Sunday, August 31, 2008

achieving critical mass

Don Dare and I were talking as we waited to do a halftime presentation at the Maryville vs. Alcoa game on Friday night. Because Don used to live and work in Missouri, the conversation eventually turned to my recent trip to Branson. Don and I were wondering why Branson has so many more well-known performers than Pigeon Forge.

There are many similarities between the two vacation destinations. Both have plenty of restaurants, hotels, miniature golf courses and other tourist attractions. I noticed a place in Branson offering helicopter tours of the Ozarks, which reminded me of Scenic Helicopter Tours in Pigeon Forge. I took one of their flights when I did a brief schedule of endorsement commercials for them about two years ago. By the way, company president Dan Haynes is offering free helicopter rides this coming Saturday. If you possibly can, make plans to take advantage of this. It's an outstanding way to see the natural beauty of the Smokies.

As I talked with Don, I thought it might just be that Pigeon Forge is now at the stage Branson was twenty years ago and that it would eventually catch up. After giving it some further thought today, I wonder if the answer also lies in the difference between pop and country music. Someone who has lived in Tennessee longer than me would know better but the only big-name theatres I can recall in Pigeon Forge featured country performers like Alabama, Louise Mandrell and Lee Greenwood. Obviously Dollywood sets the tone for the area. As popular as country music is in Tennessee, it may not be enough to pull in tourists from Michigan, Ohio and elsewhere.

I'm not saying there aren't country performers in Branson. Obviously there are. But the big names are Andy Williams, Yakov Smirnoff, Lawrence Welk and Shoji Tabuchi. Dick Clark's American Bandstand Theater is populated with oldies acts from the pop charts. Sure Jim Stafford had some success on the country charts but his Branson show is mainstream all the way. Even country acts like The Duttons mix in some classical violin. Branson thrives not because of any one of its performers but because of all of them. Visitors can see a show in the morning, a different show in the afternoon and a third show at night.

One Branson place that appears to be all country is the Roy Rogers & Dale Evans Museum. I took a picture of it because I couldn't believe they chose to erect a statue of Trigger that was so close to being anatomically correct.

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Saturday, August 30, 2008

shore thing

Sean Hannity's radio show used to be on a local AM station every afternoon at 3:00 p.m. I would often hear the beginning of it while scanning the dial and waiting to pick up my son from school. One day Hannity's show was gone. Another station picked up the show and buried it in an evening timeslot via tape delay.

Last night I heard some of Hannity's show as I drove to the Maryville vs. Alcoa football game. He was extremely energized over John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as a running mate. Palin's selection has made the October 2nd vice presidential debate in St. Louis a lot more interesting too.

I wonder if Lorne Michaels has already asked Tina Fey to come back to "Saturday Night Live" just to play Palin. You have to admit there's a resemblance. My wife is hoping that the our favorite cast member, Kristen Wiig, will portray Palin. I'm sure Wiig could nail the voice, especially on phrases like "He's a world champion snow machine racer!"

As a radio guy, I get a kick out of hearing Scott Shannon voice the segment intros on Hannity's show. Almost everyone I knew in DC radio had a Scott Shannon story from his time at WPGC. Something I heard Shannon say last night made me laugh and wonder if I had anything to do with it. I think he said that the broadcast had been "Hannitized for your protection."

In February of 2007, I sent a one-minute audio clip to Sean's staff. His producer, James Grisham, wrote back to say thanks. In the clip, Kim Hansard does an inadvertent spoonerism on the words "hand sanitizer." Listen to it yourself and tell me if you think I planted an idea in the heads of the Hannity folks.

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Friday, August 29, 2008

how stuff works

Quick, what's the best part of an Oreo? Obviously it's the Stuf. When they want to improve an Oreo, they double the Stuf, not the cookie part. You may recall that during the NFL playoffs, I got all caught up in the Double Stuf Racing League theme song.

A restaurant chain called Country Kitchen is trying to hop on the Oreo bandwagon with their new Oreo Pancakes. They put two "oversized Oreo cookie wafers inside two of The Best Pancakes in Town." Sadly, they omit the Stuf. I guess the glob of whipped cream on the side is supposed to represent the missing Stuf. Before we looked at the murals, I tried some while in Cuba, Missouri. They were not bad, but I missed the Stuf.

The pancakes can take their place alongside the Oreo things that I wrote about one year ago. I still haven't tried an Oreo pizza or an Oreo sundae but the Oreo Cakester was good. Since the pancakes didn't satisfy my Oreo jones, I was drawn to a specific item in the pastry case at Sweet Desserterie in Memphis a few days later. Our friend Jessica took us there during our visit with her. The best thing I tasted during my vacation was that piece of Oreo Cream Cake. Before you give me a hard time, let me tell you that I've already lost the three extra pounds that I allowed myself to gain on vacation. And it was worth it. Just look:

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

all shook up

It would not have been too difficult to make Memphis the first stop on our recent road trip. However that would have put us at Graceland on August 16th, which is both the best and worst possible day to visit the home of Elvis. Instead my wife and I were there on August 20th, which was still close enough to The Big E's death anniversary that many of the floral arrangements from his fans were still on display.

After we toured the mansion and the airplanes, we wandered over to the broadcast booth for Elvis Radio on Sirius Satellite Radio. I gestured to the deejay inside that I wanted to take a picture with him. Big Jim Sykes opened the door and graciously posed with me. I told him that I worked in Knoxville and he said that he had also. As we swapped radio stories, I learned that Big Jim was once known as Jungle Jim when he did mornings on the old WOKI. He didn't like the name, which had been assigned by his boss. I promised to email him a link to Knoxville Radio History 101, a blog full of memories he would enjoy.

Big Jim asked if I had ever met his former program director, Brother Clay Gish. I explained that not only had I met him (back when he was still a him), but that I will often get a request line call during a weekend shift from Gishelle Diva Gish, as the former Clay is now known. Big Jim was rather surprised to learn of Gishelle's transition and said he would look for photos online. I said that I wished I could see his reaction when he does. At that point, Jim invited us into the studio while he did a Google search for Gishelle. Big Jim's jaw almost hit the floor when he saw the article and photo essay about her on I'm glad I was there to see it.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

prison guard's son

Gavin DeGraw played the Tennessee Theatre tonight. Yesterday afternoon, I had the opportunity to interview Gavin during a fill-in shift. If you were listening yesterday, you heard parts of the interview. Because we ended up talking longer than format constraints would allow, I'm posting the entire eleven-and-a-half minute interview as a podcast for your aural enjoyment.

Gavin called from Asheville before performing at The Orange Peel. We talked about that venue and the Tennessee Theatre. His tour continues in Nashville tomorrow and Memphis the next night. Thanks to Steve Wildsmith's interview with Gavin in the Maryville Daily Times, I knew to ask about the autobiographical aspect of "I Don't Want to Be." I was interested to learn that Carson Daly gave Gavin a big break by putting him on TV first. Meanwhile Gavin was interested to learn that Carson got his big break as Jimmy Kimmel's intern at a radio station in Palm Springs.

When we got to the topic of his latest song, Gavin sang a little bit of "In Love With a Girl" and described his songwriting process. Because he's known as a songwriter, I asked if there was a song or artist he likes that we would be surprised to hear him cover. He mentioned Hank Williams Jr. and Hank Williams III. I told him that Hank Williams Sr. was one of three famous artists who died after being in Knoxville and that a local festival honors him. Then Gavin told me that Hank Sr.'s heavy drinking may have been due to pain from spina bifida.

Before tonight's concert, I made the stage announcements about upcoming shows (Chris Isaak), muting cellphones and fire exits. Then I went backstage for a meet and greet with Gavin and some listeners.

Opening act Griffin House closed his set with a song about his grandparents. He made sure that the audience understood that the lyrics said "proud to have your blood in my veins." He said many people mistakenly think he's singing about their butt in his face. Yuck.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

move that bus

The light rain wasn't bad as we toured Hot Springs last Tuesday. It turned heavy overnight. My wife and I drove through several downpours on our way to the small town of Bigelow on Wednesday morning. Why Bigelow? Somebody there was getting a new house. A few days earlier, my friend Tim Puttre had called to say he was in Arkansas, working on the production crew of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." Was I close enough to swing by for a visit? Now that Tim has moved from radio to television, he's gotten his own listing on IMDB.

Bigelow is near Conway, home of the annual Toad Suck Daze. The nearest big city is Little Rock, where the newspaper and television stations had coverage of the deserving family who received the new house. A local radio station's vehicle was on site when we arrived.

Tim instructed us to park in the spectator parking field. The water came halfway up our shoes as we stepped out of our car. From there, we rode a school bus to the muddy construction site. TV viewers won't see all the cars, trucks, trailers and tents that were set up on neighboring properties. Not wanting to schlep through the mud was one reason I had decided against going to Crater of Diamonds State Park. Yet here we were, following Tim through the mud to the catering tent. I told my wife that we should look down in case the rain made any diamonds visible. My friend Jessica says that digging for diamonds is for the truly desperate and the singly-focused meth heads.

In the catering tent, I noticed that volunteers had removed the labels from all the bottled water, soda, juice and tea. They do that in case one of the bottles is seen on camera. The green tea looked particularly unappetizing without its label. About Thyme, the catering company, had sent their truck all the way from the (818) area code. Maybe that's where they got the Sara Lee iced orange cake. Which reminds me, why can't I ever find any iced banana cake in the supermarket? I always loved that stuff.

Tim gave us some clear plastic ponchos and VIP guest passes. We were able to briefly meet designer Paul DiMeo as he passed us on his way to the house. Some nice volunteer gave us the same blue t-shirts that they all wear. The crew has a name for the image of all those blue-shirted volunteers arriving to demolish the old house. They call it the "Braveheart" shot.

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Monday, August 25, 2008

the big four-oh

The itinerary for my just-completed road trip was designed so that I could add another state to the list of those I've visited. Arkansas is my fortieth state, filling in a gap on my coverage map.

My copy of "1,000 Places to See in the U.S.A. and Canada Before You Die" helped me decide to head to Hot Springs, America's first resort. The book says that the word spa is an acronym for the Latin words for "health through water" (sanus per aquam) although other sources say the Latin is a convenient backronym.

We started out by touring the Fordyce Bathhouse, which is now the visitor center for Hot Springs National Park. We walked through the old locker rooms, steam rooms and massage rooms to see the equipment used back in the olden days. My wife was reminded of the way Hearst Castle in California is also frozen in time. The from-the-neck-down steam cabinets were something I had only previously seen in cartoons. Empty bottles are for sale everywhere in town. The hot water is available for free. In the AAA TourBook I learned that it takes 4,000 years for rainwater to soak into the nearby mountains and come back up through the springs, heated to 143 degrees.

Rather than just see history on display at the visitor center, we were able to experience it firsthand at the Buckstaff Bath House. We lined up early for the afternoon session, having been advised that those tickets often sell out. My wife and the other women went upstairs. The men bathe on the first floor. Everything inside the facility looked like it had been there since 1912. As I got in the porcelain tub, the attendant gave me a little cup of water from the tub's spigot and told me to drink it. During what seemed like a very long soaking, I occasionally twisted around to protect my parts from the whirlpool. I had plenty of time to think that I had probably never been more naked on a vacation. Eventually the bath attendant shut off the whirlpool and scrubbed my back, chest, arms and legs with a loofa mitt, which I got to keep. I also sat in a small steam room, took a needle shower. and sat in a sitz bath tub with water cascading over my lower back. After that, my lower back and shoulders were wrapped in hot towels. I think I may have dozed off for a minute while waiting for my massage.

After our spa treatments, my wife and I headed to another place mentioned in "1000 Places to See..." to get some dinner. We split an order of the famous ribs and fries at McClard's Bar-B-Q Restaurant. I didn't want so many fries, so we got it with half fries and half slaw. Two stickers on the front door at McClard's grabbed my attention. One said they were also featured in a book called "Eat This!: 1,001 Things to Eat Before You Diet." The other said "Warning: No Firearms Allowed." I wonder what happened in the past to make that sign necessary.

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

body of evidence

The church we normally attend in St. Louis is right across the street from the home of my wife's late Aunt Dee. Almost every time we go, our friend Fr. Ragan Schriver urges us to seek out a priest mentor of his and go to Mass at his parish instead.

In order to be ordained, Fr. Ragan needed someone to testify to his worthiness to be a priest. He asked Fr. Gary Braun to be that person. At the ordination, Fr. Gary addressed the Bishop of Knoxville by saying, "Is Ragan Schriver worthy to be a priest? I'm sure I won't be the last to ask that question." His unintentional joke received roars of laughter from the congregation.

Fr. Gary is the director of Catholic campus ministries for the Archdiocese of St. Louis. When we met him, we introduced ourselves as friends of his friend Ragan. With that credential, we got to talking quickly about dozens of subjects. We told him about the time Fr. Ragan spilled hot wax on his own head during an Easter Vigil. Fr. Gary said that Ragan did the same thing during an Easter Vigil in St. Louis when he was still a deacon.

As it turned out, Fr. Gary also knew my wife's late uncle, who was a priest in Missouri. That led us to the topic of my wife's late aunt (the priest's sister) and how we stay in her condo whenever we're in town. Fr. Gary asked if I was freaked out by staying in a dead woman's home. My wife and I laughed before I explained that I wasn't very squeamish about death, mostly due to my interest in the Body Farm. He started asking questions, so I started telling Fr. Gary about Dr. Bill Bass and the research they do at UT.

During our conversation about decomposition, Fr. Gary challenged me to learn more about the Incorruptibles (not the Incredibles) and to report back with my opinion. He mentioned Clare of Assisi and a few other Saints that I could research. Their bodies have not decomposed the way one would expect. I mentioned that my friend Bean had seen the remains of Pope John XXIII, which were still in remarkably good shape and on display in Rome. But I also read that the pontiff was at least partially embalmed, which would keep him off the list. Now that I'm back home in Knoxville, I'll make time to read more about the Incorruptibles. Maybe we all can have a group discussion.

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Saturday, August 23, 2008

some less

The plan was to go see an improv performance while in St. Louis. The Improv Trick is run by Bill Chott, who worked in the trailer next to mine at the Comedy World Radio Network and has appeared in "The Ringer" among other films. I emailed Bill to ask about his performance schedule in August and chose a night that fit my itinerary.

After a few wrong turns and much map consulting, my wife and I found our way to The Playhouse at Westport Plaza. It's among a cluster of restaurants, nightclubs and hotels in an office park just off I-270. I thought it unusual that there were restaurants named after local sports legends Albert Pujols, Ozzie Smith and Dan Dierdorf & Jim Hart all in the same complex.

We could hear peals of laughter coming through the doors of the Playhouse. However the box office clerk didn't know what we were talking about when we asked for tickets to the improv show. The performer inside was a comic named Sommore. The clerk suggested we try our luck down the hall at The Funny Bone comedy club. The guy at that ticket window knew the improv show was normally at the Playhouse once a week. They had gotten bumped for Sommore. My wife and I went back to the car, comedy-free.

Whenever I travel, I like to seek out a local improv show for inspiration. I often try to bring back some of their games to Knoxville and add them to our repertoire. I had especially hoped to see a show this week. This coming Tuesday, it will be my turn to emcee the Einstein Simplified show celebrating the group's fourteenth anniversary. Last I heard, recently retired members Todd Covert and Bill Slayden are planning on attending and performing. If any other former members (like Doug McCaughan) show up, I will bring them on stage for at least one game. C'mon out and see us on Tuesday night starting at 8:30 p.m. at Patrick Sullivan's. We're going to extend the show until 10:30, so plan accordingly.

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Friday, August 22, 2008

here comes Sander Claus

The first stop on our current road trip was technically a make-good for an old trip. About five years ago, my son and I went to the World Chicken Festival in London, Kentucky. Because the words chicken and Kentucky were involved, I thought the festival would be a little closer than it was to the birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

After watching the parade, eating some chicken cooked in the World's Largest Skillet, having a deep-fried Twinkie for dessert, meeting a Colonel Sanders look-alike, meeting a Food Network camera crew, and watching the cluck-off competition, we just wanted to go home. Neither of us felt like stopping off in Corbin to see the original Sanders Cafe. By the way, the deep-fried Twinkie was not as good as it sounds. Oreos hold up much better to deep-frying.

The modern KFC attached to the old Sanders Cafe wasn't open yet when we got there last Saturday. The workers who had already arrived let us look around and take pictures. They asked if we were in town for the Nibroc Festival (Corbin spelled backwards), which happened to be that same weekend. Alas, we were only passing through.

The historical marker sign out front tells the story of how Colonel Sanders started serving food when the Depression slowed traffic at his gas station. Inside, there's a statue of a ghostly Colonel and a model of the motel and restaurant he opened to grow the business. He experimented with various ingredients and pressure frying methods until he came up with the recipe for Kentucky Fried Chicken. His kitchen has been restored to what it looked like in 1940. In 1956, the Colonel heard the news that Interstate 75 would bypass his location. He sold that restaurant and began traveling and selling his fried chicken recipe to other restaurants.

The museum area has a display case with a Halloween mask of the Colonel. Another case has a record album titled "Christmas Eve with Colonel Sanders." While it would have been great to hear the Colonel sing, I can appreciate the fact that he included my favorite Christmas medley on his compilation disc.

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

viva las artes

My wife's Aunt Margie was on the board of People's Bank when they commissioned a mural to celebrate the bank's 100th anniversary. Aunt Margie liked it so much, she helped form a committee to put eleven more murals all over Cuba, Missouri.

My wife and I stopped off to see the murals on our way to Branson earlier this week. We didn't yet know that we would also see the World's Largest Rocker a few miles down Route 66. Aunt Margie's son Tom served as our helpful tour guide.

Mural 3 features the faces of Cuba residents who lost their lives in World War II. Mural 4 commemorates Senator Harry Truman's 1940 campaign stop in Cuba. Mural 5 shows Amelia Earhart after she made a forced emergency landing in Cuba.

The best of all the murals is number 11. Bette Davis once took a break from a cross-country road trip in Cuba. An eager photographer asked to take her picture outside the Southern Hotel. She refused but he took the picture anyway and got into a scuffle with Bette's companion. The local newspaper published the photo and assumed that the man with Bette was her husband. They didn't question why Bette and her "husband" wouldn't want to be photographed together.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

muddy waters

As native St. Louisans, my wife's Aunt Margie and Aunt Ginny know a lot about the Gateway City. However neither of them had been to Fitz's American Grill & Bottling Works. I had a coupon for a free root beer float, so off we all went. The restaurant is on the busy Delmar Loop along with other eateries, nightclubs, theaters and at least two tattoo parlors. The weather was perfect for outdoor dining, as many were doing at sidewalk cafes. I decided that we would stay indoors, away from any smokers. Plus, our table had a decent view of the bottling line.

Our waiter recommended the Black and Blue Salad. Who doesn't want to eat something that sounds like a bruise? I asked him to make mine medium rare, the same way he would have them make one for himself. The salad was excellent but all I could think about was dessert. I had my mind set on a "Mississippi Float."

I was the only one at our table to order chocolate ice cream in my in my root beer. Everyone else got vanilla. They were less than enthused with their floats. Fortunately, mine was fantastic. Trading tastes with my wife confirmed that I had made the right choice.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008


If Branson is the Las Vegas of the Bible Belt, then Jim Stafford is the Wayne Newton of Branson. The "Jim Stafford Show" is mostly made up of Jim's comedic monologues with some musical interludes and a couple of dance numbers mixed in. My wife and I went to the show on Monday night. The 64-year-old Stafford shared the spotlight with his 15-year-old son Shea and his 11-year-old daughter G.G., who showcased their talents on the piano.

Jim's voice, cadence and breathiness into the mic all reminded me of Garrison Keillor, which I found surprising. My wife watched Jim's TV show as a child and was more familiar with his delivery. I kept thinking that the whole stage show had the feel of a slightly Southern edition of "A Prairie Home Companion."

The Stafford staff passes cards out to the audience before the show begins. Guests can write down a joke or embarrassing story from their lives. Jim reads a few aloud after intermission. There's a space on the card for the respondent to give permission for the submitted anecdote to be published in a book of "Jim's Gems." The back of the card has room to write the name and address of someone you want to nominate to be included in "Jim Stafford's Knuckleheads." The card says it's a network special that Jim plans to tape at his theatre. Or maybe he already did and the card is out of date.

I think we were close to being the youngest ones in the audience. If not for the people who brought their kids, we would have been. It didn't matter though. The show is appropriate for all ages. It isn't tailored for the retirement crowd except for a few jokes about age. Maybe his kids keep him young. Jim even has a MySpace page. A more typical bit revolves around a cow patty. Jim sings a song about them and then tosses some brown foam flying discs into the audience. They sell the patties in the gift shop. And they put Jim's name on the bottled water at the refreshment stand.

Cow patties and water bottles aren't the only moneymaking opportunities the show creates. You can also buy harmonicas that Jim has played for $24.95 and harmonicas that he has played and autographed for $35.00.

We were only in Branson for one night. If we ever get back, I would like to see the guy who was on TV during my childhood, Andy Williams, assuming he's still performing. One of my wife's aunts said that the show to see is that Shoji dude.

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Monday, August 18, 2008

do come a knockin'

Serendipity is the act of making a fortunate discovery by accident. As a fan of world's largest things, a most serendipitous thing occurred to me today.

My wife and I happened to stop off for a visit with Jere's cousin Tom on our way to Branson this morning. While there, we happened to notice a sign for the World's Largest Rocker, just four miles farther down historic Route 66. If our visit with Tom had been any longer or any shorter, we would have missed history in the making.

As luck would have it, we arrived at the World's Largest Rocker just as it was about to rock for the first and only time. Dan and Carolyn Sanazaro, owners of the Fanning 66 Outpost chose today to record the event for the Guinness Book of World Records. The chair was erected on April Fool's Day of this year. For safety reasons, it is normally welded into place. If Guinness is to recognize it as a rocking chair, it has to be capable of actually rocking. After cutting the chair's runners free, a group of men set the giant seat in motion. Our camera was there. The folks at Roadside America will be very interested.

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

what is your favorite noun?

The new church building at St. John Neumann parish in Farragut is both drawing people in and pushing some away. My wife and I had heard about a few parishioners who have tired of the constant fund raising efforts, especially within a homily. More recently, we've heard of some people joining the parish specifically because they want their daughters to get married in the new church.

Another person told me that the new place looks more like a cathedral than our actual cathedral, Sacred Heart. Of course, it’s not the building that makes a cathedral, it’s the chair. The bishop’s chair is called a cathedra. The building that houses it is a cathedral.

The Shopper-News recently ran a photo of the construction at St. John Neumann. The new church should be ready in October. The parish already sold its old building and has been holding Mass in the school gym for a few months. Some of the new church’s artwork is viewable online. To me, it looks like they were aiming for Rome but got Pigeon Forge. Something about the look of the faces reminds me of a coffee mug I have from the Miracle Theater.

My wife and I paused briefly on our current road trip to visit to the Cathedral of the Assumption in Louisville, Kentucky, where former Knoxville Bishop Joseph Kurtz now presides. In addition to his regular duties as Archbishop of Louisville, he is also the Metropolitan over all of Kentucky and Tennessee. The cathedral is just off Muhammad Ali Boulevard.

The first thing we noticed about the cathedral was not the chair for the archbishop but the chairs for the congregation. Instead of pews, they had row after row of red-cushioned chairs. A very nice docent told us that the choice to go pew-free was somewhat controversial when the cathedral was restored about ten years ago.

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Saturday, August 16, 2008

it's alive

Before swimming each day, I use a net to get leaves and pine needles out of the pool. Then I empty the skimmer basket of leaves, bugs and the occasional bad surprise. Once the chores are done, I get in the water myself. As I was swimming the other day, something small and brown got my attention. It wasn't a leaf, as I might usually find. This little thing was swimming too. I got closer and realized it was a frog. I needed to get him out of the chlorinated water immediately.

Last Sunday on the cluster's public affairs show, my guest was Janya Marshall from the Knoxville Zoo. We mostly talked about tonight's Feast with the Beasts, one of my favorite annual events (and one of the top 20 in the Southeast). Janya also ran through a list of current exhibits including Toadally Frogs.

During the interview, I opined that frogs are the canary in the environmental coal mine. In explaining how fragile frogs are, I mentioned that the chemicals which keep the pool suitable for me are fatal to a frog. I scooped up my swimming companion and placed him among some leaves. I think it was a Mountain Chorus Frog, like the ones who lay their eggs on the pool cover in Winter, although its coloring was more solid. It stayed there to rest while I finished my laps, went in to get dressed and came back outside with my camera. I hope the little amphibian has learned to stay out of the pool. In honor of the Olympics, I'll call him Phrogger Phelps.

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Friday, August 15, 2008

ahoy there

The amazing Michael Phelps did it again. Tonight's race was the best yet. Earlier in the week, his relay teammates won him a gold medal in a great display of sportsmanship. The other day, Phelps overcame goggle adversity to set another world record. However it was tonight's race that left me slack jawed and speechless while staring at the TV.

Phelps looked like he was going to lose throughout the entire 100 meter butterfly event. For the first time in this Olympics, he didn't break a world record (just an Olympic one). Two of his competitors were capable of beating him. American Ian Crocker holds the world record and Serbian Milorad Cavic was the top qualifier in the preliminary heats. From almost every camera angle it looked like Cavic had touched the wall first. The electronic timer gave the race to Phelps by one one hundredth of a second. It wasn't until NBC showed the replay from the underwater camera in super slow motion that it became clear Phelps had touched first. He was still swimming at full speed as Cavic was gliding and reaching for the wall. The last half-stroke made all the difference.

As the swimming events wind down, so does my interest in the Olympics. If something catches my eye, I will watch for a little while but I won't be planning my evening around an event like I did with Phelps' races. Perhaps it will be fun to look for newspaper headlines about track star Tyson Gay. I doubt anyone can top today's San Francisco Chronicle headline: Gay Cruises To Heat Victory!

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

lucky number eight

WVLT held a local version of a network upfront presentation this afternoon at the Tennessee Theatre. I called Dino Cartwright and got myself invited. Alan Williams served as emcee for the event, which was targeted to advertisers.

Actor David Keith was there to plug his upcoming appearance on "CSI: Miami." I spoke to him briefly, choosing to tell him that when we met about ten years ago at KLOS, it was the first time I had ever heard anyone talk about Vols football. David responded by saying that he had been in Mark Thompson's first film. It was definitely a better choice than bringing up the time we met again three years ago.

In addition to Keith, I saw and spoke with Chef Walter, Gary Loe, Rick Russo and Bob Kesling. Russo and Kesling took the stage to talk about the Vols for a little while. Most of the time was devoted to watching previews of the new shows coming to CBS this fall:
  • The pilot episode of "Worst Week" looks funny. But can they maintain that frenetic pace in episode two or three or four etc?
  • I'll take a look at Jay Mohr's show, "Gary Unmarried," because I like his guest appearances on KROQ. Will the sitcom writing be up to the level of his standup? He looks like he's taken up weightlifting or something.
  • Of the dramas, "The Mentalist" intrigues me enough to record a few episodes. It airs on Tuesday nights, while I'm out improvising.
  • They said that "Eleventh Hour" got the best grades from test audiences. The short preview I saw didn't convince me to commit to it. I'll probably watch the first episode, just to be nice.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

pool shark

Backyard swimmers like me can take some comfort from the fact that even the best swimmer in the world can find his goggles filled with water. That's what happened to the amazing Michael Phelps last night during the 200 meter butterfly race. Despite the setback, Phelps still set a new world record and added to his collection of gold medals.

The 12-hour time difference between here and China allows me to watch the swimming events live as I type this. Dan Hicks and Rowdy Gaines are doing a great job announcing. Imagine how they would have sounded describing discontinued Olympic events like the swimming obstacle race, underwater swimming or solo synchronized swimming. Huh?

NBC and ABC both ran stories on their evening newscasts about the technological advances that are helping this year's Olympians set new records in almost every swimming event. The pool inside the Beijing Water Cube is built for speed. Its depth, lane dividers and gutters all reduce the waves that would slow the competitors. Obviously the much-hyped new swimsuits get some credit. NASA engineers helped design a suit that is more streamlined than human skin. Most important is Phelps' training regimen and swimming technique. I heard him say tonight that one of his best tools is his underwater dolphin kick. His huge feet and gigantic wingspan don't hurt one bit.

The new pool technology isn't limited to Beijing or the temporary above-ground tank in Omaha. Last month my son swam in the new Allan Jones Intercollegiate Aquatic Center at UT. He and the rest of the City Meet swimmers thought it was a fast pool, certainly an improvement over the old Student Aquatic Center.

On my last trip to Atlanta, I had a chance to see the pool used in the 1996 Olympics. It now belongs to Georgia Tech. They put a school logo on the bottom of the diving well. From my perspective, it looked a lot like the handicap symbol in the foreground.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

took a whole lotta tryin'

The satire in "Tropic Thunder" was so rich I wanted everyone else in the theatre to stop laughing so I could just soak it all in. At times, I sat there in open-mouthed amazement at the bulls-eye accuracy of the parody. Because it's an R-rated comedy, most of the jokes cannot be shown in the trailer. As a result, I was able to enjoy the movie, unlike "Get Smart," which was ruined for me by watching the previews.

Robert Downey Jr. carries the film. He plays an Australian method actor who has his skin darkened to play an African-American sergeant. Obviously he is spoofing actors, not African-Americans. I haven't heard any reaction yet to the use of the N word in one scene. Instead, some people are upset over use of the R word. I think a satire should be given more leeway than a broad comedy. They're making fun of actors who portray mentally-challenged individuals, not the people who are challenged. Think about "Rain Main," "Forrest Gump" and "I Am Sam" and all the other roles that actors have used as Oscar bait.

There are many reasons to recommend "Tropic Thunder" for audiences ready for some outrageous humor. Not only does Tom Cruise steal every scene he's in, he steals the closing credits too. Which reminds me, I really liked the way the cast list in the credits was organized by scene. I expect to see a favorable review too from Betsy Pickle, based on her laughter during the preview screening last night. She sat right behind me in the crowded theatre.

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Monday, August 11, 2008

man with the Midas touch

Last nights 4 x 100 meter freestyle relay will go down in Olympic history alongside the famous "Do you believe in miracles?" hockey game of 1980. The race was on close to midnight, Eastern time. My wife had gone to bed only a few minutes earlier. I called out to her and convinced her to get up and come watch the TV in my office.

This morning she urged our son to go online and find some video highlights. First he tried to watch it on an older laptop, choosing the option to watch without downloading Microsoft Silverlight. That didn't work. He then found that it wouldn't work without updating the version of Firefox on that machine either. I sent him upstairs to get my laptop. We downloaded the application and finally watched the race. It was well worth it. In fact it was even better the third time around. If you haven't already seen it, click here to watch the race. And then watch it again a couple of times so that we'll be caught up.

To win more gold medals than Mark Spitz, Michael Phelps needed to be on a winning relay team. Obviously he could not do that on his own, especially against the heavily-favored, smack-talking French team. Phelps swam an American record time in the first leg and still got beaten by the Australian competitor. His teammates took the lead, lost the lead and then came from behind to win the race. Jason Lezak's anchor leg was amazing. Equally outstanding is the jubilation of the American team as they celebrate their victory.

All the teams were so good that even the fifth place finisher came in ahead of the old world record time of 3:12:23. Imagine explaining that one to the grandchildren. "Oh yeah, we broke the old world record. Yet somehow we came in fifth!"

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Sunday, August 10, 2008

all of the above

There are three possible reasons why I truly enjoyed Krisha Newport's performance in "Cactus Flower" at Theatre Knoxville Downtown. a) she's a friend of mine; b) she's remarkably talented; or c) she has the best part in the play. My wife and I were part of today's matinée audience.

Krisha plays the spinster nurse who just may bloom like the cactus on her desk. That same character was portrayed on Broadway by Lauren Bacall and in the movie by Ingrid Bergman. Those are some heavy-duty actresses. They try to trick you into thinking that the story is about a pretty young girl (Oscar winner Goldie Hawn in the movie, Brenda Vaccaro on Broadway) depressed over her affair with a dentist. In reality, the nurse is the linchpin on whom the whole plot turns.

I found a scene from the movie on YouTube. It seems a little sluggish compared to the play, which is a quick-witted farce. It has enough of a plot twist to keep you guessing how the romantic partnerships will work out. Krisha's character, Stephanie, could end up with the writer, the actor, the diplomat or the dentist. Her red wig put me in mind of another great comedic actress, Carol Burnett.

Pat and Morgan Fitch are in the cast as the rich patient and the struggling actor. In real life, they once invited me over to see their pet turtles. After another actress dropped out, Pat offered to play two parts. A different wig and costume transformed her into the actor's girlfriend. In a compliment to her technique, I didn't realize that the second character was also her until the curtain call.

"Cactus Flower" runs for two more weekends. The News Sentinel had a nice write up about the show the week before it opened. Theatre Knoxville is housed in a little space across the street from Regas Restaurant that I had overlooked until now. I'll be back for Krisha's next show.

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Saturday, August 09, 2008

ain't ashamed to tell ya

To say that I was bummed by the death of Bernie Mac would be an extreme understatement. My daughter knows that I am a fan and called to tell me about Bernie's passing. That's how I found out. When I told some co-workers, they hoped that it was some sort of false rumor. A check of the headlines on their cell phones confirmed the sad news.

The first I ever heard of Bernie was when I saw "The Original Kings of Comedy." Two of the film's other stars, Steve Harvey and D.L. Hughley had made multiple guest appearances on the Mark & Brian show in the time I worked at KLOS. They were enough of a draw for me to want to see the movie.

My wife and I were just about the only white people in movie theater that day. Harvey, Hughley and Cedric the Entertainer were all funny but Bernie Mac stole the show. I started watching for him in other movies and on TV. A year or so later, I set up a Season Pass on my TiVo when "The Bernie Mac Show" debuted. Since 2000, I've seen at least eight of Bernie's movies, including the underrated "Pride" and "Mr. 3000."

The best remembrance of Bernie that I read today is by Alan Sepinwall in the Newark Star-Ledger. He reprinted his 2002 interview with the comedian. Meanwhile, my friend Bean spotted a mistake that the Chicago Tribune certainly must regret. You can read the corrected version of their obituary online as well as a better article that came later. When it was first posted, they had not yet inserted some anecdotes about Mac's early years:
Life changed dramatically for Mac when he was 32. He won the Miller Lite comedy search that year and that performance took him to the standup stage, which ultimately led to regular performances on popular shows like HBO's "Def Comedy Jam."

In a few short years, he was able to put a stamp on this tell-it-like-it-is brand of comedy that audiences had come to know him for. He was a hit on the stage, delivering sordid tales of his early life growing up on Chicago's South Side. Would be great to get a couple examples here

His work hit home to the African American audience -- his aggressive, brash comedy had a down home feel to it, tackling everything from family life to black romantic relationships -- yet Mac was able to cross it over, connecting with a majority entertainment scene.
The obituaries aren't enough. I'm going to look for some videos and watch Bernie Mac at his best.

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Friday, August 08, 2008

liberal media bias

Barack Obama did not get equal time in Knoxville last night. Most of the country saw him and John McCain on the finale of "Last Comic Standing." Here, we got McCain only. The two candidates each did a short bit to showcase their sense of humor. From what I've read, Obama's piece may have been a little funnier than McCain's, depending on his delivery.

Obama got preempted by some very early local election returns from Sevier, Jefferson and Loudon counties. WBIR cut in at 8:43 p.m. for about a minute. In most cases only 2% of the precincts were reporting by that time. They cut in again 20 minutes later with some Knox County results. Only 1% of those precincts were reporting. At least they did a better job with the second cut-in by fitting it within the confines of a commercial break. If they had done it right the first time, they could have replaced promos for "Heroes" and "America's Toughest Jobs" and not missed any of the show. By the time they made it back to "Last Comic Standing," Jon Lovitz was starting his stand-up set.

The LCS finale was a typically inflated results show with 89½ minutes of build-up to 30 second announcement. I was happy that Iliza Schlesinger won the competition. She really earned it by performing almost every week. The other comics sent her to the elimination round a couple of times. Their strategy backfired as Iliza won each early vote by a landslide and gained many new fans along the way. Find more Iliza videos on her site and at YouTube.

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Thursday, August 07, 2008

not a big Limp Bizkit fan

Over the years we've been married, my wife Jere has rarely been happy with her haircuts. All that changed last year when she and I got makeovers from Stacey Handel at Garde Bien Spa Salon. Yesterday, Jere went in to the salon with confidence that whatever Stacey did to her hair would be great. Stacey was excited that my wife, who had let her hair grow long, wanted to go short.

I think the impetus for this came a while back when Jere and I had dinner at Regas with Stacey and her husband. We went out to celebrate together because we happen to have the same wedding anniversary. The ladies thought it would be the perfect opportunity to look at each other's wedding photos, which started giving Stacey ideas for Jere's next haircut. Needless to say, my wife's hair looks fantastic. She kept asking me if I really liked it until I reminded her that she had short hair when we met and when we got married.

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Wednesday, August 06, 2008

sugar and spice

Food Network ran an old episode of "Good Eats" tonight that seemed familiar even though I had not seen it before. Alton Brown cooked up some homemade protein bars and a healthier alternative to Rice Krispies Treats. Last year, I wrote about the Brown Rice Crispy Bar when one of my brothers-in-law made something similar, using the "Good Eats" recipe as a guideline.

My sweet tooth must be acting up again. Earlier today I was reading a recipe for Roasted Blackberry Chipotle Brownies and wondering if I could talk my wife into making a batch the next time we need to donate something to a church bake sale or other event. Of course I would keep a few for myself. I like the idea of swirling the spicy sauce into the chocolate batter. Anne Traver at Fischer & Wieser sent me that recipe and several others along with a bottle of their new sauce.

I used the opportunity to call Anne to say thanks. While I had her on the phone, I asked about the Pomegranate & Mango Chipotle Sauce currently in my refrigerator. The sugar in the sauce crystallized in the fridge, the same way honey does when it gets too old or too cold. Anne is a former home economics teacher now in charge of testing recipes and creating new ones. She advised me to place the bottle in some hot water to melt the crystals. Or better yet, spoon out just what I need into a little bowl and then heat it. For lunch, I usually microwave five ounces of chicken and then top it with the pomegranate sauce or the Original Roasted Raspberry Chipotle Sauce. Lately I've been putting the crystallized sauce on the cold chicken and then microwaving it.

UPS had trouble reading my house number on the package from Fischer & Wieser. They sent me a postcard saying that they had tried to deliver it to a non-existent address. Of course the postcard also had the wrong house number. Fortunately the USPS figured out how to get the card to me. The postcard came on Friday and said that they would return the package to the sender on Monday if I didn't come pick it up at their Callahan Drive location before they closed that night. Instead I called the phone number on the card, got them to correct my address and deliver the package to me on Monday.

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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

why I oughta...

Preparations are in full swing for my upcoming road trip to Branson, Hot Springs and Memphis. The first person I thought of in Branson was Little Timmy Padilla, who used to play accordion for us at KLOS before getting a job at the Lawrence Welk Resort Theatre. I was hoping we could catch Timmy in a matinée before seeing Jim Stafford at night. According to his website, Tim has moved back to Studio City. He will be in Branson for a week but unfortunately it's not while I'm there.

My wife and I went to AAA to get maps and TourBooks. We got there an hour before closing, which left no time for them to make us a TripTik. Not to worry, they said they would mail it to us. Meanwhile, I've been sifting through the TourBooks looking for restaurants in Branson. I also emailed Comedy World co-founder Kent Emmons who has connections there. He wrote back with several fine dining options.

Something else in the AAA TourBook is too weird not to mention. Here's the exact quote: "One of the flashiest shows in town is at the Shoji Tabuchi Theatre on Shepherd of the Hills Expressway. Tabuchi -- who has a Moe Stooge pudding bowl haircut..."

Wait just a minute here. Who is "Moe Stooge?" I don't know who should be more insulted, Moe Howard, all Three Stooges fans or Shoji Tabuchi himself. By the way I talked with someone over the weekend who believes that it is Yo-Yo Ma who has a theatre in Branson.

The AAA writer continues: "If nothing else, you must see this show just to experience the ladies' powder room or gentlemen's lounge; the rich wood paneling, potted palms, chandeliers, beveled glass wall tiles, onyx sinks, fresh orchids and hand-carved mahogany billiard table are all the last word in lavish." Too bad their stage is dark this month.

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Monday, August 04, 2008

listen freely

Maybe one of these days I'll get an iPod. I've gotten by with the mp3 player on my cell phone and by listening to an occasional podcast on my TiVo or my laptop. Over the weekend I went along on one of my wife's many shopping trips during the sales tax holiday. While our son picked out a silicon cover for his iPod, I looked at the other accessories and got to thinking about how convenient it would be to use a little FM transmitter to listen to podcasts in the car or on my clock radio. I'm not really interested in using the earbuds.

Today I started downloading a free audiobook from Project Gutenberg. Last month I had the idea to listen to something by Mark Twain during our upcoming road trip to Arkansas. At the suggestion of blog reader Clay, I limited my search to only human-read books rather than those done with a computer generated voice. Although the selection wasn't as good as I had hoped, I thought "Chapters from My Autobiography" might teach me about my distant relation. I downloaded most of its 25 chapters today. Tomorrow I'll get the rest and start burning them to a stack of CDs. I hope the disc player in my wife's car works better than the one in mine. Months ago I burned a CD of a podcast by a GMU economics professor. The disc is still in my car's player, unwilling to play. I think it's too long for the machine to read.

Reader John suggested I pry open my wallet and buy some of Chris Addison's CDs. Perhaps next year. For this trip I'm sticking with the free downloads. John's idea did remind me to look for some NPR podcasts for the show "Radiolab" that I discovered in June. There's still time for you to nominate a free download for my travel playlist.

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Sunday, August 03, 2008

glorify your name

No offense to our parish priests but the best sermons I heard this weekend occurred not at Mass but during the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Both Darrell Green and Art Monk spoke beautifully about their faith, their family and football.

Darrell told an amazing story of how he barely missed the chance for a ride home from college with his best friend Carnelle. He was homesick and depressed that he didn't get to visit his family for the weekend. On Monday morning he learned that Carnelle was killed in a car wreck. Had he gotten the ride, Darrell's life would have probably ended too. Later he said that he felt God had a plan for him to remain with one team when he could have easily been a free agent. By staying with the Redskins, Darrell Green could also stay with the same church. He and Art Monk both mentioned Grace Covenant Church in their speeches. Art and his wife turn up in a photo on the church's website.

Monk must have thought for a moment that he might never get to his speech. He set receiving records throughout his career. Last night he set a record for receiving the biggest ovation from the crowd. The four minutes of applause helped make up for the eight years he had to wait for his enshrinement.

Monk and Green are two of the main reasons I became a Redskins fan. I come from a family of Giants fans. While working at WAVA, I had the opportunity to meet several of the players, including Art and Darrell. At first I would cheer on the individual accomplishments of the guys I had met. How could I not want success for those two? Before long I was rooting for the whole team, just as I am tonight as the Redskins play the Colts.

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Saturday, August 02, 2008


An article about the Smithsonian caught my attention a couple of weeks ago when the new exhibits "The Truth About Crystal Skulls" and "Jim Henson's Fantastic World" opened to the public. The writer wonders how the pop-culture inspired displays are in keeping with the museum's mission for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge."

The crystal skull is at the National Museum of Natural History, which may explain the problem the writer has with it. Usually all the pop culture stuff goes in the National Museum of American History, which is closed for renovations until November 21. That's where my daughter saw Jerry Seinfeld's puffy shirt almost three years ago.

The Smithsonian has some radio artifacts including a microphone used by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Jimmy Kimmel recently emailed me a link to the site for a new radio that could end up in a museum someday. It's easy to use like a table radio but has the brains of a computer that can play both terrestrial and Internet stations. The two places I listen to radio most (on my own time) are in bed and in the car. It would be great to wake up to some of my favorite stations from around the country but it's not worth spending $650 for the convenience.

Most of the time I have the TV on while I'm reading and writing on the Internet. I do it in an effort to keep up with the accumulated shows on my TiVo and my HD-DVR. I would like to make time to listen to a few radio podcasts and maybe I can now that I know how to increase the playback speed on Windows Media Player.

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Friday, August 01, 2008

rocky road

It's bad enough when one of the restaurants you've patronized turns up on the "Food for Thought" segment on WATE. It feels even worse when you've been to both restaurants on the report. That's what happened tonight when Don Dare announced the failing score for Baskin-Robbins on Middlebrook Pike and the barely passing score for Mimi's Cafe at Turkey Creek.

Not only had we been to the two places, I wrote about both of them on the blog. Mimi's Cafe scored a 70. We had a good meal there back in March and brought home a S'mores dessert to eat the next day. It looks like Baskin-Robbins, which had a 57, got a 75 upon re-inspection. When we were there in April, we got grossed out by the server who let her hair hang into the ice cream tubs.

My wife talked with another swim team parent who works at a Cracker Barrel. He says that the local health inspectors have been more picky since getting shuffled around to different territories. If what the BBC said eight years ago is still true, Knoxville has the most restaurants per capita in the U.S. I wish that our restaurants had to post big letter grades like the places in Los Angeles and in St. Louis.

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