Saturday, February 25, 2012

Rogue Apostrophe

This picture was culled from a Web site called It's basically a thoroughbred racing site maintained by a woman who is a racing fan, as well as an English teacher. Most pictures in the gallery have to do with racing, Saratoga, and cats, but no doubt the egregious misuse of the apostrophe AND the plural were more than Teresa could stand, so no doubt an ever present camera came out and captured the misuse.

Teresa I'm sure read Lynne Truss's book, 'Eats, Shoots and Leaves.' Handicappers and English teachers look for details. A good deal of attention is given in that fun book on language usage on the apostrophe and the use of plurals. Anyone who knows the rules has spotted some beauties over the years.  I have to say, the pictured example is one of the best ones of misuse I've seen.

I don't have a picture of it, but if the sign is still there, then the Bravo pizza place on Park Avenue South and 21st Street can be checked out for their 'Hero's.' Plurals and apostrophes have been bedeviling people for years. I'm not sure eliminating apostrophes altogether on the grounds that it is not really pronounced would make things any better.  I read someone's comments about the HBO miniseries 'Luck' and they spelled 'itself,' as 'it's self.' That's so complete a bollix that I hope it doesn't hinder their poker playing.

'Jack's, or better,' might keep giving them a losing hand if they don't understand what it really means.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Downton Abbey's Success

It's easy to recognize 'Downton Abbey's' success by its Nielsen ratings. They're high, and apparently rival other very successful PBS presentations.  But before the ratings story came out, what I think is a truer measurement of success is that at least one American newspaper is printing the sniveling of some of those in England over the series. Imagine what that means. There is so much American interest in Downton Abbey that it is felt there are those of us who are interested in what the British think of it!

There's probably an equation that can be derived that the higher the British education that's been attained, coupled with command of words, spoken and written, the less comprehensible will be the sniveling.

When Stanley Kowalski, wearing a worn and torn T-shirt yells up the stairs for Stella, you understand he's not liking something about Stella. When an erudite Brit gets their nose out of joint there's no telling what they mean.

A British historian, Simon Schama, tells the world that 'Downton Abbey' is an exercise in "cultural necrophilia," There are some other well-worded observations that give them themselves to terrific alliterative prose, but little comprehension.

In the same space, a British poet is given even more room to complain. James Fenton has the show guilty of buried gay subplots and the promotion of the snobbery of the producer Julian Fellowes. Unless you're really a scholar of some kind, my guess is you'll need to look up what the hell Mr. Fenton means when he seems to thank the anomaly of the laws of "primogeniture" that prevent Ol' Julian from getting a place setting at Buckingham Palace for something to eat.

This makes the introduction of the American mom Ol' Shirl in Season Three even more enticing. If she doesn't like something she's likely to settle the score the American way: take an Army Colt out of the drawer and start blasting.

That should give the Brits something to complain about that we can all understand.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Downton Abbey: The Crossing

You have to give the series credit. How do you make a story about upper-crust Englishmen living in a 50 bedroom mansion who can't even get themselves dressed and undressed without assistance from the service staff, as entertaining as it is interesting and lush?

As the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon show would end years ago, we left our heroes with two main story lines to propel us into the third season. The first is the conviction of the valet John Bates for the murder of his wife, and the second will have to do with the love life of Lady Mary.

As to the murder conviction being commuted to life imprisonment, they've obviously got the wrong chap. John Bates's defense attorney should be hung until he is dead. The nitwit is obviously practicing law in a coma.

It's fine that the show is not really a courtroom drama, and that the scenes are just there to get old Bates found guilty, but really, couldn't the defense at least think of something to say that would twitch the ears of the wig-wearing goat overseeing the proceedings? I think the jury returned faster than the O.J. lot. No Henry Fonda on that bunch going over the evidence. They should all be waving white flags of surrender. Where's Horace Rumpole when you really need him? Locked away swilling wine in Pomeroy's, I guess.

And Lady Mary. Will she be going to America, or will America, in the form of her grand-mama, be coming to her for the wedding?

This is set up to go either way. Her American grand-mama will be played by Shirley MacLaine in Season Three. Ol' Shirl is a major name with I'm sure a good contract. We're going to be seeing her more than a few times. She's the elephant in the drawing room: attention will be paid.

If Mary goes to America, then money will have to be spent on those sets. If Shirl crosses the pond and lands in England, they won't need to create different backgrounds. The producers certainly have a decent budget by the looks of things so far, so we're just going to have to wait.

Lady Mary in America would be a great touch. Frank Sinatra has get to sing 'New York, New York,' but if a "fallen" woman like Mary can make it there, she can make it anywhere. Who knows, she may start partying with grand-mama there and start keeping all kinds of odd hours. It is the city that never sleeps.

American grand-mama has homes in New York and Newport, so maybe some tennis will be played. We don't know how Ol' Shirl arrived at money, but it's a good guess she buried the guy. They always do.

Of course, all the other characters will swirl in and out of scenes, some with drama, some with comedic effect.

Whatever happens, it's a sure bet Lord Grantham will never like the Irish.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Downton Abbey, Season Two

Didn't yet finish watching Sunday's episode. Another two hour job.

Unless there is a clue forthcoming in the show, we don't know anything about Lady Cora's American Mom, Shirley MacLaine, due to be introduced next season.

And in today's Times, the executive producer, Julian Fellowes, isn't even asked the question about Ms. MacLaine. This is reporting?  Anyway, some educated guesses:

Ol' Shirl is Annie Oakley, who rides up to Downton on a horse. She's dressed in fringe bucksin and leaves Carson speechless as she asks him to give the animal water and oats.

She unloads her saddle bags, and cleans her rifles before dinner. At the next pheasant shoot she sweeps the sky of every bird set to fly from the brush. The tweedy-types haven't even raised their shotguns and the shooting show is over. She offers them a "spot" next time out.

Shirl is Jessica Fletcher, the American Miss Marple, who solves the mystery of Mr. Bates's wife's death.

Shirl is Carry Nation, who goes on a Temperance speech spree in England that somewhat embarrasses the Granthams and the Crawleys, but shows off just how much Americans can be characters.

Shirl is a Jenny Lin character who swills gin and jumps up on the parlor piano, singing dirty mining ditties and exposing her legs. She's a hoot.

Whatever Shirl is going to be, she is not going to be boring.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Bates Motel

The leaded glass windows at Downton Abbey were positively steaming from Sunday's episode. The war is over, and Lord Grantham has shed his invasion uniform for informal tuxes. Talk about Dress Down Fridays!

Love is in the air, and so is Spanish influenza. The deadly disease however only takes one from the house, owing I suspect to actors' agents and their contracts, rather than Dr. Clarkson's ministrations.

His Lorship is feeling neglected by his wife, so he starts to become a bit of a frisky fellow. The handwriting was on the wall as soon as the newly war-widowed maid arrives. It's touch and go from there, with some touching.

The youngest daughter Sybil and the family IRA sympathizer chauffeur sneak off together and a car chase, of sorts, ensues. There is a bit of an ending to that.

The valet, John Bates, gets to use an upstairs bedroom to consummate his marriage to the maid Anna, courtesy of a generous gesture from Lady Mary.

This bedroom scene of connubial bliss brings me full circle to the time I read that the owner of a stakes-winning thoroughbred in the 80s, Bates Motel, was anxious to send the colt to stud so that the fillies and mares could be sent and bred to Bates Motel. He thought this was a hilarious prospect, given the movie 'Psycho' and Norman Bates's use of the bathrooms. This of course proves that I'm not the only one who sometimes sees the world a bit oddly.

Next week, the season finale looks like it includes a grudge match at Tuxedo Junction in the library between at least one youthful looking combatant.

And oh yes, what English period piece could exist without someone in the dock? Sunday's episode ends with an arrest, and the next episode looks like it might promise to be a replay of 'Witness for the Prosecution.' Perhaps Miss Marple will appear and solve the whole legal proceedings with her knowledge of poisons. We'll see.

No matter what, the next season will bring us Shirley MacLaine as Lady Grantham's American mother. The possibilities are rich.

We'll assume her husband has passed away, because all men are eventually "survived by" their spouses. What type of work, if any, Shirley leaves behind in America to cross the pond is so far unknown. It is possible she might be some sort of health food nut who tries to get the British crowd to start to eat healthier and exercise.

It might be a hoot if Ol' Shirl sets off from Mrs. Patmore's kitchen after her morning Kelloggs Corn Flakes and starts jogging around the estate. If his lordship follows, he'll be able to fit into that uniform again when the next war breaks out.

Ol' Shirl is sure to tell him what lies ahead. She's already been there.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

British Tabloids

That British Tabloids have a reputation for being crass and under-handed is nothing new. What I didn't realize was for how long they've been like that.

The Rupert Murdoch News Corporation telephone hacking and bribing scandals are the latest big examples of dodginess. Headlines have certainly been composed in bad taste, but also sometimes not without their quirky charm. The headline in the Murdoch owned New York Post years ago, 'Headless Body Found in Topless Bar,' certainly ranks up there as a memorable banner, for many, many reasons.

The fun of reading newspapers as much as I do is that I usually find something, somewhere, where I'd least expect it. Take today's NYT story abut the 50th anniversary of John Glenn's orbital flight around the earth, a flight that was a return salvo to the Soviets and their space accomplishments.

I remember the era, I remember the flight, I remember a good deal of the details of the story. But even John Glenn it turns out gets a piece of information he never knew about.

The flight was delayed many times. On-again, off-again; in the Mercury capsule, out of the Mercury capsule. Like a cat, always on the wrong side of the door. The assembled press corps was bored, and likely inebriated often.

So, the veteran Times science reporter,  John Noble Wilford, tells John Glenn that the press grew so restless for something to write about that a British tabloid summarized a local bar's deadly midnight shooting of a waitress by her boyfriend as, "the first successful shot here in weeks."

Rupert's name is not mentioned.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Man in the Wheelchair

It took a while before I realized that the obituary I had just read meant a little more to me than just a news item of someone who passed away at 86, after successfully creating a nationwide chain of over 600 newsstands found in airports and rail stations, Hudson News.

The picture of Robert B. Cohen was obviously not of him at 86, but rather a cheerful looking man in his 50s. The other picture is one of a typical newsstand in a transportation facility; fully stocked candy counters, along with cigarettes, snacks, sodas, and many editions of different newspapers and magazines. Anyone who has been traveling somewhere, has probably bought something at a Hudson News.

I always wondered who owned Hudson News. I remember prior newsstands in Penn Station were run by Union News. Both names are counties in New Jersey. I always figured someone in New Jersey found a way to stock these outlets with merchandise that literally changes every day. And do it well.

Turns out Mr. Cohen only really started doing what he built his fortune on in 1987, when he opened an outlet at La Guardia airport. His father had owned a newsstand in New Jersey, then a newspaper/periodical distribution company. It was from this distribution business that he would also create the ubiquitous newsstand empire. He also owned racehorses, once having a horse named Hudson County, who finished second in the 1974 Kentucky Derby.

Still no light. I remember Hudson County, a bit of a sprinter I believe, but did forget the horse was second to Cannonade. It was a long time ago. Still, no light went off.

My path at the racetrack rarely puts me near thoroughbred owners, and rarely puts me in the Trustees Room, an exclusive dining enclave reserved for owners who are starting horses on the card, and track Trustees, whose names can read a bit like 'Who's Who.'

But On May 26, 2008 I was a guest of the New York Racing Association and found myself and two of my friends smack on the window in the finish line cat bird seat in Belmont's Trustee dining room. It was the day of the Metropolitan Handicap, so it was a quality racing day. How this transpired is a tale for another time, but it's worth saying that writing skills can get you places.

The Trustees Room has a strict jacket and tie dress code for the guys. You never saw so many males in blue blazers. My two friends, not used to wearing ties, held up nicely, but did squirm a bit.  No matter, we were guests, the meal was free, and the view was great.

Two tables away from us, on the glass as well, a family was seen wheeling in an older guy, very nicely dressed, who didn't seem to have much mobility. He didn't seem able to talk, and didn't seem to move his head much, but he was attentive. And they were attentive to him. Greatly. There was someone we pegged for a son, a wife, and perhaps the son's wife, and maybe some others. He was known to the staff in the dining room, unlike the gang of three who was there for the day.

We had no idea who the guy was, but figured he must have done well, because he was so well known. His family knew exactly want to do to situate him so he could watch the races and eat. There wasn't much he seemed he could do for himself. It wasn't their first day on the job of being nice to the old fellow.

The fourth race produced a winner that was a bit of a long shot, something called Justinline, trained by a very low percentage winning trainer, Heriberto Cedano. From my saved program I see I used the horse in an exacta, but didn't hit the exacta. I also didn't have the horse to win, so there was no reason to exult.

It took a while, but we came to realize a little after the race, that the fellow in the wheelchair was the horse's owner, Robert B. Cohen. The party had moved off to an adjoining room to watch the race. My friend recognized the trainer when he came by the man's table to share congratulations.

That didn't tell us anything about how the man had made a what we all figured must have been a few dollars, but it did tell us what the owner looked like and who his trainer was.

Every since that day, whenever Ive been at the track, I became aware when Mr. Cohen had a horse entered, and Mr. Cedano was the trainer. One of the Daily Racing Form's statistics has to do with how well a trainer is doing: how many starts for the year, firsts, seconds and thirds, at the meet, and overall; their winning percentage.

To have said Mr. Cedano is a low percentage winning trainer is to give away too much. Easily, a quick review of stats would reveal that he hadn't had a horse win a race in nearly two years, but Robert B. Cohen was still using him as his trainer.

The outset of the obituary stated that Mr. Cohen suffered from progressive supranuclear palsy, a Parkinson's-like neurological disorder. Certainly what we saw him suffering from that day in May.

He may not have pulled away with many winners, but he was around what he liked, and certainly a family that loved him was around him.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Yank Is Coming, The Yank Is Coming!

It's almost too good to be true. It was announced yesterday that Shirley MacLaine will be joining the cast of PBS's Downton Abbey next season, playing the American mother of Lady Cora, the American married to Lord Grantham.

This is good news on many fronts. It proves the series is so popular that a third season will be in the works, and the introduction of Shirley MacLaine can only create more plot lines than found in a cemetery.

Ms. MacLaine has been around quite a while, and anyone who knows anything about Shirley also knows that she'll tell you she's been around before, likely several times, being a solid believer in reincarnation, namely her own. I don't know if she's ever claimed to be Cleopatra, but playing Lady Cora's mother will put her birth at around 1841, certainly a rich storyline era.

She's likely to tell the household she couldn't vote for Lincoln, but did indeed sleep with him before he unfortunately took up with that troubled Mary Todd. Maybe she'll insist on a Jack Finney 'Time and Again' plot twist that has her interrupting the great-grand parents of Mark Zukerberg, thereby depriving the world of Facebook and its IPO.

Even if they play it "straight" Ol' Shirl is likely to waltz in during the 1918 Armistice and tell the British how the Yanks bailed their butt out in the latest war with Germany. She'll probably hint that it's going to happen again, but she'll wait for Season Four, or Five for that. No sense spoiling things.

No less than the executive producer of the show, Rebecca Eaton, is looking forward to having Shirl and Lord Grantham's mother, Lady Violet, have a sword fight with their canes.

If any of this leaves you wondering what is Downton Abbey it is best explained that it is an English costume drama, starting in 1912, somewhat on the order of 'Upstairs, Downstairs,' but set at a country estate.

The series has taken the literary and public television world by storm. Reading lists have been written so that fans can read more about the era; read about the books that helped give rise to the show. The show has worked its way into columns and even a book review on a fresh translation of Kama Sutra. I don't know if Jay Leno has quipped about the series yet, but it can only be a matter of time.

The series starts in April 1912 as the footman is ironing the day's newspaper to dry the ink so that Lord Grantham doesn't smudge his hands. The news is not good. The Titanic has sunk, but at least the ink has been made to dry. Anyone who has read The New York Times for many years knows that the oil-based ink used to smudge something fierce, until it was replaced by the current water-based ink. I now feel bad that I never thought about having the paper pressed before I dove into it all those years.

There is sex, of course. Well, sort of. The oldest daughter, Lady Mary, a pleasant faced young girl who resembles an ironing board and hardly seems kinetic enough to disturb dust, quite surprisingly hosts a rake from the Turkish embassy in her bedroom one night. Lady Mary apparently turns into a moving violation, because the chap croaks and is carried out in the dead of night and placed back in his room, where of course he's discovered dead in the morning. English Watergate ensues.

World War I starts, and everyone gets patriotic. Lord Grantham, being too old to be called back into active duty, does his best by dressing in his old uniform and looking like he's ready to invade Poland at any minute, if only Whitehall would give the phone in the library a ring and green light the operation.

It's a British costume soap opera, that can be interesting because we see a way of life that was surely unlike anything anyone ever experienced in the United States, even the very top of the 1%.

It's going to be interesting to see how they work Shirley into this world of stiff upper lip and stuffed shirt. I for one can't wait for her to pad into the kitchen one morning, hung over, in her nightie, light a cigarette and commandeer Mrs. Patmore's toaster.

The Fourth of July should have such fireworks.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Durability of $2.6 Million

On the surface, it would strike you as an odd pair of shows/movies to watch back-to-back. But, we live in a DVR age where it's now even easier to time-shift viewing choices.

Take Saturday night. The original 'Thomas Crown Affair' and the first episode of  'Luck,' HBO's new miniseries on gambling and horse racing were absorbed with some company on each side of dinner.

'Luck' was the first show viewed. I had already seen it, but was now playing it for a friend who hasn't succumbed to all the cable offerings on earth: thus, he doesn't have HBO.

'Luck' is several stories pursued at once, but all basically revolving around a throughbred racetrack, in this case, Santa Anita. The series is filled with name actors and actresses, produced and directed by TV veterans. The series promises to deliver some insight to the underbelly of racetrack gambling, casinos at racetracks, pursuit of championship races, with some lessons in equine proctology thrown in to prove horses have feelings too.  All of that was covered in the first episode, and the only one aired, so far.

One gemlike story line centers on four regulars who collectively look like razor blades were misplaced for days, soap was hidden, and clothes were stored in Hefty bags. But these people exist, and in this case they hit a monster Pick-6 wager which will pay them $2,687,632, to be split four ways. We'll certainly see more about that.

The first 'Thomas Crown Affair' was being played by the public TV station. It's a 1968 movie that even after all these years, I've never completely seen. It's not really that good, starring Steve McQueen as a bored rich guy who robs his own bank, and Faye Dunaway, as an insurance investigator who gets to wear more hats and outfits than Leslie Stahl in a month's worth of
'60 Minutes' segments. She and Leslie could easily get into a cat fight at Bergdorf's.

But here's the kicker. The bank heist that Tommy Crown engineers is a tried and true cash-hauling stickup. Small bills. Ones, fives and twenties. Duffle bags of money that get dropped and picked up in a cemetery.

Paul Burke plays the lead investigating police lieutenant, and although the heist was pulled off in Boston, does not have a Boston accent. He carries his New York 'Naked City' accent with him, but it doesn't really matter. He's flummoxed by the caper. His hats look good next to Faye's.

Since this is 1968, and a lot of cash has been hauled off, there are a lot of reporters waiting outside the station house for Mr. Burke to appear. They fill the air with questions. "How much was taken?" This much Mr. Burke knows, claiming because of computers they figured out that $2,600,000 something, something, something was taken. (I don't have the movie on DVR so I can't replay the exact number, but it sounded very close to the Pick-6 payoff in 'Luck.' More research will be needed.)

Tommy Crown, who is reported to be worth over $4 million 1968 dollars, is a very rich man. It's now suspected he increased his wealth by 50%, confounding the police, because, if he's already got over $4 million, what does he want more for? Bernie Madoff, before and after trading at lunch, but a Bernie just the same.

The heist is physically so large that it requires at least eight trips to friendly Geneva to deliver the cash and stuff it into an easily acquired Swiss Bank account. The Swiss apparently don't open luggage at customs, but Mr. Crown doesn't earn any frequent flyer miles, because no one's thought of them yet.

The four guys who have hit the Pick-6 in 2011 have easily gone waaaaay beyond increasing their wealth 50%, even when the split is four ways. We don't yet really know what will happen with their riches, but we suspect at least one of them will lose his share to poker or cocaine. Maybe both.

It does show you how times change. To get a quick $2.6 million dollar windfall in 1968 some rich guy has got to holdup his own bank and fly back and forth to Geneva eight times to give it safe harbor.

In 2011, four unwashed guys can honestly hit a Pick-6 six worth $2.6 million and wait to show us all how they're going to handle it.

I do know this. It's still more money than I'll ever have.