It’s been a (very) sweet trip

I came by my love of recorded media – movies, television, music – honestly. My great-grandfather, whose stage name was Colonel Stoopnagle, was something of a radio star back in the 1930s. He considered himself a wordsmith, and often did bits (and wrote books) showcasing the cleverness of the English language.

stoopnagle
He also did print ads, like this (copy of) one that hangs in our bathroom. I’d like to think he would have gotten a kick out of looking over us on the loo. I imagine he also got a kick out of the apostrophe erroneously place in the word PROs; oh, the irony.

Stoopnagle’s son – my grandfather – spent his working career with a local Rochester television affiliate. A tinkerer who couldn’t stand to sit idle, he built a television set for the family (including my mom) in the days before you could easily go out and buy one. As I understand it, there wasn’t much to watch on said television, but hey – they were ready when things changed.

My mother, a theater major in college, loved all recorded media, and she shared that love with my brother and me. Her record collection was (is?) extensive, and although I know we had a car that played eight-tracks, the memory is distant, because we always ventured into new media technology as soon as it became available. When I was in the third grade, my mom picked up a friend and me from school (I was having the friend over – back then, there was no such thing as a “play date;” friends just “came over”), and Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” was playing from the stereo. Impressed (rock on, Mom!), I told her that I loved that song… and POP! she ejected the brand new “Thriller” cassette from the player on the dashboard. How funky and strong is my fight now?!

Similarly, while I imagine that we must have had Beta tapes, I don’t have specific memories of them because as soon as VHS became available, we were in. Not just for playing, either – for recording, too… except that independent hand-held VHS video cameras hadn’t come into play yet (although, the moment they did, you can bet we had them) – you had to tether the video camera to the VCR in order to record. For movies taken, say, in the living room where the television was, this wasn’t so bad. The recordings were live-streamed to the TV, which meant that our home movies feature the profiles of all of the video participants (i.e. me, my brother, our unwitting friends who’d come over for a birthday celebration) because we were enthralled with seeing ourselves on the TV screen – looking toward the camera was so not fun – but they were relatively easy to do, technically speaking. For anything more than, like, twenty feet from the TV, however, my dad would strap the VCR to his shoulder – yes, really, the entire VCR machine – and follow us around, video camera in-hand, tethered to the recorder.

Those were the days.

Having just one VCR was lovely – and I think, for a little while, that’s what we did – but it was limiting; all you could do was record from a single source and put it right on the tape. It didn’t take long, then, for us to acquire two VCRs, and for my mom to put them to good use. Sure, you could record things from two different televisions at the same time (which my mom continued to do right up until DVDs became the rage; more than once, I remember calling her from college – frantic – and asking her to please tape a crucial episode of Friends for me). But, more importantly, you could record from one VHS tape to another.

This was handy for creating home movies. No longer did we have to save entire school plays when all that my parents really wanted were the thirty seconds that my brother and I were visible from behind the towering third-graders; instead, the play was recorded onto one VHS tape and then – through the magic of more tethering – the crucial thirty seconds were recorded onto a second VHS tape. In this way, we were able to winnow down entire years’ worth of footage into bite-sized clips.

What I really remember, though, are the collections of show tunes that my mom culled together. I grew up in the era of mix tapes, but I think my mother may have invented the mix VHS. She would record a favorite movie musical off of the TV – The Wizard of Oz, perhaps, or Singin’ in the Rain – and then transfer just a snippet, maybe “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or “Make ‘Em Laugh”, onto another VHS tape, so that it contained clip after clip after clip of her most beloved songs and dances.

It wasn’t just movies, either. Any time there was music on the TV that was worthy of watching again, from songs performed at the Tony Awards to orchestral selections from Fourth of July celebrations (complete with fireworks) to bits and pieces from talk shows or even commercials, it went on the mix VHS collections. And this is how I so vividly remember Shirley Temple being a part of our lives.

I was introduced to Shirley so long ago that I don’t remember life without her; she came into our living room, beaming her dimpled smile at us and boing-ing her perfect curls, and dancing – oh, the dancing! – up a storm. She was adorable and sweet, sure, but it was really the dancing that had me hooked. How was it possible for someone that tiny to tap dance like that? I was in awe.

We watched her movies (which my mom had recorded from the TV onto VHS tapes) – The Little Colonel, Heidi, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, The Littlest Rebel, Captain January, Poor Little Rich Girl, The Blue Bird – and I loved them… but I was more interested in seeing the musical numbers – which was convenient, because my mom had them cued up on her VHS mixes.

Shirley Temple was just so stinkin’ fabulous, wasn’t she? Admonishing the kids in “Animal Crackers in my Soup” or bopping along the train in “On the Good Ship Lollipop”. She was charming and cute, an exuberantly dynamite little powerhouse who held her own against her adult co-stars. They held their own against her, too, simultaneously talking to her like a child (because, um, she was one) and treating her as their equal, undoubtedly fully aware that this ringleted moppet was the real reason so many people would flock to the theater.

I could have watched for hours (and probably did) as Shirley swished alongside Buddy Ebson in “At the Codfish Ball”, nimbly hopping on and off wooden crates while, you know, tap dancing – but not cutesy kid tap dancing, where you go Awwww, she’s pretty good for her age! but real tap dancing, where you go, DAMN! She holds her own against other hoofers! My very favorite, though, was whenever she would dance with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, a man for whom a special place is reserved in the tap dancing pantheon. Here was this little – and I mean little, like seven year-old – girl, dancing brilliantly alongside a seasoned veteran… who happened to be Black. Yes, he played stereotypical roles for a Black man in the 1930s (in this case, most often a butler for white folks), but Shirley and Bojangles broke that color barrier (as the first white female and black male to dance onscreen together, fo’ real) and it was awesome.

Just try to watch the two of them dance up the stairs and not smile. No, really. Try it.

shirley and bojangles
I found this at this site and, even though it’s not from a movie set, I love it. Actually, I think I love it more because it’s not from a movie set – they’re just buds.

As soon as my girls were old enough (by which I mean as soon as they could sit still and watch a television screen for ten minutes at a clip… which, for Annie, was around 4 months old; that’s what having an older sister will do for you), I began introducing them to Shirley Temple’s songs and dances – only this time, we used the modern-day version of my mom’s old VHS mixes: YouTube. I’d plug in the song that was in my head and up would pop a clip, instantly available, for the girls and me to enjoy and laugh and gasp about, just as I did sitting beside my mom on the living room couch while the VCR whirred away.

True to my mother and my grandfather and my great-grandfather, we have embraced technology, especially when it comes to recorded media. While I am far from a fan of all modern technology, and while Nick and I impose pretty strict screen time limits, I will forever be grateful to the likes of YouTube for enabling me to share those bits of my childhood, of my own story, with Ella and Annie. Heck, I can even show them clips of Colonel Stoopnagle on Youtube – which is pretty damn incredible, if you ask me.

Which you didn’t. But I’m telling you anyway.

I was really bummed to learn of Shirley Temple’s passing today… but her legacy will live on. For one thing, my children (and my cousins – howdy, Andrew and Brian!) are unlikely to stop ordering ginger ale and grenadine any time soon, so Shirley is here to stay. For another, Annie’s perpetual washing-of-her-face using only her forefingers a la the song “Early Bird” from Captain January makes me wring my hands each time I see it.

shirley
USE ALL OF YOUR FINGERS! YOUR FACE ISN’T CLEAN!!
(Seriously, this part of the song has bugged me since I was a kid. STILL DIRTY!)

And, of course, we have Shirley’s body of work to entertain, enthrall, and enlighten us from now until, well, forever. I plan to purchase some of her movies on DVD to show the girls (in addition to the couple that I already own, courtesy of my mom, naturally), but in the meantime, YouTube clips will happily tide us over. She is a part of our lives, ingrained, woven in, and I can’t imagine it any other way.

As the girls came home from school, I was in the middle of writing this and had the various YouTube clips playing so that I could link to them properly. Without even being in the room, Ella heard three bars of “At the Codfish Ball” and said, “Is that Shirley Temple?” Yes, honey. It is. She made our lives richer and more colorful, and I’m sad that she’s gone – but I can’t wait to watch her with you tonight.

Nor can I wait to see how you share her with your own children; it’s in your genes – I know you will. And they will laugh and roll their eyes at the thought of us using something as antiquated as YouTube to watch her – but I’m good with that, because I know that I’ll have embraced that kind of media, too. Right after my mom does.

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We have some work to do here

Last spring, I became acquainted with the current production of Matilda the Musical (I say “became acquainted with” because, in the span of one week, at least five different people sent me, or posted to Facebook, links to various songs from the London Matilda production. Universe, I heard you: sometimes, you do, indeed, have to be a little bit naughty). In my continued quest to bring culture to the girls’ lives (shall we see how many hyper-links I can include in one paragraph?), and in keeping with their love of Broadway (that’s four!), I showed Ella and Annie the above clips from Matilda, as well as every other clip available on YouTube.

Small children with British accents get me every time.

We agreed to make it our goal to see Matilda the next time we’re in NYC, but in the meantime, the girls rented the movie Matilda from the library. I haven’t seen it yet, but given that it features that adorable little girl from Mrs. Doubtfire, my fingers are crossed that it’s good – even if she doesn’t have a British accent.

We were quite busy this past weekend, out and about and not taking the time to watch the movie (maybe because we were too preoccupied seeing Monsters University in the theatre; that’s just a hunch), and I was feeling slightly nervous that we wouldn’t find time to watch it before it’s due back at the library later this week. (I could try to renew it, or even just keep it past its due date and willingly pay the fine… but, given that we’re already purposely holding onto an overdue library book because the girls are totally into it but we’re not done with it yet and there aren’t other copies available but we’ve already renewed it as many times as we can, I figure I can only toy with karma so much.)

When the courtesy call came two days ago reminding me that I had a haircut appointment scheduled for this week, I was initially frustrated because I knew I’d have to bring Annie and Ella with me. I then realized that this was the solution to our problem: the girls could watch Matilda on my laptop while I got my hair cut. This would both a) ensure that the movie was actually viewed prior to its return date, and b) thwart attempts by my children to open the styling products for sale by the checkout counter.

It took me a good 20 minutes to locate the headphone jack splitter (because I’d rather have my offspring pour volumizing gel all over themselves than turn the sound up on an electronic device – while out in public – without headphones; why do people not understand this premise?!?!), but I finally found it and we were ready to go.

On the way to the salon, the girls peppered me with questions about the movie… and it was then that I finally realized just how “cultured” our daughters really are.

“Are the same songs in this that are on Broadway?”

No, sweetie. It’s just a movie.

“But which songs are there?”

There aren’t any. It’s just a regular movie.

“They made a movie of the Broadway show? Like that one with the lady* in Peter Pan?”
(*the Mary Martin stage version)

No. The movie came first.

“It did?”

Actually, the book came first. There’s a book – Matilda. By Roald Dahl.

“ROLLED DOLL???”

Not really, it’s… never mind. Anyway, he wrote the book Matilda. We should read it; I think you’d like it.

“His name is ROLLED DOLL?”

And enough kids liked the book that they turned it into a movie.

“Is the movie happening right now?”

When you say ‘happening right now,’ what do you mean?

“The movie. Is it still happening? Right now?”

Ummmm….

Matilda the movie! Are they doing it now??”

Do you mean is the movie being filmed right now, today? As in, are the actors acting their parts and are they making the movie today?

“YES, THAT’S JUST WHAT I MEAN!”

Well, aside from the fact that you’re holding the DVD, so that would be some kind of weird voodoo magic, no, the movie was made a long time ago.

“How long ago?”

I don’t know. At least fifteen years.

“Wow. That’s SO LONG ago. Is the little girl still alive?”

Uh, I think so? ‘Cause she’d only be, like, twenty-five?

“Oh, good. And what songs does she sing?”

We’re still talking about this? She doesn’t sing anything.

“Why not?”

Because it’s not a musical. It’s just a movie.

“But…”

There’s no singing. It’s just a regular movie.

“But Cinderella sings.”

Yes, I know, but…

“And Tiana sings.”

I understand that, but those are Disney cartoon movies. This is a movie with real people.

“They sing songs in the movie Annie.”

True, but that’s a movie musical, so…

“And in The Sound of Music.”

Which makes sense, because it’s also…

“And Mary Poppins. And Enchanted.”

Wait a minute. Is it possible that the only movies we’ve shown are ones with singing in them??

“Ummmm…. We just saw Monsters University! That didn’t have singing!”

Okay, right…

“And Despicable Me 2! They don’t sing in that!”

So… movies with singing and cartoons. That’s where we stand? This is all we’ve shown you?

“But those are good movies, Mommy!”

That may be, but it’s kind of horrifying that we haven’t introduced you to any other kinds of movies.

“WAIT!! I know!!”

What?

“We’ve seen The Princess Bride! A lot of times!”

YES! A real movie! THANK GOD. We have not completely failed you.

“Oh! And Indiana Jones! We saw ALL of those!”

A questionable move on our part, but still, yes. Indy definitely doesn’t sing.

“And there are all those snakes! And that guy’s face melts off!”

Again, questionable parenting. But I did show you Big. That didn’t have any singing in it.

“He ate the baby corn! And they played the piano with their feet!”

Yep, I remember. You’re still playing “Heart and Soul”, like, 186 times a day.
So… Cartoons, Disney movies, musicals, and 80s classics. It’s a start.

“I’m going to play ‘Heart and Soul’ as soon as we get home!”

That’ll be fun. Speaking of 80s classics, do you remember The Goonies?

“THAT UGLY MAN IS SO FUNNY!”

I know, right??

“See, Mommy. You’ve shown us lots of movies.”

Thanks, baby. We’ve totally broadened your horizons. I feel much better about myself now.

“AND DON’T FORGET ABOUT GHOST BUSTERS!!”

I think we’d better stop while we’re ahead.

Culture Club

My sister-and-law, Emily (yes, I have a sister-in-law who shares my name; we both totally rock it) and her best friend, Molly, visited us last week. As always when Emi is in town, we had an amazing time, laughing more often than should probably be legal; Molly’s joining her only added to the general merriment and hilarity.

Due to the extreme heatwave that so much of the country has been experiencing (and also because I am all for supporting our daughters’ cultural betterment), we all agreed that the best option for afternoon fun would be taking the girls to see Despicable Me 2.

movie despicable
Gratuitous too-dark theater shot.

They’d eschewed dessert in order to partake in the kiddie movie snack box (some popcorn, an appropriately sized drink, and some fruit snacks), and as Emi and I made our way to the seats while balancing both snack boxes, another popcorn tub, three additional beverages, and three boxes of candy, I muttered to her that we should take bets on who would be the first person to spill.

Because it was a Monday afternoon, a 2:20 showing, I’d assumed that the theater would be relatively empty – but, shockingly, we weren’t the only people who’d thought that sitting in quiet, un-sunny, below-100-degree, air-conditioned splendor was a good idea.

crowded theater
Crowded theater but no one in front of us. Score!

We settled in, shuffling seats only once and going to the bathroom only twice (yay, us!) before the showing began. As the final preview flickered, and after tearing away at the packaging like a foraging squirrel, Annie asked if I could help open her fruit snacks. Seeking to quiet the rustling, I quickly reached over to take the bag from her… and promptly spilled my popcorn all over the floor. Before the movie even began. I WIN.

Seeing kid movies is always an excellent experience, because kids don’t hesitate to say what they think – during the movie, and loudly. Nick and I still talk about the time years ago when we went to see Shrek, pre-parenthood, and as we were leaving the theater, a father was admonishing his maybe three year-old son, “Just because you don’t think something is funny doesn’t mean you have to call out ‘That’s not funny!’ every time.”

This showing did not disappoint. There were shouts of, “Don’t do it!” and giggles loud enough to shake the seats. At one point, as the heroes were confronted by an enemy… chicken… one child yelled with disapproval, “What??! It’s a chicken???” It was right around then that Molly shifted slightly in her seat… and spilled her popcorn. Alas, having done so after me, she could not claim victory, but it was a valiant effort nonetheless.

popcorn down
We picked up as much as we could, but still… After us, the ushers could definitely use a raise.

I was very much enjoying myself, chuckling at what a cute movie it was, what delightful culture we were soaking up when, minutes before the end, one of the main characters surprised me and I found myself tearing up. Eyes welling with tears! At Despicable Me 2! Not cool, Universal Studios. Thankfully, the one- and two-eyed minions broke the mood by launching into a wordless version of “YMCA” and so I was spared the embarrassment of the tears actually falling. Not that it’s unusual for me to cry at animated movies, but I do try to save myself for Up, where I’m guaranteed to dissolve into a puddle at least three separate times.

After the show, we needed to run to the grocery store, which normally would have elicited angry protests from my girls, but was instead met with gleeful cheers because air conditioning. It wasn’t until we were already inside the store that I noticed Annie was wearing elbow-length white gloves.

flower girl
What? Isn’t this what you typically throw on to visit the grocery store?
Note also: Ella’s first-ever successful bunny ears. We teach maturity early.

Because of the heat, I’d elected to wear a light, sleeveless dress, and everyone else had followed suit. Apparently, Annie thought it necessary to complete her look with some costume gloves from the playroom. At first, she simply swirled around the flower section, deliberately making “glamorous” poses. But as we finished our shopping, she ran ahead a little bit… and we rounded the corner to find her like this:

flower girl2
It’s not at all embarrassing to discover your child posing in white gloves on stacks of toilet paper.

Ah, well. You can never have too much culture.
And, if all else fails, she’ll have a lovely future as a toilet paper model.

ladies who lunch   Ladies who lunch. Or, in this case, ladies who spill popcorn and pose on packages of bath tissue. But not at the same time… yet.