It’s … a Byline

Hey, Salon published that Las Vegas piece I did. After hearing nothing for a week after sending it in, I thought it had just gotten lost in the shuffle. But an editor emailed me this afternoon to ask me to look at the edited copy. It’s online now: Stardust memories.

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Oh, the Prickles You’ll Prickle

So this morning, I remained curious as to the odd inaccessibility of the website. It’s not that the site was down when you tried to connect, it was that is was still up, with a message saying it was down. To me, that signaled the creator, reported to be a Kevin Ryan of Houston, had taken the site down, probably under duress. This morning, the site’s message changed. It now says, “At the request of Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P., this site has been retired. Thanks for your interest.”

It’s easy to guess why: If you look at the record, the company bearing the late Dr. Seuss’s name is jealous of its intellectual property, and this is far from the first time it has pursued publishers large or small over parody and copyright. In 1997, Seuss went after Penguin Books U.S.A. and Dove audio to stop the release of “The Cat NOT in the Hat! A Parody by Dr. Juice,” a work comprised of “a rhyming summary of highlights from the O.J. Simpson double murder trial.” As a federal appeals court noted in upholding an injunction against Penguin and Dove, under the Copyright Act of 1976, “Seuss, as the owner of the Dr. Seuss copyrights, owns the exclusive rights (1) to reproduce the copyrighted work; (2) to prepare derivative works based on the copyrighted work; (3) to distribute copies or phonorecords of the copyrighted work to the public; (4) to perform the work publicly; and (5) to display the copyrighted work publicly.”

Given all that, some little guy in Texas inspired to bring Dylan and Dr. Seuss together never stood a chance. One is tempted to say, “So much for the sense of fun in Seussville” and leave it at that, but I decided to try to find out what was going on. Maybe there’s a story in it.

So I called Dr. Seuss Enterprises in La Jolla, California. A woman answered the phone, and I stated my name and business; she told me that the company was “very aware” of the site and that its legal team–which I had determined is the San Diego office of DLA Piper–was “working on it.” When I asked whether she could direct me to one of the attorneys involved, she said no and that I should talk to someone at Seuss’s publisher, Random House, which handles media relations. When I asked to whom I should speak at Random House, she put me on hold.

In a minute, Susan Brandt, Seuss’s executive vice president for licensing and marketing, got on the phone. I went through my spiel again, saying that I had heard about the site through friends, looked at it, then noticed last night that it was inaccessible. I wanted to know whether the company or perhaps the Dylan people had demanded it be taken down.

“We’re not making any comment about this,” Brandt said. But, I told her, the unidentified person I had already spoken to had said the company’s lawyers were aware of the site. “We’re aware of everything that has to do with Dr. Seuss,” she said. Then she asked why I was asking questions about this and why I wanted to write a story about it. I told her that I simply thought it was an interesting, if minor, story on a site that had been instantly popular and might have been shut down under pressure from copyright owners. Brandt told me she had nothing more to say about the matter. When I asked her to spell her name and repeat her title, she refused, saying, “I’m not going to be quoted about any of this.” I told her she would in fact be quoted if I wrote about it, as I had identified myself, told her what I wanted and that her comments were on the record. Our conversation closed with:

“OK, Mr. … Brek …”

“It’s Brekke.”

“Good luck with your story, Mr. Brekke.” And then she hung up.

So much for the sense of fun in Seussville. And so much for the smooth handling of media relations (I wonder if I would have gotten the same welcome if I’d been calling from People Magazine, say, or the Wall Street Journal?).

[I’ve got calls and messages out to attorneys for Dylan and Seuss Enterprises, but so far they haven’t responded.]

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Today We Dribble …

… For tomorrow–who knows? Without further ado:

Dylan Hears a Who: This must have been blogged everywhere–BoingBoing had an item on March 8–and last night, in my semi-comatose post-ride condition, Kate pointed it out to me: A very good Bob Dylan soundalike with a “Bringing It All Back Home”-era backup band singing Dr. Seuss books. The one we listened to all the way through was “Green Eggs and Ham,” done with a “Subterranean Homesick Blues” feel. Inspired parody, right down to the artwork of Dylan, cigarette dangling from lip and wearing a “Cat in the Hat” chapeau. Right out of “Don’t Look Back.”

Looking for related stuff today, I see a blurb from Entertainment Weekly that says the person behind the Dylan/Seuss songs is Kevin Ryan, a music producer in Houston who is known for “Recording the Beatles,” an authoritative and exhaustive take on how the group created and recorded its sound. I note that Ryan’s “Dylan Hears a Who” site is down, as is a site that was reported to be mirroring MP3s of the Dylan/Seuss tracks. I wonder if the intellectual property cops–either Dylan’s or the Seuss estate’s–have gone after Ryan to shut him down.

In the meantime, here’s another Ryan parody, for Rad Monkey Cowbells–featuring the VLC800 digital cowbell. It could be the last cowbell you’ll ever buy.

This Weekend’s Exercise

Too tired to talk about it much now, but it consisted of a 400-kilometer (250-mile) brevet from San Francisco to the small town of Hopland. As if these events aren’t tough enough in themselves, the start time for this one was set at noon Saturday to guarantee the everyone on the ride would need to ride through the night to finish in the maximum allowed time of 27 hour. Yeah, that’s a big extra challenge; the morning turned out cold in the Mendocino and Sonoma county locales we visited. That was another challenge. I got done at 9:30 in the morning, and need to sleep now. More later, when I can hold my head all the way up as I type.

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Smarter Than an Oxford Man

In a dark armpit of TV Land–13 minutes or so when we were done watching something we’d recorded and were waiting for our “news” fix–Kate and I happened upon “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth-Grader?” Kate then went back and recorded a full show, which we just watched. Wow.

Not that the show is unsophisticated. The kids who serve as the “classroom” for the dim-bulb adult contestants are quick, winning and photogenic as heck. The host, Jeff Foxworthy, probably doesn’t grow tiresome until the third or fourth viewing. And the contestants–the grown-ups who struggle with questions like “Which state is farthest west: Alaska, California, or Nevada?”–are clearly carefully chosen: they’re attractive, witty, emotive, willing to play along and show no shame that they can’t name the ocean that covers the North Pole and have to lean on their 11-year-old playing partners to keep going in the game. Also, we saw a total of three contestants, and they’re all Gen Xers or later. The show’s looking for a young audience, and it’s drawing players from the target age group; a balding slack-gutted Boomer know-it-all would be the last thing that would fly on this show, not that I’m thinking of trying to get on.

But even allowing for the careful sifting of players to find the perfect combination of empty-headedness, glibness and charming good looks, it’s still surprising to me how little the people we saw knew or were confident of knowing. The one who made the strongest impression not only blew the questions above, he was stumped by the true/false proposition, “The Earth is more than 50 million miles from the sun” and flummoxed when asked to take a 12-inch-by-12-inch square and come up with half its area in square inches (his answer: 24; he’s supposedly a building contractor). But since the fifth-graders helping the guy were actually pretty bright, he still walked away with $50,000.

You wonder whether something going on here–the comic spectacle of the good-natured dunce guffawing at his mistakes without embarrassment, the portrayal of ignorance as harmless and fun–explains something bigger happening in the country. Watch Letterman every night, and you get to see Bush mocked for his latest idiotic utterance. Bush and his guys have watched that mockery for years and cried their way all the way to the Oval Office. They figured out ages ago that most people will laugh along with you if you don’t pretend you’re a smart guy with all the answers; they’ll keep laughing long after the joke’s not funny anymore; they’ll give you a break when you screw up because after all, who could’ve known?

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Schoolyard, Sky


OK, I’m cheating. This was actually Wednesday night, up at King Middle School, walking the dog. It’s really warmed up here over the last week or two, and you sort of wonder the way the weather has been whether we’re just about done with our rain for the year. Anyway, I”m using a picture from last night because I’ve been busy trying to turn out a piece on the Stardust implosion in Las Vegas. You can read my draft after the jump. Comments, complaints and great thoughts welcome, as always.

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Continue reading “Schoolyard, Sky”

C’est Las Vegas

To cut to the chase: The Stardust hotel tower came down on schedule last night–2:35 a.m. PDT by my watch. The demolition crew did its job well and the 32 stories of concrete and steel folded into itself and plunged to the desert floor. The blasts startled and deafened; the collapse roared; the ground shook when all that mass slammed into the ground. And the throng, such as it was–a smattering of Stardust fans and former employees scattered among a sparse, subdued crowd that had wandered up the Strip for the night’s best free show–scurried toward the bright lights nearby to get away from a roiling cloud of concrete dust that enveloped the neighborhood. In the quick exodus, I actually heard one person say, “It’s like 9/11.”


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Drive-by, Walk-by


I landed here about 3:30, got a car at about 4, and drove in very slow traffic up The Strip to see what, if anything, was going on at the Stardust. Nothing was visible from the street, anyway, though I’m sure the demolition crews and pyrotechnics and lighting technicians were busy. This is the Stardust–the shell of the 32-story built in 1991 and a satellite nine-story tower at the right–shot from the car across Las Vegas Boulevard at about 5 p.m. I checked into my hotel, the Platinum, on Flamingo, then walked up the Strip to try to get pictures of the Stardust before sunset. I didn’t make it, but the lighting along the street was wonderful and it turned out to be an advantage to show up while it was getting dark. The lighting crew was experimenting with projecting different colors on the tower. Most passers-by didn’t seem to pay much attention, but some were taking pictures. I asked one woman in a strip mall parking lot whether she was going to watch the show after midnight, and she said she and her husband had, by coincidence, gotten a room in the Riviera with a view across the to the Stardust site. Some luck. I expect the streets will be packed by 2 a.m. The tower is supposed to come down, after four minutes of fireworks and other special effects, at 2:35.


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Bay Area Travel Notes

I may have established the minimum leeway one can leave home from Berkeley, take BART to the airport, and still get on one’s reserved flight.

I had a 2 p.m. flight to Las Vegas. I planned to leave home at 11:30, figuring it might take an hour and a half to get to the airport on BART. That timing would have put me at the airport an hour ahead of time. Through one thing and another, I didn’t actually get out of the house until 12:05 p.m. The BART station is about a six- or seven-minute walk, so I was probably there about 12:12. The train to San Francisco arrived at about 12:21. I grabbed a copy of the timetable and saw that the airport train I needed to transfer to wouldn’t arrive at SFO until 1:31. Gee, that would be cutting it close, but there was nothing to do but take the ride and hope there wasn’t a gigantic security backup. The trains were on time, and I actually got off BART at the airport at 1:30. I waited a couple minutes for the shuttle train to the terminal. There was no line at the security checkpoint; the only delay was the usual absurdity: jacket off, shoes off, laptop out of my bag and in a separate tray; in all, I had to to put four separate pieces onto the X-ray conveyor. The TSA guy opened my small suitcase to confiscate my toothpaste, but otherwise I made it through the check quickly. The gate was very close to the checkpoint, and I made it on board at 1:48. Closer than I would have liked, but all’s well that ends well.

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More Stardust Memories


As part of my relentless pursuit of information on the fabulous Stardust Motel in Redding, I noticed a news development in Las Vegas: the Stardust, once a mobster-run gambling palace whose sordid history served as the model for Martin Scorsese’s “Casino,” is about to be demolished. Or to be more precise: demolition crews have been tearing down the satellite buildings around the 63-acre site since the joint closed last November 1. The remaining job consists of imploding a 32-story hotel tower in the center of the site. Although Boyd Gaming, the company that took over the property from its mob owners in the early 1980s, won’t say when the tower will come down, bloggers–notably Joel Rosales of the excellent Leaving Las Vegas (his page documenting the Stardust demo is here) and freelance reporter Steve Friess–have pinned down the date and time as sometime between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. on March 13; in other words, after midnight tonight. Long story made short, I’m flying down there this afternoon to do a freelance story on the event.

At this point, large-scale hotel demolitions are as much a part of the Las Vegas scene as the construction cranes that grow out of the rubble. According to one detailed list, at Las Vegas Today and Tomorrow, the Stardust is the city’s 14th major structure brought down since the first headline event, the implosion of the Dunes in 1993.

One of the striking aspects in the little bit of research I’ve done on the Stardust and the process of clearing the Strip of older buildings to put up ever more spectacular new complexes is the nostalgia projected onto the demolition events and the shocking recency of the structures casino owners are getting rid of. Sure, Las Vegas hotels are little more than barracks for the gambling masses; owners don’t want to make the rooms too nice for most visitors because that might cut into the time people spend down at the slots. And yes, the hotel facilities are used hard by the tens of millions of vacationers and convention-goers who show up every year; so everything needs to be made over just to get people in the door. Still, the Stardust tower that’s supposed to fall tonight is all of 16 years old. What’s to feel sad about?

The nostalgia doesn’t attach to that building, naturally. It attaches to the history, which stretches all the way back to the late ’50s: the Paleozoic Era in Vegas terms. People remember the shows (the Stardust’s Lido is reputed to have offered Vegas’s first topless revue), the real-life mobsters and celebrities, Siegfried and Roy, Wayne Newton, the cheap rooms and cheap eats, the jackpots, the decades that many employees stayed to serve the throngs. The Stardust hotel is far from the youngest building flattened and scraped off the desert floor to make way for something new: As part of the process of redeveloping the Desert Inn site for a complex of new resorts, Steve Wynn had a seven-year-old hotel tower dynamited a few years back. The economics of the place–land going at $30 million an acre and owners and investors chasing a crowd of visitors willing to spend more and more for their Vegas excursions–make knocking down a not-so-old building to put up something new and breathtaking an easy choice.

Anyway. The street in front of the Stardust. That’s where I’ll be tonight. Check out a scoop from the Steve Friess site: The detailed program for the sendoff fireworks show (it’s an eight-page PDF document, fyi).

[Image from: TypeMuseum]

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