bad TV, good tv, LDS, religion, YouTube

A non-Mormon looks at the LDS film, “Saturday’s Warrior”, and has a good cringe…

I have been hanging out on the Recovery from Mormonism messageboard for about twenty years now, and I’ve been exposed to a lot of LDS stuff over that time period. However, somehow I completely missed out on Saturday’s Warrior, which started out as a “humble drama project” in California back in 1973, was turned into a Brigham Young University stage production in 1974, and then in 1989, became this musical monstrosity weirdly reminiscent of Saved By The Bell.

Because I had nothing better to do yesterday, I watched this whole film, and started a thread about it on RfM. On the surface, this show is pretty laughable and silly, but digging deeper, there’s actually kind of some disturbing stuff here. And since I haven’t upbraided the Mormons in a good, long, while, I thought today might be a good day for doing that. Germany is very stormy and windy today, and my dogs are too scared to go out and pee without strong encouragement from me. They probably won’t want a walk until things settle down.

This time of year is always difficult for me, especially in Germany, where the weather generally sucks for weeks on end. The past two years have sucked more than usual, mainly due to the pandemic, and the fact that it’s a good excuse for me to be reclusive. I have a tendency to hole up when there isn’t a deadly plague, but this virus just gives me a reason to hunker down more, which is actually not that great for my mental health. For one thing, I tend to drink more when I’m holed up at home. For another, I find myself watching bizarre videos on YouTube. Well… Saturday’s Warrior definitely fits the bill as “bizarre”, at least for the uninitiated. I can’t believe I watched the whole thing. And, well, afterwards, I was left a bit flabbergasted. More on that later.

Apparently, this film, aimed at the youth of my day, was quite the LDS cultural icon to teens of the 90s.

Some background for those who don’t “know” me…

I grew up a Protestant (Presbyterian) in southeastern Virginia. Back in my kid days, there weren’t a whole lot of Mormons in Virginia, at least not in the area where I was coming of age. Now, of course, many LDS church members have descended on my mother’s hometown of Buena Vista and the surrounding areas, and I know there are a number of LDS folks in northern Virginia and other urban areas, particularly around Washington, DC. In 1996, church members bought my mom’s alma mater, the former Southern Seminary Junior College (Sem), in Buena Vista, and turned it into LDS influenced Southern Virginia University. I call the school “LDS influenced”, because the school is not owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but was purchased by several LDS businessmen.

I almost decided to go to Southern Sem when I was finishing high school in 1990, because I was really into horses and Sem had a great riding program. Six years later, the school had completely changed. What used to be a barn is now a basketball court, and what was once a tiny, private, women’s college is now a religious co-ed school. My mom was a day student at Sem; she got a full scholarship in exchange for playing piano for the glee club.

The funny thing is, one of the men who became a bigwig at SVU used to work in Farmville, Virginia, where I attended Longwood University in the early 1990s. I knew his wife, because she joined the auditioned choir, The Camerata Singers, of which I was also a member. She was probably the first Mormon I ever met– a mother of five, a graduate of BYU, and frankly, a little bit annoying (but in fairness, so was I). At the time, I had no way of knowing that one day, I would one day serve in the Peace Corps and meet a LDS couple, and then marry a Mormon convert a few years after that.

This may be a little “woo” of me, but I have always felt that the universe has a tendency to prepare you for things, if you’re paying attention. I think that LDS couple I knew in Armenia helped prepare me for meeting Bill, who is no longer Mormon, but totally could have been a stereotypical representative of the faith. He looks and acts the part, minus the fakeness/assigned friend tendency. You know how some people have a very convincing and superficially “nice” exterior? Well, Bill really is a very nice and extremely kind person. He is the kind of person who would take to heart the feel good, warm and fuzzy, teachings of the church. But he’s genuine, whereas I think some of the others in the faith, aren’t so much. But then, one could probably find that dynamic in most groups. It just seems more obvious to me in the LDS church.

My husband’s now adult daughters were raised LDS by their convert mother, who used the church as one of the many tools in her parental alienation arsenal. My husband’s younger daughter is a “returned missionary”, and is still an active member of the LDS church, but I think the others have mostly fallen away, except for when they need money or support of some kind. Bill was effectively estranged from both daughters for about 13 years, and only managed to see one of them in 2020, fifteen years after their last in person meeting. He now talks to his younger daughter regularly. The other daughter is still completely estranged and still lives with her mother. One of the many reasons they were estranged had to do with the LDS church and the way members are encouraged to guilt and manipulate people who choose to leave the religion.

For many reasons, ex Mormons are some of my favorite people. A lot of them are genuinely really good folks, but they are also smart and courageous, and they often have great taste in books and music. I’ve also noticed that some of the more rebellious ones have wonderfully irreverent senses of humor. It makes sense, too, since one has to be kind of brave and rebellious to leave Mormonism, especially if one’s whole family is invested. In Bill’s case, he was the only one in his birth family who had joined the church, so his family was mostly delighted when he resigned. They all gave us coffee and booze gifts at our wedding in 2002.

Until recently, I took a very negative view of Mormonism. However, at this point, I’m somewhat less hostile toward the church, because some members very kindly helped Bill’s daughter when we could not. So, as you can see, while I was never a member of the LDS church, it’s definitely touched my life. Over the past 20 years, I have learned a LOT about the LDS church through meeting exmos and active members, reading many books (especially memoirs), and watching a lot of LDS inspired programming.

The Osmond connection…

As I mentioned before, I did not know this show existed until yesterday afternoon. If I didn’t know something about what Mormons believe, as a non Mormon, I think I would have been totally confused by it. The film begins with credits, and I immediately notice Brian Blosil’s name. Brian Blosil is Marie Osmond’s second ex husband, and the father to all but one of her children.

In 2011, Marie Osmond remarried her first husband, Stephen Craig, and they have a bio son together who was born before their divorce in 1985. In 1986, Marie and Brian Blosil wed at the Jordan River Temple. They had two bio children together, and adopted five more children. As Saturday’s Warrior was made in 1989, Marie and Blosil were then still somewhat recently married. They divorced in 2007.

I read that Saturday’s Warrior was filmed at what used to be the Osmond Studios in Orem, Utah. The Osmonds sold the studios in 1989, and for some time, it was used by another outfit for television programs. Jimmy Osmond later repurchased the studios and refurbished them. At this writing, the buildings are being used by famed Utah rehab center for the stars, Cirque Lodge. Cirque Lodge is where Mary Kate Olsen went for rehab, allegedly for treatment of an eating disorder, when she was 18, but she went to the Sundance location. The Orem location is a newer facility for the luxury treatment center, which mostly treats drug and alcohol addiction (and that’s why I wrote that Mary Kate “allegedly” went there for her eating disorder).

I mention the Osmond connection, because as I was watching the video, I was reminded very much of Osmond family specials that aired when I was a child. I didn’t see a lot of LDS programming in those days, but even gentiles like me were exposed to the Osmonds. They were world famous and quite visible in the 70s and early 80s. Years later, as I was learning about Mormonism, I became a little fascinated by the Osmond family. Saturday’s Warrior really reminded me of the Osmonds’ variety shows and specials.

Now, on to my thoughts on the 1989 version of Saturday’s Warrior…

I mentioned up post that this show was originally a stage production performed in California in 1973. It was written by Douglass Stewart, a Latter-day Saint playwright, who is best known for writing Saturday’s Warrior. He has done other things, but this show is his most popular work. The video version I saw yesterday was based on a screenplay written by Bob Williams and his wife, Barbara.

The music was written by Alexis (Lex) de Azevedo, also a Latter-day Saint and father of ten. He’s a pianist, composer and actor, whose work is well-known on “beautiful music” radio stations. According to Wikipedia, de Azevedo’s music is popular on the Sirius station Escape, and at least one of his sanitized versions of popular songs is played every hour. As someone who loathes “Muzak/beautiful music”, I am a bit dismayed to read about this.

A lot of people who saw the original play criticized its story, and the doctrine upon which it was based. However, it proved to be very popular, and it was later produced at BYU. Evidently, the 1989 film was shown a lot in Mormon heavy areas, and a lot of 90s era LDS kids were raised on it. As I mentioned before, the production reminds me a little of Saved By The Bell, which was a popular Saturday morning television show back in the late 80s and early 90s. I’m sure the resemblance is coincidental, though.

The story begins with cheesy music and an obvious stage set, depicting a group of young, attractive, white people, mostly adolescents or children, in what looks like some kind of heavenly location. Pretty blonde Julie Flinders is fretting to her eternal love, Tod, that he’ll forget about her. She’ll be too “ugly” for him. Tod promises that he’ll find Julie, no matter what.

After a few minutes, it becomes clear that these attractive young people are waiting to be born. Mormons believe in a pre-mortal existence, and that children choose their parents. There’s an “angel”– a motherly looking woman with a clipboard– who keeps herding the kids to their destinies. A group of eight children of varying ages, destined to be siblings in the large Flinders family, talk about Earth and what they will do “down there”. The angel prods the young people to keep the schedule, lest they end up in Siberia or Madagascar instead of Utah. I mentioned this on RfM, and one poster pointed me to some of the more racist beliefs promoted this idea in the church back in the 1950s and 60s. Given that this was written in the 70s, I can see how those attitudes might have snuck into the script. They seem a little tone deaf in 2022.

Below is what one poster wrote when I brought up the disparaging of other locations:

Believe it or not, this was a significant influence on mormon culture and reinforced mormon beliefs. It also allowed abusive parents to absolve themselves and turn the blame back on their children because “you chose us as parents in the premortal existence, you knew what you were getting into.”

As for “disparaging other places, like Siberia and Madagascar,” standard official mormon doctrine. I give you the incomparable Mark E. Petersen, from “Race Problems – As They Affect the Church,” 8/27/1954:

“[C]an we account in any other way for the birth of some of the children of God in darkest Africa, or in flood-ridden China or among the starving hordes of India, while some of the rest of us are born here in the United States? We cannot escape the conclusion that because of performance in our pre-existence, some of us are born as Chinese, some as Japanese, some as Indians, some as Negroes, some as Americans, some as Latter-day Saints.”

And let’s not forget Alvin Dyer’s “For What Purpose,” delivered in 1961:

“Why is it that you are white and not colored? Have you ever asked yourselves that question? Who had anything to do with your being born into the Church and not born a Chinese or a Hindu or a Negro? Is God such an unjust person that He would make you white and free and make a Negro cursed under the cursing of Cain that he could not hold the Priesthood of God? Who do you think decided and what is the reason behind it?”

The youngest of the kids, a little girl named Emily, begs the second eldest, a boy named Jimmy, to make sure he keeps his promise to her to see to it that she’s not “forgotten”, as the youngest of eight. Jimmy, played by Erik Hickenlooper, bears a passing resemblance to Donny Osmond. His “twin”, Pam (played by Marianne Thompson), looks a lot like Marie. Jimmy even sounds a bit like Donny as he acts conceited, just like Donny used to on the old Donny & Marie shows. And Pam worries that she’ll be a “sweet spirit” (not such a pretty girl), but all she wants to do is dance. Pam is born wheelchair bound and sickly.

As the kids are born, after a dance routine, Jimmy turns out to be rebellious. He’s been hanging out with worldly “atheists”, who see children as a burden and cheer for birth control and abortion. They sing a scandalous number about how “zero population” is the answer. Meanwhile, Jimmy’s parents keep having more kids, which really pisses off Jimmy. His family worries about him. He’s forgotten about his promise to Emily, to make sure that she’s not forgotten and is born.

A subplot involves Julie Flinders, who is engaged to a missionary named Wally (Bart Hickenlooper), who also looks like an Osmond and is just as conceited. Wally is shown at the airport with Julie, who is distraught that he’s leaving for his mission and making an embarrassing scene. It’s at this point that I see parallels to the Book of Mormon Musical, which I saw on stage in San Antonio, Texas. I’ll bet this movie was one of the influences for that show. I totally see “Elder Cunningham” in Wally’s mission companion, and “Elder Price” in Wally. Of course, they aren’t as funny as the Book of Mormon Musical characters are.

Saturday’s Warrior is all about how rebellious Jimmy eventually sees the light and realizes how important it is to bring souls from the pre-mortal existence down to Earth. Meanwhile, Wally and his companion manage to fix things so that Julie eventually meets her eternal mate, Tod, who had promised that he would find her on Earth, no matter what. And then, perhaps the most criticized aspect of this film happens, when Pam, who is sickly and can’t walk, dies and somehow ends up back in the pre-existence (which apparently isn’t doctrinal). She sees Emily, and reassures her that she will be born. As the movie ends, Emily is being born, and Jimmy is happy about it.

Things I didn’t mind…

Saturday’s Warrior has sort of a “feel good” theme to it. If you like “happy” endings, and you’re LDS and think that conversions and births into the covenant are “happy endings”, this movie will probably make you warm and fuzzy. Of course, as someone who is not LDS, the plot made me cringe a bit. The overall message seems to be that the purpose of life is to become LDS, find your special someone, get married, and have lots of babies that are waiting in the spirit world, hoping to come down to Earth. Also, it seems to help if you’re white (and delightsome). The story is only about the importance of family and converting people to the religion, then bringing more souls to the religion. I think think there’s more to living than religious beliefs and pumping out kids who are waiting to be born. Especially given the state of our climate these days. I can see why believers would like the message, though.

I do genuinely believe that the cast is legitimately talented. One of the cast members went on to be in the country group, SHeDAISY. Erik Hickenlooper co-wrote the song, “Buy Me A Rose”, which was a huge hit for Kenny Rogers (with help from Billy Dean and Alison Krauss) in 1999. I know the song, and now that I read the lyrics, it doesn’t surprise me that it was composed by a Mormon. But as a fan of Kenny’s and Alison’s, I admit to liking “Buy Me A Rose”. If you look up Erik Hickenlooper, you’ll see that he’s now a real estate agent, but he’s quite proud of his hit song. He sings a LOT like Donny Osmond.

There are some beautiful dancers in this film, reminding me that the LDS church puts a high premium on the performing arts. Everyone mostly sings well, too, which is a blessing. Some of the singing is a bit trilly and seems not to fit with the pop music style used in most of the film. I would expect to hear it in a more classical composition. But nobody really hits any “clunkers”. The lyrics are very LDS, though. I hear the phrase, “on their merry way”, which I’ve noticed is used a lot by Mormons. I’ve heard the Osmonds use it more than a few times.

The little girl who plays Emily reminds me of a girl I knew in high school. She could be her daughter.

Co-written by one of the stars of Saturday’s Warrior, Erik Hickenlooper. It does have LDS vibes. My exmo husband has bought me roses on two occasions in 2022.

What I didn’t like as much…

I have a pretty high tolerance for cheese, but Saturday’s Warrior is really cheesy. Some of the dance numbers are downright hysterical. Like, for instance, when Julie sings to Wally in the airport, she and a couple of other LDS dancers do a true song and dance, complete with high kicks and high soprano screeching.

Then, there are nonsense songs like “Daddy’s Nose”, which is a cornball number about how all the kids got daddy’s big schnozz. Pam, sitting in her wheelchair, looking very lovely and Marie Osmond like, sings about how her nose ruined her chances of going far with her face. She compares it to Jimmy Durante, complete with his “hach cha cha cha”. Egad. When Pam dies, there’s not a lot of grief. That’s when Jimmy comes back to the fold.

There’s a lot of trite stuff. Some of it is just really silly… very much like some of the less cleverly written sit-coms back in the 70s and 80s. If you don’t know anything about LDS beliefs, you might be very confused by the story. It’s also very whitewashed– I think I saw one token Black guy in the cast. I’m reminded very much of how old I am. The fashions and hairstyles are a real time warp. And again, the storyline, which to me, is kind of ridiculous and insulting, especially to those who can’t have babies. But then, I am not LDS.

Here are many screenshots from the film, but to really get what I mean, you may want to watch it yourself. Or maybe not…

I feel like I’ve really stumbled across an element of LDS culture now. I don’t believe in Mormonism, of course, and having done some reading about this show and the story behind it, I think the story is genuinely ridiculous. But I can see why it appealed to some people and, again, I am truly impressed by the talented cast. There are some legitimately gifted people in this production– good actors, singers, and dancers who are also physically attractive. Given what they had to work with, I think they did okay. But the material is very corny and… “Osmond-esque”.

I have read that this show was redone in 2016, with a couple of new musical numbers added. There were also a couple of sequels done at BYU. It might be interesting to see the remake, but I probably won’t. Maybe if the opportunity arises somehow. I doubt I’ll go looking for it.

Anyway… I’ve prattled on long enough. Got some things to do, like the dreaded vacuuming chore and guitar practice. Maybe I’ll stumble on another “Hard to Find Mormon” video, which is the channel on YouTube where I tend to find these cultural “gems” from the Mormon world. See you tomorrow.

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art, controversies, education, funny stories, nostalgia

Creating “trash” to pay for creating a treasure…

I learned something new this morning as I caught up on what happened during the hours during which I slept. It’s my habit to go to the front page of my Google app and read suggested stories. They’re typically offered based on subjects Google has noticed I’ve read. I’ve been reading Maus, thanks to the enhanced publicity of Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel being banned for 8th graders in McMinn County, Tennessee. Maus is a brilliant work of art based on Art Spiegelman’s father’s experiences in The Holocaust. Because I’ve also been reading up on Art Spiegelman, this morning, Google recommended an article from Cracked.com about another one of Spiegelman’s very popular artistic projects from the 80s. It turns out that Art Spiegelman’s work was controversial, and even banned, when I was a 13 year old kid, too.

McMinn County’s school board “explains” why Maus was banned from the curriculum for 8th graders. Art Spiegelman’s work was banned when I was in the 8th grade, too, back in 1985-86. It’s a shame the school board is so short-sighted. Maus is a book that can reach a lot of young people in a positive way.

I’m ashamed to admit that prior to a couple of weeks ago, I hadn’t even heard of Maus, although it won a Pulitzer Prize, and the first six chapters were released in 1986, when I was fourteen years old. Although I loved Mad Magazine when I was growing up, and Spiegelman was reportedly influenced by Mad, I didn’t read comic books as a rule. Wikipedia tells me that Spiegelman began working on Maus in 1978, and the comics originally appeared in a comic anthology magazine called Raw, which featured alternative comics for adults. Spiegelman was co-editor of Raw, where work by avant-garde artists who were previously unknown was showcased.

In 1985, when I was thirteen and in the 8th grade, Spiegelman heard that Steven Spielberg was making a movie about Jewish mice who escaped persecution in Eastern Europe. Believing that Spielberg’s film An American Tail, was inspired by Maus, which had been appearing in segments in issues of Raw, Spiegelman searched for a publisher who would make the first chapters of Maus available so that his work would not be unfairly compared to Spielberg’s. The first six chapters of Spiegelman’s masterpiece were published in 1986, comprising the first volume of Maus. The unfinished work earned rave reviews from The New York Times, and Spiegelman spent the next five years finishing the book. Incidentally, I have yet to see An American Tail, although I am a fan of the song, “Somewhere Out There”, which was sung by Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram, and appeared on the film’s soundtrack. It’s one of my favorite duets to sing on SingSnap. 😉

Maybe it’s time I saw this movie.

Maus took a total of thirteen years to finish and, having spent the last few days reading it, I concur with so many others that it really is wonderful work. But Spiegelman did also have bills to pay as he was designing his masterpiece. So what did he do in those days to make ends meet as he worked on creating Maus? Well, besides teaching at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, Spiegelman created a relic from my youth that I remember all too well. Inspired, in part, by the very homely dolls, the Cabbage Patch Kids, which were incredibly popular in the 1980s, Spiegelman and a couple of other guys named Mark Newgarden and John Pound, created trading cards called Garbage Pail Kids.

Garbage Pail Kids first appeared in 1985– again, when I was at the age that the Tennessee eighth graders are at now– and, you guessed it, they caused quite a ruckus. In fact, they were banned in some places. Why were they banned? Well, mainly it was because they were gross, and adults in the 80s were a lot stuffier than they are today. I mean, kids of my era were allowed to do a lot more. We could run amok and be gone for hours every day with no fears that someone would call CPS. We could ride gloriously free of helmets on bikes, and without seatbelts in cars. And there was no such thing as the World Wide Web, so we never had to worry about some of the less savory things that kids today can be exposed to online. BUT– many parents and educators had a HUGE problem with the tasteless Garbage Pail Kids. God forbid kids of the 80s see vulgar comic depictions of a kids doing gross things! We might all turn into hoodlums!

Dan Rather does a report on Art Spiegelman’s controversial art circa 1986…

The trading cards each featured a Garbage Pail kid that had something grotesque and funny “wrong” with it. The characters bore a striking resemblance to the Cabbage Patch Kids, which led to a successful lawsuit. Still, the cards were so popular that they led to a 1987 feature film called The Garbage Pail Kids Movie. There was also a TV series developed based on the characters, but it never aired, due to the extreme controversy surrounding the cards. The article I read on Cracked mentions that the cards made a comeback in the 2000s, but by the time they were back on the market, most people had forgotten about them. And people of the 2000s were much less shocked by comic depictions of kids who looked gross or were doing nasty or vulgar things.

I do remember Garbage Pail Kids, but I never collected them. By the time the movie came out, I was fifteen years old, and totally into my horse. I recall that teachers didn’t like them because they were “distracting”. In fact, I seem to remember that they were so controversial that in 1989, The Cosby Show did an episode loosely based on them, calling them “The Gross Out Gang”. The episode was about youngest child, Rudy, being caught watching a gory horror movie about gross kids that her parents didn’t approve of. Rudy tells her parents that they need to revisit the rules she is forced to abide by, which spawns a fun episode that shows what happens when little girls don’t abide by their parents’ wise counsel.

A clip from The Cosby Show that references “The Gross Out Gang”.

Bill Cosby was practically a god in the 80s, and his show was considered “family friendly” entertainment and “must see TV” on Thursday nights. In those days, there were a lot fewer channels to watch, so a lot of people watched Cosby, not realizing that he was a lot grosser than Garbage Pail Kids or “The Gross Out Gang” could ever be. Ah, but we were so innocent back then. It was much easier for people like Cosby to hide their sins. News didn’t travel as fast, and not everyone had a camera.

It kind of blows my mind that a genius like Art Spiegelman was behind Garbage Pail Kids. But then, I guess in their own way, Garbage Pail Kids were yet another element of Spiegelman’s genius. They were hugely popular, and they no doubt made it possible for Spiegelman to make his mark on the world in a profound way by creating Maus. Isn’t it interesting that Bill Cosby, who is also a genius, but has done some really terrible things to women, was considered “family friendly” to parents of my childhood, but Art Spiegelman, who as far as I know, has never actually harmed anyone, keeps putting out stuff that gets banned? I mean, Cosby has most recently been “canceled” by a lot of people, but he was allowed to influence young people for decades! I remember seeing him on Fat Albert, and The Electric Company, and when he did “Picture Pages”, which I think were featured on Captain Kangaroo and later on Nickelodeon’s Pinwheel.

This man was regarded as the epitome of “family friendly” back in the day. But he was only recently released from prison for drugging and raping Andrea Constand, who was just one of so many women who accused him of sexual assault.

The older I get, the more I think a lot of people have their priorities messed up. I see that the people of McMinn County were heavily in favor of re-electing Donald Trump for president, who has said some things that are definitely not appropriate for kids to hear or read. Why is it that the good people of McMinn don’t have a problem with an admitted pussy grabber in the White House, but they can’t bear the idea of thirteen year old kids seeing a cartoon depiction of suicide or nudity, or reading the word “shit” and “God damn” a few times. I just read the part of Maus in which the word “God damn” was used. It was definitely not used inappropriately, given the context of the situation in the book. Art was furious at his father for destroying his mother’s priceless diaries after he’d had a “bad day”. Since his mother committed suicide in 1968, it made perfect sense that Art would have been outraged enough to curse at his father. And believe me, 13 year olds have heard that particular profanity,— and much worse— a lot. I think the issue is, McMinn County simply doesn’t want its children to be exposed to the truths of the terrible sins perpetrated by supposed white Christians in the not too distant past.

I read in the minutes of the school board meeting in which Maus was removed, one of the points made for removing the book was that students today could be disciplined for using the curse words in the book. However, I would really hope that the adults in these kids’ lives teach them that there are times and places for “objectionable language”. I don’t think thirteen year olds are so innocent that they can’t be taught that the word “God damn”, uttered by a very angry person regarding the Holocaust, during which people were systematically MURDERED, is necessarily inappropriate. Curse words, like it or not, have their uses. I would rather someone curse than commit an act of violence, for instance. I rarely ever heard Bill Cosby curse in his comedy routines and television shows, but he surely did do violent things to women. And Donald Trump–the beloved and heavily supported former POTUS in McMinn County– has both said objectionable words and committed violent acts against women– including his first wife, Ivana, whom he presumably had some regard for at the time, I would hope.

Anyway, I am heartened that people have been outraged that Maus was banned in Tennessee. I’m glad to see that it’s back on the bestseller list, and people like me are buying copies of it and reading it. As I mentioned before, McMinn County is actually inadvertently educating people with its ridiculous condemnation of Art Spiegelman’s great book. Banned books are usually the best ones to read. I’ll bet those old Garbage Pail Kids collections are also going to sell like hotcakes, too. Americans are funny that way.

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bad TV, good tv, movies, nostalgia, TV, videos, YouTube

Angel Dusted, Desperate Lives, ended with a Final Escape…

Happy Saturday to everyone. It’s cold and grey here near Wiesbaden, Germany. Good news, though. My new Thunderbolt cable just arrived, so now I don’t have to hang around the house waiting for the delivery guy. Or maybe I do. There is one more package I’m waiting for before I declare my Christmas shopping done for 2021. It could show up today. It probably won’t, though.

It’s been quite a dramatic month so far, and it’s really flying by. Pretty soon, it’ll be 2022, and people are already noticing…

Yikes!

Actually, I’m not that afraid of 2022. Being fearful of the future isn’t productive. It will happen no matter what. Besides, we’ve already survived 2020 and 2021. How much worse could it be? Don’t answer that!

I’ve decided that today, I’m going to write one of my “fun” (for me, anyway) TV nostalgia pieces. I don’t feel like ranting about irksome behavior from strangers, opining about people who are in court, or writing very personal stuff about my life. Nope, today I’m going to write about some stuff that was on TV when I was a child. I love to watch old crap from the past on YouTube, and I’m grateful to content creators who are there for me with an impressive collection of that stuff. It’s always a bit unsettling to realize how long ago the early 80s were. It seems like yesterday.

Over the past 48 hours or so, I’ve watched some 80s era TV that was universally entertaining, but for different reasons. It’s easy to forget that the 80s were very different for a lot of reasons. For one thing, for a good portion of the decade, there were only three major networks, plus public television. If you had access to cable, you might have had 20 or 30 channels. I think when my parents got basic cable in 1980, we had about 12 or 14 channels, which seemed like a lot at the time. Consequently, there were a lot of movies of the week and TV shows that everyone watched. Some of the TV fare available in those days is truly laughable today.

In 1981, I was 8 or 9 years old. I was 8 until June of that year, anyway. And one movie that aired and I missed was called Angel Dusted, which premiered on NBC in February of that year. In fact, I had never heard of that movie until I stumbled across it, totally by chance, yesterday morning. It starred the late Jean Stapleton (aka Edith Bunker) and her son, John Putch, as well as the late Arthur Hill. Helen Hunt also has a role. Gosh, she was so pretty when she was a teenager!

There are a couple of videos with this movie on YouTube, but I’m uploading this one, because it also includes ads from 1981. They are a hoot to watch, especially since I remember them well and realize how strange they are 40 years later!

Back in the 80s, there was a lot of press about drug abuse. That was the “Just say no!” era, championed by Nancy Reagan. Drug abuse is a serious problem, but some of the films put out about them in the early 80s were truly ridiculous. I’m happy to report that Angel Dusted is actually a very well done film, save for the hokey title. I never saw Jean Stapleton in much besides All in the Family, so it was a pleasant shock to see her in this film with her talented son, John Putch.

Putch plays Owen Eaton, a high achieving college student who attends an excellent university and is under pressure to make top grades in a demanding major. One night, Owen smokes a marijuana joint laced with PCP– angel dust– and it makes him have a psychotic breakdown. The doctor at the infirmary where he attends school calls Owen’s parents, Betty and Michael Eaton (Stapleton and Hill), and they rush to the other side of the state to pick up their boy. They arrive at the infirmary to find him strapped to the bed, screaming and wrestling. The doctor at the infirmary, played by familiar and prolific character actor, Jerry Hardin, tells them that Owen needs to be hospitalized.

Betty and Michael soon find themselves plunged into a crisis, as their son is put in a psychiatric hospital for several weeks, completely unable to function and surrounded by people who have organic mental illnesses. Betty is the dutiful doting mother. Michael is ashamed and withdraws. Their other three children, Mark (Ken Michelman), Lizzie (Helen Hunt), and Andrew (Brian Andrews) are forced to deal with the shifting focus in their family as Owen recovers from the psychotic reaction.

Parts of this film are very 80s and make me feel older than dirt. It was weird to see nurses in white dresses and caps, remembering that in those days, that’s how they looked. I also noticed things like the house, with all its wallpaper and big boxy televisions. This was all normal when I was a child, but now it’s different. We have flat screens, textured walls, and people don’t necessarily have dinner in the dining room. A lot of newer houses don’t have dining rooms! Some of the dialogue is also pretty dated, too.

But– I really thought this film was well acted and had a compelling story. I also liked that touch of early 80s cheese and over the top drama that made it interesting and entertaining in 2021. There’s a lot more to Jean Stapleton than Edith Bunker, that’s for damned sure! I don’t know how common it is for people to smoke PCP laced marijuana joints these days, and we certainly have a very different attitude about marijuana nowadays. But I do think Angel Dusted is well done and worth watching if you have a couple of spare hours and enjoy movies of the week circa 1981. The cast is excellent, too.

MOVING ON…

The next film I would like to mention is another one from the same time period. It also featured Helen Hunt. This time, she wasn’t playing a put upon sister who was inconvenienced by her brother’s ingestion of PCP. This time, Hunt is the one who goes a little crazy!

The film is called Desperate Lives. In the past, the whole thing was posted on YouTube. Nowadays, it looks like only a few of the funnier clips are available there, although I did find the whole film here. I’ve seen that movie enough times to comment on it, though. It aired in March 1982, and it was very entertaining, but for very different reasons than Angel Dusted was. Desperate Lives was also about the evils of drugs and the terrible things they do to young people. But instead of realistically focusing on what can happen when someone gets on a bad trip, this film employs really stupid special effects and bad acting to get the point across. Below are a few clips I’ve found on YouTube.

A song by Rick Springfield, who was big at the time.
Diana Scarwid, who played the adult version of Christina Crawford in Mommie Dearest, is a high school guidance counselor who tries to shave everyone’s buzz.

It’s the beginning of a new school year in California. Young guidance counselor, Eileen Phillips, has arrived all bright eyed and bushy tailed for her new job. She is newly graduated and enthusiastic for what she expects will be a rewarding career, shaping young people’s lives as they embark on adulthood. But the school where Eileen works has a terrible drug problem and all of the adults who run the school are turning a blind eye. Eileen is determined to straighten everybody out and, in the meantime, entertains viewers with some truly ridiculous scenarios.

Oh lord… this scene is particularly infamous. Helen Hunt jumps out a window, lands on her back, and gets up physically fine as she screams.
“I’m glad we’re all SANE!”
An ad for Desperate Lives. Actually, you could watch this ad and get most of the funniest scenes in the movie.

Doug McKeon, who was in On Golden Pond, tries to add some credibility to this film. He’s a special student and a swimmer on the swim team, which puts him closer to Eileen, as she’s also the swimming coach. Helen Hunt, God bless her and her prodigious talent, really gave it her all playing a “crazed” girl on PCP. But this movie, compared to Angel Dusted, just sucks. However, it IS entertaining, just because it’s unintentionally hilarious. I definitely got the point that drugs are bad, mmm’kay? This might have been a better movie with a different leading lady. Diana Scarwid was very attractive in the early 80s, but she’s not a very good actress, in my opinion. Diane Ladd and Dr. Joyce Brothers also make appearances!

And finally, I would like to comment on a 1985 episode of the New Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I remember when this episode, titled “Final Escape” originally aired. I was really affected by it at the time. At 13, I was the kind of viewer television executives loved. I could easily suspend disbelief for the sake of enjoying a TV show.

Season Hubley plays a nasty bitch in prison who has a scary end…

Season Hubley plays Lena Trent, a woman who has been in and out of prison, and has a history of escaping. She’s shown having been convicted of murder, and sent off to a life sentence in the big house, Mojave Prison, where just four hours after her arrival, she gets into it with the prison queen bee. But Lena is very manipulative, particularly toward men. She charms the warden, again played by Jerry Hardin, who was also in Angel Dusted (and also had a couple of memorable turns on The Golden Girls). The warden yells at Lena for getting in a fight, but then inexplicably gives her a job that gets her away from the other inmates and puts her at a level of lower security.

Lena then works in the prison infirmary, where she meets a kindly Black man named Doc (Davis Roberts) who has super thick cataracts and can barely see. Doc helps out on the ward and buries the prisoners who die. The dead prisoners are buried outside of the prison walls. Lena is nice to Doc at first, listening to him moan about how the state doesn’t want to give him the money to get cataract surgery so he can see better. She soon realizes that he has free access to the outside of the prison, when it’s time to bury the dead; this causes her to hatch a new escape plan.

One day, a letter from the state arrives for Doc. In it, Doc is notified that he has been granted the money for the surgery. But Lena has another plan. She breaks Doc’s glasses on purpose, effectively making it impossible for him to see. Then she reads the letter, telling him that his request has been denied. Naturally, Doc is disappointed and pissed! Lena tells him she has a lot of money and will give him the money to get his surgery if he’ll help her escape.

Doc agrees… with tragic and scary results.

If you haven’t yet watched the episode and don’t want spoilers, stop reading here. I do recommend watching the video if this description has piqued your interest.

Lena asks Doc to bury her with the corpse, and then dig her up a few hours later, when the coast is clear. Doc initially refuses, telling Lena that she’ll suffocate. But Lena assures Doc that she can hang for a few hours, and once he’s done her this favor, Lena will pay for his eye surgery (which of course, she wouldn’t, because she’s a nasty bitch). Doc tells her to come to the infirmary and climb into the coffin with the corpse, which Lena does.

Sure enough, she gets buried. It’s never explained how two bodies managed to fit in one coffin. It’s also never explained why no one noticed how much heavier the coffin was, with two bodies in it, one of which wasn’t embalmed.

We see Lena in the coffin, somehow with enough air to talk to herself. She’s sweating and seems uncomfortable, but she has her eyes on the prize– a final escape from Mojave Prison, with Doc’s help. Finally, after a few hours, Lena starts to worry. She somehow lights a match, which would have used up some of that precious oxygen. That’s when she realizes that the corpse she’s sharing the coffin with is Doc! And no one else knows she’s been buried!

Of course, this could never happen. Even in the 1980s, there’s no way someone with Lena’s history would score a job with lower security standards. And there’s no way she would fit in a coffin with another corpse. And there’s no way she would light a match in a coffin like that… But it did make for compelling and scary television, back in the days when people didn’t mind suspending belief.

Well… it’s been fun writing about these old gems from the 80s today, instead of kvetching about people who piss me off, exploring psychology and narcissism, and dishing about the Duggar family. I suspect this post won’t get a lot of hits… or maybe it will. Sometimes, people surprise me. I know that Desperate Lives is a guilty pleasure film for a lot of people. And I can see on YouTube, that I wasn’t the only one who was permanently traumatized by that episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Angel Dusted is less notoriously cheesy, but is probably the highest quality production of the lot, at least in this post. Perhaps if this post is well-received, I’ll write another. I love watching this stuff.

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bad TV, healthcare, nostalgia

Trapper John, M.D. is basically The Love Boat, but with a medical theme…

In the featured screenshot, Gonzo gets physical with a teenaged deaf patient, whom he calls “sweetheart” as he ties her to the bed… Eew. He later manages to “tame” her and get her reacquainted with the mother who abandoned her when she was a baby.

There are several serious issues I could be writing about today, but it’s Friday, and Bill is coming home tonight. Aside from that, it’s a gloomy, rainy morning, and I just don’t feel like wading into the bad news that is all over the Internet today. Nah… I’d rather write about something totally off the wall and goofy… I suspect only people of a certain age will even care about this post. That suits me fine. So here goes…

For some reason, I’ve been binge watching old episodes of Trapper John, M.D. all week. That show, which was loosely based on Richard Hooker’s 1968 novel that brought us the movie and television show, M*A*S*H, premiered in September 1979, when I was seven years old. It was a medical drama, with occasional elements of comedy, and as I recall, it aired on Sunday nights at 10pm on the in the eastern U.S. time zone. In 1979, I lived in Fairfax, Virginia, which is a suburb of Washington, DC. Trapper John was on way past my bedtime in those days, but I do remember my mom used to watch it. It ran for seven seasons, finally ending in the summer of 1986, when I was about 14.

Every once in awhile, when I was growing up, I’d manage to see an episode of Trapper John, never realizing that it was basically a spinoff of M*A*S*H, which also aired during my childhood. I remember watching M*A*S*H more regularly, as it came on at a time that was more conducive to my bedtime. But it wasn’t until I was a lot older that I found out that the two shows, which seemed so different from each other, were related in any way. If I recall correctly, both aired on CBS, which always seemed like kind of a stodgy network to me. And now I realize that by even mentioning a big three network, I’m dating myself. Today’s young people have no idea about the struggle of only having a few channels to watch. 😉

Watching Trapper John, M.D. has been an interesting experience. Last night, after watching I don’t know how many episodes, I concluded that the show is basically The Love Boat, only with a medical theme. Every week, there were different guest stars, some of whom recurred in the same role, and some who came back as different characters. I remember The Love Boat was similar, in that a lot of people had more than one voyage on the Princess, but as different characters. Both shows, as well as shows like CHiPs, Dallas, Dynasty, Fantasy Island, and the like, were great vehicles for aging movie stars and Broadway performers.

In Season One of Trapper John, M.D., Trapper’s scrub nurse is a heavyset lady with a distinctively clear speaking voice named Starch. Starch is, of course, a nickname, and she was played by Mary McCarty, who was in her 50s at the time. Mary McCarty was a well-known torch singer and actress who did a lot of stage work and some movies. She was even in All That Jazz, a movie I never get tired of watching, but didn’t discover until I was 18– again, because I was only seven when it was released and it was rated R. Sadly, Mary only lasted a season on Trapper John, because she died very suddenly of a heart attack at just 56 years of age. I’m only seven years younger than Mary was when she died, but I think I look a hell of a lot younger. That’s another thing about the 70s and 80s… I don’t think people held their ages quite as well then, probably because of all the smoking.

There were a lot of other legendary actors on that show, as well as a few less legendary ones. A couple of days ago, I happened to catch an episode from the first season that starred Robbie Rist, aka “Cousin Oliver” on The Brady Bunch. I follow Robbie Rist on Facebook, because I think he’s hilarious and I agree with his views on a lot of things. He changed his profile photo yesterday, and I was able to make a comment, even though we aren’t “friends”. The picture he posted cracked me up; so I said so, then mentioned that I’d just seen him on Trapper John, M.D. The episode is called “The Surrogate”, and it was made just as Robbie’s voice was changing.

So true.

Robbie asked me where I found his episode, so I shared the link. For some reason, the uploader has versions of Trapper John that were partly dubbed in German, which of course is useful for me, especially since they also helpfully included English subtitles. What’s strange is that only parts of the episode are in German. The rest of it is in English, minus subtitles. Robbie then shared the link in a separate post and even gave me a shout out. I enjoyed reading the comments from his friends.

This episode also features Kim Cattrall, whose belly dancing character comes from the Middle East and is promised to Gonzo Gates in marriage. I guess it makes sense, since Iran was very much in the news in 1979. I clearly remember that, even though I was only 7 years old at the time.

It’s only been somewhat recently that I’ve started to accept the fact that I’m getting old. Today, I spotted the beginnings of what will probably be a varicose vein on my upper right thigh. I noticed a small section of a purplish looking vein popping out of my flesh this morning, then remembered that my mom has similar looking veins on her legs. I’m a lot like my mom on many levels. If I were standing next to her, you would definitely be able to tell that she’s my mom. I already have the dreaded spider veins and ruddy skin that comes from Celtic genes, just like she does. And I’m sure I will have high blood pressure, if I don’t already have it. She has it, and my grandmother had it. On the few occasions I let a doctor see me, they’ve assumed I have it, although so far, they haven’t been able to make that diagnosis. Of course, I haven’t seen a physician in over ten years.

Watching this show has the weird effect of reminding me of when I was very young, and also reminding me that I’m now getting old. I listen to the sexist, paternalistic language from the show’s male stars– Pernell Roberts in the title role, Gregory Harrison as the hot Lothario doctor, Gonzo Gates, Charle Siebert as Stanley Riverside, Jr., and Brian Stokes Mitchell as the token black doctor, Jackpot. Trapper and Gonzo are particularly paternalistic, especially toward the women. They call their female patients and colleagues “kiddo”, “baby”, “young lady”, “girl”, “sweetheart”, and “honey”. A lot of my regular readers, and people who actually know me, know that I hate pet names from people with whom I don’t share a bed. I think I would lose teeth from compulsive grinding if I were in the hospital and my doctor called me cutesy names. But I guess this was considered appealing back in the day…

What is also interesting to me is seeing how improbable the storylines are. For one thing, the patients all look way too healthy to be in the hospital. There are very rarely any truly convincing dramatic moments on this show. Very few patients ever come close to actually dying. Most seem to be on vacation, electing to “stick around” for a few days. I watched an episode this morning in which a lupus patient elects to take herself off all drugs and treatment protocols in lieu of a holistic approach. Then she checks out of the hospital and goes home with a guy who has developed the new holistic approach. He’s rich, and has a huge house with servants. We see him pouring her champagne as they lounge on the patio… Suddenly, she’s moaning in pain. Gonzo shows up with an ambulance, which the holistic guru turns away.

Having earned a master’s degree in public health with a health administration focus, I know that nowadays, you have to be pretty sick to be hospitalized. People in the hospital don’t just stay there for a rest. And certainly, none look as hale and hearty as the ones on Trapper John. I saw another episode yesterday with a woman who had Lou Gehrig’s disease. She was bright and beautiful looking, but was sitting in a wheelchair. When she knocks over her checkers game, she pleads with Gonzo not to tell Trapper, because he’ll “put her to bed”. Sure enough, Trapper does try to order her to bed, but she says no thanks, and wheels off to do her “living”. That does not seem like a very realistic scenario today, and I doubt it was in 1979 or 1980, either. No one on Trapper John really looks sick… and it doesn’t seem to have even occurred to the writers to even try to make them look the part. Yet this show lasted seven seasons!

I remember back in 1997, I spent a few days in an Austrian town called St. Poelten. I was alone, so I spent time in my hotel room, watching TV. Trapper John, M.D. was airing, and I distinctly remember watching it, along with annoying German dish detergent commercials. One was for a product called “Lemon Frisch” and had a jingle that ripped off the melody for the late 50s pop song, “Lollipop”. I guess this was a popular show in Germany and German speaking countries. I have never been in a German hospital, but I have always imagined German doctors to be on the authoritative side, kind of like Trapper and Gonzo… although I’m sure they don’t romance their patients or use terms of endearment to address them before they send them a bill for services rendered.

Watching Trapper John, M.D., one gets the sense that these doctors were in the business out of the goodness of their hearts and never charged their patients a cent. Why else would wine swilling Gonzo Gates live in a crappy RV called The Titanic, parked in the hospital parking lot? He regularly romances nurses in the RV, and they are all somehow impressed solely by his good looks, rather than repulsed by his primitive living conditions. We’re also supposed to believe that the nurses don’t all end up hating Gonzo for loving and leaving them, as he must, since he’s single and constantly on the make.

The doctors on Trapper John, M.D. freely discuss patient cases with anyone and everyone– with other doctors, with family members and friends, and even with perfect strangers! These were the days before HIPAA, don’t you know? Seems like just yesterday! And in Germany, it still is yesterday, since HIPAA isn’t a thing here. My dentist is happy to tell Bill all about my mouth when we go visit him. He’ll even do it in the hallway, where the rest of the waiting room can hear. I notice that they often had storylines that were kind of topical in the 80s, though. Like, for instance, one episode involved a child living in a bubble, much like the case of David Vetter, a Texas boy about my age who had such challenges with his immune system that he was forced to spend his entire life in a sterile environment. Nowadays, I doubt David Vetter would live that way.

Another thing I noticed, besides the improbable storylines, is that Trapper and Gonzo often work outside of their areas of specialization. I saw an episode last night that had Trapper and Gonzo, who are hotshot cardio-thoracic surgeons, doing a delicate eye surgery on a young woman. And they are being led through the surgery by a retired alcoholic eye surgeon who had just been on a bender and had trembling hands. That particular episode included a mention of the “n-bomb”, which was not such an uncommon thing in the 80s. They also work on pediatric cases, such as the episode involving Robbie Rist

This week, while binging on this show, I have learned that the exterior shots in the opening credits were filmed at Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, a hospital in Los Angeles that is now owned by a South Korean company. The real life hospital doesn’t get the best ratings or reviews on Google, however, most of the patients are evidently of Korean descent. I keep looking at pictures of that hospital, trying to find the iconic tower shown on the opening credits of Trapper John, M.D., which had a pretty realistic looking set at 20th Century Fox Studios.

And finally… the last thing I noticed is that Trapper John, M.D. has sort of a kinky element to it. Just off the top of my head, I can think of at least three episodes involving patients being restrained to protect them from themselves. One episode in particular, involving a deaf girl with celiac disease that Gonzo almost runs over with his crappy R.V., shows the girl being restrained several times. And Gonzo develops kind of a quasi parental-romantic attachment to her. It’s definitely a bit cringeworthy. On the other hand, I’m sure there are women out there who might fantasize about being restrained by Gregory Harrison. He was quite the hottie back in the day… or, at least some women (and perhaps even some men) thought so. Even a lady on Robbie Rist’s thread about this show mentioned how “dreamy” ol’ Gregory Harrison was in his Gonzo days.

We’re gonna help you whether you want it or not! And if you don’t behave, we’ll get out the restraints! Maybe this is why the show aired after 10pm. It seems very family friendly by today’s standards, except for the occasional n-bomb being dropped.

Incidentally, I did some research on Gregory Harrison. He’s been married to actress/model Randi Oakes for about 40 years. Randi Oakes famously played a lady cop (and car thief) on CHiPs. She was also on The Love Boat. The couple share four grown children– three natural daughters and an adopted son. Sadly, it appears that Harrison’s son has had some legal troubles and is currently incarcerated in Idaho for sexual offenses against a minor under age 16. His daughters, on the other hand, are quite gorgeous and seem to be doing well.

CHiPs was another show that was blatantly sexist and featured characters that were overly involved in the lives of the guest stars’ characters. It’s a show with very little basis in reality. But I guess we liked that shit in the late 70s and early 80s… It’s hard to believe I was alive when that kind of show was the norm. I don’t know why I watch it, since today, it would all be considered dreck. I guess I’m just fascinated with the past, and how very quickly years pass once you’re over 21.

Anyway, I know I should watch some newer shows… and I have downloaded some. There’s something very comforting about old shows, and a reminder of how things used to be, back in the days before the Internet… and COVID-19. But if I ever have a horny doctor with a receding hairline and a beard who calls me “kiddo” or “young lady”, they might have to get out the restraints for me, too.

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nostalgia, politics, travel

Repost: Remembering Samantha Smith… pen pal to world leaders

Here’s another repost from June 2018, a post inspired by my childhood in the 1980s. This one is about the late Samantha Smith, who made history by writing to Yuri Andropov and getting invited to visit the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. Samantha was nine days younger than me, but sadly, she died in a plane crash in 1985. Little did I know, when Samantha was alive, that I, too, would one day go to what was once the Soviet Union. The 80s were an interesting time to be a kid.

I was born on June 20, 1972.  Nine days later, Samantha Smith was born.  Samantha Smith would change the world during her 13 years of life.  I’m about to turn 46 (and now I’m 49) and I’m still wondering what my purpose is. 

A few weeks ago, I suddenly remembered Samantha Smith, who was ten years old when she wrote a moving letter to former Soviet leader Yuri Andropov.  She was concerned about the threat of nuclear war.  In the early 1980s, everyone was talking about nukes and the so-called “red button”.  Like so many of her peers, Samantha was scared.  But she had guts and initiative.  So, in November 1982, she wrote:

Dear Mr. Andropov,

My name is Samantha Smith. I am ten years old. Congratulations on your new job. I have been worrying about Russia and the United States getting into a nuclear war. Are you going to vote to have a war or not? If you aren’t please tell me how you are going to help to not have a war. This question you do not have to answer, but I would like to know why you want to conquer the world or at least our country. God made the world for us to live together in peace and not to fight.

Sincerely,

Samantha Smith  

This was not Samantha’s first letter to a world leader.  In fact, she’d even written to another leader when she was five– Queen Elizabeth II– to express her admiration.  Samantha’s letter was printed in the Soviet paper, Pravda, but she did not receive a reply from Andropov right away.  Undaunted, Samantha wrote another letter, this time to the Soviet Union’s Ambassador to the United States. 

Mr. Andropov was very moved by Samantha’s letter.  He wrote back to her in April 1983, affirmed that the Soviet Union did not want to wage a nuclear war, and invited her to visit the Soviet Union at a time when Americans were not often allowed to go there. 

Dear Samantha,

I received your letter, which is like many others that have reached me recently from your country and from other countries around the world.

It seems to me – I can tell by your letter – that you are a courageous and honest girl, resembling Becky, the friend of Tom Sawyer in the famous book of your compatriot Mark Twain. This book is well known and loved in our country by all boys and girls.

You write that you are anxious about whether there will be a nuclear war between our two countries. And you ask are we doing anything so that war will not break out.

Your question is the most important of those that every thinking man can pose. I will reply to you seriously and honestly.

Yes, Samantha, we in the Soviet Union are trying to do everything so that there will not be war on Earth. This is what every Soviet man wants. This is what the great founder of our state, Vladimir Lenin, taught us.

Soviet people well know what a terrible thing war is. Forty-two years ago, Nazi Germany, which strove for supremacy over the whole world, attacked our country, burned and destroyed many thousands of our towns and villages, killed millions of Soviet men, women and children.

In that war, which ended with our victory, we were in alliance with the United States: together we fought for the liberation of many people from the Nazi invaders. I hope that you know about this from your history lessons in school. And today we want very much to live in peace, to trade and cooperate with all our neighbors on this earth — with those far away and those near by. And certainly with such a great country as the United States of America.

In America and in our country there are nuclear weapons — terrible weapons that can kill millions of people in an instant. But we do not want them to be ever used. That’s precisely why the Soviet Union solemnly declared throughout the entire world that never — never — will it use nuclear weapons first against any country. In general we propose to discontinue further production of them and to proceed to the abolition of all the stockpiles on Earth.

It seems to me that this is a sufficient answer to your second question: ‘Why do you want to wage war against the whole world or at least the United States?’ We want nothing of the kind. No one in our country–neither workers, peasants, writers nor doctors, neither grown-ups nor children, nor members of the government–want either a big or ‘little’ war.

We want peace — there is something that we are occupied with: growing wheat, building and inventing, writing books and flying into space. We want peace for ourselves and for all peoples of the planet. For our children and for you, Samantha.

I invite you, if your parents will let you, to come to our country, the best time being this summer. You will find out about our country, meet with your contemporaries, visit an international children’s camp – Artek – on the sea. And see for yourself: in the Soviet Union, everyone is for peace and friendship among peoples.

Thank you for your letter. I wish you all the best in your young life.

Y. Andropov

In the summer of 1983, Samantha visited Russia, where she caused quite a sensation.  She spent two weeks in Moscow as Mr. Andropov’s guest and had the opportunity to visit Artek, which was a big Soviet pioneer camp.  During the Soviet era, young children were involved in the Young Pioneers, which was a massive youth organization.  She also went to Leningrad (St. Petersburg), where she was presented with many gifts.  Smith and her parents were amazed by how friendly the people were.

So many years later, I was watching Samantha Smith on old YouTube videos.  There are many comments from Russians who remembered and admired her.  She truly was a heroine to many Russians and Americans alike, although there were some skeptics out there who felt she was being used as a Soviet propaganda pawn.

When Samantha and her parents came home to Maine, they were treated to a warm welcome involving a red carpet and limousine.  Samantha was interviewed by many famous people, including Ted Koppel and Johnny Carson.  In 1985, she even tried her hand at acting when she was cast as a regular in a TV show called Lime Street

Samantha Smith interviewed by Johnny Carson.
Samantha Smith being interviewed on The Today Show, after she had become a media sensation.

Tragically, on August 25, 1985, Samantha Smith and her father, Arthur, died in a plane crash.  They were returning home on Bar Harbor Airlines Flight 1808 after having filmed a segment for Lime Street.  The pilot was attempting to land the plane when it hit some trees 4007 feet shy of the runway. The airplane crashed, killing the six passengers and two crew members aboard.  Although some in the Soviet Union thought she might have been a victim of foul play, an investigation revealed that the pilots were inexperienced and the rainy weather conditions contributed to the difficulty in landing the plane.

News story about Samantha Smith’s death.

Samantha Smith’s visit inspired goodwill all over the world, especially in the United States and Russia.  In fact, in 1986, a Soviet child named Katya Lycheva even spent time in the United States.  A 1987 storyline on The Golden Girls was even inspired by Samantha’s story, although it was ditzy Rose Nylund who wrote the letter, not a ten year old girl.

Rose’s “Letter to Gorbachev”… 

I wonder what would have become of Samantha Smith had she been able to grow up.  I wonder what she would think of our current political situation.  I think of what it was like for me, 23 years ago, moving to what was once a Soviet country and finding out that the people over there are much like we are.  She could have had a wonderful career, spreading world peace and goodwill.  Some people are never meant to grow old, yet still manage to change the world.  

When I was watching videos on YouTube last night, I also thought of Ryan White, who was another one of my contemporaries.  He contracted AIDS after having been given a tainted blood infusion to treat his hemophilia.  Ryan White was kicked out of school and harassed by his peers for having AIDS.  In those days, a lot of small minded people thought of it as a disease God sent to punish gay people.  It didn’t help that Ryan was from a small town in Indiana, where there were many ignorant people who thought he was gay simply because he had what was then considered a “gay” disease.

White went on to influence the world, even making friends with Elton John and Michael Jackson, both of whom were at his funeral when he died in April 1990.  I vividly remember watching Lukas Haas play White in a TV movie about his life.  White was himself in the film with a minor role.  So was Sarah Jessica Parker.

While we’ve come a long way in the fight against AIDS since Ryan White’s day, we’re still really struggling with world peace.  I just started reading another book about the Holocaust.  It’s a story about a Jewish Dutch woman who watched as her country was overtaken by Nazis.  I have to confess, reading her comments about what happened before Hitler completely took over gave me chills.  So much of it is familiar today.  Maybe it’s not quite as extreme now as it was in the 40s… or maybe it just doesn’t seem as extreme to me as it might to someone with brown skin, living in America’s Heartland.  The one thing that gives me hope is that the world eventually came to its senses somewhat, after World War II.  I hope it doesn’t come to war to make the powers that be in the United States regain their senses…  

Well, those are my deep thoughts for today.  The 1980s were fascinating.  I’m glad I was around to see them. 

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