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Filmmaker is shooting documentary about “The Grapes of Wrath” May 21, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Books, History, Movies.
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Filmmaker P.J. Palmer of (twenty)2 films is making a documentary movie about John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” novel after acquiring official rights from the Steinbeck estate, according to a news release.

The new documentary “The Grapes of Wrath: We Shall Overcome” began filming in New York City last month interviewing James Franco, who is currently on Broadway in a re-launch of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice & Men.” Production on the documentary continues in Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California and Washington D.C. [...]

“The Grapes of Wrath: We Shall Overcome” is being produced through Palmer’s company, (twenty)2 films in partnership with the non-profit The National Steinbeck Center (NSC). [...]

The film explores the legacy and meanings of John Steinbeck’s American realist novel “The Grapes of Wrath” (1939) while also revealing the struggles of dispossessed families in the U.S. today. The release of “The Grapes of Wrath” shook America to its core with its unflinching depictions of poverty, homelessness, starvation and misery within the U.S. and its exploration of the imbalance of power between the wealthy and the poor. This film examines the impact of the novel since its publication 75 years ago and utilizes its influence to shed light on the current state of similar social issues in America today.

Palmer was enlisted by the Steinbeck Center last fall to shoot several short films about the book and the Joad family’s journey on Route 66 in advance of the book’s 75th anniversary this year. Palmer, once he got on the road, probably found a lot of rich material and decided he could produce a full-length film.

One interesting tidbit from the news release: Steven Spielberg and Dreamworks studios are developing a new film version of “The Grapes of Wrath.” I’m sure those who adore John Ford’s version from 1940 would recoil at the news, but I strongly suspect Spielberg would tackle the grittier aspects of the novel that were sanitized or omitted for pre-World War II film audiences.

One should remember that a film being “in development” means it could be years before it makes it to the silver screen — if it makes it at all. So any excitement about Spielberg making a new “The Grapes of Wrath” movie should be tempered until the project is approved and a release date is scheduled.

(Image from “The Grapes of Wrath” film by drmvm1 via Flickr)

Book review: “On Reading The Grapes of Wrath” May 15, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Books, Movies.
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I have bad news and good news about Susan Shillinglaw’s “On Reading The Grapes of Wrath,” a behind-the-scenes look on the writing and marketing of John Steinbeck’s classic and controversial novel that marks its 75th anniversary this year.

The bad news is Shillinglaw’s book (paperback, 206 pages, Penguin) delves very little into the Joad family’s journey on Route 66 (“the road of flight”) or any of Steinbeck’s research about the Mother Road — despite a sizable chunk of the novel taking place there.

The good news is Shillinglaw — a San Jose State University professor and scholar in residence at the National Steinbeck Center — dug up enough interesting material about Steinbeck’s seminal work that even those casually acquainted with the novel probably will want to read “On Reading The Grapes of Wrath.”

A few may find it curious for someone to write a book about a book. But “The Grapes of Wrath” not only is one of the most acclaimed American novels (it pretty much hand-delivered the Nobel Prize to Steinbeck) but remains one of the most successful (it was an immediate best-seller and has sold well over 100,000 copies a year since the 1980s). The film version, directed by John Ford, remains one of the praised movies of all time.

And “The Grapes of Wrath,” along with the “Route 66″ television drama of the 1960s and Bobby Troup’s endlessly covered song “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66,” cemented the highway into popular culture.

Roadies may find it interesting to learn why Steinbeck made the curious decision to shift the Joads’ home base from Shawnee (just east of Oklahoma City) to the far east Oklahoma town of Sallisaw, where the Dust Bowl didn’t occur. Apparently Steinbeck liked the similar etymology of Sallisaw and his hometown of Salinas, California (both starting with “Sal,” meaning salt). And Sallisaw was associated with Pretty Boy Floyd, a modern-day Robin Hood who robbed banks and gave money to impoverished residents — no doubt appealing to Steinbeck’s sensibilities.

One wonders why Shillinglaw didn’t embark on her own Route 66 trip and follow in the Joads’ path. But she lets it slip she had only two months to write the book, so she probably didn’t have time for a cross-country journey, even if she wanted one.

Despite the abbreviated time to compose the book, Shillinglaw compiled these fascinating tidbits about “The Grapes of Wrath”:

— Although Steinbeck didn’t grow up poor, he worked a series of blue-collar jobs — dredging, sugar plant worker, ranching and highway builder – before he became a full-time writer. This background undoubtedly helped give him empathy for the Joads and other Okies made desperate by the Great Depression.

— Steinbeck’s agent tried to make him tone down the book’s salty language by the Okies and California workers. “I’m writing the speech as I know it with my ear,” he explained. Steinbeck mostly complied, but drew the line when publishers wanted him to excise the word “shitheels.”

— Steinbeck, in a fit of anger, wrote a short and biting satirical piece about Salinas, “L’Affair Lettuceburg.” But his wife hated it, and unfortunately the manuscript was destroyed. But the writing exercise cooled much of Steinbeck’s white-hot fury and turned “The Grapes of Wrath” into a better book.

— At one point during the late 1930s, Steinbeck planned a collaboration with Great Depression photographer Dorothea Lange, most famous for  her “Migrant Mother” image. That seemed like an artistic match made in heaven, but it never materialized.

— Shillinglaw briefly details the book-burnings and other outrage from some quarters after “The Grapes of Wrath’s” publication, including Oklahoma congressman Lyle Boren calling the work “a lie, a black infernal creation of a twisted, dishonest mind.” (His son, future U.S. senator David Boren, quietly but firmly disagreed.) Also, the book inspired two now-forgotten rebuttals — the novel “Grapes of Gladness” and the film “Plums of Plenty.”

— The book includes folk musician Woody Guthrie’s typically memorable take on “The Grapes of Wrath” film. It needs to be read in full to be appreciated, but it’s clear he was a fan.

— A special two-volume edition of “The Grapes  of Wrath” in 1940 included dozens of illustrations by famed artist Thomas Hart Benton. (If you find it at a garage sale, pick it up — it’s probably worth at least $1,000.) That was one of several fancy special editions of the book, many shepherded by Pat Covici. And for the 75th anniversary, Penguin continues the tradition by offering a $250 special edition of “The Grapes of Wrath.”

— Steinbeck fought with editors who wanted him to change the book’s ending. Shillinglaw’s book includes correspondence from one dismayed member of Viking’s editorial team.  This was one battle with the marketers where Steinbeck did not back down.

Readers might find parts of Shillinglaw’s book — such as Steinbeck’s influential friendship with marine biologist Edward Rickets and a dissection of the novel’s “five layers” — a tough slog. But the chapters are short, and Shillinglaw moves quickly to more interesting subjects, such as how the title of Steinbeck’s book was chosen (it originally was “The Oklahomans”).

Penguin Books should feel fortunate it found an author who possessed so much knowledge and access to Steinbeck’s work, or else “On Reading The Grapes of Wrath” might have been more slipshod. But with the missed opportunity of the Route 66 angle and Shillinglaw’s lack of time to work on this volume, one has to wonder what she would have accomplished if she received the assignment a couple of years in advance of “The Grapes of Wrath” anniversary.

Better yet, go straight to the source. Viking Books has published a special 75th-anniversary hardback edition of “The Grapes of Wrath” that features the original first-edition cover illustration by Elmer Hader and original 1939 reviews on one of the end papers. And if you’ve got a lot of money burning in your pocket, Viking just published a pricier version in a leather case, a gilded top and ribbon.

Artist will hold public unveiling of Gay Parita painting April 29, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Art, Books, Events, Gas stations.
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Route 66 artist Jerry McClanahan will have a public unveiling of his newest painting of Gary Turner’s Gay Parita gas station at the station near Halltown, Mo., on Saturday, May 17.

According to a news release from the Oklahoma Route 66 Association, a meet-and-greet with hot dogs and soda will be at noon, with the official unveiling at 1 p.m.

The news release explains how the painting came about:

On June 6 of 2013, Curtis Gobeli, celebrating having turned 66 years of age with a dream trip down Route 66, stopped at Gary Turner’s world-famous replica Sinclair Station while driving his immaculate 1966 Pontiac GTO. Meeting Jerry later at the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, the two, inspired by the many examples of 66 embodied in Curtis’ visit to Gay Parita, conspired to create a highly detailed watercolor commemorating that visit, with the GTO posed in front of Gary’s eye-catching homage to the roadside past. In the sky above the scene float depictions of other Route 66 icons that Curtis and his wife Kath encountered on their cruise, as well as a map of 66 and a short prose history of the Route.

Organizers are asking attendees to RSVP (if possible) by emailing McClanahan at mcjerry(at)att(dot)net.

McClanahan, who resides in the Route 66 town of Chandler, Okla., also is the author of the “EZ 66 Guide” that provides turn-by-turn directions for following Route 66.

(Image of Gay Parita station by Mario Sainz Martinez via Flickr)

“The Grapes of Wrath” was published 75 years ago today April 14, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Books, History, Movies, Weather.
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John Steinbeck’s famous novel about the Great Depression and a family’s Moses-like journey on Route 66, “The Grapes of Wrath,” was published 75 years ago today.

The National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, Calif., is marking the anniversary all year, and I’ll post a review of a new book about the writing of the novel when I’m done reading it.

In the meantime, NPR today posted a six-minute segment about the book and its impact on American culture and America in general.

A print article of the NPR segment is here.

The Telegraph newspaper in England also posted “10 Surprising Facts” about Steinbeck’s novel. One of the excerpts:

In The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck became the first writer to refer to Route 66 – the two-lane, 2,448-mile-road that connects Chicago to Los Angeles – as the “Mother Road”. In doing so, he helped capture the road’s image of redemption and turn it into a cultural icon. The fictional Joad family of the novel was an example of the thousands of people migrating to California to escape the despair of the Dust Bowl states, and many used Route 66. “66 is the mother road,” Steinbeck wrote, “the road of flight.”

Steinbeck also reportedly adored Henry Fonda’s portrayal of Tom Joad in the film version of his book, as he should.

The definitive nonfiction book about the Dust Bowl is Timothy Egan’s “The Worst Hard Time,” which I recommend for its eye-popping accounts as well as its graceful writing. Strangely enough, it took more than 70 years after the disaster for someone to write a truly great account of the event.

Lest you think an environmental disaster such as the Dust Bowl won’t happen again, I’ve read reports on Facebook almost weekly of dust storms in eastern New Mexico and the Texas Panhandle. And, in an ironic twist, California — where the Joads journeyed to escape the dust — is suffering from a historic drought of its own.

(An image of the cover of a 1945 edition of “The Grapes of Wrath” by Make It Old via Flickr)

A trip down Memory Lane in a 1950 Hudson February 18, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Books, Highways, History, Vehicles.
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Here’s a nearly quarter-century-old video from Dan Uscian cruising Route 66 near Lexington, Ill., in his 1950 Hudson, including a 1926 alignment now called Memory Lane that includes re-creations of vintage billboards.

The original stretch of Route 66 in Lexington is open for pedestrians or cycling, but townsfolk reopen it for vehicular traffic on special occasions.

Here’s Uscian’s description of the video:

The initial scenes here were video taped in July of 1991 from the interior of my 1950 Hudson Pacemaker Deluxe sedan (since sold as I upgraded to a 1953 Hudson Super Wasp!).

We start out traveling along former Illinois Route 66, parallel to Interstate 55, about two miles outside of Lexington, IL (Lexington is a small town community about 15 miles north of Bloomington, IL). We then turn off the 2nd generation of Rt 66 onto the orignal 1st generation of Rt 66 into Lexington. This two lane road has been closed for decades, but about 1990, the town of Lexington reopened for a few days about a mile of the “Mother Road” north of the town seen here complete with vintage billboards from Coppertone (Don’t Be a Paleface!) to the War Fund to two seperate sets of Burma Shave signs. You’ll also hear the sounds of a southbound Southern Pacific (now Union Pacific) freight train as it rolls through Lexington.

After the road trip we’re at what Lexington, IL use to celebrate for a number of years, the “Taste of Country Fair”. Lastly, we see the lineup of cars, including my Hudson again, that were paraded down the main drag in Lexington for the delight of the townsfolk and visitors.

Oh yes, one other thing, my Hudson was still under the power of its original Hudson 232 6 cylinder L-head engine. No small block Chevy engine here!

Remember, this video was shot barely a year after the publication of Michael Wallis’ best-selling “Route 66: The Mother Road.” This was at the beginning of Route 66′s renaissance.

(Image of Memory Lane of Route 66 in 2013 near Lexington, Ill., by Larry Myhre via Flickr)

Book review: “By Mopar to the Golden Gate” February 11, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Books, Road trips, Vehicles.
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What would it be like to travel the length of the Lincoln Highway, then return home on much of Route 66, in a classic car?

Denny Gibson, a longtime aficionado of historic roads and an occasional commenter on this website, provides the answer in a new book, “By Mopar to the Golden Gate” (140 pages, soft cover, photos, Trip Mouse Publishing).

Subtitled “A 50 Year Old Car on a 100 Year Old Road,” it’s as good of a description as any for the book. The main title derives from Emily Post’s 1916 book “By Motor to the Golden Gate,” who traveled the Lincoln Highway when its path was “vague in spots,” Gibson says.

Gibson said he planned his big road trip shortly after the 90th anniversary of the Lincoln Highway. He read about the hoopla about a caravan that traveled the highway’s 3,400 miles from New York City to San Francisco and was determined not to miss it during its centennial in 2013. And his interest in historic roads — including the Dixie Highway, National Road and Route 66 — already was in bloom.

Gibson briefly considered driving an equally old car on the Lincoln Highway, but quickly dismissed the idea. “Procuring a 1913 model something would be challenging but not quite impossible; maintaining it on a cross-country drive just might be.”

Instead, Gibson decided to look for a car from 1963 — the year he first earned his driver’s license. He wanted a car with parts easily found, something that wasn’t too nice, but something that wasn’t such a “project” it would take all his spare time making it driveable.

He found a red 1963 Plymouth Valiant convertible less than 200 miles from his Ohio home. It didn’t have a top, and its front sagged a bit. After several trips to repair shops recommended by “a friend of a friend,” Gibson was ready to roll, starting from the Lincoln Highway’s terminus in New York City’s Times Square and heading east to the centennial celebration at the halfway point of Kearney, Neb.

Much like many other Lincoln Highway books, Gibson’s intimates that the old road doesn’t seem to show its full charm until one exits the major Eastern cities and reaches the rural Pennsylvania countryside. Gibson’s writings about the Lincoln Highway’s legion of landmarks remain brief because he’s on a fairly tight schedule with the centennial caravan.

Although “By Mopar to the Golden Gate” serves as a travelogue, it adds another element — whether the car will make it to San Francisco. Despite repairs on the car before the trip began, Gibson still will encounter moments of near-breakdowns with a fuel pump and worries about balky tail lights, wayward wheel covers, a hot radiator during mountain climbs, and an archaic brake system.

Gibson’s descriptions of the parade, conferences and other goings-on at Kearney essentially serve as an account of a historic event, which it pretty much was. Kearney saw up to 500 classic cars on its streets and an estimated 12,500 people watching the parade. That’s not bad for a town with a population of about 30,000.

After the Kearney festivities, Gibson continues westward in his Valiant in his quest for the highway’s terminus in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. As one who has traveled about one-third of the Lincoln Highway myself, I relished revisiting many of the Lincoln Highway’s landmarks in Gibson’s pages.

One thing I didn’t expect was how much I enjoyed Gibson’s writing. A retired software engineer by trade, one wouldn’t think his background would produce prose with so much grace and gentle humor. Here’s an excerpt:

I don’t know where the American West begins, although some people seem to have it nailed down pretty good. Fort Worth, Texas, calls itself the city “Where the West Begins,” the 100th Meridian, which passes through the town of Cozad and more or less defines the east edge of the Texas panhandle, is popular, and racer/writer Denise McCluggage once tied it to a specific bush near Santa Fe, New Mexico, though her claim was pretty light hearted. To writer Drake Hokanson it must be Salt Lake City, since Chicago and Salt Lake City are named as the separators when he describes the Lincoln Highway as a “three act play.” The city where I live, Cincinnati, Ohio, was once called the “Queen City of the West,” although I don’t know of anyone actively promoting that today.

I’m not even sure what defines the American West, but I sense that involves hats, boots, and horses. If, as some say, the change started back in Cozad, it was quite subtle. By Cheyenne, it is subtle no more. So I’m going to pick the Nebraska-Wyoming state line as the beginning of the American West on the Lincoln Highway. Your opinion might be different and, at some future date, so might mine.

It sounds like Gibson nailed the beginning of the West pretty good. And I sure hope “By Mopar to the Golden Gate” isn’t his last book.


UPDATE: I made a few fixes of errors in my transcript of the excerpt.

(For those who don’t want to shop through Amazon, Gibson’s book also can be ordered here.)

Route 66 roadies’ memories of Jay Leno February 7, 2014

Posted by Ron Warnick in Books, People, Television, Vehicles.
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In case you missed it, Jay Leno logged his last night Thursday as host of NBC’s “The Tonight Show” after 22 years in the chair.

You can watch the entire episode online, but here’s his emotional and graceful goodbye:

Even though Leno is known as a car nut, not many roadies can claim they had dinner with him and hung out in his humongous garage. But Sal Santoro and his buddy Bob Walton got to after the publication of their “Route 66: The People, The Places, The Dream” in 2012.

The Bradenton Herald interviewed Santoro, who lives in nearby Manatee, Fla., about the experience:

Leno spent the better part of a Saturday with them, interviewing them about the book for an eight-minute segment posted on jaylenosgarage.com. They also got to check out Leno’s private collection of more than 100 cars and 80 motorcycles, and he treated them to a pizza lunch. That’s when Santoro broke Leno’s pepper mill after furiously trying to grind some black pepper onto a slice.

“It’s electric — there’s a button at the top,” Leno pointed out after an embarrassed Santoro was left holding the broken mill in two pieces.

Santoro gave Leno a replacement a few days later when they were invited back into the green room following a taping of “The Tonight Show.”

“He was wonderful to us,” Santoro said. “A real regular guy. A true car guy.”

Here’s the Jay’s Garage interview:

Leno also met author Jim Hinckley when he was promoting his “The Big Book of Car Culture” in 2011.

Laurel Kane, co-owner of Afton Station in Afton, Okla., said Leno called her on the phone in 2013, inquiring about the station’s collection of Packards. He promised to visit the next time he was in Tulsa.

Now that Leno has all this time on his hands, maybe he’ll take a road trip.

UPDATE: Per Michael Wallis, I forgot one. Kansas Route 66er Dean Walker appeared on Leno’s show in 2007. Alas, there doesn’t seem to be any footage available of this leg-turning event.

(Image of a ticket to “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” by Sherry Ezuthachan via Flickr)

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