Just as I am sitting down to transfer this week’s column into pixels, the bulletin hit my laptop like a blaster hitting a womp rat:
“Carrie Fisher… Dead at 60.”
It may be time for me to find that life-sized cutout of Princess Leia in her slave girl outfit I have stashed in the closet and give it a proper place of honor in my media room.
If we think that 2016 has been some “cursed year” for the icons of our youth, we just need to check the ages of some of these folks who have left us and understand the ticking clock pulls no punches. Yes, some people are living to 90 these days, and that is all well and good, but the excesses of celebrity life do tend to take a toll. When you combine that with the fact that “modern pop culture” as we tend to know it was really born with the careers of Elvis and The Beatles, the “time” for so many of our heroes and idols is at hand.
Chances are if you had an entertainment career that peaked during the heyday of the baby-boomer generation, in 2016 you are well north of 60, and living in a body that saw more substance and lifestyle abuse than you can remember.
In other words, folks, these “sad Hollywood bulletins” are just getting warmed up. Time, and its toll, waits for no one.
If you have remained a fan of your youthful obsessions, as I admit I most certainly have, these deaths really have a way of slowing you down a bit. Just as it was devastating for so many when Elvis and John Lennon died, especially because their passing came so young and by such horrific means. More than anything else those deaths reminded us how fragile life could be, and that selfish and excessive behavior, either self inflicted or brought by another, can end any life at any time. This is no recent phenomenon; John Belushi, Marilyn Monroe and just this year Prince, all gone in a heartbeat, all leaving us at what should have been great times in their respective lives.
For several generations of American youth hooked on music, television and movies, our devotion was honest and, quite frankly, predictable. When our icons died, of course it affected us, even if we were not part of their family, they were most certainly part of ours.
If you were to ask my parents, they might tell you that young Austin took the “pop culture” contributions of some of those entertainment folks a little too seriously. And they would be probably be right.
But it wasn’t my fault.
Three of my main objects of affection/obsession came to life in 1966, when I was just a year old. While Mom and Dad did not make a habit of propping me up in front of a TV for hours on end, they did see to it that I was with my Aunt Kay and cousins Dean and Christi as often as possible.
I blame them.
They were the ones who insisted that the TV be on when the Starship Enterprise was battling the Klingons. Seven-year-old Dean was always happy to share Batman and Robin with his toddler cousin, and if 12-year-old Aunt Kay was looking after 2-year-old Austin, you better believe she was doing it with a Monkees album playing on the record player in her room.
I knew the words to “I’m a Believer” long before I knew the words to “Happy Birthday.” The “David and Goliath” story came later in life than Captain Kirk versus the Gorn, and years before I learned of the “Axis” America fought in World War 2, I knew that Batman had his hands full with the Joker, the Penguin and the Riddler.
I also figured out that Catwoman was the laundry lady all four Monkees fell in love with, one of whom may have been the father of the baby Dr. McCoy delivered when she lived on the planet Capella. In addition, I discovered that Mr. Spock’s wife was also a lady vampire in love with Davy Jones, and that Batgirl out of her costume was actually a crazy, green, Orion animal woman with the hots for Captain Kirk.
All brought to you in glorious living color on ABC and NBC.
While Kay and the cousins moved on to other things, as kids that age tend to do, I stuck with what I knew, and what I loved. About the time I was able to navigate a TV and a record player on my own, Star Trek and Batman were in heavy rotation in afternoon reruns, and all those Monkees albums we once listened to together had been handed down for me to keep, and play whenever I wanted.
1966 was also the year the most important movie theater of my formative years was born, National Hills Theater.
If there was a bigger thrill than seeing the Batman TV cast assembled for their movie on the big screen at National Hills, I didn’t know what it was. Until of course another movie based on one of my favorite TV shows popped up on that screen in 1971, “The House of Dark Shadows.” I saw that one with the Cooper boys from across the street, scared the Hell out of all of us! It was pure awesome from beginning to end, and also based on a series that was born in 1966.
That theater became one of the most important destinations of my young life. It was the first business my parents allowed me to walk to from the house, alone. I saw hundreds of movies there over the years, many pictures for multiple sittings. I remember one Saturday hitting “Silver Streak” at the first showing and watching it four times. It wasn’t unheard of; it was 1976.
When the theater closed in 1996, I made it a point to attend the last showing of the last movie that played at National Hills. “Cutthroat Island” was no “Batman,” but there was no way I was not going to be there to say goodbye and thanks for the amazing memories. Hard to believe that was 20 years ago.
Imagine my surprise recently when the former manager of the theater, Mike Rogers, reached out with some amazing news. He was able to salvage a few pieces of the building when it was demolished, including one of the doors that lead from the lobby into the main theater. He knew my connection with the place, and he offered it as a memento. That door now serves as the centerpiece table in my media room and, as you can see in the picture, it is home to every single episode of “Batman,” “Star Trek” and “The Monkees.” All those seasons restored in high definition, looking as brilliant and bright as the men and women who created the shows in their youthful productivity 50 years ago.
Somewhere in each of those 258 episodes were messages that no amount of conventional classroom time could deliver. If Kirk and Spock trusted and depended on Lt. Uhura, and they most certainly did, who was any man on this Earth to doubt the value of a human, based on their race or gender? If four odd looking teenagers could combine their voices and talents in such an amazing and entertaining way, what might the rest of us accomplish if we find the right team and work together? And if we use our resources and strength to fight evil and criminal behavior wherever it exists, how can the righteous not eventually prevail?
In 2016 I celebrated 50 wonderful years with the amazing material that helped inspire my love of music, fantasy and adventure. All of my earliest memories involve these amazing and fun characters embracing teamwork, diversity and the lesson that it may take a half hour, a full hour or even a cliffhanger and a two-hour episode to deliver. What an amazing treasure it was to enjoy!
So when our pop culture icons pass away, of course it affects us. They were our refuge and our distraction, they were the colorful and talented people we wanted to grow up to be.
They were our heroes, but, more than that, they have been, and always shall be, our friends