Throwback Thursday: Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm!

I indeed had this exact ant farm from Uncle Milton’s Toys in the early 1980’s; it was one of those things that Santa brought that my mother wasn’t altogether thrilled about.  There were all sorts of admonitions Christmas morning about how I had to be extremely careful not to let the ants escape into our house.

I definitely remember the ants being smaller than those pictured below.  They were little black beads that you had to squint to see — they seemed like baby versions of the larger subspecies skittering around everywhere outside.  (Rural New York has some huge-ass ants, let me tell you.  Part of the inviolable Kid Code was that you promptly stomped the big red ones, because those evil things could bite — even if it occurs to me now that none of us knew a single kid who’d been bitten.)

Nor did the ants in my ant farm build the kind of elaborate tunnel systems that you usually see pictured for ant farms.  Mine were relatively unambitious.

I remember being told by my siblings that I had to handle the habitat very carefully, because if the tunnels collapsed, the ants would have heart attacks and die.  I remember being blackly fascinated by that as a little boy — insects dying from frustration, like ruined architects.  It seemed so bizarrely tragic.  I have no idea if it was true or not.  Maybe my mom just told my brother and sisters to say that so I would be extra careful not to break the thing, and inadvertently launch the Great Ant Jailbreak of 1981.

My ants eventually died anyway, curling up into static little black balls that looked like mouse droppings.  I wasn’t too affected by it.  You kinda don’t get attached to ants.  I was far more saddened, for example, when the family dog tore through the Habitrail like goddam Mecha-Godzilla and ate Henry the Hamster.

But that’s a story for another day.

 

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A few thoughts on “The Wolf Man” (1941)

So I finally watched “The Wolf Man” (1941) for the first time a few nights ago, and I indeed had a lot of fun with it.  Sure, it’s tame by today’s standards, and bit corny too, but it was interesting watching Lon Chaney, Jr. for the first time and seeing the granddaddy of all werewolf films.

Here are a few things that jumped out at me while watching the film and reading a bit about it afterward (and, yes, I do realize that most people already knew these things):

  1.  I knew I recognized the senior Talbot — it’s actor Claude Rains, who was none other than Louis in the following year’s “Casablanca.”
  2. Chaney was a big man.  He is almost always both the tallest and broadest character on screen, and for some reason that surprised me.  Maybe it’s because that in the posters and other media I’ve seen, the Wolf Man always seems smaller in comparison to Dracula, Frankenstein or the Phantom of the Opera.  I half expected the diminutive Rains to become the Wolf Man, while Chaney’s character would become the hero who has to protect the girl, etc.
  3. This is weird … but Chaney bears has a strong resemblance to my best friend from early childhood, Shawn — who also grew up to be a big guy like the actor.  It’s uncanny.  It’d be nuts if Shawn were his great grandson, and we just never knew it.
  4. It was a little odd seeing Rains cast as Chaney’s character’s father, as he didn’t seem much older.  Rains was only 17 years older than Chaney.
  5. The old gypsy man is played by Bela Lugosi.
  6. Rains is easily the best actor here, followed by Maria Ouspenskaya as the old gypsy woman.
  7. This seminal film was not the first Universal Pictures werewolf movie.  That would be “Werewolf of London,” which preceded it by six years.  That movie is the one that inspired the 1978 “Werewolves of London” song by Warren Zevon, as well as John Landis’ 1981 masterpiece, “An American Werewolf in London.”
  8. The Wolf Man monster was made famous for a certain onscreen transformation that represented groundbreaking special effects for its time — the gradual transformation of the monster’s face on camera.  But that key effects sequence didn’t appear here in the 1941 original — only in its several sequels.
  9. The movie was released on December 9, 1941, just two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

 

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Throwback Thursday: “The Monster Club” (1981)

I only saw one third of Roy Ward Baker’s “The Monster Club” (1981), when I was maybe in the third or fourth grade.  It was a typical 80’s horror anthology movie, and I walked in when my older brother was watching the third and final segment on television.  I’ll be damned if that segment alone didn’t creep me out, though.  (And the reviews of the film that I’ve read indeed name “The Ghouls” as the scariest entry in the trio.)

It’s pretty tame by today’s standards, or at least to my adult sensibilities.  It was definitely a lower-budget scary story, and probably pretty safe for television even back then.  But I watched it again the other night, and it still retains its creepiness after … about 35 years, I guess.  The titular monsters are indeed “ghouls” in the classical sense — they are human-looking fiends that are very much alive, but that feed on carrion (which actually makes them the reverse of zombies, I suppose.)

I can’t vouch for the rest of the movie, as I’ve only seen snippets, which seem pretty cheesy.  The wraparound segments star none other than Vincent Price and John Carradine, which will of course appeal to fans of classic horror.  (Carradine actually portrays a fictionalized version of R. Chetwynd – Hayes, the prominent British author who penned the stories on which the movie is based.)

If you saw this back in the day and “The Ghouls” got under your skin, then let me know.  I’d get a kick out of knowing that I wasn’t the only one.

 

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Throwback Thursday: Mary Washington College’s “Campus … Drive?” (1981)

The photo below ought to give pause to anyone who went to Mary Washington College when I did in the early 1990’s.  That is indeed Campus Walk back when it was Campus Drive, a legitimate roadway for the Town of Fredericksburg.

I have no idea when it was closed to automobile traffic and the walkway was created.  The photo dates from 1981.  (I am using it here with permission from UMW Special Collections; it comes from the Simpson Library’s Centennial photo database.)

It’s weird though.  Campus Walk was a focal point of college life, especially its social aspects.  It was where you said hello to a lot of your friends and exchanged news and plans, in the days before the internet and cell phones.  And it gave the small campus an isolated feel that was kind of cool.

I’d heard about it being a road when I was a student, though.  I worked at The Rising Sun Tavern museum downtown, and a couple of the other tour guides were women who had graduated from Mary Wash in the 1980’s.  They had some vivid memories of young men from town (and Marines from Quantico) hollering at them as they drove through.  I can see how that might have occasionally gotten awkward.

 

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Throwback Thursday: the “100-pc. Toy Soldier Set!”

Okay, I never actually sent away for Lucky Products’s legendary 100-Piece Toy Soldier Set.  (And I’m really not sorry that I missed out on it, as I’ll explain in a moment.)  But the ad that you see below was a pretty common staple (see what I did there?) of comic books in the early 1980’s.

This seemed like an amazing deal to a grade-school boy.  One hundred of anything seemed like a very high number, and I marveled at the idea of recreating that battle scene that you see depicted in the full-page ad.  (And, lord, did I love toy soldiers.)  And I wasn’t sure exactly what a “footlocker” was, but I had a pretty good idea it was a big, sturdy box.  The mere pittance required to pay for these toys, I figured, could only result from … comic book magic.  (Couldn’t most things that seemed unimaginable be found in the pages of comic books?)

Behold the cruel truth, at last made clear by a Google search.  The ad was about as forthright as the ubiquitous advertisements for “Sea-Monkeys” or “X-Ray Glasses.”  That “footlocker” was a cardboard box only six inches long, and the toy soldiers and ships and planes were wafer-thin.  Hey, it was still a reasonable buy for $1.98, even in the 80’s.  It just couldn’t recreate the Normandy landing in your bedroom the way you thought it could.

Anyway, the ad you see below dates from 1981.  The interwebs inform me, however, that Lucky Products had been marketing this set from as early as the 1950’s.

 

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Throwback Thursday: Levi’s science fiction advertising posters

This ought to be an obscure Throwback Thursday — although I’d be thrilled if somebody else remembered these.  For a brief period in the early 1980’s, Levi’s produced some wicked cool in-store posters with science fiction themes.  I had several of them hanging in my room; the one below dates from 1981, and was advertised on eBay for a while for the modest sum of $20.

For decades, Levi’s had relied on endless cowboy imagery to sell its brand.  And that makes sense, given the rugged individualism they wished to associate with their product.  Portraying people wearing their jeans alongside strange aliens on fantastic worlds seems like an odd marketing choice.  (I don’t think it lasted very long.)  I can only guess that the success of “Star Wars” (1977) and “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) had something to do with the marketing strategy.  (You can also sometimes find Levi’s posters from the 1970’s featuring psychedelic imagery.)

The poster appears to feature the name “McClure” as the artist.  If any of you guys know the artist’s full name (or can point me in the direction of other posters like this), I’d be grateful.

 

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Throwback Thursday: 1980’s “Sgt. Rock!”

DC Comics’ “Sgt. Rock” was far harder stuff than the “G.I Joe” comics and toys that are more often associated with the 1980’s.  They were the darkest and most violent comic books I read when I was a young kid, except maybe for the various “Conan” books.  Hasbro relaunched “G.I. Joe” in 1982 concurrently with its toy line, and it was a famously kid-safe (and lucrative) franchise.  “Sgt. Rock,” in contrast, consisted of brutal stories that focused on the horrors of war — it was really more of a cultural holdover from the comics of the prior two decades.  (The title began as “Our Army at War” in 1959.)

I loved these comics — especially the larger “annuals” with lengthier stories.  Nothing was better than “Sgt. Rock” and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.  What occasionally puzzled me as a second-grader was that none of the other boys I knew seemed to be reading them — although a lot of other kids certainly hopped on the “G. I. Joe” bandwagon.

The last one pictured below, from 1981, was my favorite.  If memory serves, it was the first one I ever owned.

 

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