Monday, February 29, 2016

ECW On TNN: a WWE Network Review

One of the greatest things that has happened to wrestling fans over the last couple years has been the creation of the WWE Network. An over-the-top streaming service, the WWE Network is basically a wrestling Netflix. The awesome thing about this network is that WWE has essentially consolidated 90 percent of all the wrestling in the past and present in America.

If there was an old promotion in the past that you enjoyed watching, the odds are high that for only $9.99 a month you can watch their programming on the WWE Network. And, several months out of the year they do a "first month free" deal, so you can usually try it out with no strings attached.

One of my favorite promotions as a pre-teen and early teenager was Extreme Championship Wrestling. Led by Paul Heyman from 1993 until it went out of business in 2001, the small promotion went from a regional wonder to a syndicated company with pay-per-view events all the way to one of the top promotions in the world with a weekly show on the cable network TNN, currently known as Spike.

I was so excited when the news of the TNN show came out. Before then, it was hard to watch ECW if you were a fan. Due to their "hardcore" style, full of blood and profanity and all that other stuff a kid likes, it didn't have a lot of syndication so magazines and video rentals were your best options to see EC-Dub.

The biggest issue was the time slot. Friday at 8 p.m. for a one-hour show was hard to remember. Due to its extreme nature, I would often forget and assume that it came on at 9 p.m. I would tune in at 8:58 to see the end of the show and get angry with myself.

It took the better part of two years to get most of the ECW content available on the WWE Network. Part of that was because they didn't want to give it all away at once. The other part was because they used a lot of unlicensed music and logos and WWE had to go back and digitally edit all of the episodes before they were suitable for airing.

The ECW On TNN episodes went up last week. And I've jumped into full nostalgia mode and have decided to watch all of them from beginning to end, over one year of shows and several pay-per-view events. I have watched the first four episodes, the next pay-per-view in chronology, then the sixth episode. For some reason, the fifth wasn't available. 

For my newest feature here, I will periodically check into the time machine and present to you a condensed version of what ECW is pushing, if the show is still good, and my thoughts on the whole thing.

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First off, ECW was in trouble right off the bat. Their top singles wrestler, Taz, and their top tag team, The Dudley Boys, had both signed with WWE. The Dudleys were gone by episode two and Taz lost his world heavyweight championship at the pay-per-view after the fourth episode, but stuck around for another month or so.

Storylines ECW was pushing:

Taz as the unstoppable monster ... He quickly laid waste to Tajiri and Rhino in singles matches, showing that his catchprashe "Beat me if you can, survive if I let you," was definitely true.

Rob Van Dam vs Jerry Lynn as the marquee matchup ... This feud was pushed heavily on the first episode of the program and they were the main event of the 2nd and 3rd episodes of the show. It was hyped by the announcers that Rob Van Dam was unstoppable, already a year-plus into his TV title reign, but that if anybody had his number, it was Lynn.

Mike Awesome is the new top guy ... The pay-per-view main event was Taz vs Masato Tanaka. When showing footage of Tanaka to the ECW audience, they included footage of him defeating Awesome. That did not go over well with the 6'8" 300 pounder, who could fly around the ring like a man a foot shorter and 100 pounds lighter. He showed up unannounced to the PPV, inserted himself into the match and won the belt. Since we had already seen Tanaka defeat Awesome, we now had a legit number one contender.

Rise of the Impact Players ... Lance Storm and Justin Credible were the top bad guys in the ECW, making a name for themselves by taking out everybody around them and causing chaos on every show they appeared on. At the Anarchy Rulz pay-per-view, Storm scored a hard-fought victory over Jerry Lynn and Credible defeated Sabu in a bloody war that even had the jaded ECW fans showing their respect.

Raven vs Tommy Dreamer, the slow burn ... The top feud in ECW for two years ended in 1997 when Raven went to WCW. When the Dudley Boys won the tag titles and threatened to take them to WWE, out came Dreamer - two herniated disks in his back and all - to fight for the promotion's pride. He took an awful beating for several minutes until a familiar figure ran out of the crowd, dropped the Dudleys, and got the pin. Raven had surprisingly left WCW and was back in ECW. He and Dreamer were grudgingly partners. By the end of episode six, they were still champions, but they were clearly no longer on anything resembling good terms.

Sabu is crazy ... He was known as being "Suicidal, Homicidal, Genocidal" and he was a star. Sabu was presented as such a wildman that he was banned from competing in the United States by the athletic commission. It wasn't lifted until right before the pay-per-view. So, if you finally wanted to watch him in action you had to pay for it. Good marketing there.

Steve Corino and Rhino ... Corino would later morph into one of ECW's biggest crowd-pleasing stars. But before that, he was a midcard troublemaker, trying to manage his "Rookie Monster" Rhino to the top. Despite the fact that Rhino would also later turn into one of ECW's top stars, in the first five episodes (1-4 & 6) he lost four matches, singles matches to Taz, Super Crazy, and Mike Awesome, as well as a tag match to Raven & Dreamer.

Super Crazy vs Tajiri ... One of the more exciting midcard feuds in the later years of ECW was in its infancy during the early TNN days. Occasionally, Little Guido would get involved as well. Usually, more often than not, Tajiri came out on top.

Spike Dudley, giant killer ... Kind-hearted, dimwitted 5'5" Spike was shown in a montage on the first episode defeating several larger competitors. On the program, he defeated 600 lb Sal Graziano twice.

Those were the main feuds from the beginning days of ECW on TNN. I cringe now watching all of the chair shots to the head, after all that we know about brain damage and concussions. ECW - and to a lesser extent all of wrestling back then - was known for crazy chair shots. And there were several. There were a lot of high dives. Rob Van Dam, Super Crazy, Tajiri, and Mike Awesome all took several dives from inside the ring to the crowd.

The program was treated as a big deal by the announcers. The action in the ring was focused on, with viewers being informed about pertinent storylines during the match. I'm sure a lot of it flew over my head in 1999, but there were several insider terms thrown out, which was the style at the time. I heard several references to "marks" and somebody saying that their statement was "a shoot."

Overall, the first five episodes (1-4 and 6) are all great. They presented everything in a clear, sensible manner. The matches were all of a high quality. They made you care about several competitors. Back then, the business model was "watch the show and then buy the pay-per-view." I think they did a great job with the first four episodes of the tv show as a build to the PPV event.

I'm in for the long haul. I'm gonna keep watching. I'll let everybody know when and if it starts to get dull. And if you know any backstory about the awful deterioration of the relationship between ECW and TNN, then you'll know that the coming months will get very interesting. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Page News and Courier Q&A: Audrey Tutt Smith

We do these Q&A sessions in the Page News and Courier each week. I've sort of unofficially become the "Q&A Guy" since I do them in every issue. I had met this lady at the high school's MLK Day event that I covered. She was the emcee of the event and mentioned that she had attended segregated schools as a child. A few weeks later, when bringing up interview ideas, I realized that it was Black History Month and brought this up.

The newspaper doesn't have a large online presence at the moment, so this isn't available anywhere except the actual newspaper. I guess I'm trying to change that - I created a Facebook page for the newspaper and am trying to make it more social-media friendly. I thought this was a cool Q&A and wanted people to see it, so it's here in the blog for everybody to read.

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By Chris Slater
Staff Writer

LURAY — Forcing back tears, Audrey Tutt Smith thinks back to the segregated childhood she and other black children were forced to live. Smith, 78, grew up in a world that today’s generation only reads about in history books. The black school in Luray only went to the 11th grade, meaning that if you wanted a high school diploma, you needed to move to a boarding school in Manassas. Smith did that, but tried to not let the tears show when describing her father’s vow that she would graduate from Luray High. 

"He said that when I finish the 11th grade, he was going to take me to Luray High School and leave me on the doorstep," Smith said. "But, that was not to be. He died when I was 15, and my mother sent me to Manassas. I graduated in 1957." 

During Black History Month, the Page News and Courier sat down with Smith — a former assistant superintendent of Page County schools, with a 53-year career in education — to discuss attending segregated schools, racism she encountered as a child, Martin Luther King, Jr., and more. Excerpts follow: 

What was life like in Luray when you were a kid? 

That is a good question, especially since that was over 60 years [ago] when I was a kid. I grew up in the west end of Luray. At that time, and it may still be today, that part of town was known by white citizens as "The Hill." When I was young and growing up in Luray, everything I can remember was segregated. The schools, churches, drug stores and soda fountains. In our neighborhood during that time, family, church and receiving an education were all very important to our families. Our parents were supportive of each other, and we were taught very early, and it was required, that we be respectful to the elders. Any adult in the community could correct us and if any kid — I never did — if any kid was disrespectful, they would take the kid home and let the parents know what they did. They knew all of the families. I don’t think that’s the case anymore. 

Can you describe the segregated school system you were a part of? 

Regardless of where you lived in Page County, Luray, you had to attend the schools that were designated for your race, either black or white. As it was referred to back in the day, schools were "separate, but equal." But, they were never equal. It’s almost impossible to say separate, but equal. I cannot remember anything that our black school had that was equal, or near-equal, to the white schools. I think that it was overt; there was no doubt about it, we had to attend our colored school — we had one school and that was Andrew Jackson School. And that still stands on West Main Street. In fact, it was not known as an elementary or high school, it was just Andrew Jackson School. Yes, it was obvious that it was overt racism. That was the way it was, and we couldn’t change it. We had no choice, and our families didn’t have the ways or means to change it at the time. 

Did you realize as a child that you were being discriminated against because of your skin color? 

Yes, I knew we were being separated based on our skin color as a child. There were many things and places we were not allowed to do and or participate. We could not attend the white schools, as I said. Seating in the theater, we had a small section in the balcony. It was a separate entrance. You would buy your ticket and go upstairs. To the right, as you went up the ramp, it was — I can’t remember how many seats, but that’s where we sat. And they had a lady who would take our tickets. And, she was mean. She was very hateful. If we would laugh too loud, or you know how kids are, she would put you out. She would let you know that you had to leave. The bathrooms were separated and marked "For Colored" on the side where we entered. That’s the way it was in the theaters. Even though we had separate entrances and everything, we still had to pay the same amount for our tickets. We were allowed in the drug store. If they had a soda fountain, we could buy a soda or whatever it was they were selling, but we had to leave. We could not sit down, we had to buy it and leave. That’s the way it was at the drug store. To me, that was evident and made me know we were being judged by our color. We just knew it. 

Were there some open-minded people, who weren’t as prejudiced in those days? 

I think that there were those who were racist and felt inherently superior to blacks. They felt that everybody had their own place, and our place was to be separate. I think we had some who felt that way. Then, there were those who felt it was the law and so, they had to abide by the law. There were others, I think, just being passed down by generation, "This is the way it is." To my knowledge, there was no social encounters between the two races at that time. You just knew it: "This is your place. You belong here and that’s the way it is." Probably, there were those who knew it was not right and did not agree with it, but had to go along with it and not against the law that prevailed at the time. 

Were there any particular moments of racism as a child that stick out to you? 

School. This is what I’m very passionate about. As I mentioned, we had one school for minority children. At one point in time, Andrew Jackson School had grades first through seventh. Four rooms in the school. At one point, parents in our community decided that it was not right, it wasn’t good and it was unacceptable that the children could only go to the seventh grade. They approached the school board, so the school board then agreed that they would add a grade each year. Not all at once. "We’ll add the eighth grade, the next year the ninth grade" and so forth. My older brother Walter was one of the students that was in the seventh grade. He often said that he sat in the same desk from the eighth grade to the eleventh grade — four years in the same desk, but not the same grade. 

If the school only went to the 11th grade, how did you get a diploma? 

Until then, families who wanted their children to get a high school diploma had to send their kids to live with relatives or to a boarding school in New Jersey. Some of the [places] were Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. and New York, and maybe some other states. If you had extended family in one of those states and wanted your child to further their education, then you sent them there. Many of the children during that time completed only the 11th grade, because their parents did not have family in other states or places they could send them to live. So, in the early '50s our parents again approached the school board. So, in the early '50s Page County School Board offered to send any child in the 11th grade that wanted to get a high school diploma to a boarding school which was in Manassas, Va. They would pay a fee of $500 per child. That is the only financial assistance that we received. Our families were left to secure transportation to and from the school, and other necessities for living away from home. Ultimately, many of the black families were unable to afford the extra cost, and their children only completed 11 years of school. That was so unfortunate that children dropped out because they could not afford to go to school. 

Were there any teachers you remember fondly? 

In my 11 years at Andrew Jackson School, we were lacking. The furniture, books and supplies were hand-me-downs from the white schools. We had no lunch room; we ate at our desk in the classroom or went home for lunch. Despite all that we were deprived of, we had dedicated parents and teachers. They instilled in us that education was the key to being successful. But you had to work hard, and in many cases harder. You had to be good, but good wasn’t enough. You had to be better. Our teachers set high standards. There is one teacher that stands out in my mind and many of the students. That’s Mrs. Elsie Dotson. She’s still alive today. She’s in her 90s, lives in Deleware with her granddaughter. Up until a year ago, we were in contact with her. She has Alzheimer’s now. I cannot say enough good things about that lady. I was even sort of afraid of her in the seventh grade. It wasn’t scared, it was that she expects so much. But, we gave it back to her. She always told us — and I took it all the way through college and up to today — and, if you ponder on it, you can understand what she was saying. She told us, "pick your friends, don’t let them pick you." You need to decide what are you doing, where are you going, what are your goals. That has stayed with me, and I have given that advice to others. 

How did the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. affect you personally? 

That was one of the greatest things, I think, that happened, to be living when this history was being made. I think he accomplished a lot for me and others. Being able to walk through this history with where he was at. The one thing that was a fear that I and others had — and it came to pass — was that he was going to be assassinated. That was very sad. I believed in his non-violence. His non-violence approach made me very proud to be a part of what he did best — fighting for our freedom. 

What are your thoughts on Black History Month? Could more be done? 

Personally, I do support Black History Month. I’m happy that the time is given, nationwide, to acknowledge the history and contributions. However, I really feel it is an injustice to our race to limit this very rich and contributing history to one month a year. I feel it is an injustice and what appears to happen is that we celebrate for a whole month — newspapers, television, whatever — and then at the end of February we put it on the shelf. It stays there until next year, when we pick it back up. Like all other history, it should be going for 12 months a year and put in the proper perspective.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Norm Macdonald Clip of the Week: It's a love story

If you hear Norm Macdonald say "Wanna hear a sex story?" then you know it's going to be good. It's even better if the person he's talking to is Russell Brand, a hilarious man in his own way.

Norm: "I went to a strip bar at noon. So, I was sitting there drinking a beer; no one there."

Russell: "How was the vibe? Yeah, flat."

Norm: "No one there, except the dancer. And she's dancing for me."

Russell: "And you can hear the sound of her shoes on the floor. It's grim, it's real."

Norm: "And she's talking to me because it's too embarrassing not to. And between songs I'm buying her $12 beers and so forth. It was about 1 o'clock in Winnipeg, Canada, 40 below, very cold. And she says, 'Let's go have sex.'"

Russell: "Best possible outcome."

Norm: "Yes. And I say 'Well, fine and dandy.'"

It turns out they're both living with people. Norm, when discussing the strippers boyfriend notes "And, it doesn't matter what color he was..." to which a shocked Brand says, "No! Of course not." Norm cracks Brand up by adding "But it was a frightening color."

Watch the video to find out what color this man's skin was, where Norm and the stripper went to consummate their new friendship, and how it ended.

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Also, check out this Washington Post article where the reporter watches the Super Bowl with Norm. Why? As the article mentions, why not?