And Friday's Contestants Are...

This is just a silly little thing I've been meaning to write up for a while, an amusing comics-related moment from the single nerdiest DVD box set I own.

Now, that's saying something. We own a lot of nerdy DVDs. Animated superhero stuff like Birdman and Justice League, geek TV staples like Star Trek and The Prisoner, and a ridiculous number of awesomely trashy B-movies ranging from Trouble Man to The Hidden to *sigh* Road House. (And even Road House 2.) I mentioned last week how stumbling across one of The Asylum's straight-to-DVD 'mockbusters' on cable resulted in our adding Princess of Mars, The Land That Time Forgot, and the dinosaur-enhanced Sherlock Holmes to the collection.

[caption id="attachment_46422" align="alignnone" width="620" caption="Yes, we own all of these. And many more. We're all about Trash Movie Night!"]


So the point is that we have many, many nerd-type DVDs here. When visitors see the rows and rows of them on the shelves in the front room, there's usually a snort and some derisive comment about how it's pretty obvious that this is Where Geekiness Dwells. (Of course, this is almost always followed by, "Oh my God! You have this? I loved this movie! Uh.... could I borrow this?")

But easily the nerdiest of them all, and the one that we may actually enjoy the most, has nothing to do with SF, horror, or B-movie exploitation at all.

The Best of Password. Julie got this for me at Half-Price Books for a whopping four dollars, I think, and we have had a ridiculous amount of enjoyment out of this set.

You have to understand that once upon a time, long ago, television game shows were actually about being, well, smart. I know this is going to be mystifying to those folks whose game show experiences are limited to stuff like Deal or No Deal or The Price Is Right, but really, there was a time when to win on a game show you had to, like, know stuff. College Bowl, Jeopardy, Split Second, High Q... most of them requiring knowledge of actual science and history as opposed to pop culture, though there was a fair amount of that too. Jeopardy is still hanging in there, but people talk about it today as though having smart people on a game show is some sort of bizarre aberration. It really did used to be the norm. Honest.

Long ago, when I was a kid and home sick from school, I'd pass the time watching game shows. (I had to be ill; otherwise, Mom commandeered the TV during the day for soap operas. But if I was sick, she would soften her stance.)

Of them all, Password was my favorite. It's a simple game, really -- two contestants were each paired with a celebrity, and the players were given a word that they then tried to get their partner to say in response to one-word clues. It sounds really simple but it can be damnably difficult, and the reason I loved it then and now is because it's a writer's game, it's all about language and ideas. Here is a typical clip.

It also gave you amusing insights into the personalities of the various movie and television stars that came to play as guest celebrities.... a game of word association often seemed like it ended up being a televised Rorschach test for many of them. And though I never noticed this when I was a kid it was startling to me, watching these old shows on DVD today, how terrified many of the movie stars were. Joan Crawford and Jack Palance, especially, struck me as being really worried about looking stupid on TV. (With good reason, it turned out.... clearly neither was an English major.)

Other things that struck me were...

...Allen Ludden was a god among game show hosts. He managed to be both affable yet unyielding, and it's totally his show from start to finish, even though he takes pains to make sure it's always focused on the players. But what tickled me was how he beat up on celebrity guests who screwed up. Using your hands is forbidden when giving clues, and watching Allen Ludden slap a star's hands down or actually clamp down on someone's forearm is just friggin' awesome. And hilarious. Didn't matter how big a star you were, on Allen Ludden's Password, damn it, you played by the rules.

...Jane Fonda and Lauren Bacall were willing to cheat in order to win. ("How the hell do you cheat on Password?" I hear someone asking. Jane uses her hands and then lies about it; Lauren mumbles a word that's close and doesn't correct anyone when it's taken for the right answer.)

...Betty White is widely regarded as the best Password player ever, which is natural since she was married to the host, Allen Ludden, and she played it a lot. And she is indeed a shark, but in her younger days, she was a pretty hilarious flirt, too.

...if you were on Password and you didn't get to play with Betty White, the celebrities that you really wanted to be partnered with to cinch a win were Elizabeth Montgomery, who was an amazing player, or possibly Brian Keith or James Mason. The ones you prayed you wouldn't get were Bob Denver or Bea Benederet. Both very nice people by all appearances, but somewhat, well.... dense. Here's a funny clip with Bob Denver and actress Carole Welles trying to get the word "Skipper." (Amazingly, Denver actually comes off as the smart one here.)

...the meanest celebrity player ever on Password was Jerry Lewis. The guy may have helped millions of kids with disabilities but he was just a bastard to everyone on that show. He was a very bad loser, argued about the rules, and blamed his civilian partners for everything that went wrong. (At one point you can tell Allen Ludden actually cautioned Lewis about his temper during the commercial break, because Lewis snarks off at him about it later.) Clearly Jerry Lewis is one of those guys that can't stand to be wrong about anything ever, and is perfectly willing to take it out on everyone around him.

...the nicest celebrity player, by contrast, was the young Martin Landau. He seemed to genuinely like everyone he was partnered with and -- I found this ridiculously endearing -- after every time they got one right he'd actually shake the contestant's hand in a sort of Well done chum! moment. If the other team got it, he'd clap the contestant on the shoulder in a Buck up! Next time! gesture.

I could go on and on, but I imagine that by this time you all are wondering, Jesus, Hatcher reaches pretty far sometimes but this is the least comics-related thing he's done yet. What the hell has a forty-year-old game show got to do with comics?

Well, I'll tell you.

In May of 1965, the World House Gallery in New York's Hotel Carlyle hosted a "Pop Art" exhibition of paintings by famous comic strip artists of the time. I suspect the thinking was, Gee, if Roy Lichtenstein can sell all those thousand-dollar paintings ripping us off, we should get us some of that fine-art gallery cash too. Many of the famous cartoonists of the day were represented. The whole thing was hosted by Joan Crawford and proceeds from the sale of the paintings went to benefit the USO.

As it happens, a bunch of the cartoonists appeared as guest contestants on Password, with whatever cash they won to again benefit the USO. And that episode, from May 20th, 1965, is included on this set. Betty White is partnered consecutively with Al Capp (Li'l Abner), Allen Saunders (Mary Worth) and Mort Walker (from Beetle Bailey), while Arlene Francis plays with Alfred Andriola (Kerry Drake) Leonard Starr (Mary Perkins On Stage) and Lee Falk (The Phantom.)

It's fun to see all these guys on television at the height of their fame (which then, as now, means very little outside of comics. Betty White is clearly baffled as to who most of them are -- Ludden laughs, "Don't mind her, she doesn't even know Bennett Cerf!") You can see that Al Capp is as grouchy and unpleasant as he would become known for in his later life, but he hides it pretty well.

Capp lost (somewhat ungraciously) to Alfred Andriola, from Kerry Drake.

Researching this, I stumbled across an interesting tidbit. Alfred Andriola dined out on Kerry Drake for many years, and even won a Reuben Award for his work on the strip in 1970, but he didn't write it and he even had a lot of assistants ghosting the drawing by then too. So who was writing it?

Why, it was the next contestant on Password that day, Allen Saunders from Mary Worth.

After I found that out I wondered if Saunders was sitting in the greenroom smoldering as Andriola talked about his work on Kerry Drake. He did eventually quit the secret uncredited ghostwriting after Andriola accepted the Reuben with a straight face, but the secret stayed a secret until Andriola's death in 1983.

Most of the cartoonists were awkward and nervous -- even Lee Falk, who actually seemed like he'd be a smooth man-about-town in a more normal social situation. (He looked very Mandrake-esque with his slicked-back hair and pencil mustache, but nevertheless playing Password threw him off a bit.)

I thought for sure that Allen Ludden would have been all about Li'l Abner and perhaps The Phantom, but it turned out he was a big fan of Leonard Starr's On Stage. "All those pretty girls," Ludden gushes. "And you do such a great job drawing them!"

[caption id="attachment_46428" align="alignnone" width="620" caption="All those pretty girls, indeed!"]


Really I think the best player of the lot was Mort Walker, who also came across as the most genial of the cartoonists that day.

Anyway, it's a fun little snapshot of newspaper cartoonists in 1965. But here's the kicker.

Looking up information about the Pop Art Exhibit, I stumbled across an interesting little piece of comics trivia. One of the contributors to the exhibit was Charles Schulz. He did a piece rendered in oils on masonite, and even cut real slats of wood and attached them with nails to the masonite board to create Snoopy's doghouse. Furthermore, Snoopy's ear is a real piece of felt.

At the auction, a young writer that was just starting to become well-known in comics himself was quite taken with the Schulz entry and bought it. His name?

Stan Lee.

What's more, decades later, this very painting would cause a controversy. Here's the relevant bit from the Heritage Auctions description of the item:

Controversy: Some bidders may remember, as reported on November 21, 2002 in The New York Times, that this piece was originally offered in Heritage's October 2002 auction at the Dallas Comicon. At that time, questions raised by the Schulz estate regarding the painting's authenticity caused it to be withdrawn prior to the auction.

The day before the painting was to be sold, Heritage Auctions received an e-mail from Edna Poehner, Administrative Assistant to Charles M. Schulz Creative Associates in Santa Rosa, California, insisting that the artwork was not created by Schulz. Heritage announced the withdrawal and shared the following email, written by Ms. Poehner, with all interested bidders: "According to Mr. Schulz's secretary at that time, Mr. Schulz's wife, Jean, and various people who worked with Mr. Schulz and know his art, this was definitely not done by him. He would have had to have painted it out behind the garage, packed and mailed it off himself, as she never saw or heard of any signs of such a project. He has never spoken of any kind of oil painting, in fact he often said that he wished he knew how to use oils."

For the next year, while Heritage researched the matter, the painting has adorned the office wall of Heritage President Greg Rohan. According to Greg, "Despite the allegation by the Schulz estate, we never doubted the authenticity because of its provenance. We politely pointed out that his widow may have no memory of it because the painting was created a full ten years before she married Schulz. Ms. Poehner remained polite but firm in her stance."

Consignor Stan Lee was equally adamant regarding the painting's authenticity: "I KNOW the painting is authentic as I personally attended the USO auction, and personally bid on it," Lee said. "Every piece was offered as an original work by a known comic strip artist. I can't believe that the USO or Charles Schulz would have been party to a hoax. I also have a Polaroid photo of the painting I showed to Sparky [Schulz's nickname] at a cartoonist's function in 1988. He said to me something like, "Gee, I barely remember this,' then autographed the back of the photo to me, writing, 'To Stan with friendship. Charles Schulz.' Seems to me if the painting wasn't authentic he'd have said something entirely different, or, at least, not autographed the back of its photo!"

Mort Walker, creator of the comic strips Beetle Bailey and Hi & Lois, who also attended and submitted artwork for the 1965 fund-raising auction, agrees with Stan Lee. Walker was contacted by Lee, and responded immediately: "In talking to several other cartoonists, the unanimous feeling is that the Schulz painting owned by Stan Lee is authentic. I knew 'Sparky' for 50 years and know he would never allow anyone else to do his artwork or sign it. He was very adamant about that," Walker stated in a letter.

We also asked Stan to attempt to locate the photograph he described above. This photograph has been located, and now accompanies the painting, along with other documentation about the event, including a photographic slide depicting Joan Crawford standing next to the painting, and a copy of a press release from the May 1965 event at which the painting was sold (the same picture of Ms. Crawford standing next to this painting is quite prominent in the press release).

I looked all over the place for a scan of Stan's photo as described, but it's nowhere to be found on the internet. Except in the auction catalog itself, which I actually ordered from Amazon in a fit of raging curiosity. (I had hoped it would arrive in time for today's column, but sadly it didn't.)

However, even with the provenance of the painting cleared up, I haven't been able to find anything else out about the incident, not even if Stan ever actually sold the painting or not. (Chances are that if he had, it would have gone for some hundreds of thousands of dollars; it was the only time Charles Schulz ever attempted an oil painting at all, let alone a mixed-media piece like this one.)

It'd be nice to know what happened to the painting, if it sold or Stan kept it or if the Heritage Auctions guy still has it or what. It might make an interesting Legends Revealed for for our Dread Lord and Master some day... I've chased it about as far as I can, but Brian's rolodex has better comics-biz contacts than mine.

At any rate, I recommend the Password DVD set unreservedly, especially since you can probably find it for under five dollars and that's a hell of a deal for thirty episodes; honestly, I'd have paid $5 just for the cartoonists episode. It's a wonderful sort of pop-culture time machine and you know, the game itself actually holds up. There have been several versions of Password since then: Password Plus, Super Password, Password All-Stars, and I watched them all -- Julie and I even watched that hideous new Million Dollar Password! abortion with Regis Philbin, last year, the one that looks like it's happening inside a neon pinball machine. That one mostly just made us sad at how stupid today's contestants have gotten... though it was nice to see that Betty White's still a shark, after all these years.

But the first one's the best. Language and ideas. That's all you need.

See you next week.

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