Did We Really Need a Remake of “West Side Story”?

Over 60 years ago, the film “West Side Story” was released to much acclaim, earning 10 Oscars including for Best Picture.

Now, famed director Steven Spielberg has made a remake of the classic Jerome Robbins/Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim musical, directed by Robert Wise, and one of the finest movies ever done based on a popular Broadway musical.

If any other filmmaker did this, I would have shunned the film.  But I can’t not see a Spielberg movie so I went ahead and saw it.

Overall, I liked it and thought Spielberg did a wonderful job.  He has the rare gift of knowing how to photograph a musical, a job often botched by modern film directors, by framing the full length of the dancers so the audience can take in all the movements.  And I loved the way the opening and closing credits were designed using cityscapes.

Still, as I exited the theater, I was left with the same question I had when I first read he was doing this:  why do it?

Several changes have been made for the 2021 version:  all actors are cast based on their ethnicity, the scenes with solely Puerto Rican actors are spoken in Spanish, the role of Doc has been replaced with his wife Valentina, and the backstories of Tony and Bernardo have been changed. 

Some of these changes are fine while others aren’t.  For example, the idea of casting 89-year-old Rita Moreno (who won Best Supporting Actress in 1961 as Anita) as the new character Valentina was inspired.  First, it makes a beautiful connection to the original film.  Second, giving her “Somewhere” to sing instead of Maria and Tony deepens the call for tolerance, not only for the main characters but for all couples who have mixed heritage including her late husband, a beautiful coda to Moreno’s film career.  It is the emotional epicenter of the film.

Less successful was the new information that Tony was in a jail for a year for almost killing a man.  And now Bernardo is a boxer.  Both of these backstories muddle the plot.

While the dancing in the new film is quite good, it doesn’t match the Jerome Robbins’ choreography of the original.  I was most disappointed with how much critics have raved about the 2021’s dancing.  It made me wonder when was the last time these critics saw the Jerome Robbins’ choreography or the athleticism of many of the dancers especially Russ Tamblyn?  Critics should know their history.

While I thought the dancing in the new version was good overall, the “America” number being a highlight, I was more impressed with Spielberg’s use of intimate tracking shots which made the dances more exhilarating than they were.

The weakest scene in the new version is the most critical scene in the musical:  the student dance where Tony and Maria first meet.  In Wise’s version it is quite magical and dreamlike, with vibrant colors.  In Spielberg’s version it is unremarkable behind the bleachers with too much talking.

Neither version casted Tony with an actor that is memorable which I found odd since that was usually the one blemish often mentioned (besides the fact that Natalie Wood’s singing was dubbed) was Richard Beymer’s blandness.  For me, Ansel Elgort is too slight of an improvement to make much of an impact.

And while in today’s times a major deal is made about casting Maria with a Puerto Rican actress, to me nothing compares to the charm of Wood.

If there was no earlier version of this musical until now, I would be more enthusiastic about this version.  I wish Spielberg would try his hand at another musical, but one that wasn’t already made into a movie.

Christmas Time is Here But Vanishes All Too Soon

Each year when the Christmas season begins, I vow to soak in as much goodwill as I can.  Whether it is through hearing songs that transport me back to a time when I was little boy, or spending time with my family reminiscing about our past Christmases, or TV shows or movies that always touch me.

It is a melancholy feeling knowing that with each year’s joy of celebrating the holidays means one less year I will have in my life’s limited time clock to celebrate.

Which is why I overdo the celebrations each year, stretching myself to watch one more “Ozzie and Harriet” Christmas show, begin playing Christmas music a few days earlier into November, putting up the outdoor deer and sleigh on our front yard around Thanksgiving, going out one more night driving around blocks to capture the joy of the neighbor’s light displays, or keeping the Christmas tree up one more day to take in the pine smell, oxygen for the soul.

My wife and I recently bought a Countdown to Christmas decoration which requires us to place a toy Santa doll into each pocket of the month of December ending on the 25th.  It seems just as soon we begin on Dec. 1 all of a sudden it is Dec. 21.  Time goes by too fast.

I want to keep pushing a “pause” button so that I can continue baking cookies, listening to the music, visiting favorite restaurants decorated with colors and sounds, and spending time with friends and family.

At this time of year, I childishly hold on to the crazy idealistic belief that people of all kinds make an effort to be kinder towards strangers.  There is only one human race.  We have so much in common, why waste our time fighting one another as if we were from a different race?

As many songs say, why can’t this Christmas feeling stay with us the whole year through?  Why do we accept ugly behavior for 11 months of the year, just to wait for one month to act human, to hold a door open for someone, to allow a driver ahead of us, to donate time or money for those less fortunate?

I just saw a piece on CBS’s Sunday Morning show where a wealthy benefactor visits impoverished neighborhoods to give $100 bills to those needy people.  And what stood out to me wasn’t when the camera captured his handing out the money, but when he spoke kindly about a complete stranger, telling a mother how much a wonderful person she was to her children. That is when tears streamed down their faces as well as mine.  The money was just an excuse to touch other people, reminding them that their lives matter, no matter who they are or how they live.

I wish I could soak in more stories like this one for it reminds us of how charitable we all can be towards others.

With January around the corner, however, we will have to wait again for December to see these stories that ring emotional bells within us; in other words, to feel humane.

My Supply Chain Story

Raise your hand if you ordered an appliance in recent months and had to wait or continue to wait for its arrival.

Welcome to my club.

Back in September, something happened which led to my wife and I ordering a new refrigerator.

No, the condenser did not stop working.

After 27 years, our first and only refrigerator has lasted as long as our marriage.  Before we had children, before we had dogs, before we had the house we have lived in for 22 years, there was this basic but humble white refrigerator in what used to be the standard configuration:  top freezer section, bottom fridge section.  It was made by GE back when GE products were quality appliances (not true anymore—we are on our third over-the- range microwave in 20 years).

The event that happened that led to a new refrigerator purchase was spilled yogurt.

One morning as I reached beyond my son’s gigantic tub of yogurt to reach for the half and half for my coffee, my hand came back with the carton of cream—and the yogurt container came out with it, lid flying off, gooey white slop slapping its way into every nook and cranny in the kitchen.

As I was on my knees wiping away the mess, I noticed that the insulation on the bottom of my refrigerator had disintegrated, worn away, withered like an old man.

“Well, it’s time for a new refrigerator” sprung out of my mouth to my wife.

And now the fun begins.

We live in a 1953 house whose charm we have embraced since we bought it.  When we renovated our kitchen over 20 years ago, despite the granite countertops, islands and stainless steel trends that were gaining steam at the time (and now has turned every kitchen into a carbon copy of everyone else’s), we stood fast and put in new tiles, installed beaded white cabinets and kept our white appliances.

Since we did not enlarge the kitchen footprint, a visitor would think the kitchen is small.   But for us, like Goldilocks, it is just right.

However, do you know how difficult it is to find a white refrigerator these days?  It’s like locating a car with a stick shift.

Plus, the built-in space for the fridge is not quite as tall as 70 inches, meaning, 90 percent of the refrigerators even in white would not fit.

That’s where Guillermo comes in.

He is the manager or our local Pacific Sales store.  In late September we came to him with our dimensions and requirements and he was able to locate one, only one, refrigerator that checked all the boxes.

It was a Fisher & Paykel, a New Zealand company I never heard off even though they have been business since 1934.  The only drawback was its staggering price that was more than all of our currently appliances combined.

“Oh well,” I rationalized, “this will be the last refrigerator we will ever get.”

The order was placed and, lucky us, the computer showed one in stock and would be delivered within 3 weeks.

Two days before the October delivery date I received a call from the delivery company notifying me that the warehouse did not have the product.

One thing I learned about Guillermo is that no matter how many phone messages I leave, nothing gets his attention more than me appearing directly in front of him; even with a mask on, he knows me.

It turned out that the computer showing the in-stock fridge was an error.

The new delivery date was December 3.

As I changed the monthly calendar attached to our freezer door, my wife and I’s excitement increased, anticipating our new refrigerator.  Since it would have French doors, no longer would the passageway between the dining room and kitchen be blocked whenever someone opened the fridge.  My wife even designed how our food items would be organized in the new space.  At least we would have it arrive before Christmas.

Like déjà vu, my phone rang on Dec. 1.  No fridge.  New delivery date:  Feb. 4, 2022.

During this journey, I have read enough stories about the worldwide supply chain crisis to make me a guest on “60 Minutes.”  I have called Fisher & Paykel directly a few times, each time a customer service representative contradicting what another told me.  One woman informed me that the product I ordered was now “obsolete.”  The man who answered the phone in Costa Mesa, the U.S. headquarters for the company, said that it wasn’t so.

Guillermo has assured me that a fridge with my purchase order is attached to a freighter making its way towards the Port of Long Beach.  Too bad I don’t have a honing device so I can track it’s journey across the Pacific on my laptop.

I know we are lucky that we still have a working refrigerator.  Other people have had to settle buying something that they didn’t want in order to have a fridge.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Old Betsy (the pet name for our still working GE fridge) doesn’t give out in the meantime.  Hopefully she is not the jealous type.

See’s Candies–What More Can You Say (or Smell)?

The year 2021 will be known for many things with the number one item at the top being the endless coronavirus that stubbornly is still hanging around preventing normalcy to return.

However, something lighter and brighter also happened in 2021:  See’s Candies celebrated their 100th anniversary.  To commemorate the event, the company issued special new candies each month, available for a limited time.

During the pandemic, I consumed more See’s than I normally would in 2-3 years—the ultimate comfort food.  One reason for my lifeline to See’s was that a person could easily order candy and have it home delivered during the quarantine period when most businesses were shut down.

The first See’s Candies shop I knew was on San Fernando Blvd. in downtown Burbank.  My mom would take our family there a few times a year.

See’s would usually be the chocolate of choice for Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day presents.

Over the years my tastes have changed.  As a kid, I always preferred the milk chocolate cremes over all other selections.  Towards the middle part of my life, I leaned towards the pre-boxed nuts and chews assortment over the cremes.  Now I hand select my favorite dark chocolate pieces:  Scotchmallows, almond nougats, butterchews, walnut squares, and, of course, Bordeauxs.

What is extra special about See’s is how little has changed no matter which parent company runs it.  One can only pray that this remains true.

Every See’s Candies shop is identical in design no matter what city you are in.  The black and white motif, the uniforms of its employees, the sound of chocolates delicately placed in protective corrugated wrappers, the smell (oh, the smell) that enrobes you like a piece of chocolate.  The delightful display case of all the goodies that goes on forever, and the self-serve shelves of pre-packaged goodies.

The one thing that has changed over the years is that only women used to work in the stores.  Now you will see some men.  I prefer the ladies serving chocolate, thank you very much.  Why?  Because it reminds you of a mother figure and even a Mary See figure serving you the delicacies, you know, the person who adorns every box, the person without whom this 100-year-old candy company would have never existed.

It was her son Charles who started selling his mother’s candy in Los Angeles back in 1921.

Living in a time when so much change flashes by us in a blur, how comforting and soothing it is knowing that See’s Candies remains steady.  No shortcuts in its ingredients.  And still rather affordable for quality chocolate.

Believe me, I have tried other candy companies.  Whenever I travel, I look for the local chocolatier and taste their wares.  I’ve hunted online for the “oldest” candy store in a vicinity and ordered from many.  There are several delicious boxes of chocolates out there—my second favorite is Lowery’s in Muncie, Indiana (which still rolls its pieces by hand)—but few match the taste, the size (the See’s pieces are larger than most) or the consistent quality than See’s Candies.

May it last another 100 years. And may the final thing I eat before I die be a dark Bordeaux chocolate.

I’m Dreaming of a Not-so-Hot Christmas

When New Yorker Irving Berlin wrote the opening to his iconic “White Christmas,” he was suffering from a warm December day while vacationing in Beverly Hills.

The introduction, rarely recorded or known, goes like this:

The sun is shining, the grass is green
The orange and palm trees sway
There’s never been such a day
In Beverly Hills, L.A.
But it’s December the twenty-fourth
And I am longing to be up North

All my life I have been in the South, Southern California that is, and have only known warm or even hot holidays.  Forget a white Christmas; I’d settle for a sunny but brisk 65-degree holiday.

Unfortunately, the chance of a cold or rainy Thanksgiving or Christmas is extremely rare.  If the temperatures stop rising at 79 degrees, I consider it better than the 93-degree Thanksgiving that sweltered Burbank in 2017.

Watching those TV commercials with people bundled up in sweaters and parkas, making their way through snowy landscapes taunts me:  that fantasy has never materialized.

And with the way the weather has become warmer in recent decades, the future looks hotter.

I know that me griping about warm weather during the fall and winter months places me among the minority of Angelenos.  I am never happy when a weathercaster appears joyful describing a warming trend or gloomy when predicting a few raindrops in the forecast.

Here we are a week before Thanksgiving and I’ve only had one fire in the fireplace so far because the nighttime temperatures have barely edged below 55 degrees.

For me, cooler days invigorates me while the hot ones depletes my energy even with indoor air conditioning.

I keep promising myself that one of these Decembers I will trek to a colder climate and spend a week in a mountain cabin and actually see it snow on Christmas Day.

In the meantime, I’ll have to live with not Christmas in July, but July in Christmas.

An Example Why 24 Hours in a Day is Enough

Have you ever had one of those days?  You know, where everything seems to go wrong.

Mine began with taking my wife to her pharmacy to pick up some medicine.

Usually it takes 20 minutes or so for this prescription to be filled.  But after that time passed with a text that her order was ready, my wife went back inside to check on what was going on.

The woman at the counter told her that they didn’t have her medicine in stock after all and for her to return tomorrow.

Flustered, we went home.  Why didn’t the employee notice on the computer screen that the medicine was out of stock when my wife first checked in?

Shortly after returning home, you probably can guess what happened next.

Yep, the pharmacy texted my wife that her prescription was ready.

If only that was the worst thing that happened that day.

When we got home, we had an ant attack in our main bathroom.  For the past few days we monitored a few ants here, a few there, and applied poison to where we thought they were entering.  Obviously they are cleverer than us in finding new ways inside.

So we killed the ants, cleaned up the mess, sprayed again.

A short while later when my son was washing clothes, my wife went to that same bathroom with the ants to discover that we had backup in the toilet, shower and tub.

Just 6 weeks earlier we had our main line rotor rootered.

Plus, two days earlier we had the plumber rotor rooter the clean out next to our laundry room and thought that problem was solved.

Wrong.

Luckily, the plumber was able to come out a short while later and snake the main line.

However, that was just step one on solving our ongoing sewer line issues. 

Clearly, something is wrong with the pipe from our house to the city line.  This will entail hiring another plumber who has a camera who can videotape what is going on in the line.  Most likely, this 68-year-old house has its original claypipe.  I researched the longevity of clay pipes:  50-70 years.

In other words, I’m going to have to replace the old pipe with new PVC pipe that will deter roots from penetrating.  Unfortunately, my line is at least 100 feet long.  I covered my eyes when I found online that this excavation and replacement can range anywhere from $3,000 to $6,000.

I needed a drink.

As my wife was calming me down from all this excitement, since the temperature outside was also rising, I put on the air conditioner.  It wasn’t working.  Great!

I added that phone call to my other list of calls to make in the morning.

But we’re not done.

My wife discovered that our other toilet had overflooded.  But our main line was just cleared.

It makes one fantasize about putting the house up for sale and moving to a brand new home anywhere.

Ah, the pleasures of home ownership!

There are times when one is glad that there are only 24 hours in a day.

It’s No Longer Time for Dodger Baseball

And so, another Dodger season is over.

After winning 106 regular season games tying a franchise record, a wild-card game, the five-game division series against the Giants, as well as two games against the winning Atlanta Braves who will go on to play in the World Series, the 2021 Dodgers are in the books.

As a fan, it is always a weird, empty feeling knowing that your favorite sports team in the world is no longer going to be on the radio or TV playing.  You hold on to every last moment including the final time you will hear Charlie Steiner and Rick Monday on KLAC or Orel Hershiser and Nomar Garciaparra on Spectrum.   The announcers and analysts rarely say “see you next year,” their voices and faces disappear  off the air into a commercial.

For the Dodgers, the current roster will undergo changes due to players becoming free agents, among them:  Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, Chris Taylor, Corey Seager, and Max Scherzer.

My guess is that Kershaw will return.  I can’t imagine that he and the Dodger organization don’t come up with an agreeable plan to allow the all-time great leftie to end his career in Dodger blue.

I’m afraid to say the it is doubtful any of the others will be back.  Not even the mighty Guggenheim Group who owns the club can give out big contracts to every player.

Looking back at this unprecedented 9-year run of Dodger playoff baseball, from 2013 to 2021, the only shame is that all those seasons, eight of them as first place division finishers, resulted in only one championship, and it had to be the crazy coronavirus shortened one so that critics can claim that it was because of the 60-game season that they won.  Those same critics should be reminded that the Houston Astros cheated their way to the 2017 banner which MLB should have revoked.

I don’t see the Dodgers fading away from the playoff picture quickly, but expect an eventual downturn with the Giants and Padres rising in quality for the foreseeable future.

One day Dodger fans will look back yearning for the days of Kershaw and Jansen and Seager and Scully.

For now, we wait 5 months for spring and baseball to return.

There is a Reason Why California is Known as the Golden State

A new house on my block went up for sale.  The price:  $1.9 million. 

Most of my life I have lived in Burbank, California.  I always enjoyed the city, a nice, middle-class neighborhood. 

However, Burbank is not Beverly Hills.  Never in my wildest imagination did I think I lived in a wealthy area.

But . . . what middle-class household can afford to buy a $2 million home?

The down payment surpasses the purchase price of my house.

The property tax alone is over $2,000 a month and that amount will never go away but will increase over time.  Combined with homeowners’ insurance, the monthly house payment is over $8,600.  Whoever buys this house will have to make mortgage payments exceeding $103,000 every year.

Who can afford that?

One would have to gross $150,000 in order to net $103,000.  And that is just for the housing expense.  Not included:  cars, clothing, food, entertainment, etc.

Only 8% of Americans earn between $150,000-200,000 a year.  I suppose if a married couple held down two such high-paying jobs, they could manage it.  However, how many couples do you know who fit this description?

Over the past few years, all of my surrounding neighbors have either died or moved.  All the new homeowners paid well over $1 million for the privilege of living in a nice but not exclusive area.  And each of them has late model cars.  And have made extensive renovations on what are already decent looking houses. 

Since I’ve been home from the start of the pandemic, nearly every day there are multiples of trucks or vans from workers who are employed by my neighbors.

If I were looking to purchase a house today, no way would I be able to buy the house I bought 22 years ago. 

Already, my children could not afford my house.  How will the affordability differ 22 years from now?  How crazy expensive will properties be then?

There is no easy answer to this situation.  I know people who have moved out of California to less expensive states.  Those ex-Golden Staters enjoy sharing how much more house they can buy at a much lower price in Idaho.  For me, though, California is my home.  I’d rather stay put in a smaller house that have an estate in West Virginia.  The state made its name from the Gold Rush and today keeps reinforcing that label.

The Booster Shot Americans Need to Cure Incivility

Brooks and Capehart.  How many of you know either of these two individuals?

The PBS News Hour.  When was the last time you watched this broadcast?

For those of you who don’t know, back when there were three major networks—ABC, CBS, NBC—there was the little engine that could:  the Public Broadcasting System (PBS).

PBS first broadcast its news show, The Robert MacNeil Report, back in 1975.  When reporter Jim Lehrer shared anchor duties with MacNeil, the show became the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. Almost a decade ago, Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff became the first all-female anchoring team.

Sadly, the PBS News Hour always finishes in fourth place behind the big three in the ratings race, but in terms of quality, it is number one.

To me, it has always been the most intelligent, balanced news program on the air.  If you are used to having animated images all around the frame on your TV screen, this is not the show for you.  This is the news in all its undressed staging, sometimes dry, that requires the listener to pay attention.  The pace is refreshingly deliberate.  The producers take time to inform the viewers, rewarding them with more information, less bells and whistles.  It is quite calming.

The highlight of the show for me has always been its final segment each week where two commentators share their differing views—one liberal, one conservative—on that week’s top news stories.  

Whether it was Mark Shields or David Gergen, or David Brooks or Jonathan Capehart, it is comforting hearing smart thinkers make sense of a troubling world.

Just because Brooks is a conservative and Capehart is a liberal has no bearing on their loyalty to a label.  Neither journalist is a mouthpiece of any political party or politician.  On any given Friday evening you can hear Brooks applaud Biden or Capehart chastise Biden. 

These two men with different views respect each other by not raising their voices or insulting one another.  On no other news program can you find such civility, decency and humanity. 

How refreshing is that?

It makes one believe in goodness, gives hope that we are not all doomed.  How wonderful our society would be if we just listened to each other and respected each other.  It really is all about sharing common values.

Watching Brooks and Capehart on the PBS NewsHour is a 15-minute booster shot that America somehow still has a chance of coming out of whatever mess we are in as a nation.

Back to School, Back to Parent Apathy

Imagine if schools made it incredibly easy for parents to attend the two main evening events each year—Back to School Night and Open House—by allowing them to do so from the comfort of their own homes.  How large the turnout would be!

Oh, wait a minute, that availability has already been in place for over a year via Zoom.

The result?  Lower turnout than when parents had to drive over to the school after dinner and walk from classroom to classroom.

At my son’s Back to School Night, there were on average five parents on the video board for each of the six classes.  And my son has four Advanced Placement classes where supposedly the most motivated students are and, one would think, the more involved parents are.

All parents had to do was stop bingeing on “Hacks” and take 90 minutes out of their lives to get to know their children’s teachers.  In other words, show some minor interest in their children’s education.

The conclusion to draw from such a low turnout is that a majority of parents are apathetic and/or lazy.

It’s surprising but not surprising.

If parents don’t care about their children’s education, think of other parenting areas where they come up short in.  I don’t know, things like being selfless, helping others, believing in God and in this country, and, yes, even wearing masks and getting Covid vaccines.

Already too many parents allow their children electronic devices at too early of an age, then look the other way at their children’s internet surfing habits, even allowing them to go into their own rooms, shut the door, and disappear for hours—completely unsupervised.

These children then grow up expecting to do whatever they want to do without barriers or consequences.

And all of society suffers when our culture overflows with these self-absorbed individuals.

Parents need to take a more active role in their children’s lives, starting with getting to know the adults who end up spending more time with their offspring than the parents do themselves:  the teachers.