freidwald, Mel Blanc’s son, June Foray, Janet Waldo, Stan Freberg…or any number of professionals who could talk your ear off as well as, if not *BETTER* than I had done?  Well, this question mark of a series of hours of classic toons aired in late April of that fateful year, and I do cherish the opportunity to have entertained a population.  It wasn’t always a great experience as I saw what networks do to a proposed idea as the production commences.  Besides, I leave that task to Jerry Beck and others who could really entertain well.  I envy their position, because they get to see great cartoons that you and I will probably not ever be able to experience as restorations.

My efforts certainly were for a good cause, the full and complete restoration and rememberence of great animation and the proper history of same.  With or without me, the cause has indeed been furthered by the afore-mentioned professionals and consultants who are also avid collectors and in the business of animation themselves, and there have since been compilations of the finest of the many classic cartoons of my misspent youth.  We now have the complete run of Max Fleischer POPEYE cartoons, awaiting the day when the Famous Studios’ cartoons featuring the same character are fully restored and released, a daunting task to be sure because the source material in some cases has not aged well, and there are so many other volumes of favorites, three volumes of classic Hanna-Barbera TOM & JERRY cartoons for MGM and six volumes in a series called LOONEY TUNES GOLDEN COLLECTION with two single disk volumes of same coming in April, 2010, one of BUGS BUNNY cartoons and one of DAFFY DUCK toons.  My efforts were not influencial, but I did what I could to make people aware that the golden age of local programs where cartoons were seen, all mixed up, were the best way to enjoy these cartoons.  What was never discussed back then, however, was that the material that was introduced to us in theaters many yearas ago was never intended for children alone.  Walt Disney may have reinvented the animated cartoon as kid-friendly storybooks come to life, but the competition wanted a broader kind of cartoon, one that the adults could get a laugh at while the kids enjoyed those cute and flexible squash and stretch characters.  Thus, animation became a time capsule of the good and bad in us all, as my co-blogger Rachel Newstead has pointed out in her review of George Pal’s “TULIPS SHALL  GROW”.  When the world was in turmoil, animation pointed this out and reflected the homefront view as well as the view from deep in the front lines on the battlefield.  The humor of the “PRIVATE S.N.A.F.U.” series certainly got many a soldier through the hellishness of war by allowing him to laugh through the rigorous training and secret maneuvers.  We now have examples of these on our video shelves, and I wonder whether or not animated training films are still being created for the men and women to enjoy, with all the salty language and humor that adults enjoy, no matter what their situation or location.

When I was a kid, I did much the same as Shokus Radio’s Joe Bevilacqua, toying around with various tape recorders, some with variable speeds, and learning what my pitiful voice sounds like on various speeds.  At the time, I was doing so much of it that I could sound like the soundtrack of an animated cartoon, but by the time I had done my stint on Cartoon Network, I had grown so lazily rusty, and I guess, as the saying goes, you are your own best critic.  There are actors who claim that they cannot watch their own films or appearances at certain times in their careers and, well, I guess I totally understand that now.  It was an interesting experience.  It also brought back the regret that I’d never be able to be that man behind the camera, something that I casually enjoyed an interest in when I could see.  I never had the hands-on experience of working a movie camera, but I know that, in this age of digital, I’d probably have gotten involved somehow and, maybe, taken the plunge back into analogue.  As some might have been able to tell from my earlier post on strange TV commercials, I enjoyed watching and rewatching even low budget advertisements for TV, no matter what the product.  Film is always the best medium, because there is so much that can be more easily manipulated as far as the image goes.  Now, I welcome any opinions to the contrary, here.  After all, I am not talking from experience but from opinions of other notable filmmakers who prefer the mystery of the grainy black and white image and how it can be sensual and chilling.  Talking from my own love of the moving image in the first golden age, I can say that there is nothing like a hand-held camera following its subject quite closely.  Even cameras that could be cranked could shape the pace of the image that you are watching.  I’d seen the digital equivalent of this, and it just doesn’t quite approach the surreality of what you get from the similar attempts on celluloid, although I would imagine that colors are indeed now able to be caught more accurately.  Now, perhaps the cat in the TOM & JERRRY cartoons would be a definite gray instead of that mixed with odd shades of green or blue.

Regarding the differences in special effects of the golden age and special effects in this, the digital age, I not only think of the classic commercials I discussed earlier, but also of some fantasy-driven TV shows as recent as the low budget “SABRINA THE TEENAGE WITCH”, a show that I never realized grew out of the publication, ARCHIE COMICS, around the antics of a teen and his high school friends and foes.  At the core of the live action show, as I may have already pointed out, there is this somewhat cartoonish rewriting of the ARCHIE COMICS spinoff, with Melissa Joan Hart, formerly of “CLARISSA EXPLAINS IT ALL” in the title role.  Sabrina meets cheerleader Libby, from the first season

The special effects throughout the seven or eight seasons of the show got somewhat elaborate and used digital examples of some of the effects I’ve talked about from mere memory.  So, if these achieve what I’ve outlined here, well, then I take back what I’ve said, but I can see where those protesting voices in movie production’s past just might be right.  Yet, equipment in the digital age has gotten so wonderfully compact to the point where it is almost like holding a slightly heavier version of an old Polaroid focus-and-click type of camera, only you’re shooting moving images.  The compactness of the camera itself probably allows for better close-ups and a more intimate portrayal of one’s subject in any given situation.  Again, I’ll leave that to the professionals to add to the discussion if they like.

I’m now on Facebook, and the experience has had its moments.  It is nice to be able to connect to anyone you might like, provided they’ve also gotten the bug and wanted to wallow in the mainstream.  I don’t always know what possessed me to do so.  It has its limits as to how much one is allowed to say at any given moment.  If that is ever altered, I’d be appreciative, because I’m forever going over the word count limit.  I guess, from reading this, you know I’m not a man of few words…God, I just hope I don’t bore completely, but I’ll get better as time goes on.

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