Hollywood Cat Call — 1961

Open casting call for black cats for the Roger Corman movie Tales of Terror (1962), starring Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Basil Rathbone. Plaid was apparently quite popular at the time. (Life magazine photos by Ralph Crane / Nov. 1, 1961.)



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Yes, Flannery O’Connor DID Teach Her Chicken To Walk Backwards!

Today I learned that Flannery O’Connor had her first brush with fame at the age of 6 because she had taught one of her chickens to walk backwards. The Pathé newsreel people somehow heard about this, and they rushed to Georgia to film her. That short was screened all over the world. She joked that “When I was six I had a chicken that walked backward and was in the Pathé News. I was in it, too, with the chicken. I was just there to assist the chicken, but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been anticlimax.”

It took a while, but after a lot of dead-ends, I finally found the film online. (Glory hallelujah, there is now a Pathé archive online!) Click here to watch “Do You Reverse?” (1932).

Sadly, O’Connor died at 39 from lupus. I don’t believe she ever saw the film.

Oh! And tomorrow would have been Flannery O’Connor’s 85th birthday. Happy Birthday, Chicken Whisperer!

 




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Mission: Chicharrones

pork_rinds For some reason I felt a weird compulsion to attempt to make my own chicharrones this weekend. Chicharrones are pork rinds, but not at all like the kind I grew up with (and never really liked). Those are the the sad, distant cousins of the type of pork rind I discovered a couple of years ago at a local Mexican bakery and sandwich shop. These still have meat attached and are chewy and decadent (or disgusting, depending on where you stand on the whole skin-eating thing). Over the past two or three years, I’ve gotten chicharrones maybe 8 or 10 times. Of those, maybe only half of the times were they really, really good. They don’t do well under heat lamps, and unless you get there early (and I never get anywhere early), you’ll be stuck with dried-out, hard bits of pig. I decided to try to make my own so that I would be assured of getting some that were fresh and delectable (or fresh and disgusting depending on that skin-eating thing).

I turned to the internet to see what I’d need. The main ingredient here is pork belly. And it is, apparently, all but impossible to find at any of the white-bread grocery stores I frequent. I figured I would have to go to a Mexican meat market, but I decided to try a couple of my usual grocery stores first. First I tried Central Market — the upscale Texas grocery store chain that is every bit as good as its P.R. claims it is. Mostly. This place has an incredible meat department — the sprawling display case of meat is bigger than the house I grew up in. When I asked the butcher behind the counter if they had any pork belly, he seemed surprised. I’m guessing it’s not a common question. He told me I could call and place a special order sometime, but it just wasn’t something they carried. This is the store that carries 8-foot stalks of sugar cane and 57 varieties of apples. If octopus-and-rhubarb sausage exists … they’ve got it. They’ve got EVERYTHING! But pork belly? No way. Don’t they do their own butchering? Isn’t that part of a pig? Along with cheeks and jowls and bacon and pork chops? Shouldn’t it be on the premises — maybe not wrapped up all pretty but available? When I asked about fresh lard, the guy’s eyes got really big, but he managed a polite, “No ma’am, we sure don’t.” I also asked at my neighborhood grocery store — part of a large local chain. The butcher was Hispanic, and when I asked about pork belly and fresh lard he started laughing. “I’m going to have to go to a Mexican meat market, right?” And he said, “Yes you are, miss — this is a white people’s market.” I laughed with him, and felt really … white.

So I went to La Michoacana on Greenville Avenue yesterday. I’d never been there before and had expected it to be much larger inside. I walked around a bit looking at the produce and bakery items. I eventually made my way to the back of the store to the meat department. I had practiced a few phrases in Spanish just in case the butcher didn’t speak English, and, in fact, I don’t think he did speak much English, but we managed to understand each other after a tortured few minutes where I was trying to convince him that I wanted to make my OWN chicharrones — “No, really!” — and not buy the ones under the heat lamp on the counter. As I waited for him to go fetch my pork belly, I suddenly noticed a guy four feet away from me hacking away at a giant piece of bloody meat. There didn’t appear to be any skill in what he was doing. He was a teenager — maybe he was in training. Or maybe he’d lost a bet. I averted my eyes from the bloody mess only to see a whole row of containers of manteca fresca — fresh lard. Yay! I was expecting it to be refrigerated, and I was expecting it to be white … but inside the hot store it was liquid and looked like chicken soup. I picked up a container thinking “This is sure gonna make a mess if it spills in my car on the way home.” The butcher came back with two strips of pork belly. It was more than I wanted, but he seemed insistent on selling me a pound’s worth. Why not? He kept looking at me very suspiciously as he wrapped it up for me. He handed it to me, and as I started to walk away, I heard him tell another customer in Spanish that “la rubia” was going to make her own chicharrones. I turned around to look at them and they were chuckling. Again, I felt VERY white but smiled weakly and headed to the register.


The manteca fresca.

So anyway, I made my chicharrones today, and it was really easy. And they were great! Although, after about three you start feeling a little queasy. I made only a half-pound’s worth, but I still have a LOT left over. I hate to waste food, but I don’t know anyone who would even want to contemplate sharing. And I’m not sure these are going to keep. (I’ve been told that fat freezes well, so I should have just popped the unused pork belly into the freezer.) I think you can chop them up with chiles and make a kind of stew or something.

A pleasant, if fat-filled, weekend.

The “recipe” (which I originally found here):


The pork belly, cut into large chunks.


Half a pound of pork belly, simmering in water infused with about a tablespoon of baking soda (this seems to be a necessary step in making the pork belly pliable enough to cut and to chew). Remove the chunks from the water after 10 or 15 minutes; rinse off, and pat dry. Cut into small pieces.


I put a little lard into a skillet, but you probably don’t really need any oil or fat in the pan, other than the pork belly. Start frying skin-side down for 10 minutes or so, then flip over and fry the other side until crisp.


And … tada! Chicharrones! Add a little salt, and enjoy!

***

UPDATE (Dec. 15, 2012): This page gets an incredible number of hits, and I thought I would update very quickly on the current availability of pork belly. I recently purchased a pound at Whole Foods in Dallas and was told that they now carry it regularly. This must be a fairly new addition, because when I asked a few months ago, I was told that they did not carry it. It comes in wrapped, coiled one-pound pieces. I forget what the price was, but it was inexpensive (I think it was under $5.00). Here is what it looks like in the butcher’s case wrapped and, below, unwrapped. Go find some!

porkbelly_wrapped

porkbelly_unwrapped


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Dewey Groom & The Longhorn Ballroom

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Growing up in Dallas with a father who was a classic country music fan, I’d always heard of The Longhorn Ballroom. And I’d always heard of Dewey Groom. You can’t have one without the other. The place is still around, but it keeps opening and closing and opening and closing. I don’t think it’s active at the moment which is a real shame. I came too late to have seen the place at its glorious height as one of the country’s premiere country ballrooms. I even missed the infamous Sex Pistols appearance there in the ’70s. I DID make it once or twice when there was an atttempt to have occasional “alternative” shows there. The other day I came across an old magazine featuring an interview with Dewey Groom. Here is the article in all its questionable grammaticalness (with a few corrected typos).

***

COUNTRY MUSIC REPORTER (Grand Prairie, Texas) – July 1971

Dewey Groom: From the Mabank Flash To Big Daddy of Country Music
(Writer uncredited – presumably Wayne Beckham, the magazine’s editor)

 

Back before he combined dancehall keeping with his country singing, Dewey Groom was known on Dallas radio as the Mabank Flash – a reference to his Van Zandt County origins. He likes to talk of those origins, but he won’t complain nowadays if you call him the Lawrence Welk of country music.

I found him happy about his success as owner of the million-dollar Longhorn Ballroom on Corinth off Lamar [in Dallas, Texas]. But he was more inclined to talk of Angels Inc., the school for retarded children he helped found and hopes to see housed in a big new structure off Buckner, in East Dallas.

If he succeeds, it will be due to the middle-aged faithful who regularly go in thousands to the Longhorn to hear celebrities like Charley Pride or Jerry Lee Lewis, or simply to reassure themselves that the Mabank Flash of Dallas’ immediate postwar years is still in voice.

“I can’t yodel anymore,” Groom told me in the quiet-before-the-storm of a Friday afternoon, “but I still put in my 30 minutes singing and laughing up there with my band every working night – and I’m still hopeful that I don’t have an enemy in the world.”

Likely, he doesn’t; he’s climbed high in his 23 years of dancehall keeping since he opened at 1925 1/2 Main in the old Bounty Ballroom. He’s on the phone steadily to Nashville picking the talent that makes the Longhorn one of the biggest sound chambers anywhere for the Nashville Sound.

Only big name he’s missed is Johnny Cash – and he, Groom avows, is the biggest: a real philosopher and humanist.

Back in Groom’s youth the big name, he says, was Jimmie Rodgers, the old blues singer who started country music. But even before Rodgers became famous in the ’20s, the Groom family was a gospel singing crowd for certain.

“Daddy sang and my uncle was a singing schoolteacher,” he says. “In Deep East Texas, singing schools were everywhere. I joined. They taught you to read music and keep time. Gospel singing is pretty close to country music; so evenings we’d go across the fields to Uncle Bert Wise’s and listen to Jimmie Rodgers. Uncle Bert had the only phonograph around and got all the new records.”

Dewey imitated what he heard, but his friends said everything came out like Gene Autry. He believed them and went to look for a wider audience. He landed in Dallas at 10 with his guitar, but instead of instant fame, found work in a garage.

“I’d get up in the night and hang around a midnight radio show – I’d drop in on Bill Boyd’s old live 6 a.m. program on WRR,” he recalls. “Sometimes he’d let me sing on that show – the big time.”

But it wasn’t until he donned a uniform in 1941 that Groom had a real chance to stretch his lungs. He started singing in army rec halls and when he got overseas became the “Western part” of a divisional GI band which entertained for 42 months in the New Guinea area and Australia.

“I guess I became a professional then,” he reminisces, “but it was Hal ‘Pappy’ Horton that got me going in civilian life. I won $50 first prize on Pappy’s old Hillbilly Hit Parade in 1946. Then when he started his noon-time Cornbread Matinee, I was the singer. The show was a tremendous hit for 200 miles around Dallas. Pappy brought in Gene Autry and Roy Acuff. I was a hit, too. I played school shows and they used to tear the buttons off my clothes. Nobody knew it, but the Mabank Flash’s wife was making those pretty clothes I wore. I was the biggest thing in country singing around here, but she was the biggest thing in keeping me going.”

But Pappy died and the school shows Groom loved petered out. Too many bands were vying for a chance to put on shows in the schools. So Groom went to playing dances.

He ended up with Jack Ruby at the Silver Spur.

“I made Jack a lot of money,” he recalls, “at the time when he was deep in debt.”

“What kind of man was he?” I asked.

“A driver, and a talker – very emotional. Everybody liked him. He’d do anything in the world for you. But he didn’t understand country music. He wanted a sophisticated place, which you can’t have. He ran away my followers as fast as they turned up. Finally, the police that hung around the place told me I ought to get into business for myself. I borrowed $500 and opened up.”

It’s been a rough haul, says Groom, and he’s made it through several locations only because he understands the business – and that takes years.

Too many men rise and fall. Bob Wills, for instance, was the biggest bandleader in the world at one time – he outdrew Tommy Dorsey. Now – well, Groom will have a “tribute” dance for Wills, a man whom, next to Pappy Horton (whom he reveres as a great and good man), Groom admires most.

He cut his professional teeth on Wills’ songs – especially San Antonio Rose which, he confides, is simply an earlier Wills hit, Spanish Two Step, played backwards. Groom also has a taped narrative of Wills’ life, which has been a big radio hit. He expects the Wills Tribute Night to be a success.

“You can squeeze 2,000 people into the Longhorn,” he says, “and I guarantee the top guest stars from $1,500 to more than $2,000. They always make more than the guarantee. This week, it’s Ray Price. Other big names are Charley Pride, the Negro country singer, who I rank next to Johnny Cash, and people like George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Harold Morrison and Conway Twitty.”

As a lifetime member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, Groom is certain that another gospel-singer-type – Jimmy Davis, former governor of Louisiana – will go in the Hall of Fame this year.

Groom is sentimental about the old times and old-timers, but he knows it’s harder to please people nowadays. Variety is demanded. Even a little pop gets mixed with country music.

“People think I’m rich and I guess sometimes I want them to think so,” he confides, “but I don’t want to be. I want friends and I want to finish that school for Angel Inc. If I can do these two things, I’ll be happier even than I was when I was the Mabank Flash.”

“Daddy Dewey,” as he is known by many artists and fans, knows practically all the stars. He has had many of them on his stage. Dewey has contributed much to many artists in helping to get them started. Through the years he has recorded many records and written many songs as well.

The Longhorn Ballroom came about in October, 1968. Since then he has also purchased the old Guthrie Club and torn out the wall to increase the seating capacity to over 2,000, on a 4 1/2 acre plot that cost nearly $500,000.

Dewey Groom has become an authority on country music. He is often called upon for informative opinions on new country clubs or organizations. Many fellow club owners are personal friends and often obtain information about artists and business – [there's no] bitterness that often comes in competition.

It’s been a long way since Dewey first traded a bull-calf for a guitar to the present-day Longhorn Ballroom. It is without doubt “America’s Most Unique Ballroom.” A landmark in Dallas, and one of the few western ballrooms in America. Hand-painted murals cover the walls and country decor prevails. Top country artists appear here weekly [and] Dewey’s own 12-piece band appear[s] nightly.

Dewey.

Interior. Note the cactus pillars. I was there a couple of times when they were trying occasional “alternative” nights — I remember the place being a lot kitschier than this. WAY kitschier.


Exterior.


These “buildings” formed a fake western street scene outside the club — in kind of a horseshoe around the parking lot.

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High Grade: The Beer That’s Liquid Food!

I have a bunch of stuff crammed into boxes. I don’t even know what’s actually IN some of the boxes. There are books and papers and documents and potentially collectible stuff that I’ve acquired over the years, most of it coming from the bowels of my father’s book store. Sometimes I see stuff I don’t remember ever having seen before. Like yesterday, when I saw a postcard lying on the floor, near a box ominously labeled “eBay.” This was the postcard (right click for a larger image):

I have to admit I’ve never heard of High Grade Beer, “The Beer That’s Liquid Food,” but, damn, that’s a cool-looking brewery. I investigated further.

According to The Handbook of Texas, “The Galveston Brewing Company (1895-1918) was one of the few regional breweries that survived Prohibition. Adolphus Busch and William J. Lemp of St. Louis were both major stockholders of the corporation that raised $400,000 to found the Galveston Brewing Company in 1895. The brewery formally began operations on February 3, 1896. The pre-Prohibition physical plant consisted of a large ice plant that could produce seventy-five tons of ice, and a modern brewery that could produce 75,000 barrels of beer a year. The plant also had cold-storage rooms and railroad tracks on two sides of the building. The company dug several wells that gave a water supply of two million gallons a day. The Galveston brewery was so well constructed that it survived the Galveston hurricane of 1900 with only minor damage. The major product of the Galveston brewery before Prohibition was a beer called High Grade.”

Sounds like a pretty amazing operation (I’m not sure about post-Ike, but I think the building still stands).

I found a couple of amusing ads for the beer that appeared in the Galveston Daily News. These two ads appeared in 1908 and 1909, and this campaign featuring the annoying “Otto” seems to have gone on for quite some time. The first one, from 1908, is my favorite:

The kids … they love the beer.

The second one, from 1909, isn’t as “enlightening” as the first, but it gives a nice nod to the hard-working (and always sober) Galveston brewery workers:

More successful, I think, (and certainly less didactic) is this typically lovely example of early-20th century advertising art, featuring beer-loving mermaids prettily washed up on the rocks below the Galveston seawall:

I am endlessly fascinated by the weirdness of advertising.

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It’s One O’Clock and Here Is Mary Margaret McBride

Having discussed my impressions of watching an interview with a heretofore unknown (to me) Mary Margaret McBride in my previous post, I felt I needed to learn more about a woman who had been so important in the daily lives of so many people at one time but who is now almost completely forgotten. I was happy to see that there is a fairly recently published biography of her called It’s One O’Clock and Here Is Mary Margaret McBride: A Radio Biography by Susan Ware. I read the book yesterday — the whole thing in one day, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I was fascinated by MMM when I watched her on the the Mike Wallace Interview show, and I wanted to find out more about her, so I was happy to see that there was a biography of this woman I knew nothing about — I ordered it on Monday, it arrived on Thursday, and I read it Saturday. And I’m proud to say that I now know a LOT about MMM. That she has drifted into obscurity is a crime. She was a pioneering broadcaster in the 1930s through the 1950s, and she was one of the best-known and most-loved radio personalities of her era. I have a feeling that she WOULD be remembered were it not for the fact that she was a woman whose audience was primarily women (although her show was not a “women’s show”).

I wish I had known her. I also wish I had been able to listen to her daily 45-minute interview show. I’m sure I would have a learned a lot about the world, the arts, and about MMM herself. And, like all of her listeners, I’m sure I would have felt that I was listening to a gentle and soft-spoken friend who would ask her guests all the questions I would want to ask myself. Now I know why Mike Wallace, of all people, spoke to her with such warmth and respect. Every woman now toiling in the broadcast industry owes her a great debt. If only more of them possessed her charm and genuine curiosity.

Susan Ware is interviewed about the book on NPR here.


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Elsa Maxwell vs. Mary Margaret McBride

The Mike Wallace Interview I watched a couple more programs from The Mike Wallace Interview program (several of the shows are archived online by the University of Texas here). I watched the interview with Elsa Maxwell (recorded November 1957) and the interview with Mary Margaret McBride (June 1957).

I was familiar with Maxwell, having seen any number of clips of her on the Jack Paar show and on panel shows from the ’50s. She was, basically, kind of famous for being famous. Her claim to fame was throwing parties for the sophisticated set (she also wrote a column about the sophisticated set for the sophisticated set). I always thought she was supposed to be something of a wit, but having watched the Mike Wallace interview, she strikes me as kind of an intolerant, name-dropping gasbag. I see little charm there at all. It was amusing that she had recently said that her idea of a “nightmare party” guestlist would include Elvis Presley (“an utterly unattractive man with no talent”), Jayne Mansfield, and Nikita Khrushchev. You might not be a fan of these people, Elsa, but, let’s face it, that would have been a GREAT party! She comes off as a mean-spirited snob who seems to have wafted through life from feud to feud. She insists in the interview that she is loved by well over 20 million people. I’m wondering if she was loved by TWENTY people.

Mary Margaret McBride, on the other hand, was actually loved by millions upon millions of people. Beloved, even. Basically, I’d only ever heard of MMM in off-hand references to her in a couple of episodes of I Love Lucy, and I guess I assumed that she was a sort of early TV host of a program geared to women — a Martha Stewart type. What I learned from the Mike Wallace interview (which is much, MUCH more bearable than the Elsa Maxwell interview) is that MMM was an early female radio pioneer. She was one of the most popular personalities on radio, and she had a very strong, emotional bond with her mostly-female listening audience in the ’30s and ’40s. She’s often described as being the Oprah of her day. She interviewed movers and shakers and spoke in a folksy manner that is extremely comforting. I love this woman! In fact, I just ordered a biography of her that came out in 2005.

Although both Maxwell and McBride hail from humble mid-western backgrounds (Maxwell from Iowa and McBride from Missouri), they couldn’t have turned out more differently. You get the feeling that Maxwell wouldn’t be caught DEAD back in Keokuk but that McBride would be the first to turn up with a fresh-baked apple pie for a community picnic back in Paris, Missouri.

Interestingly, the two had something else in common. At first it struck me as annoying when Wallace asked both extremely successful women if they ever regretted not marrying — he tried his best to get them both to admit to loneliness and a lack of fulfillment. (I don’t think he would have pursued this line of questioning with a man.) But, in listening to the way the women answered the “spinsterhood” question, one is able to read between the lines — they were both lesbians.* Even though she had lived with her companion for over fifty years, Maxwell is on record with her hypocritical views on homosexuality (which I saw quoted here in an interesting blog that came up on a Google search). McBride, whose companion of over twenty years had died just a couple of months before the Mike Wallace interview, seems heartbroken and lost, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to have heard her talk about their life together in a down-home way that wouldn’t have sounded all that shocking (much like her admission to Wallace that she had once considered marrying a man in Italy only to leave him as soon as she got pregnant).

One woman immersed herself in vacuousness and was hateful and boastful and wouldn’t consider inviting people to her parties who weren’t beautiful. The other was down-to-earth and curious, and she connected with her audience on a human level. Maxwell described homosexuality as a “disease” and a “perversion,” and she suggested people ostracize gay men and women and maybe they’d just go away (while she herself was spending her days and nights rubbing her own less-than-beautiful shoulders with “depraved” celebrities like Noel Coward and Cole Porter). Maxwell was all about exclusion. McBride talked to her audience and to her interviewees as if they were friends — she had a wide variety of people on her show, including black guests, which, at the time, was a very unusual occurence. McBride was all about INclusion. Guess which of the two women had a sparsely-attended funeral? Guess which one is considered one of the most effective spokespersons of the modern advertising era?

La Maxwell and Mary Margaret

Two of the most famous women of their day — and hardly anyone has heard of them today.

(Interestingly, MMM, queen of the pitchwomen, would never hawk anything she didn’t believe in — including cigarettes. Wallace’s show was sponsored by Philip Morris cigarettes, and he’s shilling for them throughout the show as if there’s no tomorrow. During the Maxwell interview he does a couple of live commercials, intoning: “It’s a man’s kind of mildness: no filter … no foolin’.” During the MMM interview — in which his tone is uncharacteristically friendly and concerned — his cigarette proselytizing is kept at a minimum. MMM probably appreciated it.)

* Edit 6/29/08: Having just read It’s One O’Clock and Here Is Mary Margaret McBride, a biography of MMM by Susan Ware (and written about it here), I’m not so sure about MMM being gay. She had an intense relationship with Stella Karn her closest friend, her business partner and her radio producer, but it’s unclear whether they had a lesbian relationship. One comes away from the book feeling that maybe MMM was asexual. MMM’s life was, in many ways, an open book that she shared freely with her listeners, but this part of her life still seems to be something of a mystery.


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