Sunday, January 17, 2010

Creators, Innovators, Seducers

There are more than a few folks who have passed away in the new year, and I have been woefully inadequate with keeping up. Here are a few of interest:

Art Clokey


These oddly shaped creatures are Gumby and Pokey. They were created by Clokey, who was an early innovator in stop-motion clay animation; he helped create the technique which was later trademarked as "claymation." Gumby and Pokey only slightly resembled living beings, and had the ability to twist and reshape themselves, and could even turn themselves into a puddle, which just gives me the creeps. They completely ruined Play-Doh for me. They first appeared with Howdy Doody in the late 50s and eventually graduated to their own children's show. They were always contorting themselves into various odd shapes, to escape the villainous Blockheads, who were always trying to catch them for some reason. Gumby returned to the spotlight in the 80s when Eddie Murphy began to portray him on Saturday Night Live. And if you can believe it, there was even a Gumby movie released in the 90s.
A slightly lesser-known creation by Art Clokey was the TV team of Davey and his talking dog, Goliath. Their adventures were sponsored by the Lutheran Church, and I have vague recollection of the duo (yes, I watched them on Sunday mornings as a kid. They may have been ninnies, but at least they didn't disintegrate into pools of glop). Each episode had a message attached, as you would expect, but the preachiness didn't seem forced, at least to my young eyes. The stories taught gentility, respect and tolerance, sometimes illustrated through interaction with their young friend Nathaniel, who was black (the show broke a bit of ground here). This series had a very long life, running periodically during the 60s, 70s, and 80s, with the lead character aging only a few years, finally attending high school. There were some ownership issues between Clokey and the producers of Davey and Goliath, during which time he left the church, studied Zen Buddhism, and began dropping acid with Frank Zappa. Bet you wish you didn't know that part. Regardless of subsequent events, the opening theme to Davey and Goliath still brings back a feeling of tranquility to me (it's based on a tune written, appropriately enough, by Martin Luther in 1529.) Go ahead, make fun.

In 1965, Clokey designed the opening credits for the camp classic Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, starring Vincent Price and Frankie Avalon. He used his signature clay animation to introduce us to this parody of the James Bond films, with The Supremes singing the ridiculous theme song underneath. Clokey died last week at age 88.

Here's another innovator who died recently:

Donald Goerke

He was a marketing guru with Campbell's Soups, and its subsidiary Franco-American, dating back to 1955. In 1965, he was presented with the challenge of creating a pasta dish which could survive canning, reheating, and most importantly, sloppy children. After discarding stars, cowboys, baseballs, and spacemen as possible pasta shapes, he settled on a simple circular noodle with a hole in the middle, and Spaghetti-Os were born. Over 150 million cans of the stuff are sold each year. Goerke is also responsible for creating the Chunky Soup line of Campbell's products.
If you grew up in the 60s, 70s, or 80s, the jingle for the ubiquitous canned pasta remains lodged in your brain. "Uh, oh...Spaghetti-Ohs!" was originally sung (or chanted) by Jimmie Rodgers, a pop singer who was never as famous as this guy:
Teddy Pendergrass

Though he began his career with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, and charted with songs such as "Wake Up Everybody" and "If You Don't Know Me By Now," he became a breakout solo artist with such hits as "Close the Door," "Turn Off the Lights," and "Love T.K.O". His concert performances showcased a powerfully seductive baritone and muscular physique which drove the ladies wild. He was known for his "For Ladies Only" midnight shows, during which he would shed his shirt and occasionally start a riot. The Washington Post reports that gunfire broke out at one of these events over his discarded headband.
His performing career was dealt a serious blow with his car crash in 1982, which left him paralyzed from the waist down. He was not wearing a seat belt; his companion, a transsexual club performer, walked away from the crash. After a long period of depression, drugs, and the like, he was coaxed back onstage by Ashford and Simpson. In 1996, he toured in a revival of Your Arms Too Short to Box With God, in a production redesigned to suit his talents and disability (his costar was Stephanie Mills from The Wiz). His autobiography, "Truly Blessed," was published in 1998. In his later life, he founded the Pendergrass Institute for Music and Performing Arts, and became an advocate for disabled artists. He died last week from colon cancer at the age of 59.

These are just a few of the folks already lost in the new decade. More dead people to come!