Tag Archives: special

REVIEW: A Double-Dose of Christmas DRAGNET (Dollar DVD; 2004)

Aw, I couldn’t let December go by without a Christmas update! I’ve been a busy cat with little time to write arbitrary articles for my silly little blog, but I had to get some kind of post up for the holiday, you know?

I’ve been ruminating on this one for some time now, and I’ve been wanting to showcase Dragnet in some way here for awhile anyway, and today that time has come. I’ll say right up front, I’ve been a big Dragnet fan for, boy, around 20 years now. Back in the late-90s, TV Land was running the 1967-1970 color revival series, and that’s where I was first introduced to Jack Webb’s still-influential police procedural. The cornier, preachier aspects of the show would become increasingly evident to me over the years, but the fact remains that to this day, to me, when 60s Dragnet was good, man, it was good. Nowadays, I find (most of) the episodes that basically act as tutorials on how the L.A. police department operates in various situations to be fairly insufferable, but the rest, square as they may seem in this day and age, I genuinely enjoy.

That famous title screen

Anyway, through the power of the then-still-burgeoning internet of the late-90s, I was able to discover that Dragnet was first a 1950s television series, though that iteration was nowhere to be seen regularly on TV by then – at least to the best of my knowledge. (And yes, I know, Dragnet was actually a radio series before it hit television, if y’all wanna get technical, but we’re talkin’ TV here so lay off.) It wasn’t until a trip to Best Buy to visit their wondrous $2.99 VHS section in the summer of ’99 that I came across two episodes of the 1950s Dragnet, one per tape, and needless to say, they so came home with me that night.

What I found was that, on paper, the show was largely the same as its 1960s continuation: sure, Joe Friday’s partner was different, but it was still ultimately a cop show that emphasized realistic police procedure and detail rather than continuous car chases and shootin’ extravaganzas. But that earlier version of Dragnet was, to me, quieter, maybe even quainter in comparison. Hey, I was 13; what did I know? I liked it, but to me, Frank Smith couldn’t replace Bill Gannon.

Looking at it through more-seasoned eyes though, 1950s Dragnet took a grittier, oftentimes positively noir-ish approach to the proceedings, with a more documentary-like feel. Yes, at heart it’s the same thing, but the Dragnet of 1951-1959, or at least what I’ve seen of it via the 20+ episodes that make the public domain rounds today, eschewed the preachy tutorials of that later version in favor of a darker, more unflinching, and dare I say, cooler approach to the television police drama. Ironically, it’s the older version that has aged better than the newer one! The fact that each episode ostensibly presented a real case, with only the names being changed, only added to the sense of realism. None of this may look like much now, but rest assured, this was revolutionary entertainment, with traces of the trails it blazed still evident in the cop shows of today.

(I steadfastly maintain that the three most influential television police dramas are Dragnet, Hill Street Blues and Miami Vice.)

As I said, there are a number of episodes of 50s Dragnet that have fallen into the public domain. The status of the rest of the series I do not know, but it has become a game of mine to search out the best, most (relatively) comprehensive DVD collections. Included episodes and print quality certainly varies from release to release, but at the end of the day, if you’re like me, this is still engrossing stuff!

And yet, months and months ago, when I found myself at a thrift store and in the vicinity of a still-sealed Dollar DVD (a company whose cardboard-slipcased releases were commonly found at Save-A-Lot and the like throughout the 2000s) disc from 2004 that featured two Christmas-themed episodes of Dragnet and in an appropriately-designed sleeve to match, I hesitated. I mean, I’ve got public domain Dragnet episodes over and over and over again by now, so was a two episode, single disc release really something I needed to add to my increasingly-cluttered collection of stuff? Evidently it was, as that’s the very disc we’re looking at today, here and now. (In the interest of full disclosure, I honestly never really intended on actually opening the DVD, but when I decided it would probably be best to review something for Christmas 2019, well, here we are.)

Obviously, here’s the cover to your right, so y’all will know what to look for. The cover is also the sleeve; it flips open and the disc slides out, as you may well expect it to.

I like the inclusion of mistletoe around the “Christmas” banner; there’s no mistaking what the theme of this disc is! The notations of the included episodes on the cover are reversed from how they actually appear in-play, though that was probably a wise decision, for reasons that will become obvious momentarily. Besides scene selections, there are no special features beyond the episodes themselves, buy hey, it originally only cost a dollar, so stop yer complainin’!

The print quality of the two episodes is fairly good. The first one presented (“The Big Little Jesus”) is the better of the two; sure there’s lotsa dust and dirt and scratches, but the image is reasonably sharp. “The Big .22 Rifle for Christmas” (as you can see, titled “Twenty-Two Rifle for Christmas” on the sleeve) is a bit fuzzier, but both are perfectly watchable. So what say we check ’em both out now, eh? (Yes, there will be spoilers ahead, but don’t let that deter you from tracking either of these shows down; they’re both very good!)

“The Big Little Jesus” (Originally aired December 25, 1953)

It was probably a good idea to lead off with this installment, not only because it originally aired on Christmas day, but also because, frankly, it’s the more holiday-appropriate of the two. Fun facts: while no circulating prints feature it, this episode was originally broadcast in color! My dream scenario (which is looking increasingly unlikely) is for the original color broadcast to be included in an official DVD and/or Blu-ray complete series set, if indeed a print even still exists. Or give me a standalone release, I don’t care; I just wanna see the “real deal” finally put out there on home video!

Also, the December 21, 1967 installment of the revived Dragnet series featured a remake of this episode, titled “The Christmas Story” and complete with several of the same cast members reprising their roles. (The 1967 version is the one that introduced me to this story so many years ago, as you may expect.)

The plot: a statue of the infant Jesus has been stolen from a Catholic Church, and while it’s not technically worth very much, it has great sentimental value to the parish. With less than 24 hours before Christmas Mass, it’s up to Joe Friday and his partner Frank Smith to try to recover it. The fact that they have no solid leads doesn’t help matters.

A check of religious stores that may have taken in the statue comes up empty. Indeed, the only thing approaching a real clue is the sighting of a parishioner who was seen leaving the church around the time the statue might have disappeared. They track him down, and his sketchy demeanor and criminal past initially looks promising for a break, but it turns out he had accidentally scratched a car and thought that’s why he was hauled in.

Returning the baby Jesus to the Nativity

All seems hopeless, and Friday and Smith return to the church to inform the priest of the developments, or lack thereof. At that moment however, a poor parishioner, a little boy, comes in with a wagon, a gift he received. In it is the statue of Jesus; the boy had taken it. Not to keep, but rather, he had prayed for the wagon, and had promised the Christ child the first ride in it. Needless to say, no charges are filed against the kid.

Obviously this wasn’t your typical episode of Dragnet, but rather one specially tailored to the season, and day, in which it aired. The ending is suitably heartwarming, and the importance with which Friday and Smith go about the case, at one point convincing their superior to let them stay on it despite a more important matter having arisen, is nice. Of the two episodes on this disc, this is the one that could (should?) be considered annual family viewing.

Funny moment: when a boy who Friday and Smith want to talk to comes into the station, and they inform him he could have just called, the boy answers that his dad says “any kid that uses phones is lazy.” Oh how the times have changed!

Also kinda amusing: since Frank smith was the family man of the duo, he takes a moment at the beginning to chide Joe for being unmarried and unromantic. It’s the sort of thing Harry Morgan regularly did as Col. Potter Bill Gannon in the color version of Dragnet, and it’s to the credit of Jack Webb’s Friday that he tended to accept this ribbing with fairly good humor.

“The Big .22 Rifle for Christmas” (Originally aired December 19, 1952)

The older Christmas episode was placed second, and despite the holiday theme of it and this disc as a whole, it’s, uh, not a very happy installment. Whether hiding it behind “The Big Little Jesus” was intentional or just how things ultimately ended up, I do not know. At any rate, this episode probably isn’t good for perennial family viewing. It does present an important message though, so it probably should be family viewing. Just not Christmas family viewing.

(Ben Alexander normally played Joe Friday’s partner Frank Smith, but in this episode, the role was played by Cleveland native Herb Ellis.)

The plot: it’s shortly before Christmas, and a neighborhood boy has turned up missing. The only clues to his disappearance are a bit of blood on his family’s patio and a spent shell casing from a .22 rifle. It’s soon revealed that his parents had gotten him a .22 rifle for Christmas, and while the gift was wrapped and hidden, the kid had apparently found and opened it.

Not long after, another boy from down the street also turns up missing. The first boy returns home unharmed, but when questioned by Friday and Smith, the boy reveals that his friend accidentally shot and killed himself with the rifle, so he hid the body. It was strictly an accident, but the kid is naturally distraught.

Smith, Friday, a grieving father, and his son…

Anyway, when the father of the dead boy is informed of what has happened, he’s understandably in shock, crying over and talking to his son’s body (which is laying in his room; was that proper police procedure back then? I mean, wouldn’t they have taken the body to the hospital or morgue or something?), but then angrily storming down the street to the house of the boy whose rifle killed his son. Friday and Smith follow behind, but when the man confronts the kid, he noticeably softens, says he knows it was accident, and then gives all of his son’s presents to the boy!

Look, I know these shows were based at least in part on real cases, but somehow the conclusion of this one rings a little false to me. The father of a dead child forgiving who he considers responsible is certainly feasible, but giving the kid all of his son’s presents mere minutes after being informed of what happened? I call fake. Or maybe these things actually happened, and they condensed them to fit into the single episode here?

Dragnet was pretty far ahead of its time with stories like this, and it’s overall a captivating, and subsequently heartbreaking, installment. And, there’s an important (and still timely) message here; the subject of giving a rifle to a young boy for Christmas is one that will understandably draw some ire nowadays (and back then too, I’d imagine), but it’s specifically stated the kid was going to be shown how to properly use it. That seems to be no excuse for Friday, who somberly states “you don’t give a kid a gun for Christmas” to Smith as they sadly leave the scene.

Like I said earlier in this article, the 1950s version of Dragnet could be very noir-ish, and while you see some of that in “The Big Little Jesus,” it’s far more evident in this episode (probably due to both the subject matter and the fact that the other episode was originally broadcast in color). There are some very evocative angles and lighting to be found in “The Big .22 Rifle for Christmas,” without a doubt. It all adds to what is an important and vital piece of television, if not a very happy one.


Despite the wildly different emotions and plots found between the two, these are both excellent episodes of Dragnet. They run the gamut of hopeful and joyous to dark and heartbreaking. The birth of Christ is obviously the most important aspect of the holiday, and that message is front and center in “The Big Little Jesus.” The theme of forgiveness is found in both, though it’s more overt in “The Big .22 Rifle for Christmas.”

They’re both engrossing and well-written episodes, and anyone who has only knowledge of the 1960s version of Dragnet would do well to look at these (or any number of 1950s installments, honestly) and see just how different, and frankly, better, the earlier TV version could be. (And keep in mind, I did and do love the 1960s Dragnet.)

I probably won’t see you again until after the new year, so let me wish you now a very Merry Christmas. I hope your holiday is truly blessed, filled with happiness and peace and the joy that should go with the season. That is my hope for you all.

WJW TV-8 – The Big Chuck & Lil’ John Ghoulardi Special (October 10, 2015)

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I usually don’t look at ‘modern’ television broadcasts, especially broadcasts as recent as this past weekend, but this was so unabashedly cool that I can’t resist. Besides, it may be a new broadcast, but it’s a new broadcast of older material which in turn featured even older material. There, wrap your mind around that!

‘Course, the fall-back here is that this is my blog and I’ll write about what I want. I could go in the backyard and describe all the neat-lookin’ rocks I find if I so desire. You keep pushing me and I just might, too.

I was made aware of this special just the night before it aired: on Saturday, October 10, 2015 at 3:30 PM, WJW TV-8 would be airing the 30 minute Big Chuck & Lil’ John Ghoulardi Special. I’m glad I only had to wait less than a day for this, because man, I was stoked. A Big Chuck & Lil’ John special, airing (roughly) in their old Couch Potato Theater time slot, and focusing solely on Ernie “Ghoulardi” Anderson, the man who set this whole thing in motion waaay back in 1963? I was so there.

This is what I love so much about Northeast Ohio TV: for all of the changes it has gone through over the years, the steady erosion of locally-grown programming in favor of syndicated content and whatnot, there’s still a sense of history here; there’s a reason Big Chuck & Lil’ John have been forever in the public eye, Son of Ghoul is still plugging away, and no one bats an eye when a special regarding a character that hasn’t been on Cleveland airwaves since 1966 is allotted a 30 minute time slot. Doesn’t hurt that Ghoulardi had (and continues to have) an incalculable impact on so much of the populace, either.

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The announcement I saw didn’t elaborate, and I automatically assumed this was going to be a half hour edition of their regular skits-only show, tailored solely to Ghoulardi material. As it turned out, this wasn’t actually a new special; as the above screencap attests, this was instead a re-broadcast of Big Chuck & Lil’ John’s tribute to Ernie Anderson following his 1997 death. It’s actually not too far off from what I envisioned, just 18 years older. I guess it makes sense to simply re-run the earlier special; a new version would just cover the same ground and take time to film.

Not that I’m complaining, mind you. Anything that gives Big Chuck & Lil’ John and Ghoulardi airtime is absolutely fine with me. Always. Besides, seeing Chuck & John on that old set with the studio audience gets the nostalgia fired up somethin’ fierce.

(By the way: why the slightly fuzzy reception in this day and age of ultra-clear digital everything? Meh, for old times’ sake I recorded this onto DVD on my downstairs CRT TV, which apparently doesn’t play by the same rules as my cute HDTV upstairs does. I also DVR’d the special upstairs, but what the heck, this DVD is already made and handy for screencaps, so here we are.)

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Being a tribute to Ernie Anderson, in addition to actual Ghoulardi footage there’s also a lot of reminiscing, as you would expect. In addition to a short bio of Anderson and how he wound up as Ghoulardi, among other stories Chuck recounts the famous tale of his stealing a Ghoulardi poster off a bus while Anderson kept the driver distracted. Funny stuff!

Keep in mind, this originally aired some time before the phenomenal Ghoulardi: Inside Cleveland TV’s Wildest Ride book was released, and waaaay before Big Chuck’s terrific autobiography (head on back to that BC & LJ store link for that one), so a lot of the information here hadn’t been widely recounted and available to the masses yet.

(For the record, both of those books are absolutely essential reads, not only for Northeast Ohioans or fans of Horror Hosts, but for television lovers in general; both offer an indelible snapshot of TV history, an era that won’t be repeated, and are ridiculously entertaining to boot.)

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Much of the tribute also consists of Chuck’s one-on-one interview with Anderson himself, obviously conducted some years prior. As I recall it, this interview provided the basis for a previous BC & LJ special show, though integrating the segments into this tribute show makes all the sense in the world, given the circumstances.

After giving up Ghoulardi in 1966, Anderson went to Hollywood and made the mighty dollars doing voiceover work. I have countless commercials/promos featuring his voice, and on a nationwide scale that’s what he’s really known for. At one point during this show, Chuck mentions that when Ernie went to Hollywood and became a millionaire, it didn’t change him a bit; he was still the same guy he was back in Cleveland. You get a real sense of that during these interview segments. There’s no showing off, no posturing or anything like that. It’s just two friends talking about the old times.

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As far as actual Ghoulardi material goes, with only 30 minutes and so much ground to cover, well, you’re only going to see so much. However, the official Ghoulardifest website sells a phenomenal DVD of much (all?) of the remaining footage from Ghoulardi’s show, the only official place to get this stuff. I have it in my collection, and you should have it in yours too.

As for this special though, I personally would have liked to see a few more bits with Ghoulardi on his set doing his thing. As it stands, there are two brief clips, and the skit you’re seeing above, The Pitching Coach.

Y’see, Chuck got his behind-the-camera and, as in this case, his in-front-of-the-camera start on the show, performing in skits and even providing the basis for running gags such as the whole “PARMA?!” thing. In this skit, he plays the new pitching coach for the Cleveland Indians, who proves to be fairly incompetent. My favorite moment comes when Ghoulardi tosses a ball back to him, and it lightly hits Chuck’s arm; Chuck holds his arm in pain and pouts in the corner while Ghoulardi tries to apologize!

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More Chuck, this time in one of the legendary skits from Ghoulardi’s show: Parma Place.

Parma Place was a take-off on the soap opera Peyton Place, and the line of skits basically existed to poke fun at the Cleveland suburb of Parma. The loose idea was that Chuck’s character was always trying to make time with Anderson’s wife behind his back (and often right in front of him), but the more notable aspect of the skits were the stereotypes of Parma they perpetuated: white socks, polka music, and so on.

And this was all in addition to the jokes Anderson would make about the suburb when in character as Ghoulardi. Naturally, some residents of Parma didn’t take too kindly to all this, but it’s all still funny, and the genesis of a running joke that continued (and continues) on through The Ghoul and Hoolihan & Big Chuck (& Lil’ John).

A few different Parma Place entries are spotlighted during the special, and this screencap comes from a moment when Chuck’s character “Jerry” gifts Anderson with a pair of white socks, to which he and his wife marvel at endlessly.

Also, you have no idea how funny I find Chuck’s PARMA shirt.

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A fun bit where Ernie Anderson interviews, well, himself. Using a split screen and some handy pre-filming, Ernie Anderson as Ernie Anderson interviews Ernie Anderson as Ghoulardi (who insists he be called “King”). It actually works pretty well; in fact, for the time period it’s fairly seamless.

My favorite line: “I first got my start as Ghoulardi when they fired me from channel 3 and 5 wouldn’t hire me!

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The whole open-wounds-shock of Anderson’s passing may not be as hard to take today as it was in ’97, which is understandable; it has been nearly 20 years, after all (20 years? I refuse to believe this all happened that long ago!). That’s not to say it isn’t still sad, because of course it is. I don’t mean to downplay anything here, it’s just that after 18 years, (most?) Northeast Ohioans have learned to live with Ghoulardi being gone, really gone.

All that said, there is a moment that still packs an emotional wallop in this tribute: the final scene returns to Chuck interviewing Anderson, and Anderson recounts that he met a lot of great people in Cleveland, and then jokingly says to Chuck “You’re not one of them,” to which they both crack up. After they calm down a bit, he then adds “You are, you’re great,” and then the scene freezes as the copyright info pops up. It stays there a bit before fading out, and in that little moment, the deeper meaning of all this is hammered home: it’s not just about what Anderson accomplished as Ghoulardi and what he meant (means) to Clevelanders, it’s also about the genuine friendship between him and Chuck that was there up until the very end of Ernie’s life. It’s a terrific, honest scene, and an absolute perfect way to end the special.

You know, maybe it’s for the best that they didn’t film an all-new Ghoulardi tribute episode; it would be nearly impossible to improve upon this one. From the recollections to the clips, it’s as concise a definition of the character and what he represented to Clevelanders as you’re likely to get in half an hour.

But wait! In a for-modern-day rarity of rarities (for me), there were some great commercials during this broadcast. ‘Course, they all had to with Ghoulardi and/or Big Chuck & Lil’ John, but frankly, that’s how I prefer things. Behold:

Big Chuck For Empire Windows

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Chuck has been pitching Empire Windows for quite awhile now, often in print ads that come nearly every week in one of those circulars. I haven’t seen a whole lot of TV advertising with him for the company, so I was glad to see this and add it to my collection (y’see, through my massive collection of old videotapes, I have amassed a large “archive” of commercials, promos and whatnot featuring horror hosts, and not just our horror hosts, either; it spans the entire nation).

Chuck gives really a pretty standard pitch, though the commercial is so short (15 seconds) there isn’t a whole lot of time for much else. Chuck says he’s been plugging the company for 29 years at this point; that’s as long as I’ve been alive!

If I ever need new windows, I’ll go to Empire. Why? Big Chuck told me to.

Empire Windows’ official website is here.

WJW TV-8 Big Chuck & Lil’ John Ghoulardi Special Promo

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A mega-quick (5 seconds!) promo for the special itself, which aired less than a minute before the show began. I was really, really happy to capture this one; not only does it give me fond memories of this, but also because I just wasn’t sure if there even was a promo for this special. I don’t care how short it is, either; it’s another one for the collection!

The voiceover: “The Big Chuck & Lil’ John Ghoulardi Special, today at 3:30!” Yeah, yeah, basically the same info that’s printed on-screen.

Ghoulardifest 2015 Commercial

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I’m thinking Ghoulardifest is the reason this special was run in the first place; what better promotion could there be? In prior years, the convention was sponsored by WBNX TV-55, but this year it’s WJW, which means they’ve got carte blanche as far as Ghoulardi footage and whatnot goes. It’s a more involved commercial than what has aired in recent years, which more or less usually amounted to basically Chuck & John standing in front of a green screen and giving their pitch. In this spot, however, lotsa Ghoulardi clips are interspersed with the pertinent information, though perhaps oddly, Chuck & John are nowhere to be seen.

WJW was pushing Ghoulardifest pretty hard during the special (as you’d expect). A full 30 second spot aired twice during the show, and a 15 second version right after it.

Needless to say, I am now even more jazzed for Ghoulardifest, which is saying something since I’m always jonesing for the convention. Yes, I will be attending again this year, and yes, there will be another write-up. In the mean time, check out my 2013 and 2014 reviews! And if you can attend, please do so! It’s always a blast!

The Ghoulardifest website with all the info y’all need is here.

The Big Chuck & Lil’ John Show Promos

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And finally, promos for Big Chuck & Lil’ John’s current 30 minute Sunday night show proper were, for obvious reasons, ran twice during the special. On the left, a spot featuring a brief clip from their Nukey Shoes skit. On the right, the bit where, as part of the opening fanfare for a movie, John gears up to hit a gong but instead accidentally nails Chuck in his, erm, manhood. Yikes!


 

I love the fact that a special so undeniably Cleveland in every facet can still air on local TV here in 2015. The sad fact of the matter is that there’s not always a place for this kind of thing on modern airwaves. Like I said at the start of this post, there’s a very real sense of history in Northeast Ohio television, one that seemingly won’t let people forget the accomplishments of its past.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.