Ship of stars reborn…


Vintage postcard showing the SS United States in her heyday.

February 8, 2016 – What do Cary Grant, Ava Gardner, Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, Debbie Reynolds, Sean Connery, Judy Garland, Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster, John Wayne, Elizabeth Taylor, and Grace Kelly (to drop just a few names) all have in common? Aside from being Hollywood legends, they also traveled to or from Europe aboard “the world’s fastest and most modern superliner,” the SS United States, an American built passenger ship that shattered speed records for racing across the Atlantic from 1952 to ’69. After 400 fabulous voyages in seventeen years, her fabled career was ended by the advent of jet air travel, and she was unceremoniously retired to mothballs in her birthplace of Newport News, Virginia. Thus began her longest and most improbable journey to date—a forty-seven year odyssey drifting aimlessly from one failed revitalization scheme to another all while trying to avoid running aground on the ship-breaking shores of India.


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The Big U rusting in Philadelphia, circa 2004.

Against all odds and defying all logic, the SS United States is still with us, moored and decaying at a pier in Philadelphia, her mid-century modern furnishings and interiors long-pillaged and stripped, and her paint faded and peeling. She’s a tough old broad who simply refuses to throw in the towel, or in the words of maritime historian Bill Miller, “She’s like a soap opera character that never goes away.” In my opinion, that’s a very good thing.

I have been fascinated by the story of the SS United States ever since “discovering” her in the late 1980s, so much so that I adjusted the time period of my debut novel, City of Whores, to allow my 1950s Hollywood characters to travel to Europe aboard the maiden voyage in ’52. Smitten with the storied vessel, I joined forces with a band of intrepid preservationists in 2004 when I became a founding board member of the SS United States Conservancy (“SSUSC”), a non-profit organization that currently owns the liner and is dedicated to preserving her for posterity. In 2008, I produced the first in-depth documentary about the ship for American Public Television. Entitled SS United States: Lady in Waiting, the film helped raise public awareness of the superliner’s history, significance, and ever-perilous plight. Years after the movie’s premiere, and thanks to the generosity of Philadelphia philanthropist H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest as well as the ongoing support of our dedicated constituency, our group was able to purchase the United States and keep her afloat, though the specter of her destruction has always loomed large given that it costs a whopping $60,000 per month in dockage fees, insurance, maintenance, etc., to keep her safe.

Recently, as funding dwindled, we were forced to issue yet another Save Our Ship (“S.O.S.”) appeal and to actually begin the cruelly ironic process of soliciting scrap bids for the very piece of American history we were charged with protecting from such an inglorious fate. Which brings us to the most recent chapter in the vessel’s post-service peregrination.

Last week, at a well-attended gathering at Manhattan’s Pier 88 (right next door to the United States’ old berth), Susan Gibbs, granddaughter of the ship’s designer and now the Executive Director of the Conservancy, greeted the press alongside Edie Rodriguez, CEO of Crystal Cruises, to drop a bombshell on the media and the community of passionate aficionados and fans of the “Big U” (as she’s also affectionately known). Gibbs and Rodriguez were pleased to announce that Crystal had signed a nine-month purchase option agreement with the Conservancy with the intention of conducting feasibility studies to return the venerable old ship to six-star luxury passenger service. On two large screens flanking the American-flagged dais, a video played showing highlights of the United States’ career and vintage amenities, followed by the unveiling of an artist’s rendering of the reconfigured and modernized liner.

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L-R: Conservancy executive director Susan Gibbs, and founding board members Mark B. Perry and Joe Rota pose with the unveiled artist’s rendering.

The news was greeted by dropping jaws and wagging tongues. While The New York Times and Fox & Friends were the first to break the story that morning, a tiny handful of us had managed to keep silent about the highly confidential deal in the weeks prior to the press conference. Our board of directors had voted to approve the agreement, well aware that the announcement would be greeted with mixed reactions from our supporters. Understandably so, I might add.

In all honesty, my opinion has been that returning her to sea-going service wouldn’t be the ideal way of preserving the United States’ historical integrity. The concept of putting her back to sea has been the dream of many preservationists, but has always seemed the most expensive undertaking—impractical if not impossible. Her once state-of-the-art steam engines aren’t “up to code,” and her design no longer complies with Safety Of Life At Sea (“SOLAS”) regulations. In my heart, I’ve always felt that the ideal preservation scenario would be to have the ship’s exterior restored to her pristine 1952 appearance, and she should be permanently moored in New York as a stationary mixed-use attraction not unlike the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California. In the years that followed our purchase of the vessel, we had been courting a few serious suitors who shared that vision while insisting on anonymity. The complexity of such an undertaking, requiring adherence to convoluted government and environmental regulations and approvals, constantly mired our progress and kept us in a world of uncertainty, all while we were still paying that burdensome $60,000.00 per month. The other option, returning the vessel to service, would require enormous modifications that would forever alter her sleek, historic profile. Both schemes would be prohibitively expensive, but building a new ship inside the old one would cost far more that the stationary option. Still, as our funding began to dwindle, the Crystal Cruises proposal was presented as legitimate, and the pragmatist in me trumped the dreamer and I added my voice to the “yeas.”

And now… the backlash. You see, the Big U has been down this road before. In 2003, Norwegian Cruise Line (“NCL”) made a similar announcement only to abandon their plans and put the ship up for sale a few years later, generously offering the Conservancy first dibs at a price below her scrap value. It was believed at the time that even NCL knew it would be calamitous P.R. to be the company that sent the United States to the breakers. Now, in face-to-face conversations, online forums, Facebook comments, the press and elsewhere, people are asking why the Crystal Cruises proposal should have a different outcome. A legitimate query, to be sure.

Here’s my take on that: during the production of Lady in Waiting, we interviewed several of the key players at NCL, and we always asked for visual material (it was a film, after all). Could we please see renderings of what she might look like when returned to service? Would it be possible to share deck plans of the reimagined liner? All of those queries were met with evasive answers about claims of confidentiality and so forth, but honestly, the pervasive sense was that they didn’t have any such materials to share. Many rumors were circulating at the time that NCL had only purchased the Big U for her American-made hull which would help the cruise line circumnavigate the Jones Act, an arcane piece of maritime law that’s still in effect and gives great leniency to ships both built and crewed by Americans. Such vessels can sail from American port to American port unfettered, unlike ships built and crewed elsewhere who must add a foreign port in between. When NCL’s plans for a US-flagged fleet began to crumble under the weight of the reality of commerce, the company put the irreplaceable vessel up for sale and she wound up under the stewardship of the SSUSC.

Speaking as a private citizen and not as a board member of the Conservancy, I do believe that NCL was motivated more by financial considerations than historical ones when they purchased the ship. That said, I’m convinced that their then CEO, Colin Veitch, and a few of their department heads were genuinely enthusiastic about the prospect of putting the vessel back to sea, but that business ultimately quashed their chimera. The current crop of Debbie Downers and Ned Naysayers are whining all over the Internet that the Crystal endeavor will simply be history repeating. They say it’s a publicity stunt. Well, generally publicity stunts are done to garner positive publicity, and if Crystal isn’t serious about succeeding with their proposal for the United States, why would they announce it in such a way that would be picked up by media outlets around the globe and shine a blinding spotlight on them? Why put themselves in exactly the same position NCL was in when it opted to lose money and sell the liner to the Conservancy? And why would a company whose goal is to be profitable sink a minimum of just over half-a-million speculative bucks into an enterprise when another company had already proven that failure really was an option? I believe, again not speaking for the SSUSC, that it’s because Crystal Cruises has a vision, and when they look at our ship, they don’t see a rusting hulk and financial liability, they truly see an opportunity for success and a way to capitalize on the United States’ glamorous and historic past, the nostalgic allure of 20th Century ocean travel, all while making a lot of money in the process. Not to be crass, but isn’t that the American way? No other theory makes any sense.

Crystal’s plan also differs from NCL’s in that they’ve made it clear that the “United States by Crystal Cruises” will be an 800-passenger, high end, luxury cruise vessel catering to the upscale and well-heeled—a far more practical approach than trying to convert a sixty-four-year-old purpose-built ocean liner into a mass market party ship.

To those who say Crystal’s true plan is to run the clock, buy the vessel from the Conservancy for a rock bottom price, then turn around and sell her for scrap to recoup their investment, I’d answer by saying that’s a terrible business strategy given that the scrap metal market is practically at an all time low and they’d barely break even if not lose money. And again, there’s that pesky bad P.R.

To those who say Crystal should make a goodwill gesture and paint the ship and/or her funnels in situ  while conducting their feasibility studies, I counter that regardless of the fact that it would be a waste of money, it’s quite simply environmentally impossible to sandblast lead-based paint without some of it getting into the Delaware River.


A reimagined “United States by Crystal Cruises” at sea.

And for those dreamers who say—and I’ve read this comment more than once since the news broke—that the preliminary artist renderings of the reimagined ship are so unappealing that they’d rather see this beloved icon scrapped, I’d answer by saying those commenters obviously don’t truly care one whit about saving the legacy of the SS United States. Crystal Cruises has said that the aluminum superstructure of the vessel—the white decks between the black hull and the iconic red, white, and blue funnels—will have to be replaced with SOLAS-compliant steel to accommodate staterooms with the much-in-demand private balconies for today’s cruise market along with modern navigation and life-saving equipment. They also said that no decks will be added as was done when the venerable SS France was converted into the cruise ship Norway. Yes, her profile will change, and purists may hate that, but if she returns to service as Crystal has described, with her rakishly patriotic funnels in place and interior spaces honoring the spirit of the originals along with onboard historical exhibits curated by the Conservancy, she will introduce this celebrated vessel to a new audience, thus accomplishing one of the SSUSC’s primary goals: to ensure that America’s flagship will never be forgotten. A modified United States traveling the globe will be an ambassador for her legacy, as will the Conservancy’s proposed land-based museum which is envisioned to be the definitive collection of her most important artifacts. These two endeavors will complement one another and assure that the Big U will continue to inspire future generations. To me, that’s the true spirit of preservation, and it’s practical, as well.

Fortunately, the SSUSC has more fans than detractors, but it’s still disheartening to read the disparaging comments from people who haven’t been on the front lines of the preservation effort, and don’t seem to understand the colossal complexity of saving a 990-foot long vintage ocean liner. I got involved because I believe wholeheartedly in the cause, and would much rather have a modernized ship that embraces the integrity and spirit of the original while preserving her legacy, than to see her scrapped and relegated to the dustbin of history and obscurity.

I tried to bring the SS United States back to vivid life in my novel, and I’ve also tried to save her in reality by putting my money where my mouth is by producing the documentary and my continued involvement with the SSUSC. True fans of the ship should be rooting for Crystal Cruises to exceed even their own expectations for success, rather than armchair quarterbacking, criticizing, and thus in effect rooting for the demise of the ship they claim to love.

Stay tuned…

“The House on the Hill” – Introducing “Home: Stories From L.A.”


The Stein House as seen from the Vilner House, Los Feliz. Photo by Bill Barol

September 9, 2015 – Here’s a Hollywood story best told by friend, shipmate, and fellow writer, Bill Barol, author of Thanks for Killing Me. He’s launched a new podcast series, “Home: Stories from L.A.” with this segment. Give a listen to this fascinating twenty minutes.

Stay tuned…

City of Whores now a finalist in Foreword Reviews’ IndieFab Awards…


March 13, 2015 – We are very pleased to announce that City of Whores is now a finalist in the 2014 IndieFab Book of the Year Awards from Foreword Reviews. Winners will be announced June 26th in San Francisco. The novel is available as an eBook, paperback, or audiobook here. The Nook edition is here. And the audiobook is also available for download through iTunes. Stay tuned…

An excerpt from City of Whores

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February 11, 2015 – In my debut novel, City of Whores, Dexter Gaines is reflecting on the two tumultuous years of his youth in Hollywood when he aspired to be a movie star in the early 1950s. His friend and mentor, Milford (“Milly”) Langen (Darryl F. Zanuck’s right arm at 20th Century Fox and husband of movie star Lillian Sinclair), has pulled the necessary strings to secure Dexter his first film role (albeit a tiny one). Trouble is, Dexter has a nervous condition that causes his hands to tremble, and the only thing that helps is marijuana. This scene was especially challenging when I narrated the audiobook! To hear a five minute sampling of the most challenging scene in which I play Noel Coward, Truman Capote, Kitty Carlisle, Margaret Truman, and Tennessee Williams, please click here

From Chapter 6

The first time I walked onto a real movie set as a working actor was on Stage 4 of the 20th Century Fox lot. A small army of grips and gaffers and production assistants was swarming over an enormous set four stories high, the middle section of a massive ocean liner, complete with a funnel that reached nearly to the catwalks high above. I was already in makeup and wardrobe, in my case the tailored uniform of a deck steward. As I stood there, taking in the lights, cameras, and the cluster of costumed extras smoking cigarettes and eating doughnuts at the craft service table, I felt a hand on my shoulder.

“Well you certainly look the part,” Milly said, giving my arm a squeeze.

“Yeah, I’m drawing on my vast life experience as a waiter,” I tried to smile, but the truth was, I was nervous, and more than a little bitter.

“You know your lines?”

“Line,” I corrected, then, in my best British accent, “Would you like some bouillon, Madame?”

“Hey, kiddo,” Milly said, grinning, “you gotta start somewhere.”

“I’m not complaining,” was all I could muster, lying through my teeth.

The assistant director, Henry Weinberger, called for first team to take their places.

“That’s you,” Milly said with a gentle nudge. “I’ll tag along and introduce you to everyone.”

We headed over to the set and a production assistant improbably named Pook showed us around back where the clever illusion abruptly ended. The ship was just a façade, of course, its back a mishmash of wooden beams and a narrow staircase.

“Welcome aboard,” Pook said, then gestured toward the steps. “Bon voyage.”

I emerged onto the partial deck of the steamship where the extras were already in place, bundled up in steamer rugs and gloves despite the excruciating heat of the lights overhead. Behind us, a huge rear projection screen flickered to life with a black and white film loop of the ocean rolling by, and a giant wind machine began to spin, gently ruffling our hair. If you squinted, you’d almost believe you were in the middle of the Atlantic—on an impossibly hot day. Milly approached an utterly regal woman, already seated in a deck chair with a blanket over her legs.

“Milly,” she exclaimed, delighted to see him, “what on earth are you doing here? Don’t tell me you’ve taken over the picture?”

“Just visiting, Babs,” he said, leaning down to kiss her elegant cheek. “I’m grooming a young actor,” he turned to me now, “Dexter Gaines, allow me to introduce Barbara Stanwyck.”

I’ll admit it, as much as I felt like the world owed me, and that I was going to be a huge movie star, there was still enough of the kid from Tyler in me that I was completely star-struck. She extended a hand which I took in mine.

“I’m thrilled to meet you, Miss Stanwyck,” I croaked. “The Lady Eve is one of my favorite pictures.”

“You’re very kind,” she smiled, and I immediately felt at ease around her. She was genuine, unlike so many other people I’d met in the months since I’d been living in Milly and Lilly’s cabana. “And here I am on the set of another luxury liner. Too bad this one has to sink in the end.”

She was referring, of course, to the Titanic, on whose faux decks we now stood, awaiting our cue to shoot the one scene Milly had managed to secure for me. It was early November, 1952, and Milly had been successful in his campaign to ditch the working title Nearer My God to Thee and go with the more recognizable name of the actual doomed liner—an idea I had suggested to him poolside one Saturday afternoon, by the way. I had been in Hollywood for almost a year before he’d pulled enough strings to get me in front of the cameras. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll remember Robert Wagner out on deck when he spots Barbara Stanwyck, who plays the mother of Wagner’s love interest. He chats with her, and she reads a poem to him. What you won’t remember is the very beginning of the scene where Stanwyck is seated alone with her book, and a handsome young deck steward approaches and offers her morning bouillon.

“Well look what the cat dragged in,” said Robert Wagner, approaching and chucking Milly affably on the shoulder. Milly beamed when he saw the young actor.

“R.J., a little respect.”

“For you? Please,” Wagner said, all in fun. Milly stared at him for a moment before remembering his manners.

“R.J., this is Dexter Gaines,” Milly said, pivoting to include me in the conversation.

“How are you, Dex?” Wagner said, shaking my hand so firmly I almost flinched. “Nice to meet you.”

“You, too” was all I managed in return.

“Places everyone!” called an authoritative voice with the slightest trace of an eastern-European accent. “And will someone please help this poor lost producer off my set?” It was the director, Jean Negulesco, a kind man in his early fifties, his eyes twinkling as he came rising over the deck railing, riding alongside the cameraman on a huge crane. He gestured toward Milly. Immediately, everyone snapped to attention.

“Johnny, you shouldn’t work so hard,” Milly said to the director. “You need to rest up for croquet at Darryl’s this weekend.”

“Pfffft,” was his only response to that. “Good morning, Barbara. Lovely day to hit an iceberg,” he quipped.

Miss Stanwyck frowned. “I don’t think we should joke, considering the true story.”

“I meant no disrespect,” the director said in reply.

“I was just leaving,” Milly chimed in, good-naturedly. Then, as he passed me, “Okay, kiddo, break a leg.” Which was more or less exactly what I was afraid of.

“Any questions, anyone?”

“Let’s shoot,” Wagner said, hopping over a railing with the ease of an acrobat and trotting down the ship’s stairs to assume his place on the deck just below. I admired his self-assured athleticism, but the fact that he had the role that should have been mine filled me with resentment from the moment he confidently shook my trembling hand.

My first screen test at Fox had been the very scene Wagner was about to play with Miss Stanwyck. After months of gentle badgering from Lillian, Milly had finally acquiesced. I tested opposite a woman I didn’t recognize playing Barbara Stanwyck’s part, and while the bulk of the experience has been blocked from memory, I do remember Milly telling me how well I’d done afterwards over drinks at Ciro’s, one of his favorite haunts. I didn’t bother to tell him I’d been so high I could barely remember the dialog. In the end, Wagner got the part, and I got a walk on as a consolation prize, so here I was.

As we were getting ready to roll camera, the prop master, a diminutive man in his forties, brought over the silver tray of china cups and saucers, steaming with hot bouillon. “Here you go,” he said, thrusting the tray with its dangerous contents into my hands. Immediately, I heard the delicate and foreboding rattle, but the prop master had already moved off, checking to make sure that Miss Stanwyck had her small book of poetry for the scene.

“On a bell!” the first A.D. boomed, startling me and bringing another wave of clattering from the tray as a loud buzzer sounded. I stared at the roiling sea of broth, as agitated as the fake ocean projected behind me.

“Rolling!” “Camera!” “Speed!”

Titanic! Scene thirty-five! Take one!” the camera loader barked, then snapped the clapper board, startling me and triggering a renewed round of tinkling bone china.

There was a long pause as I stood out of frame, desperately clinging to the tray, kicking myself for not having the sense to toke up prior to leaving my tiny dressing trailer outside.

“Aaaaaand…Action!” Negulesco shouted.

I turned toward Miss Stanwyck, who sat serenely reading her little book, the fake breeze gently ruffling her scarf. I approached.

“Good morning, Madame, lovely day.” I said crisply, so far so good, “Would you like some bouillon?”


I turned, annoyed. I wasn’t done, yet.

“Something technical?” Miss Stanwyck asked.

“No, Babs. Uh…” Negulesco looked at me, “I’m sorry, what’s your name again?”

I bristled, tried to hide it. “Da-Dexter.”

“Well, Da-Dexter, please stick to the script,” he said, good-naturedly enough. “You will not want to meet the angry writers.”

“I just thought it would be more courteous if I—”

“Just stick to the script,” he said firm but not unkind, then nodded to the first A.D.

“Back to one! Two is up!” the A.D. shouted. “We’re on a bell!”

In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have taken it all so personally, but that was always my knee-jerk reaction. My cheeks were warm with humiliation as I caught a sympathetic look from Miss Stanwyck. “You’re doing fine,” she said, and I mustered a smile as I carefully carried my tray back to my starting mark.

“Rolling!” “Camera!” “Speed!” “Thirty-five, take two!” “Aaaaaand…Action!” The ritual was repeated. I turned again and approached Miss Stanwyck, exactly as I had done before. She looked up, marking her page with her finger, and smiled.

“Would you like some—?” was all that came out of my mouth before my shivering hands jerked uncontrollably and the entire tray of delicate china and steaming bouillon landed all over Barbara Stanwyck’s lap in a horrible cascade of clattering metal and shattering crockery.

With a yelp, she threw off the blanket which had fortunately spared her from being scalded. “Oh my god!”

“Cut! Cut it! Barbara, are you okay?”

“I’m fine. But my dress is another story…”

In the ensuing pandemonium of wardrobe, makeup, and hair people swarming their star, I remained frozen in abject horror, ignored. Finally, Miss Stanwyck caught my eye. “Dexter? Are you all right?”

The only words of kindness spoken to me.

“I’m so…sorry, Miss Stanwyck…I don’t know what happened…”

“It’s all right, really.”

“Everybody take ten!” the assistant director shouted, and I quickly spun around and made my way down the hidden stairs, blowing past a frowning Milford Langen standing near the director.

“Dex!” he shouted after me, but I kept going. I couldn’t face the man I knew I had so bitterly disappointed.

Outside the soundstage, I hurried into the empty trailer I shared with the other bit part actors—stinking bit part actor, that’s what I was. I found my stash and was well into my third significant hit when the door swung open and Milly came in. I braced myself for the worst.

“Are you okay?” he asked, surprising me with the genuine concern in his voice.

“I’m sorry, Mill. I know you stuck your neck out to get me this part, but…it’s my goddamned hands.”

He came in and closed the door, sat down opposite me.

“Let me see,” he said, and I held them up. They were still trembling even though the marijuana was slowly working its magic. I saw his expression as I put away the now cold joint.

“It’s the only thing that makes it better,” I said.

Milly nodded. “I spoke to Johnny. You’ll get through it. Just relax.”

“I’m so sorry, Mill.”

“Dex,” Milly said, reassuringly, “stop saying you’re sorry. You can do this. I know you can. I believe in you.”

No one had ever said those words to me in my entire life. I nodded and looked away, grateful for his kindness, but still not wanting to let him see me cry. Of course, everyone was bending over backwards to be nice to me later when I returned to the set. No harm done, they all said. The prop master wisely changed the contents of my tray, but even my amended line of dialog, “Would you like a fresh scone, Madame?” was cut from the final picture.


And then it happened: My wholly biased review of The Wonder Years: The Complete Series on DVD

My first office on The Wonder Years circa 1989.

My first office on The Wonder Years circa 1989. Photo copyright the author.

January 19, 2015 – Life is a series of moments—some casual and small, others significant and profound. And sometimes, a tiny, passing and seemingly insignificant instant will turn out to be a seed that flourishes and forever alters the course of our lives. One such moment happened to me in February, 1988, when a friend from my then wife’s acting class, John Rocha, asked if I’d happened to catch a show that premiered after the Super Bowl the previous Sunday. I gave him my signature raised eyebrow that clearly said, “Why would I be watching the Super Bowl?” so he went on to tell me a bit about this hysterically funny and profoundly touching new series. It was the first time I’d ever heard of The Wonder Years, and, as fate would have it, certainly not the last. I’ve written about the exhilaration of getting my first professional television writing job before, but with the recent release of the entire series on DVD, I’d like to revisit a few omitted tidbits:

First, it almost didn’t happen at all. Let me rewind a bit…

On John’s recommendation, I tuned in for episode #2 entitled “Swingers” which was written and directed by the series’ creators, Neal Marlens and Carol Black. I was immediately smitten with the show’s universal appeal. In the episode, Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) and Paul Pfeiffer (Josh Saviano) are hell-bent on getting a copy of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask after a particularly hilarious but Saharianly clinical and decidedly un-educational sex education class. And the thing is, I felt like I was watching my own childhood. Which was, of course, one of the secret’s of the show’s huge success. We were all Kevin Arnold, after all (or, in my case, Paul Pfeiffer).

The author looking his most Paul Pfeiffer-esque.

Yours truly looking my most Paul Pfeiffer-esque.

In the case of “Swingers,” the episode vividly evoked the burning curiosity, confusion, and pure, wanton lust of raging adolescent hormones. I remembered my own furtive excursions to the Magic Market where I’d try to peek at Playboy and Penthouse and Oui, only to be chased away by the watchful cashier. I recalled vividly when I finally got my hands on a copy of EYAWTKASBWATA after snooping through a neighbor’s nightstand (while babysitting their sleeping kids) and finally getting some informative and titillating answers—hey, I never said I was proud of it. The thing is, having been born just two years after Kevin Arnold, this show was a spot-on reflection of my own adolescence. For me, The Wonder Years was the proverbial love at first sight—the equivalent of that moment in the pilot when Kevin sees Winnie Cooper walking toward him at the bus stop wearing a miniskirt and go-go boots.

As that too-short first season (only six episodes) went on, the show took up permanent residence in my heart, and about half-way through season two, I had the temerity to try my hand at writing an episode on spec. It was inspired by a long ago family vacation in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, when I was fourteen or so and met a beautiful blonde girl a year my senior while blissfully raft-surfing in the ocean in those pre-Jaws days.

The actual photobooth picture that inspired "Summer Song." And yes, the tan is real. Photo (c) the author.

The actual photobooth picture that inspired “Summer Song.” And yes, the tan is real. Photo copyright the author.

Our forty-eight hours together were a hokey movie montage complete with a soundtrack by Seals & Croft, four silly poses in a photobooth, arcade games, amusement park rides, and the gift of a frog made entirely out of seashells. We fell madly, passionately, head-over-flip-flops, and I had my first ever French kiss when we made out on the porch of her motel the night before she and her family returned home. I ached horribly the entire, rainy drive home, and knew that someday, somehow, we’d be together again and for all eternity. She sent me a few perfumed letters over the next year or so, and then, as these summer romances go, vanished from my life forever. Until, that is, I resurrected that glorious angst in “Summer Song,” my episode which was named after a Chad & Jeremy song. In it, Kevin meets a beautiful blonde girl on the beach (played by Holly Sampson who went on to a career in porn of all things)—an older woman, no less—and ultimately shares a tender kiss with her under the boardwalk.

Fred Savage and Holly Sampson recreate that magical summer of 1973. Photo (c) the author.

Fred Savage and Holly Sampson recreate my magical summer of 1973. Photo copyright the author.

The thing is, I thought my script didn’t measure up to the quality of the show. The Wonder Years was one of the best written series on TV—who the heck was I to think my work would be good enough? My incredible wife at the time, Cayce Callaway, vehemently disagreed and famously vowed that if I didn’t send the script to Sylvia Hirsch (my then agent at Preferred Artists in Encino), then she would. So I mailed it off, begrudgingly enough, and was subsequently shocked when, a few weeks later, Sylvia (rest her soul) called to tell me that the producers had actually liked it and wanted me to come in and pitch.

The rest, as they say, is my-story.

I joined The Wonder Years as a staff writer at the beginning of season three, and left some three years later just prior to the show’s final season. In that time, I was fortunate enough to have a writing credit on seventeen episodes—some which I’m still really proud of, and others, well, not so much. I did a lot of writing on the show, both credited and uncredited, and it was the best boot camp an aspiring television writer could ask for. After I resigned and moved on, I never really looked back, but in the ensuing years the question I was most often asked was: “When’s it coming out on ‘home video?’/DVD?” And I’d always explain that I had no idea because all of that great music that helped make the show what it was in its initial run had to be re-licensed which was a daunting and nearly impossible task. You see, as the 1980s became the 1990s, no one envisioned a day when people might want to actually own an entire television series on bulky VHS cassettes, so the music was initially licensed for network broadcast, reruns and, I’m guessing, syndication. I don’t know if the latter had the original music or not because the handful of times I tried to watch an episode on ION or wherever, I couldn’t get through more than a few minutes because they’d been savagely butchered to make room for more commercials. It’s still astonishing to me that the original show had one—and I mean one—act break right in the middle. Two acts. One commercial break. Yes, those were simpler times.

Fred Savage reacting to the news that I was leaving the show's writing staff.

Fred Savage reacting to the news that I was leaving the show’s writing staff. Photo copyright the author.

And now Time-Life and StarVista Entertainment have finally accomplished the impossible. They have  released the entire series—all 115 episodes—on DVD with most of the original music. Apparently, some artists (I’m looking at you, Neil Young), either refused to license their tunes or maybe demanded astronomical payments. Wikipedia has a good list of all the music that was replaced along with the titles of their substitutions here, saying that the new DVD release retains 96% of the first-run music.

Which, I have to say, is far better than no DVD release at all. Though I’ll admit, the absence of Richie Haven’s cover of The Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun” from the episode “Heart of Darkness” made me die a little inside when I recently rewatched it. In one of my absolute favorite scenes from the show (oddly from one of my least favorite episodes), Winnie comes over to find Kevin and Paul sitting on the curb in front of his house as another school day lingers before stretching into dinner time. She’s wearing her cat-eye glasses, and Kevin and Paul tease her saying “You definitely look stupid in contacts” or some such, and it’s such a perfectly real, tiny, relatable moment in time you can almost believe it happened to you and not the characters on the show. The music was so perfect that I made sure to include the scene in a clip show that Mark Levin and I wrote and produced at the end of season four. Sadly, it’s been replaced in both episodes of the DVD release, but if I’m ever feeling especially hardcore, I can always bust out my VHS of the original broadcast. Being the antiquarian-contrarian that I am, I still have a working player connected to my TV. I may have to do the same with “Family Car” when I finally get to it. Hard to imagine that amazing montage with anything but Neil Young’s “Long May You Run.”

Full_Series-shotMusic quibbles aside, the rest of the release is simply superb. I’ve read online that some videophiles are disappointed in the image quality—but the show was originally filmed on 16mm and edited on BetaMax and was never intended to be shown at 1080dpi on a plasma flat screen. If you ask me, all things considered, it looks pretty damn good—certainly better than the episodes streaming on NetFlix (with nasty, bad music substitutions). The set is housed in a metal school locker with notebooks that hold the discs along with a yearbook with additional information about the series. The new release also contains hours and hours of delicious bonus material, all of which demonstrates that the folks who produced the set had a deep and abiding adoration for the show that shines through even in the packaging. The cast reunion and interviews are particularly charming, and I’m thrilled that my on camera interview was used throughout the fantastic featurettes, and that the producers of the DVD set gave me the last line of narration by making my full interview the final segment in the whole set.

The Wonder Years has assumed its rightful place among the greatest series in the history of television, and I still honestly have a hard time believing that I was blessed to have been one of its many contributors. Sure, I’m biased, deeply so, but that doesn’t change the truth that this is one of the best DVD releases I’ve ever come across, and if you’re even marginally a fan of the series, you won’t be disappointed. My connection to the show is rather profound and personal, and rewatching the episodes in order has been particularly poignant for me. While The Wonder Years initially evoked a universal nostalgia for the angst and innocence of youth, it has now taken on even more significance for me in that it perfectly enshrines the bittersweet beginning of my career, of a time when I shared all of my life-altering experiences with my dearest friend Cayce as we, too, grew up together and became adults.

So there you have it. The Wonder Years was truly a second adolescence for me, and with this gorgeous release of the show on DVD, I couldn’t ask for better home movies of that particular time and place in my life. Well done, Time-Life and StarVista, well done, indeed. Stay tuned…

You can purchase The Wonder Years: The Complete Series by clicking here.

You can purchase my 1950s Hollywood novel, City of Whores, by clicking here.

No trespassing…

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December 9, 2014 – If you’ve read my novel, City of Whores, you’ll know I’m a rabid fan of Hollywood’s golden age. I’ve also been a lifelong fan of Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, and abandoned places. So imagine my surprise when I was recently scrolling through the posts on the Vintage Hollywood Homes Facebook page and came across an item about all of the above: famed director Vincent Minnelli’s abandoned mansion which stands empty and in ruins in the heart of Beverly Hills. My first thought was how could I not know about this? I had been to the Beverly Hills Hotel many times, never realizing that the derelict Minnelli estate sits directly catty-corner from its famous entrance. I immediately shared the article with my friends, and, long story short, found myself with a date to visit the place with my friend from The Wonder Years, Val Joseph. As I was walking toward the house earlier today, Val appeared from the driveway. Seems she’d beaten me to it, and had already been exploring a bit of the house’s exterior.

The minute I stepped into the driveway, a very strange feeling came over me. It was a mixture of vague uneasiness and the dawning of a profound sadness. This only intensified as we drew nearer. I joked about how we shouldn’t be trespassing (there are signs everywhere, after all), but Val rightly pointed out we wouldn’t be the first or the last, so I gamely followed her around to the front of the house. As I stood there in the circular driveway looking up at the forlorn facade, I couldn’t help but imagine it in its heyday. My mind unspooled a vivid Technicolor™ scene of a line of gleaming vintage cars easing through, stopping only long enough to deposit the cream of Tinseltown society at the front door where a tuxedoed Vincent Minnelli himself convivially shook their hands and welcomed them in through the front door and into his dazzlingly lit, capacious manse. From somewhere inside, a piano accompanied a young Liza as she belted out a song for her father’s elegant soiree, and the windows were alive with the silhouettes of the motion picture royalty inside. Perhaps Judy, in a show of magnanimity, had even agreed to put aside her differences with her ex-husband and attend this particular shindig, finally joining their daughter in wowing the partygoers with an impromptu duet of her greatest hits.

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As we moved around the side of the house, I peered through a huge picture window into what was left of the living room. Impossibly, a few pieces of furniture remained, but the space had been destroyed by vandals and squatters, someone having scrawled “LIZA WAS HERE” in spray paint on the wall, among other things. The sadness haunting me intensified, though I tried to conceal it from Val.

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In the backyard, the drained and ruined swimming pool came into view, its walls defaced by graffiti above the brackish puddle of water in the deep end. Again, I imagined a vignette from the distant past: a maid in a crisp uniform was bringing a telephone with an extraordinarily long cord from the house, informing Minnelli (who was sitting on a chaise lounge watching the shirtless pool boy fish leaves from the water’s surface) that Gene Kelly was on the line. Minnelli eagerly took the call, then had an amusing and animated conversation with the screen legend even while his eyes remained glued to the worker’s glistening torso. When the pool boy realized he was being watched and smiled, Minnelli quickly snatched his eyes away.

And then, from all of this enchantment, a thought intruded that utterly changed the experience for me: I was suddenly standing in my own backyard. The destroyed pool was now mine, and the house that I’ve loved since I walked through the front door in 1999 had been equally defaced and disrespected, my belongings rifled through, stolen, broken, and in tatters. How would I feel knowing that people were exploring there, writing on my walls, breaking my windows, and burning my furniture in the fireplace? The unease and sadness deepened.

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Val was determined to go inside despite the padlock on the front door, and she soon found easy entrance through an open kitchen window. As I watched her climb through, I blurted out that I had no intention of going inside. She jokingly cajoled me, but I was firm. I didn’t know how to explain, but I really didn’t want to walk around inside the tragic remains of these people’s lives. After Minnelli’s death in 1986, Liza inherited the place with the promise to her father that she’d take care of his widow, Lee (despite his homosexuality, or perhaps because of it, Minnelli was married four times during his life). Liza wanted to sell the house, which she finally did in 2000, having purchased a half-million dollar condominium for her elderly stepmother. Lee refused to move and the situation became contentious. Ultimately, the house was sold and Liza rented it month-to-month from the new owners so that Lee could live out her years there, finally passing away in 2009 in her nineties. For reasons unexplained, the house remained mostly furnished even as the new owners finally took possession, but never moved in. Never restored the place. Never tore it down to make room for a McMansion. Never did…anything. Inexplicably, they just let the house sit there in inexorable decay.

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I had seen enough to satisfy my curiosity. I didn’t need to experience firsthand the disrespect of vandalism. The stained carpets. The broken mirrors. The filthy toilets. The ransacked detritus of famous people’s lives. I preferred to imagine the house in its prime, when a doting father maintained a closet in Liza’s room filled with child-sized reproductions of costumes from Gone With The Wind and The King and I for his daughter to play dress up with her friend Candice Bergen. I preferred to try and imagine where the backyard playhouse had been. I preferred to picture the house when it was alive.

Over lunch at Chin Chin afterwards, Val and I managed to catch up on all the years since we’d last seen each other. I was still a bit overwhelmed by my strange experience, and didn’t know how to articulate what I was feeling. Instead, I told her I’d been concerned about snagging my black linen shirt on the window frame and joked that our official story would be that I’d stood guard while she went exploring. And I’m glad she did, as I could see the genuine delight in her eyes. Val is and always has been, after all, a force of nature.

But for me, considering the gloomy story of that decaying and forlorn palace, the word “trespass” had taken on an entirely new meaning. Perhaps some ghosts are best left undisturbed. Stay tuned…

City of Whores named Finalist in 2014 USA Best Book Awards


November 12, 2014 – Today, I was honored to learn that my debut novel, City of Whores, was a finalist in the 2014 USA Best Book Awards. To celebrate, I’ll be donating 10% of all royalties earned between today and January 1st, 2015 to the SS United States Conservancy, on whose board I proudly serve. For more information, please visit

Paperback and Kindle editions are available from Nook version is on the Barnes & Noble site.

I do hope you’ll check it out, and that you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!