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T. Buckingham Thomas:  A Personal Website


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When I was a boy, a television program was brought to me by a single sponsor.  For example, Dinah Shore’s variety show was sponsored exclusively by Chevrolet, and the closing credits ran over Chevy’s theme song.

When I was a young man, advertisers realized that not everyone watched Dinah, so it was better to spread their message around to different audiences by buying “spots” in several different programs.  But there were rules.  For example, no more than one competing car company could buy time in a given show.

Also when I was a young man, CBS decided viewers deserved to be updated about news that broke between Walter Cronkite at 7 pm and their local newscast at 11.  The network introduced, right in the middle of prime time, a 30-second headlines update.  It was anchored by Connie Chung, as I recall.  Almost immediately, however, the local stations claimed this time.  At first, like CBS, they used it to inform us about stories that would be covered in more detail at 11.  But then they stopped giving us any facts at all.  The “newsbriefs” became merely teases — promos to whet our curiosity so we would tune in at 11 to find out what was happening.

Now that I'm an old man, the automotive sector is very competitive, and every car company wants to buy advertising.  On a show last night, when the two-minute window for local commercials came along, I first saw the station’s weatherman.  “There’s a big storm coming.  Will you have to change your Thanksgiving travel plans?  Join us at 11 to find out.”  And then an announcer said, “This news update is brought to you by Chrysler, imported from Detroit.”

Fair enough.  That was immediately followed by a car commercial, which I assumed would be for Chrysler.  But no, when they finally got around to identifying the product it turned out to be Infiniti.  Then there was a commercial for Chevrolet.  And then there was a commercial for Nissan.

Four competing advertisers, back to back!  How is a viewer supposed to know which car to buy?



The acclaimed film and stage director Mike Nichols died of a heart attack last Wednesday at the age of 83.  I remember him from the comedy sketches he performed with Elaine May many years ago.  Reading the obituaries, I learned some other details I hadn’t known before.

His family’s ancestral home had been in Siberia.  They fled from Nazi Germany to the United States in 1939, when Mikhail was only seven.  His physician father, known as Pavel Nikolaevich, became Paul Nichols in this country.  Albert Einstein was a distant cousin.

At the University of Chicago, Mike enrolled as a pre-med student, and he joined classical radio station WFMT as an announcer.  There, in 1953, he created a folk music program on Saturday nights that he called The Midnight Special, playing records but also inviting guests to perform live in the studio.  I’ve quoted Ronald Cohen in another article (about the radio station on my own college campus, where our live folk music program aired on Friday nights).  Cohen writes that Nichols’ show combined "folk music and farce, showtunes and satire, odds and ends."  With different hosts over the years, it continues on WFMT to this day.

Two decades later, Garrison Keillor started a similar radio program in Minnesota that he called A Prairie Home Companion.  It also endures to this day.  PHC plays no records but has been hosted by Keillor for all 40 years.  Like many, he must have been inspired by classic Nichols & May routines like this one, in which a mother “lays a guilt trip” on her successful son.  Many times have I heard Keillor and Sue Scott perform variations on this sketch.

Listening last night, I was reminded of long-gone television variety shows that blended music and comedy and even topical references.  This week, for example, Keillor sang about a New York city where some neighborhoods have been buried under seven feet of snow.  “In Buffalo, Buffalo, that’s how conditions are,” he observed to the tune of “Camelot.”

Later, a performer’s brief Bob Dylan impersonation included the following lines that rang true for this bachelor.  Mere hours before, having returned home from nearly 17 continuous hours in a TV truck telecasting four high school football championship games without a meal break, I had exhaustedly peeled off multiple layers of winter clothing, many of which had still not been properly put away.

May you throw your clothing on the floor.
Nothing need be hung.
May you stay
Forever young.

Also last night, Keillor joined a guest for a medley of Cole Porter songs with some lyrics adjusted.  As a boy, I used to see this type of specially-arranged entertainment on TV all the time.  No expensive scenery was required, only a pair of stools.  Here’s an example from half a century ago, and here’s an even more impressive combination of tunes.

May classic entertainment live on, even if only on YouTube and public radio.


OVEMBER 17, 2014     YUMMY

I always wondered about the slogan used by an Ohio jam maker:  “With a name like Smucker’s, it has to be good.”

#1  Do they mean that they’re saddled with a founder’s name so unimpressive that they have to overcome that handicap by producing a superior product?  “With a name like Wurst, we’ll never be able to sell anything unless it’s the best.”

#2  Or do they mean that their company has earned such a high reputation that they have to meet that expectation of excellence?  “With a name like Rolls-Royce, we can’t afford to let our customers down.”

Those schmucks at the company claim the original connotation was #1 but has now grown into #2.



The TV behind me was tuned to a college football game.  I heard a commercial come on, but there were no words, only a mournful dirge being played softly by a brass choir.  I wondered who died.

Later, I heard the somber music again, and I bestirred myself to turn and actually look at the screen.  The commercial turned out to be a recruiting spot for the United States Marine Corps.

During the Vietnam War, I was in college.  Soldiers and Marines, many of them my age, many of them drafted against their will, were being cruelly sentenced to suffer and die in the jungles of Southeast Asia.  To me, therefore, the scenes in the commercial did not have the desired effect.

I saw footage of serious-faced sweaty men and one or two women, swinging from ropes in basic training and handling deadly weapons on a battlefield.  A row of young people, former individuals but now wearing identical dress uniforms, stood stiffly at attention.  Armored personnel carriers tore recklessly across a meadow.  Silhouetted helicopters flew toward an apocalyptic sunset. 

As noted, this peaceful senior citizen was repulsed by these scenes.  I have never wanted to sweat, or kill, or destroy, or stand at attention.  I have never wanted to go to war.  But I am not the commercial’s target audience.  It’s aimed at young people who aspire to be proud Marines.

Fortunately for our country, there have been more than a few such brave souls, now veterans, who have been inspired to do the work I’m glad not to have to do.



Can someone be good without God’s guidance?

In my latest article, a Southerner named Tucksey is not shy about offering his opinion.



It was an unnerving couple of days in Canada last week.  First two soldiers in Quebec were deliberately hit by a car.  One died, and the driver was killed by police.  Then a gunman launched another fatal attack in Ottawa before eventually being shot by Parliament’s sergeant-at-arms.

Around the National Hockey League, teams showed their sympathy and support for the nation where their sport began.  They emulated the Pittsburgh Penguins’ example with emotional pre-game performances of O Canada, the Canadian national anthem.

Unfortunately, we can’t completely eliminate all the terrorist madmen who want to make war on the West.  The next time a similar incident happens in our own country, I imagine the following ceremony.

“Ladies and gentlemen, would you please rise and remain standing as we pause to remember those who have protected us, these brave first responders.”  The audience stands in silence.  After half a minute, the voice of a lone vocalist rings out.

“O, thus be it ever!”

The audience thinks, “I know that melody.  It’s the national anthem, isn’t it?  But what are these words?”

“ ... when free men shall stand
between their loved homes
and the war's desolation!”

“I’ve never heard them before, but they’re appropriate.  Better than asking whether we can see.”

“Blessed with victory and peace,
may the heaven-rescued land
praise the Power
that hath made and preserved us
a nation!

“Then conquer we must,
when our cause it is just.
And this be our motto:
'In God is our trust.'

“And the Star-Spangled Banner,
in triumph, shall wave!”

Many in the audience begin to sing along, louder and louder, as the anthem concludes with the time-honored words.

“ ... o'er the land of the free
and the home of the brave!”

The words are in fact part of our national anthem.  They’re the neglected fourth verse of the poem that Francis Scott Key wrote in 1814.

I’ve quoted these words before, in the September 2001 commentary that is this month’s 100 Moons article.



You’re probably familiar with the phrase “eke out a living.”  Eke, pronounced “eek,” is a verb that means “to achieve with difficulty.”

There was once a different English word also spelled eke, except it was an adverb and was pronounced “ache.”  Like the German auch, this eke meant “also.”  William Shakespeare sometimes used it.  Geoffrey Chaucer eke employed it two centuries earlier:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote . . .
Whan Zephirus eke with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heath . . .

Mickey Rooney’s passing earlier this year prompted me to watch his 1935 appearance in the film of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Comic actor Joe E. Brown eke was in the movie, playing the character called Flute.  In Act III, he had a punning line describing the young Pyramus:  “most brisky jew-venile and eke most lovely Jew.”

“And eke”?  There are alternative possibilities like “and also” or “and at the same time” or “as well as.”  However, those would not have fit the iambic meter, so Shakespeare chose “and eke” though the word had already begun to fade into obsolescence.  (He also spelled the preceding word “juvenal.”)

But Flute must not have been familiar with Middle English vocabulary.  He knew not eke (“ache”), but only eke (“eek”) as in “Eek! A mouse!”  The actor raised his pitch and squeaked the word as “eek!”  The meaning seemed to be “most animated juvenile and — horrors! — most lovely Jew.”  I cringed slightly.

Welp, this week is a scary one.  We might call it Halloweek.  Many will be cringing and shrieking “Eek!” in the Flutish sense, even in Pittsburgh.

Way back in the haunted Victorian era, just three miles down the Allegheny River from where I live now, the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company opened its first factory in 1883 on the sandy banks of Creighton, Pennsylvania.

Their name eventually shriveled to PPG, while their product line swelled to include Pittsburgh Paints.

In 1983 the hundred-year-old manufacturer moved to a new corporate headquarters (right), a complex of buildings in downtown Pittsburgh designed by famed architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee.  The office towers are sheathed in PPG glass, of course.  A plaza in the center features a 44-foot pink granite obelisk.

From eye level, one’s gaze is drawn to the ominous black balls at the base of the “monument” (above).  They inspired local columnist Peter Leo to dub it, unofficially, the Tomb of the Unknown Bowler.

Also in PPG Place until three weeks ago, looming over visitors were two huge dancers modeled after a Renoir painting (right).

And in season, a 60-foot Christmas tree will conceal the Tomb and will be surrounded by a skating rink.  

But the really imposing part of the complex is the 40-story office tower (below).  During a recent full moon, photographer Dave DiCello captured Pittsburgh’s creepy castle with its spooky glass spires.

Herewith, I wish you ghostly dreams and eke a happy Halloween!



With the World Series moving to San Francisco tonight, I’m reminded of my first game at AT&T Park eight years ago.

It was lunchtime for the Pittsburgh Pirates TV crew, a couple of hours before the first pitch.  I hadn’t yet visited the press dining area, somewhere under the stands behind home plate, so our director Jeff Mitchell offered to show me the way.

Starting from way out in left field at the TV truck compound (circled), we could have reached home plate via the passageway under the stands.  But Mitch decided to take the shorter scenic route through the ballpark itself, walking down the warning track that parallels the left field foul line.

We didn’t realize a couple of Giants pitchers were throwing in the bullpen (red arrows).  And the stadium’s designers had located the bullpens on the warning track, squeezed between the foul line and the stands, so they would be close to the fans.  That's a throwback to Wrigley Field's arrangment, for example.

We had to follow the yellow arrow, negotiating the narrow space between the flying baseballs and the rolled-up rain tarp.  Have you ever been that close to major-league pitches?  I could hear them sizzle as they hissed past me at 90 mph, barely six feet from my left ear.

If this ever happens again, I’m wearing a helmet.


Have you ever been unable to read your own writing?  There’s a dry-erase board on my wall over the dresser, and on it I keep a to-do list for the next five weeks:  hockey telecasts, doctor’s appointments, payments due, and so on.

Looking at it yesterday morning, I discovered I was scheduled for something called “Btored.”  I had no idea what that meant.

In my defense, writing on the vertically-mounted board is difficult because of the angle, and I was trying to write small.  But what did I write?  Well, what might I have wanted to remember?  Pondering this week’s chores, I finally realized the mystery scrawl was “Bronco.”  Only two of the six letters are what they appear to be.

(I’ve heard that archaeologists have similar difficulties deciphering ancient manuscripts.  “That letter looks like a dalet but I don’t see a yud, so maybe it’s a reish, which would change the meaning of the entire sentence.”)

“Bronco” refers to the 1974 Bronco League World Series, and my task was to replay to an e-mail from a player in that series, Bob Kruemmel.  He’s #9 on the far right of this picture of the Linthicum Ferndale Youth Athletic Association team from Maryland.

Bob happened across my article about televising that Series.  “Been trying for years to get pictures and maybe even some video clips of the games.  Don't know if you would remember [I don’t] but I hit a home run late in the game against Venezuela that bounced off of the roof of the concession stand in center field.  They were showing replays of it when I got back to the Washington-Jefferson College dorm that we stayed at.  Also remember being interviewed by the guys running the play by play on radio.”  He met league founder Lew Hayes and got a ball signed by him, and he returned to Washington with the same LFYAA team for the Pony League World Series in 1976.  “Had a great time,” he writes.



84 Killed in Latest Violent Outbreak

A newspaper could print those tragic headlines every day.  Those are the average daily U.S. gun violence statistics, according to this from Tom Begnal.

That’s a major reason I don’t share some people’s love of firearms.  Another reason:  I’ve watched nature documentaries on TV.  They celebrate the lives of the wildlife with which we share the planet.

On one, an English barn swallow literally feathers its nest.  There are ducks in the barnyard, and occasionally a downy white feather is shed and the breeze carries it off.  In slow motion, we watch a swallow fly toward the feather floating in the sunshine, grab it in its beak, take it to its home in the rafters of the barn, and drop it into the nest.  So charming.

Or we’ve all seen scenes of bear cubs playing with each other.  Their mother comes by and starts to teach them how to catch fish.  So cute.  

Once, changing channels, I came across a scene of an adult bear standing up leaning against a tree, scratching his back.  Aaah, that feels good.  The bear relaxes, contented.  Suddenly, BANG!  The defenseless animal flinches, stumbles, falls to the ground, and dies.  We cut to two hunters with their rifles and sniper scopes, congratulating each other on the ambush murder they’ve just committed.  So disgusting.



Ages ago, CBS News introduced a series called 60 Minutes, anchored by Harry Reasoner and Mike Wallace.  They needed a graphic design.

The program was described as a “news magazine”:  three separate mini-documentaries within a single hour.  Therefore, the background simulated a printed news magazine like Time.  (The dark border around Harry’s head resulted from the primitive blue-screen Chromakey technique of the time.)  And to symbolize the passing of those 60 minutes, they added a ticking stopwatch.  The larger hand circled the dial once in a minute, the smaller hand once in 60.

I knew about stopwatches.  As a kid, I had one in my box of toys.

Later, as a manager of our high school track team, I used one of the school’s stopwatches to help time races on our cinder oval.

A standard stopwatch could resolve times only to the nearest fifth of a second, because 300 hashmarks were about the most that would fit around the circumference of the dial.  The times of horse races were measured this way.  Secretariat won the 1973 Kentucky Derby in a record time of 1 minute 59 2/5 seconds.

But in track and field, we needed to measure time to the nearest tenth of a second, so we used a special double-speed stopwatch whose hand circled the dial twice a minute.  Now the 300 hashmarks divided 30 seconds into tenths.  The red colors denoted Part Two of each rotation, so we could tell 32.7 seconds from 2.7 seconds.

On those occasions when we needed to record an official time for all eight runners in a short race, we had to deploy eight stopwatches operated by at least four volunteer timers (some with a watch in each hand).  Some tracks had a little portable staircase to nowhere.  They placed it next to the finish line, so all the stopwatch operators and judges could gather there and have a perfect viewpoint angle.

We added one of these unique German models to our collection.  It looked very cool in operation, because the “hand” for tenths of a second at the bottom of the watch was actually Y-shaped.  It flew across its window once a second.


Five years out of high school, during my brief stint as a graduate student on WAER in Syracuse, I experimented with using a stopwatch to become a smoother disk jockey.

Announcers often talked over the introductory portion of a record, “back-timing” their comments to conclude just before the vocalist started to sing.  Ken Levine posted this week, “As a former disc jockey, I still talk-up records in my car.  Right up to the vocal.  I’m a master at this.  It’s maybe my greatest skill ... which is unfortunate since it’s also utterly useless.  KHJ Boss Radio is not coming back anytime soon.”  Someone named Yekimi commented, “Holy crap! I thought I was the only one that did [that.  I only] get embarrassed when at a traffic light with my car windows down and someone pulls up alongside and looks at me like I'm a serial killer.”

To accomplish this trick, DJs need to know the songs rather well.  I didn’t.  So I used a stopwatch.

I’d start the record playing on an unused turntable and time the intro.  For example, suppose it was an unusally long 45 seconds before the vocals kicked in.  I then reset the stopwatch to a minute minus 45 seconds, or in this example 15 seconds.

When I actually played the record on the air, I’d start the turntable and the stopwatch simultaneously.  I could then make my inane comments, maybe promoting the shows that would be on the air later that night, until just before the second hand reached the top of the dial.  Then I’d shut up and turn the airwaves over to the singer.

That’s not me in the picture, by the way.  Real radio DJs wear headphones.

During the 1970s, digital stopwatches began to appear.  They’re smaller and easier to read, typically to a hundredth of a second.  (But can you push the button that precisely?)  Also, you don’t have to wind them, and you can more easily measure multiple events.

The old ticking analog stopwatches are obsolete nowadays, except on 60 Minutes.



Snidely has returned!  Hee hee!  

As you may recall, I have been monitoring the Twitter and covertly collecting comments posted thereon by one Eric D. Snider, humorist and film critic.

The summer edition appeared three months ago.  But now it is autumn, and it is time for Snidely Tweeting 2:  Electric Boogaloo.

A mere two days ago William Steven Humphrey, editor of the alternative Portland Mercury, posted this recommendation:  "The tweets of Eric D. Snider are a rapid-fire stomp through pop culture brimming with erotic candor and ennui."  I'm not sure what that means exactly.

Nevertheless, in my latest compilation you can read Eric’s opinions about noise pollution from leaf blowers and motorcycles, a crime wave in his neighborhood, Ansel Elgort, minding his brother’s kids, and celebrating his 40th birthday .  And more.

Peek, if you have the courage!




























































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