Friday, January 31, 2014

Why I hate Wikipedia, Part One

Many concepts seem great in theory. Then people get involved, and the so-called “great idea” rapidly goes to hell.

Communism is a perfect example.

So is Wikipedia.

I applaud the premise behind Wikipedia: an expanding roster of experts supplying information about the topics they know best. What could go wrong?

Plenty, as it turns out.

Drummer Jerry Granelli, bassist Fred Marshall and Guaraldi, as captured on camera
for Ralph Gleason's documentary, Anatomy of a Hit. Guaraldi's trio was filmed during
its long run at The Trident, in the summer of 1963.
Wikipedia’s all-access submission model grants equal credence to anybody wishing to add, enhance or outright change an entry ... regardless of said individual’s actual credentials, and, most particularly, regardless of whether said individual might have an impish streak, or an axe to grind. Thus, some fantasy fan vexed over the omission of unicorns from a thorough discussion of equine history can simply add a reference to the horned critters, and hey, presto! An article of fact has been corrupted forever.

Okay, yes; I give Wikipedia’s “monitors” credit for modest efforts to weed out egregious examples of that nature. Unfortunately, most errors and fabrications aren’t that obvious, and therefore don’t get caught; Wikipedia simply doesn’t have the staff (or the inclination, in my humble opinion) to fact-check everything ... unlike, say, the folks behind centuries of The Encyclopedia Britannica, who do fact-check everything. Or even the editors at your local newspaper, who try their best to do the same. Information presented as authoritative deserves — nay, needs — to be vetted. Thoroughly.

Wikipedia authors, upon publication, don’t get vetted by anybody. Worse yet, mounting anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that the Wikipedia culture can be biased against efforts to correct untruths. Attempts to do so often anger those who posted the ludicrous blather in the first place, and they simply change it back. Make the attempt often enough, and you — the individual attempting to strike a blow for indisputable fact — risk getting branded a “troublemaker,” and subsequently blackballed.

Rather than a resource offering reliable information from that theoretical roster of experts, Wikipedia actually is an Internet outlet for those who shout the loudest and fight the hardest for “their” version of reality. Hardly the same.

And in the Internet age, bad information is much, much worse than no information at all ... because bad information spreads just as rapidly. Indeed, Wikipedia’s bad information spreads even faster, because this “resource” enjoys an undeserved reputation as an “authority.”

I’d laugh, if it weren’t so tragic.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Missing in action

I lament the ones that continue to elude me.

During the early years of Guaraldi's long association with Lee Mendelson, the jazz pianist and composer worked on several projects outside the realm of Charles Schulz and his Peanuts characters. The most noteworthy was a 1965 documentary, Bay of Gold, which told (and I'm quoting here) "the dynamic history of San Francisco and the Bay Area." I discuss the film at some length in my book, and note that it's available for viewing here, thanks to the kind folks at the San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive. Take a look, and enjoy Guaraldi's background score.

Aside from Bay of Gold, Guaraldi also scored a few short industrial films for clients such as Sunset Magazine and the Leslie Salt Company. I've never been able to find a copy of the latter, a 1966 film titled An Adventure with Spice Islands, which — according to Lee Mendelson's production index — existed in both a 26-minute and 15-minute format.

Here's the description, from the same Mendelson document:

An Adventure in Spice Islands is a documentary on the history and operation of the Spice Islands Company. A "typical housewife" who discovers the Spice Islands spices and herbs in her search to learn the art of good cooking is a humorous link which ties the shows together. On-camera interviews and an original music score enhance the entertainment value of this film.

Ah, the 1960s ... you gotta love it. The mind doth boggle, wondering how that "typical housewife" behaved on camera.

The Leslie Salt Company, once the largest private land owner in the San Francisco Bay Area, was absorbed by Cargill in 1978. Queries to the latter went nowhere, and from there the trail went cold. All that's known of Guaraldi's score is his "Spice Islands Theme," one of the tracks on his album Vince Guaraldi with the San Francisco Boys Chorus. (At least, I assume said theme is from the film in question. Seems too strong a coincidence to be otherwise.)

I did, however, just come up with this droll little squib from the Wisconsin Rapids (Wisconsin) Daily Tribune, published August 4, 1969, on the society page:

The film "An Adventure with Spice Islands" will be shown when St. Luke's Lutheran Ladies Aid meets at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, members to note change of time. On the hostess committee are Mrs. Leland Hagen, Mrs. Edgar Klingforth, Mrs. Elmer Lueck and Mrs. Carl Polansky Jr.

Okay, so it's clear that copies of the film were circulated, and we all know what that means: Somebody, somewhere, still has one. Needless to say, if any of this blog's followers can think of any leads, do let me know.

While we're on said subject, Guaraldi also scored at least a couple of 1966 TV commercials that Lee Mendelson produced. One was a 30-second spot — or perhaps a series of 30-second spots — for Granny Goose Potato Chips, to promote the company's new "Green Onion" brand of chips. The other was a 60-second spot for the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company. Titled "Susan," this short film was designed (again quoting from the Mendelson document) "to generate interest in young women to seek employment as service representatives for the Telephone Company. This was accomplished by presenting — in a documentary manner — the friendly people, atmosphere and conditions that the company offers — through the eyes of a young woman employee."

As of this writing, YouTube offers one Granny Goose TV spot from the 1960s ... but clearly not the right one. The few Pacific Telephone spots I've been able to unearth from that era also offer no joy.

Once again, though, I remain hopeful. I'm sure they're out there someplace...

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Saul Zaentz dies at 92

Depending on which artistic realm they inhabit, most people familiar with Saul Zaentz know him for one of two reasons: either as the producer of nine films from 1975 through 2006; or as the music producer and owner of Fantasy Records who got into several quite notorious legal spats with John Fogerty over the Creedence Clearwater Revival catalog.

In the former capacity, Zaentz took home an impressive three Academy Awards for Best Picture: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1976), Amadeus (1985) and The English Patient (1997). His other films included The Mosquito Coast, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and animator Ralph Bakshi's 1978 version of The Lord of the Rings, decades before Peter Jackson tackled the same material.

As the head of Fantasy, Zaentz is known mostly for embarking on a series of shrewd acquisitions of small jazz labels, including Prestige (1971), Riverside and Milestone (1972), Stax (1977), Contemporary (1984) and Pablo (1987).

Additional details about his career can be found in this Variety obituary.

Given this quite famous individual's thoroughly professional bearing — check YouTube for clips of him at the aforementioned Oscar ceremonies — it can be quite jarring to see him scruffy and youthfully laid back, at left, in Ralph Gleason's Anatomy of a Hit. Zaentz gets a fair amount of screen time in this 1963 documentary about Vince Guaraldi and the creation, packaging and subsequent explosive popularity of "Cast Your Fate to the Wind." Indeed, Zaentz was a key player at Fantasy during the crucial decade when Guaraldi blossomed from sideman, primarily in various Cal Tjader combos, to leader of his own groups.

This March 1955 clip from Billboard Magazine announces Zaentz's having been named Fantasy's national sales manager; roughly a year later, he's the one who offered Guaraldi a record deal and three-year contract with the label. Zaentz then faded into the background, at least as far as Guaraldi's career at Fantasy was concerned; the pianist's life subsequently was ruled by label co-owner Max Weiss. That relationship soured due to Weiss', ah, complicated contracts, which eventually prompted Guaraldi to sue the label. The litigation might have continued for years, except for an intriguing coincidence: In September 1967, a consortium led by Zaentz purchased Fantasy and Galaxy Records from Max and Soul Weiss ... and, a few months later, the twin lawsuits between Guaraldi and Fantasy were dissolved, the pianist having won his freedom and a very substantial improvement in royalty payments.

Might Zaentz have helped orchestrate that favorable outcome for Guaraldi? After all, the two had known each other even before their shared involvement with Fantasy, back when Zaentz was a bookkeeper at Melody Sales, and also, later, as the head of sales at Mercury Records. Perhaps Zaentz respected Guaraldi and that long friendship. On the other hand, it's quite obvious — from the various lawsuits with Fogerty — that, as a businessman, Zaentz was tough as nails, and not known for cutting anybody any slack.

We'll never know the truth, but this much is certain: Zaentz played an extremely important role in Guaraldi's career.