Thursday, February 26, 2015

This Is Your Social Hour.

Yes, the blond, large-headed child waving with the straw in his hand is me.  Despite that picture being twenty-five years old, I can still remember the exact moment, exactly what I was thinking, and yes, even what I was eating.

Beginning in kindergarten, if you purchased the school photos from that year you received a yearbook. At least I think that's how it worked. I don't think it was an add-on.  Perhaps everyone was given one regardless, as I doubt every parent purchased the photos.  After all, we weren't the richest school district. I loved looking at my parents old yearbooks as far back as I can remember, so naturally one that included me was extra cool.

Something that gnawed at me were those "candid" photos in the back of the book.  They were seemingly random photos affixed with captions that probably came out of a "Yearbook Photo Witty Captions" book. As much as I loved them, I wanted to BE in one of them.  The kindergarten yearbook wasn't a disappointment as I had no clue that they existed until then. The first grade yearbook was a different story. Young Josh KNEW that he should have made it into one of those photos. If I recall, one photo where I was just out of the frame made it that year.

That brings us to 1990.  Second grade photo day. I knew how adorable I looked in my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles shirt and blond mop of hair. I knew that the bespectacled photographer was making the rounds. Only one thing could catch me off-guard and make me forget about my ever-growing quest to make the back pages: spaghetti day.

Most kids complain about school lunches. These days, those complaints are likely warranted. But from 1st thru 6th grade, I loved the elementary school lunches. The food was good, you could buy extra, and the spaghetti with meat sauce was out-of-this-world. It wasn't overly wet or dry, but had a nice thick consistency. With your meal you had to take some sort of milk, so the first portion went down nicely with that. Once you purchased extras, all bets were off. Two extra bowls and two Turner's orange drinks was the answer to my grade-school gluttony. But on that photo day, I was just sitting down to the lunch portion when my dream came true.

As I was unwrapping my straw to plunge into the carton of milk, I saw him out of the corner of my eye. The photographer. He's actually in the Holiday Park Elementary School cafeteria. He's probably going to snap a photo of the kitchen. Wait. He's turning towards our aisle. He's kneeling down. He's raising the camera! I'm getting in this!


And there it was. I'd made it. Although I'm sure that I repeated the tale that night at home, I forgot about it for a few months until the yearbook came out. When it did, I can remember my mom reporting that other parents that she knew loved my energetic cameo. I did, too.

I have no clue what school is like today. I just wonder if any kid would even care about such a thing anymore. I can look into that photo and remember the actions and even quirks of many of those kids. Have you ever seen a school cafeteria scene on "The Simpsons?" Those segments always remind me of those days. We had our own versions of Bart, Milhouse, Lisa, Nelson, Ralph, Sherri, and Terri. Who was I? I think I had a little bit of all of them in me. For this particular photo, though, I think I created my own character. His name?


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

It's My Blog & I'll Cry If I Want To...

I have been doing some crying on the inside over the passing of Lesley Gore.  I wouldn't call myself a huge fan of the '60s songstress, but I've known of her most of my life thanks to a little tv show that she once appeared on.  That show was, of course, Batman.

Miss Gore appeared on the 1966 hit as Pussycat, a young protege of Julie Newmar's Catwoman.  She only appeared in one story (two episodes connected by a cliffhanger) and she was not one of the fabled "Special Guest Villains" (a reserved title that I'm sure I will discuss in a future entry), but she was given more to do than just a celebrity cameo.  Her star power at the time, as well as being niece to Batman producer Howie Horwitz, probably had a lot to do with this.

A large picture of Pussycat crooning "Maybe Now" to a photo of Robin, The Boy Wonder, was printed in "The Batbook," a thick bible of a book devoted to the tv series.  The Batbook was to Little Joshie as the blue blanket was to Linus Van Pelt.  I carried it everywhere, and Pussycat was one of a few Bat-females that I had a boyhood crush on.  Ironically, I wouldn't even see the "Maybe Now" scene until the Batman Blu-Ray release in late 2014.  First seeing the show in late-80s reruns, that scene was always cut.  Left in was her song from the first part of the story, "California Nights," with an equally '60s sound.

As I grew, '60s music was never among my top choices.  I never went through The Beatles phase that many people do.  But still, that distinct flavor of her songs kept me listening if one came on.  Some might dismiss her music as being a standard product of the time, but she was under the production umbrella of Quincy Jones early in her career.  That right there proves the existence of some musical chops.  Even as her major fame faded she seemed to keep going with her music, performing for audiences of varying sizes in the decades following her musical heyday

This celebrity death hit me.  Partially due to the fact that 68 is a relatively early death in this day and age. Another reason is that the late 1960s, when she was still at the top of her game, has always been a fascinating time to me.  So much, both good and bad, was going on in every aspect of life. Pictures and footage from that time always have a special, dream-like quality to them.  If I could go back in time to any era, I do believe that it would be then.  "The Wonder Years," as it were.  And though, as is often the case today, the tumultuous times probably often outweighed the good, maybe Lesley Gore would be singing "Sunshine, Lollipops, & Rainbows." Suddenly all would be right with the world.

Goodbye, Pussycat, Goodbye...

Thursday, February 12, 2015

NXT: The Self-Contained Alternative

It seems like NXT is a hot topic everywhere as of late. One year ago at this time, many like myself were all ready to jump into this new aspect of WWE programming.  While I'd familiarized myself with some of the talents there that I didn't know much about, I was surprised with just how well the presentation made the overall product stand out.

The periodic specials have been well done and do an excellent job as the "pay-per-view" events for the weekly tv to build towards.  A bit confusing to me is when main roster WWE stars are suddenly fighting their way towards NXT titles.  Logically, it should be a step down for them.  After all, NXT is still based in developmental.  That being said, I do agree with Triple H's recent statement that NXT can be a place for main roster talent to try out new persona's and freshen up a bit.

The most recent NXT TakeOver special may have been the best hyped one yet.  The matches were built the way that wrestling conflicts should be built: rivalries over championships and climbing the ladder towards those titles.  No shampoo commercials or dead girlfriends here.  I guess lollipops and comic books aren't permitted into the NXT booking meetings.

My own opinion is that it wasn't a bad show, but didn't quite match up to some of the previous offerings over the past year.  I realize the importance of all titles being on the line, but the tag team championship match could have been sacrificed in order to spend the time elsewhere.

I really enjoy Bull Dempsey and was sorry to see him lose to "cookie cutter" Corbin.  The latter has mid-card failure written all over him and does nothing to stand out.  Dempsey, while still in need of more seasoning, brings an entirely different look and feel to the table. This is the kind of different style of WWE superstar that I'm hoping the success of Bray Wyatt has opened the door for.

The only female that I wasn't looking to take the fatal four-way match did just that.  Sasha Banks and Carmella leave me wondering if I'm watching NXT or a doc on '70s Times Square streetwalkers.  On the other hand, Charlotte, Bayley, and Becky Lynch are all top talents.  I can't be the only one who has noticed the difference in Charlotte's hair and makeup the past few weeks.  Perhaps a new look for the main roster? Hopefully that badly booked Raw appearance from a few months ago is forgotten. Bayley should do amazing once she makes it up as well, succeeding where the similar AJ Lee failed. The true crime is that a certain pair of talentless twins will continue to dominate the main roster regardless.  Now there's something for the Internet folk to cry to their cats over.

The main event may have actually exceeded the hype, which was well done itself. I wondered just where exactly they would go with this match, and a great story was told right up to the end with plenty to build on for the future.  Everyone cared.  The story told to build it up wasn't complicated and even someone such as myself who didn't have a large emotional investment in one of the players still had to see the match.

With what little I knew of Kevin (Steen) Owens before he was signed made me doubt that I'd ever be a fan. After his debut, I could tell why the collective Internet had a crush on the guy:  he reminded them of themselves.  Not the entire Internet mind you, after all you and I are here.  But you know the type.  The Barney McCheetoh neckbeards in black t-shirts. This man was athletic and living their dreams for them.  At TakeOver I know that I wasn't the only one who noticed an improvement in his look.  Will the collective Internet wrestling hive turn on their hero for this?  Time will tell.

What does need to be addressed regarding Owens is that shirt.  He can be great in the ring, but a pale guy in a t-shirt against someone along the lines of Lesnar?  Come on.  But it can so easily be saved.  Give him a look similar to Vader.  The Mastodon never looked like Mr. Olympia, but he looked IMPOSING.  Pack that gingerbread up into a singlet, build those arms up a bit more and give him a manager.  Rumor has it that Heyman may be without a client later this year.  A visually repackaged Owens with Heyman as a mouthpiece?  I'm ready to get behind that already.

Corey Graves/Sterling James Keenan
I'd be remiss if I failed to mention Corey Graves.  As he briefly mentioned on commentary last night, Graves, then known as Sterling James Keenan, came up on the Pittsburgh independent scene.  My crew and I always recognized that he had something special in the ring and the hunger to make it.  Although his in-ring career was cut short, it's great to see him excel in the NXT broadcast booth.  I've even began watching the Raw pre-shows again to catch his work there.  Another Pittsburgher bringing talent to the big time.

Triple H seems to have nothing but high hopes for NXT.  He has shockingly even used the term "alternative" to describe it.  The WWE mentality was always that nothing could possibly be better or more important than what was presented to you via Raw or Smackdown.  The times they are a changin'.  By how much?  We'll have to wait and see.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

A Trip to Abdullah's "House"...

Wrestling.  I knew that it would creep into this blog sooner or later.  Of course, it's been in the banner since day one.  I always thought that this would be a good place for wrestling tales that just didn't fit in with wrestling memorabilia (my other blog), since people are always asking that those stories be told.

The first "Josh Culture" wrestling tale takes us back to the summer of 2011.  My friend Brian and I were headed to (Badstreet) Atlanta, GA for the NWA Legends Fanfest.  Always looking for unique places to chow down, a certain fabled establishment found its place onto our itinerary early on: Abdullah the Butcher's House of Ribs & Chinese Food. For those of you wondering what an "Abdullah the Butcher" is, I'll provide a brief synopsis.  Abdullah is a notorious wrestling heel ("bad guy"), who, for over fifty years now, has terrorized wrestling fans around the world with his girth, scars, and trademark fork.

Despite the entertaining (and legendary) wrestling persona, the man behind the character has become notorious for being rather shady and difficult to work with.  My first experience with The Butcher was around six years earlier at a local wrestling show.  While Abdullah may have had one of his last good brawling "matches" (blood, weapons, and even an in-ring elbow drop) at that particular show, many fans were less than satisfied with the aging star's attitude toward fans and his annoying, portly "handler" who took the money and dished out nothing more than southern-fried lip.

By 2011 I'd had several experiences with Abdullah, mostly good, so I was ready to taste his cuisine. Brian and I arrived to the Peach State early, so we killed a few hours before having lunch at the famed establishment. As the name suggests, Abdullah's serves both barbecue and Chinese food.  Despite being a fervent lover of the latter, I rarely order Chinese food outside of my own local favorite haunt, so I opted for barbecue.  My container included ribs, chicken, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, and cornbread.  A good, no-nonsense, soul food meal.

The building itself was older and filled with autographed wrestling photos, clippings, and other memorabilia.  Abdullah himself was not there at the time, which was no big deal considering that we had met him several times previously. Despite the establishment supposedly being in a "bad part of town," we decided to try and return for dinner one night over the weekend.

Showing his difficulty and defiance, Abdullah showed up in the lobby of the Fanfest host hotel selling autographs and photos.  The legend likely would've been an invited part of the event had he not upset the promoters with his actions at Fanfest several years earlier.  Though I did not see it with my own eyes, reports say that Terry Funk himself had to escort The Butcher off of the premises.

We did end up making time to return to the restaurant that Saturday night, and this time Abdullah was playing host to fellow legend Ivan Koloff.  Although we sat and ate our meals without bothering anyone, the aforementioned portly and annoying handler kept letting us know that Abdullah would "take care" of us when he was finished with Ivan.  Used to being treated as a guest in restaurants, I figured that a photo wouldn't be out of the question.  I have a photo with The Butcher "forking" me, but one with the owner inside his restaurant might have been fun.

But not "make Abdullah extra money" fun.

When it came time for Abdullah to "take care of us," it became fast apparent that the care would cost. When I simply said that I had no cash and turned to walk away, the annoying and portly handler cheerily yelled out that they accepted credit cards.  After it sunk into the obese brawler's scarred head that he would be getting zero additional dollars from us, we were dismissed with a "Good evening, gentlemen."  I have no problem paying for an autograph or photo at a convention.  They aren't doing those shows out of the goodness of their heart.  But at your restaurant that I've just patronized twice?  Please.

Larry Shreeve, the individual who portrays Abdullah, will die a bitter, penny-pinching man.  But just like actors or musicians who hold different views and beliefs than I do, I can appreciate the body of work just the same.  Abdullah the Butcher?  Amusing and terrifying to no end in over fifty years of wrestling.  Larry Shreeve?  Delusional lump of suet.

I've heard stories since of Abdullah happily posing for free photos in his restaurant since, but it doesn't bother me.  I just think back to a few years before the restaurant incident, and a little girl, roughly seven years old. Abdullah was sitting at his gimmick (photo/merchandise) table at a wrestling show where each legend was supposed to give one autograph for free.  Fearlessly, she took her poster up to Abdullah who refused to sign it unless she gave him five dollars.  In one twist of her tiny frame, she angrily whisked the poster away...sending Abdullah's sale items crashing to the floor.

I guess ol' Abby finally met his match.