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Thursday, March 29, 2012
Earl Scruggs
I was sad to see the news this morning that legendary bluegrass artist Earl Scruggs has passed away.

I've had the privilege of seeing Scruggs in concert a couple of times during the Ryman's annual Bluegrass series and enjoyed his show each time.  As I said then, I wasn't always familiar with Scrugg's music or his influence on the genre, but I still enjoyed the music.   Even as he got older, Scruggs still knew how to entertain an audience and he also knew that you saved your most familiar song for last--he ended each show on "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" which some of you may know from the Beverly Hillbillies.

Scruggs was a true legend and one that will be missed.  Thanks for all the great music and memories!



posted by Michael Hickerson at 3/29/2012 09:02:00 AM | |
Monday, March 26, 2012
The Rock-afire Explosion

Thanks the power of Netflix streaming, I was able to check out the documentary The Rock-afire Explosion over the weekend.   It was a  fascinating way to spend just under 75 minutes and I highly recommend it.

For those of you who may not have been children of the 80's, the Rock-afire Explosion with the animatronic, in-house "band" as Showbiz Pizza restaurants.  A competitor to Chuck-E-Cheese,  Showbiz had a rapid rise and fall during the early 80's, full of games (both video and otherwise), rides, pizza and the show.  I can recall the catchy commercials that aired during my Saturday morning and afternoon cartoon viewing with the catch phrase, "Where a kid can be a kid."   Growing up, I visited a few of the restaurants either as a treat with my family or celebrating a friend's birthday. 

And while I'm sure I enjoyed it, Showbiz didn't create all that huge an impression on me.   But to others, like those featured in this documentary, it had a huge impact.

The movie looks at some of the band's biggest fans as well as the entrepreneur behind the robots, Aaron Fechter.   Fetcher's company designed, built and sold the robots that made up the band that had such a huge impact on the people involved, including Chris Thrash, a guy from Alabama who I'd describe as the world's biggest Rock-afire Band fan.  Thrash has purchased and maintains a working Rock-afire Band at his home and created renewed interest in the animatronic robots when he choreographed some popular songs by the band and put them up on YouTube a couple of years ago.  

The story is a fascinating one for a couple of reasons.  The first is the passion that the fans have for the band.   The investment of time and money that Thrash has put into the group is staggering.  While the movie never comes out and tells us how much Thrash paid for the robots, a quick Google search indicates the last time a full band sold on E-Bay, the starting price was $14,000 (and that was in 2008!) .  And I'm not sure if that was a new or used set of the robots.  

The other thing that fascinated me was a line from the movie where Showbiz was opening store after store and, on the surface, appeared to be wildly successful, but all the time was losing money at a rapid pace.   The aggressive roll-out of stores and expansion of the chain ultimately proved to be its own undoing, as did a move to buy out Chuck-E-Cheese when that particular chain was in trouble.  

Of course, you can still go to Chuck-E-Cheese today.  Showbiz is a distant memory and the Rock-afire Band lives in the memory of fans as well as some boxes as Fetcher's warehouse in Florida, where he's waiting on just the right time to make the sale of the final full band produced.  (Though a couple of the shows were sold to restaurants in Jordan.  So maybe the show is big there...)  Fetcher's belief that the band is about to make some kind of resurgence and be huge again is interesting.*While I agree that many of us out there may have some nostalgia and think it's cool to see a YouTube video with the band singing the Black Eyed Peas, it's not something I'm going to invest a lot of time or (more importantly) money in beyond that.

*One thing that I think wound up being the show's undoing was Fetcher's lofty goals.  Instead of having one or two shows that were rolled out and sold to the entire chain, he and his creative team were rolling out a couple of shows a quarter at the height of the Showbiz popularity.  I like the concept that you have fresh content being rolled out, but then again you have to look at the huge expenses that would come with creating and distributing the shows. 

But throughout the film, Fetcher and Trash both hold out hope that the revival is just around the corner.
On some level, I can feel for them both.   As a Doctor Who fan, I clearly recall the wilderness years when there were no new episodes being produced and the idea that the show would ever return to television looked fairly bleak.  

The idea that there are other fans out there who get just as passionate about their own particular thing as I do about Doctor Who or UT sports, is compelling.  As is the story of the rise and fall of Showbiz and the band that sang there.   

If you're looking for something different to try on Netflix streaming, give this one a try.  


posted by Michael Hickerson at 3/26/2012 10:01:00 AM | |
Monday, March 19, 2012
"Camelot"

There was a time when I became fascinated with the Arthurian legend.  Part of that fascination grew from my high school's drama department putting on a production of Camelot my sophomore year coupled with it being in vogue for English teachers to assign reading of the Mary Stewart Merlin series.   I devoured the Merlin series and the summer between my sophomore and junior year I picked up The Once and Future King.


I also attended my high school's production of Camelot, for which I got extra credit in English.  I probably would have attended anyway.   See, the runner up to play Lancelot didn't take the casting news well and a couple of weeks before the scheduled opening date, he decided to throw a monkey wrench into the works.   He did this by burning some of the sets.   The good news is the fire was contained quickly with no one hurt.   But it meant having to postpone the show and we had to use our rival high school's auditorium for the production a few weeks later.

When I matriculated to the University of Tennessee, I got involved with the Wesley Foundation.  The year before I got there, they had put on a production of Camelot, directed by my best friend* and featuring a lot of the people I got to know and love during my time at UT.  I helped out as stage manager for a couple of other productions, but I still wish I'd been able to see some of my friends in the Arthurian roles.

*And if you're in the Knoxville area or just want to hear some great interviews about local theater, you really should check out his podcast, Sounds of Knoxville Theater.

A lot of these memories came back to me yesterday when I saw Camelot again, this time at the Canon County Arts Center.**    The music, the songs, the story, the sets, it all just brought back good memories.   My only complaint was the song "Fie on Goodness" was skipped in the performance, but otherwise it was nearly perfect.

**A great venue for some excellent community theater.  I love theater in the round and this one is three-quarters in the round.   I love how the directors use the space and the intimacy you feel with the production.  There's not really a bad seat in the entire place, though I do have my preferred section.


And yet as I watched it unfold, I couldn't help but recalling who I knew from the Wesley Foundation and the high school production in their various roles.  I had forgotten some of the details and it's always a treat to see different choices made by other artists on the same material.   I was also struck by how the play creates many visual moments through song and the actors' reaction to things happening off stage (the big jousting tournament that Lancelot wins that begins the unraveling of Arthur's dream, for example).

The show made me want to go back and revisit the Arthur legends I read in high school.

I may just have to add those to my already huge pile of books to read.  Of course, I also found another book to re-read while there.  In a couple of weeks, there will be a production of Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, one of my and my wife's favorite books growing up.  We've already got our tickets to go see it and now I'm tempted to re-visit yet another old friend.



posted by Michael Hickerson at 3/19/2012 08:38:00 AM | |
Wednesday, March 14, 2012
TV Round-Up: The Walking Dead
"Better Angels"


So the big death I expected to happen last week actually happened this week.  
Last week, Dale shuffled off this mortal coil because of a zombie attack.  This week, Rick is forced to kill his best friend Shane.  Shane has decided he's a better husband to Lori, father to Carl and leader to the group than Rick is.  And on some level, Shane is right that he could be a better leader in the new world order.  It's just a shame that he couldn't figure out how to play well with others and actually be a leader once Rick got back.
Of course, Lori didn't help things either.  Going out to Shane and saying, "Yeah, the baby could be yours" sent Shane over the edge.  And the fact that Rick is so much more concerned with the needs of the group than being a father to Carl when Carl needs him most also doesn't help.*
*I'm not sure if Shane ever realized that Rick did go and talk to Carl in the barn.   
And while not as shocking as Dale's death last week, Shane's death does raise an interesting question--how did he become a zombie when he wasn't bitten by one?  I have a feeling the revelation from the comics--that everyone can become a zombie upon death unless taken out with a head shot--is about to be revealed next week.  That's probably the revelation that was whispered to Rick last season by Jenner and may be why Rick had such a hard time with the decision to kill Randall.
If it is, then the reasoning for keeping him alive works better.  If not, well, then it could be that Shane was right all along.

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posted by Michael Hickerson at 3/14/2012 10:15:00 AM | |
Wednesday, March 07, 2012
TV Round-Up: The Walking Dead
"Judge, Jury, Executioner"

When you timeshift series, you run the chance of certain surprises being ruined.   That's the case with this week's installment of The Walking Dead, where thanks to the Internet, I knew a major character was going to shuffle off this mortal coil by episode's end.

Based on some SPOILER material I've seen floating around on-line, I assumed it would be a certain character who died early in the graphic novel's run.

So, imagine my surprise when the show pulled a fast one of me and killed a character I didn't expect to see die--even though I knew someone was going to die at episode's end.

Put it another way--holy cow, they killed Dale!

I know a lot of people have been critical of the pacing of season two, wanting more zombie attacks and less conversation between characters.  But last week's episode and this one showed that Walking Dead is more than just a show about surviving the zombie apocalypse.   It's about how humanity could and should survive in the wake of the world changing in a radical way.

Last week's fight between Rick and Shane was interesting in how animal and zombie-like it got.  The two stop exchanging words, ideas and exchange blows, grunting like zombies the longer it went on.  In the end, Rick refuses to leave Shane behind to die as Shane did to Otis earlier this year.*  But Rick is still willing to consider the idea that he's going to have to kill Jimmy in ordrer to protect the farm from, for lack of a better term, the Others.

*Anyone else get a feeling that the setting up of the noose in the barn is going to have a payoff before the season's end? Maybe not Jimmy, but could it be Shane?


This week, Dale argues in favor of keeping Jimmy alive and that by executing him, Rick and company are no better than the zombies they're fighting against.  It parallels this with Carl's storyline in which his moral fabric is slowly being worn done by the new world order and, possibly, exposure to Shane.  His willingness to torture a zombie in the swamp showed this and it was a nice touch that the zombie Carl helped free from the mud was the one who came back to kill Dale.  Again, this is one of those moments that I think will come back in the next two episodes and may help Rick see just how dangerous an influence Shane is on his son.**

**Of course, we can still argue over whether or not Shane is "right" here in the new world order.  But he is kind of a bully and I don't believe he wasn't attracted to Lori on some level before Rick's "death" as he said last week. Shane seems to see the world as he wants to see it and may have re-edited events to ease his own conscience.


And then, there's the death of Dale, who served as the conscience of the group and persuaded Rick and the others that killing Jimmy wasn't the right call.  Without Dale around, will we continue to see the group fracture?  Or will his death bring them back together?

posted by Michael Hickerson at 3/07/2012 08:49:00 AM | |
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