Tuesday, June 15, 2010

It was just a couple of weeks ago that a lady walked into the shop with some autographs to sell. Usually I steer clear of those. They are hard to authenticate, and I have been burned before. Even when they are authenticated, they are hard to sell. York doesn’t seem to be a real hotbed of autograph hounds.

But this grouping was a little different. She had collected these herself, she said, during a trip to Hollywood some years ago. And included in the lot was Walter Lantz, complete with a sketch of Woody Woodpecker.

Woody Woodpecker is not now nearly as popular as he once was. But during his day, he was a pretty big deal. Not as big as Mickey Mouse, of course (but then, who was?), but during the 40s, 50s and even into the 60s, he was a “star” in the cartoon world. He had his own TV show, and a number of his shorts played regularly in the movie theatres.

Walter Lantz (1899 – 1994) got into the business early, with his first job when he was just 16. During the years of the Great Depression, he worked at Universal Studios first in the production department, then as a producer. He became an independent producer in 1940. That was the year Woody Woodpecker was developed.

The story goes that while on his honeymoon, Lantz and his bride Grace were continually disturbed by a woodpecker outside the window. It may have been kismet, because Lantz was searching for a new character at the time. Grace eventually became the voice of Woody.

I am a big believer in synergy. So I bought the autograph collection because there was synergy here.

We were in the process of planning our annual SCI-FI SATURDAY event (scheduled to take place this coming weekend). One element of the event will be the screening of Destination Moon. This is a classic, though seldom seen, science fiction movie.

The movie is notable on several accounts. It took over two years to produce (a long time back then), primarily because the technical problems were enormous. Simulating weightlessness, for example, in an age before computer animation was a real challenge. As was a realistic depiction of stars against the backdrop (they had to rig special lights—car headlights as it turned out—that would be bright enough without turning to odd colors when filmed in Technicolor). The detail went down to picking the right location on the moon for landing, so the earth would hang in the proper spot in the sky. (Destination Moon won the Academy Award for “Best Special Effects” in 1950.)

This was all done with technical and mathematical precision, and it was hailed at the time for its attention to scientific detail. One of the reasons for this was that the technical advisor, and the screenwriter, was a real noodge about such things.

His name was Robert A. Heinlein.

Heinlein inspired cast and crew and imparted his determination for precision to them, and to the production. Destination Moon was Heinlein’s only screenplay.

Heinlein, of course, was one of the BIG THREE of science fiction writers in the middle years of the 20th Century (the other two being Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke). I happen to have a connection with Heinlein through the work I’ve done on The Virginia Project, which I’ve blogged about before.

There were parts of this whole space flight business that were wholly alien to the audiences of the time. This was a solid 10 years before the Mercury and Gemini missions and 20 years before Apollo actually went to the moon. The concepts of weightlessness, air locks and all the rest, along with their resulting problems, hadn’t come into public awareness. Some education was required so audiences could grasp the levels of difficulty.

The same thing was required when Jurassic Park was produced. Some of the concepts of genetic manipulation and gene-splicing needed to be explained so audiences would know how dinosaurs could possibly be roaming around an island park off the coast of Central America.

In that movie, they spliced a bit of animation into the narrative. It was a technique they copied from Destination Moon.

A special guest star was hired for Destination Moon. They used Woody Woodpecker. It is a bit of animation stuck in the middle of a serious movie.

So when the Walter Lantz autograph, complete with a sketch of Mr. Woodpecker, walked in the door…yeah, I bought it.

But the synergy didn’t end there.

Last week I received a call from Windhaven Press, the good folks who brought me into The Virginia Project to begin with. Seems there’s one more piece they want me to do for them.

This week I am to receive Heinlein’s original manuscript for his only screenplay. They have now decided to include it in the project. So this week I am to undertake the conversion of the original script of Destination Moon from analog (i.e., typewritten sheets of paper) to digital files.

Douglas Adams, creator of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, wrote another series of books about Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. The series is based on the detective’s conviction of “the fundamental interconnectedness of things.”

Walter Lantz-Woody Woodpecker-Destination Moon-Robert A. Heinlein-The Virginia Project-SCI-FI SATURDAY-the fundamental interconnectedness of things.

I may be in science fiction heaven.


  1. I loved watching Woody Woodpecker when I was a kid. It was still on in the 90's!

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