Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Elmont Junior Detectives

  One of the first series of books that I followed in my youth was the Hardy Boys. Starting in fourth grade, I read every one that I could find -- at the time there were only about forty of them -- buying some and trading for others with a couple of my friends who were also enthusiasts.
   Frank and Joe Hardy were the sons of detective Fenton Hardy and, in every book, they got involved in some kind of mystery, be it searching for a lost treasure, foiling the schemes of robbers and smugglers, or tracking down kidnappers.
   I was reading the books in the early 1960s, just as the Stratemeyer Syndicate which produced them was beginning their revisions of the novels, updating them from their original 1920s-30s versions. I got to read the original stories, rather than the ones that were "revised to update the references and remove racial stereotypes." (I was never quite sure what a "roadster" was, but Frank and Joe drove one and I looked forward to the day when I could drive one too.)
  At the same time, I was enjoying the science fiction adventures of Tom Swift, Jr., also produced by the Stratemeyer Syndicate. Like the Hardy Boys, Tom and his friends had exciting adventures, albeit with more fantastic elements, including incredible machines, amazing scientific discoveries and visitors from Planet X.

  Budding writer that I was in those days, it should not come as a surprise that I would invent my own version of these series: The Elmont Junior Detectives. The team, based on my friends, included Ricky Margaroli and Joe Milack ("the M&M Boys"), Booboo Bouchard, Nicky Tortorelli and Woodsy, with yours truly as the leader. In addition to the text, handwritten in a marble notebook, there were spot illustrations, just like the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift books. Given my limited artistic skills, however, most of the drawings were of things rather than people.
   In one adventure, the EJD battled "Destructo, the Deadly Robot." Said robot was wreaking havoc all around the town and attracted the attention of the EJD when it threw an entire department store into the air. This particular event was one of the illustrations: I clipped a picture of the store, Great Eastern Mills, which was a mainstay of Elmont at the time, from the newspaper and glued it onto my drawing of a sky and clouds. It was captioned "Great Eastern flies by." As with the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift, no one was ever seriously injured or killed in these stories; I never addressed what happened when the flying building hit the ground.
   In another story, the EJD built the "Atomobile,"an atomic-powered flying car, and flew it into outer space. This was a particularly remarkable achievement for a bunch of elementary school students given a) the U.S. space program was still in its infancy, with John Glenn only recently having orbited the Earth and b) funding consisted of allowances and money earned mowing lawns and shoveling snow. Despite these limitations, the EJD was able to fight off an alien invasion, without adult supervision or intervention.
   Alas, the EJD did not enjoy a long career a la the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift. They also did not have a legion of fans, except, of course, in the imagination of the person who invented them.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

BobRo Archives: The Superman Movie Contest

  Someone recently asked about The Superman Movie Contest that DC ran back in 1978 and I have unearthed and lightly edited the online columns from 2000 that told of my involvement with it...

Q: Women with the initials “L.L.” have always played a part in Superman’s life. He met one such woman, Lori Lemaris, the mermaid from Atlantis…
  a)     as Clark Kent while on assignment at sea for the Daily Planet
b)     when he saved the underwater city from destruction
c)     when she telepathically contacted him for help
d)    while Clark was a student at Metropolis University

   That was the first of twenty-five contest questions for the “Superman The Movie Contest” DC Comics ran in late 1978. Readers had to search through two months of DC titles for all 25, list the answers on a postcard, and send them in. (The correct answer to that one, by the way, is "d.")
   First prize in the contest was a cape worn by Christopher Reeve in Superman: the Movie. Ten second prize winners each got a page of Curt Swan artwork. The remaining entrants who got all 25 correct answers would receive a two-year subscription to the DC title of their choice.
   Sound tough to win? Well, some folks at DC thought so. That’s why an extra tier of prizes was added. Every entrant who answered 15 to 24 of the questions correctly would receive a one-year subscription to his or her favorite book.

   So the contest begins and before long, post cards start arriving at the DC offices. First a few a day. Then a few dozen a day. Then we were swamped. And the problems began.
   No one had given much thought about how the winning cards would be isolated from all the entries. What we had, in effect, were thousands of multiple-choice tests that had to be graded. And we couldn’t just toss out every one that had an incorrect answer. Because of the extra tier of prizes, we had to check every answer on every card.
   Guess who did it? That’s right, the vast majority of those cards were “graded” by yours truly. It didn’t take me long to memorize the correct answers and I could rattle them off for myself or for a group of my fellow staffers sitting around a table.

   When all the entries were checked, we had only 21 people who’d gotten 100%. That made it fairly easy to do a drawing to determine who would get to tug on Superman’s cape and who would get Curt Swan artwork. What was going to be an expensive proposition was the one-year subscriptions. There were about 1400 winners! DC President Sol Harrison never anticipated that he’d be giving away quite so many comics and he wasn’t too pleased about it.
    Along came the Answer Man with a suggestion: We were going to have to contact every one of the winners and ask which comic they wanted their subscription to. (Another job -- and expense -- no one had figured on.) The DC library at the time was overflowing with extra copies of books, I pointed out to Sol. Suppose, as an alternative to a subscription, we offered the winners a “DC Prize Pack” of twenty books that would include “classics from DC’s library,” some foreign editions (of which we had plenty) and at least one autographed comic.
   Sol smiled as if to say, “I knew there was a reason I hired you!” He told me to work up a letter to be mailed to the winners, which I did. As it turned out, over ninety percent of the winners opted for the “Prize Pack.”

    Of course, no good idea goes unpunished, so guess who ended up preparing all those bundles of books? Right again! Each day, I’d take the pile of prize responses, make up mailing labels, go off to the library to gather up bundles of books, and supplement them with foreign language versions from our international department.
   The toughest part turned out to be the autographed books. I had everybody on staff signing them – editors, assistant editors, letterers and colorists. And, since I’d been writing a lot of books back then, I signed plenty of them myself.
   Freelancers were roped in, too. An artist or writer would drop off some work and I’d grab them to sign a dozen books.  I remember one day accosting writer Bob Haney when he’d come in to see editor Murray Boltinoff. He agreed to sign “a few” and I presented him with a pile of fifty copies of Brave & Bold he’d written.
   In the end, it cost DC a lot less than 1400 subscriptions would have (which made Sol happy) and cleaned out a lot of books that had been taking up space in the overcrowded library (which also made Sol happy). And I’d like to think we made a lot of winners happy too.


   As I mentioned, of the thousands of entries, only twenty-one fans scored 100% on the quiz. It was time to pick the winners.
    My memory is fuzzy about exactly why Christopher Reeve came to visit the DC offices. What I do remember is that once it was learned he’d be coming, Sol decided it would be Reeve who picked the winning postcards.
   So, the morning he came in, he was escorted down the hall to Sol’s office and with all pomp and circumstance, Chris reached into the box and pulled out the winner. He was quite surprised that the box was not overflowing with cards, but when we explained about the 25 questions, he smiled and said, “I never would have gotten them all and I am Superman.”  

Christopher Reeve picks the winning postcards with yours truly and DC President Sol Harrison.
(Photo courtesy of Jack C. Harris)
    He picked the additional ten cards for the artwork winners and then graciously settled in to sign autographs for all the DC staffers who asked. At the time, DC was nowhere near the size it is now. In fact, the company shared a single floor at Warner Communications headquarters at 75 Rockefeller Plaza with another division.
   Word spread quickly that Christopher Reeve was there and signing books. Suddenly, people who worked in the other division were showing up in Sol’s doorway to get autographs. Then people from the floor above started to arrive.
   After about two hours, Chris announced that he really had to go. Even Superman could get writer’s cramp. Fellow staffer Jack C. Harris and I were entrusted with the duty of escorting him out.
   We walked Chris up the hall, but when I opened the door to the lobby, I was startled to find it packed with people. Word had spread throughout the building and fans from everywhere were showing up, hoping for a signature or three. Far more quickly than I had opened the door, I shut it.
   “Now what do we do?” Jack asked.
   “More than one way to get out of here,” I replied and led them to the freight elevator. Moments later, it arrived. We stepped in and I told the operator to take us to the building lobby.
   “Can’t do that,” he replied. “You have to take the regular elevator for that.”
   “We can’t take the regular elevator. We’re sneaking him out of the building.”
   The operator looked at Chris for the first time. His eyes widened in recognition. “Say, aren’t you--?”
   Chris smiled and nodded.
   “Wow…” whispered the operator.
   “Down, down and away!” I said.
   Moments later, Chris walked out of the building and Jack and I went back upstairs in the regular elevator. The lobby was stilled mobbed. One woman grabbed my arm and said, “Say, I see you on the subway platform every morning. Can you get me in to see Mr. Reeve?”
   “I’m sorry, he’s left the building.”
   “No, he hasn’t. I’ve been right here for an hour.”
   “Well, ma’am, he is Superman.”


Sunday, February 3, 2013

Saturday, February 2, 2013

"No Baby Yet!"

  With the arrival of our first grandchild becoming imminent, we've gotten a number of phone calls and emails from friends who are concerned that he was already born and we'd forgotten to let them know. Not surprisingly, Chuck and Rebecca have been receiving similar calls and messages.
   Some thirty-two years ago, when it was Chuck's own arrival we were awaiting, Laurie and I were getting calls every day. One series, from the folks at the school where Laurie worked, were particularly amusing. Each day at about the same time, the phone would ring and it would be a different one of the teachers "just calling to say hi." It took us a few days till we realized that they were using the snow chain -- the list of teachers in the order they would call one another in case school was closed because of inclement weather -- to determine whose turn it was to call.
   The due date for Chuck was May 16th, with a ten-day bracket on either side. Once the 16th passed, phones calls started to increase, with each caller absolutely certain we'd forgotten to call and share the happy news. (My mother was one of them!)
   By the 19th, we would just pick up the phone and say, "No baby yet!" More than once, the caller said, "Okay, just checking" and hang up.
   Chuck finally arrived late in the evening of the 26th, taking it to the limit of that ten-day window. Armed with a pocketful of change, these being the days long before cell phones, I made my way to a phone booth in the hospital lobby and started calling people, a few of whom were puzzled as to why I was calling so late at night.
   I took the easy way out with the teachers, by the way; I called the first one on the snow chain and said, "You take it from here."