A Trip To Macy’s – November 25th, 1999

  Image Credit: Waukesha North High School Homepage

Image Credit: Waukesha North High School Homepage

Time, as many will agree, exists as a fleeting instant, a unit of measurement wherein the seemingly minuscule space between two moments can comprise years and a highly anticipated event can pass before one even has a chance to grasp its long-term importance.  This perception can be applied to almost everything, from births to graduations, to weddings and beyond-as quickly as they arrive, they’re gone just as fast. 

When I think back to my years as part of the Waukesha North High School Marching Band, from the day of my percussion audition prior to my freshman year in early 1996 to the moment we concluded our performance in the 73rd annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on November 25th, 1999, those same principles can easily be applied to these extraordinary years of my life, an incredible jaunt that ended truly just as fast as it began.

In 1999, I was a senior member of the Northstar band amidst a successful run for the group, having witnessed the state marching band championship captured in the fall of 1996 and 1998 in addition to second place finishes the opposite years.  Waukesha North had, for some time, been a force to be reckoned with when it came to its instrumental music programs, with the band falling under the direction of Jim Doepke and Steve Fisher-when the group hit the streets in any number of parades from Memorial Day to Thanksgiving, the group was always well-received, but when Waukesha North took to the field with the precision choreography and musicianship of its competitive field show, it became a whole new animal.  The competitive marching season lasted from early September to mid-October of every year, with weekends often completely occupied by band-related activities and travel that went as far as Roselle, Illinois and Fort Atkinson to the suburbs of Milwaukee, culminating in the state championship at UW-Whitewater.

Winning state was never anything short of thrilling-I can still recall our 1998 win when heavy rains prevented us from using Whitewater’s football field and our performance was taken inside the nearby field house, where victory was soon handled to us following a performance that I, to this day, still see as flawless.  Even our 1999 second place finish wasn’t without its share of emotion, with the knowledge that these were my final moments on the field following a surprise senior tribute by the underclassmen and staff at rehearsal beforehand serving to elevate those feelings to unexpected heights.  However, the excursions that took us across the country were a true highlight, having marched in the 1997 Cherry Blossom Parade in Washington, D.C. and two years later, just a month and a half following our annual trip out to Whitewater, a trip to Macy’s.  Certainly, the awareness that we’d be taking part in such a time-honored American tradition helped to soften the blow of our runner-up finish at state, and the shift from field show focus to parade rehearsals happened seemingly overnight, with the band entering an intense nose-to-the-grindstone period of time where the end result would be something unforgettable.

The trip officially began two days before our November 25th performance-leaving Milwaukee for New York City was as straightforward an experience as one can expect with a crowd of high schoolers, parents and band staff in tow.  After our departure from Mitchell Airport and subsequent arrival on the east coast, buses arrived to ship us off to our first destination, the Newark Airport Sheraton Hotel, where we found our assigned rooms and settled in.  The remainder of the day consisted of dinner, as well as a quick bus tour around the city to see such sights as the Metropolitan Opera House and, for us ‘90s kids, a view of Total Request Live, before depositing us back at the hotel where a good night’s sleep was encouraged in advance of a busy day ahead.

Day two was sightseeing-a rainy start to our November 24th activities preceded a trip to Ellis/Liberty Island where I not only ran into my parents and brother but also decided to capitalize on my 6’7” frame by sporting some Lady Liberty glasses and visor, to the amusement and polite chuckles of two or three of my friends.  This was followed by a ferry ride over to Pier 17 and the South Street Seaport where the unique sight of New York City shrouded in fog spread out before us-luckily, the clouds began to part enough for us to take in a striking view of the Brooklyn Bridge.  A visit to the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center occurred shortly thereafter, wherein a walk around the observation deck revealed an escalator of which I had previously been unaware, one that took us right out into the open air upon the roof-two years before 9/11, having the opportunity to stand atop these iconic structures on the outside observation deck was an unforgettable experience, even for someone with a fear of heights like yours truly.  We eventually made our way back to the hotel for a parking lot practice, dinner and an attempt at sleep despite knowing that our wake-up call was scheduled for a time earlier than any of us were normally comfortable.

As was expected, the morning of Thanksgiving arrived seemingly seconds after we turned in for the night to greet a bleary-eyed group of high school students and parent volunteers at the ripe hour of 2:00am, with some individuals having foregone sleep altogether either out of sheer excitement or an attempt to ensure that alarm clocks weren’t ignored.  I myself recall a mixture of loopy emotions and sour moods amongst the crowd as people walked about in a haze trying to make sure uniforms were in tow and the long underwear we’d been issued in the event of potentially frigid temperatures wouldn’t go unused.  Following the loading of instruments, hat boxes and exhausted teenagers onto our fleet of buses, the trip into New York City for our 4:00am pre-parade rehearsal at the NBC taping area revealed another wet, dreary morning, and as we disembarked near Macy’s while darkness still hung above the ever-present lights of the Big Apple, the gravity of what we were about to undertake still had yet to set in for many of us.   

The run-through was brief, with NBC only requiring a few takes of our routine so as to make sure marks were hit and cameras knew exactly where to position-immediately following what would amount to our final true practice, we headed off to Beefsteak Charlie’s, a nearby restaurant where breakfast was encouraged to but most of the group took this opportunity to pass out whilst seated at various tables, no doubt enhanced by the buffet in which most of us drowsily partook.  After our much-needed, all-too-short respite, the assembled group donned raincoats and took to the staging area where we ran through warmups and watched as balloons, floats and the inclusion of late ‘90s pop maestro Lou Bega right behind our section of the parade all took their places as more waiting occurred. 

After what seemed like an eternity, at long last it was time to start.  With an announcement of “Waukesha North, please join the parade!”, we took our first steps.

Immediately following Waukesha North’s kickoff began something of a blur, as the band weaved its way through the streets of NYC alongside crowds bigger than most of us had ever witnessed previously.  Their faces mixed with the buildings in a manner to which the band had grown used following countless parades over the years, all seemingly having led up to this moment.  Luckily, the razor focus Waukesha North maintained helped to distract from the ever-present rain, though the scattered delays as acts in front of us entered the live broadcast section caused the band to have to stop on more than one occasion, only then allowing us the ability to take in the sights around us-at long last, here we were.  From Times Square to the Ed Sullivan Theater, the parade continued onward, before finally arriving at the taping site.

This was it.  90 seconds of immense preparation was about to pay off.  I took a deep breath, glanced over at my tenor drum comrade Kyle Good, and shifted my attention to what was about to happen next.

As we surged in around cameramen and the bleeding, rain-drenched Macy’s logo adorning the ground, Waukesha North performed our routine with all the prowess and ability that made the band champions, with the TV coverage allowing every section of the band their own moment in the spotlight.  Flags waved, precision movements were executed and with a final flourish of NBC’s cameras, Waukesha North gracefully spelled out the letters of the network that was, at the moment, taking a band from a small suburban town onto One Times Square’s legendary Astrovision, as well as into millions of households from coast to coast.

It was perfect.

As is always the case with such an event, just as quickly as it began, Waukesha North exited the taping area, as the Today Show hosts made their closing remarks about the band on television while we walked towards the nearby assembled buses amidst a mix of exhaustion and sentimentality.  For us seniors, our time as marching band members was now over-as I glanced down at the white pants of my uniform, I noticed two black marks where the carrier for my tenor drums had made contact.  For a moment, I worried about how such a stain might be removed before sadly reminding myself that it, ultimately, no longer mattered.  Who am I kidding-I still took them in for dry cleaning the following week.

Following our return to the hotel, where we changed out of said uniforms and into something more appropriate for the Thanksgiving dinner that awaited us in one of the ballrooms, speeches by our bandleaders and principal Dr.  Champeau served as reminders of all we’d accomplished, as well as an announcement that Waukesha North would be receiving a full endorsement by then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala to take part in the 2002 Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena for the first time since 1995-a bittersweet moment for us upperclassmen who wouldn’t be taking part, but nonetheless exciting for those who would.  From there, it was off to Radio City Music Hall for their annual Christmas Spectacular, after which a group of us found ourselves accosted by scores of street vendors peddling their knockoff Oakleys and Rolexes.  I won’t lie-I happily purchased one of each.  The watch stopped working shortly thereafter.

The remainder of our trip was an uneventful as it gets-one more night’s rest followed by our flight back home the next day.  To paraphrase Forrest Gump, just like that, it was over.

To capture all this band accomplished in the time leading up to one morning in the fall of 1999 continues to be an immeasurable amount to take in, a memory that still remains easy to once again place myself in the white uniform shoes of a high school student ready to take part in one of our country’s most memorable annual traditions.  Of all the moments I experienced during my time as a marching band member, I consider Macy’s an unequivocal triumph, something I still proudly reflect on to this day.  While all those involved have long since moved on-to families, careers, new homes and new adventures-I’ll always find myself watching the parade the morning of Thanksgiving, thinking back to our time as participants, and remembering how, for one remarkable instant, Waukesha North was the star.

FullSizeRender.jpg

EULOGY FOR A TOY STORE

  Photo Courtesy: ComicBook.com

Photo Courtesy: ComicBook.com

"I don't wanna grow up, I'm a Toys 'R Us kid..."

So opens one of history's most iconic advertising jingles, a line meant to grab the attention of any child within earshot in an effort to promote one of the most successful chains of toy stores ever to have existed.  For years, Toys 'R Us has reigned supreme in the world of retail, a brand having outlasted similarly-themed lines such as FAO Schwartz and K*B Toys-sadly, due to a surge in online sales through sites like Amazon and the continued dominance of retailers such as Walmart & Target, Toys 'R Us now stands poised to join its failed brothers as the company concludes a mass liquidation following a sluggish holiday season and bankruptcy filing that, sadly, was unable to save Toys 'R Us from complete destruction.

  Photo Courtesy: Pleasant Family Shopping

Photo Courtesy: Pleasant Family Shopping

Like many children of the 1970s and '80s, Toys 'R Us, with its unquestionably adorable mascot Geoffrey the Giraffe overseeing the show, was an important cornerstone of my young life.  Living in close proximity to a location in Brookfield, Wisconsin, I frequently found myself gracing the hallowed aisles of the toy giant several times throughout the year, especially with its convenient placement across the parking lot from the Brookfield Square mall.  I can still recall many a visit to Brookfield Square, gazing longingly at the Toys 'R Us seemingly just a handful of steps away from the mall, wondering if my parents would decide to make the extra trip over to a place that was, for all intents and purposes, Kid Heaven-sometimes we would, and sometimes not.  The times that we did, however, found myself overcome with a feeling of sheer awe the moment we stepped inside-it almost didn't seem like a place such as this should exist.  When I say that Toys 'R Us had everything, I can't begin to stress the importance of that word.  

  Photo Courtesy: Business Insider

Photo Courtesy: Business Insider

Everything.

As a childhood Ghostbusters fanatic, every possible item devoted to the four intrepid parapsychologists could be found inside a Toys 'R Us.  The video game aisle seemed endless, with more product than I ever imagined laid out before my youthful eyes and display gaming consoles on which the public could try the latest Mario sequel.  Power Wheels as far as the eye could see, action figures based on my favorite shows, more Hot Wheels and Matchbox vehicles than one previously thought existed on this pale blue dot-when I said everything, I meant it.

As time went by, many an item was obtained by yours truly from Toys 'R Us-money was saved so I could purchase an official Home Alone 2 Talkboy, a coupon from McDonald's was happily redeemed so as to save a few dollars on M.C. Kids for the NES, the book department yielded my first copy of Maniac Magee...the things Toys 'R Us provided for me, whether on purpose, through coincidence or some other happenstance, became memories that shaped cornerstones of my days growing up.  Not far from Toys 'R Us sometimes found a Kids 'R Us occupying retail space-less a toy store and solely a destination for children's clothing, a trip to Kids 'R Us was both the greatest trick pulled on unsuspecting young visitors and, at the end of the day, an underrated experience overall.  Kids expecting something akin to Kids 'R Us' big brother would undoubtedly find themselves disappointed at the sight of, say, countless Teddy Ruxpin-branded jumpers, though it wasn't uncommon to find alongside aisles of corduroy overalls situated proprietary skill games, fun house mirrors, or a commemorative box of goodies given out at the cash register periodically throughout the year.  There's nothing more than needs to be said about these boxes-they're the greatest thing I've ever seen.

However, like any teenager aging into adulthood, my visits to Toys 'R Us became less frequent, to the point where it became pure luck if I happened to find my way inside one even once a year.  That all changed, however, upon the birth of my first child-suddenly, Toys 'R Us returned with a vengeance, in addition to subsidiary Babies 'R Us, where many a pleasant afternoon was spent obtaining items in preparation for our daughter's birth, as well as our son's arrival several years following.  Before long, gifts in the form of a 1st birthday toy piano, Equestria Girls dolls and the like were purchased from our nearest Toys 'R Us over the years, and you'd better believe that I myself may have dropped very clear hints during the 2016 holiday season that a remote controlled Ecto-1 straight from the clearance bin should probably find its way under my Christmas tree. 

I thank my mother-in-law for that one.

  Photo Courtesy: Simplemost

Photo Courtesy: Simplemost

When it was announced that Toys 'R Us would be ceasing all operations in the United States, with the closure of its global business sure to follow, I immediately felt a slew of emotions, ranging from disbelief to complete sadness-these stores always felt like the reassuring presence of an old, comforting friend, and to see it completely vanish in a rather short span of time remains a bitter pill to swallow.  Though I consider myself thankful that my daughter, now six, was able to experience Toys 'R Us in all its glory, my two-year old son will likely never recall what it was like to visit this incredible retail giant.  

  Photo Courtesy: Pop Culture Affidavit

Photo Courtesy: Pop Culture Affidavit

Before long, Toys 'R Us will undoubtedly become something of legend, or at least here's hoping.  I know I, for one, will forever cherish the memories this wonderful store gave me-it wouldn't be a childhood without Toys 'R Us.  As years turn to decades, as youth gives way to age, and as I myself continue grow older, I know I'll forever remain a faithful Toys 'R Us kid.

  Photo Courtesy: Imagelon

Photo Courtesy: Imagelon

"How lucky am I to have had something that makes saying goodbye so hard.  " - Winnie the Pooh (A.A. Milne)

Shakey's Pizza

  Photo Courtesy: www.nwitimes.com

Photo Courtesy: www.nwitimes.com

The earliest memory I have of the incomparable Italian culinary mainstay known as pizza is as inauspiciously typical as one might expect-a frozen Tombstone prepared by my parents when I was barely an elementary school youngster.  Like most children of that age, I knew I enjoyed it immediately-as the years passed, the meal began to dominate my week, to the point where a ritualistic pizza run every Friday was essential and a large carryout order usually dominated many a sleepover I attended in those days.  It wasn’t long before I joined the masses and numerous frozen varieties quickly became consistent occupants of my freezer as well-chances are, I’m probably eating some as you’re reading this.

It was during this halcyon era that a restaurant known as Shakey’s entered my existence, an establishment that would come to define a large part of my childhood and eventually come to perch firmly at the top of my personal Best Of list.  Though it may be difficult to fully articulate my feelings about this place during the course of an online editorial, I’ll do my best.

  Photo Courtesy: www.valcomnews.com

Photo Courtesy: www.valcomnews.com

Your typical Shakey’s features a fairly standard layout-whereas newer locations give off a more modern feel, the older model had the outward appearance of a wooden shack and a comfortable, split-level interior wherein a buffet, salad bar and soft-serve ice cream station all sat ready for the hungry consumer to grace them with their presence.  Some variants even included a fireplace for an added level of rustic comfort.  Additionally, it wasn’t long into my teenage years for a game room known as the Fun Zone to find its way inside-essentially a miniature Chuck E. Cheese, this welcome addition featured games of chance & skill mixed with several arcade cabinets and a ticket redemption area where any number of spider rings, disappearing ink or Airheads, arguably history’s greatest candy, could be obtained.

  Photo Courtesy: www.wcfcourier.com

Photo Courtesy: www.wcfcourier.com

The pizza itself was a major selling point-I always favored a thin crust concoction with their signature tangy sauce and pepperoni, something of which I could never get enough during the duration of an average Shakey’s jaunt.  It was customary to grab a slice as I was leaving, a feeble attempt at keeping the experience going for as long as possible, though it was never long before my hands were again empty and I began to feel the anticipation one only feels as they look forward to their next taste of that lovely pie.

As time went by, I was fortunate to dine at a number of Shakey’s branches throughout the upper Midwest-a trip out to South Dakota included a pizza buffet meal stop, a yearly vacation to northern Wisconsin always took us by a Shakey’s adjacent to the freeway, and my hometown of Waukesha, Wisconsin housed a Shakey’s a few blocks from where I attended middle school.  Growing up, I can still remember several Cub Scout Christmas parties having been held there, and you’d better believe the Snickers bar I received as a treat during one such get-together sat in my jacket pocket for months after, really for no reason whatsoever.  There was also a location in West Allis that, following the closure of Waukesha sometime in the ‘90s, became my go-to dinner destination whenever my family and I checked out nearby Candy Cane Lane around the holidays, or whenever my girlfriend (now wife) needed our Shakey’s fix.  I can also recall a particularly memorable lunch at a long-defunct Fond du Lac branch, one which contained a much larger game room than others, while en route to my grandparents’ house in nearby Ripon.  At the time, Shakey’s ran a program wherein students could bring in their report card and be rewarded with game tokens for every A, B or C they achieved-as it just so happened, my own report card sat in our Pontiac Transport just a few steps from the front door, as it had been a rather good quarter at school and Oma & Gramps would no doubt enjoy seeing the academic fruits of my labor.  Some might call it a coincidence, I call it an overflowing cup of free tokens and a Michael Jordan glossy I earned after far too many rounds of Skee-Ball.

Unfortunately, time being what it is, Shakey’s began shuttering the doors of many a restaurant throughout the United States as the 1990s crept into the new millennium-in fact, every location I came to know, love and consider a large part of my dining experiences as a whole eventually saw their Open signs dim, with West Allis being the final branch, and effectively final nail in the coffin I considered to be my active involvement with Shakey’s.  Even a freestanding Shakey’s at the Wisconsin State Fair was quick to convert to Mojo’s Pizza, which itself didn’t last more than another year or two following the chain’s Midwestern disappearance.

  Photo Courtesy: Pinterest

Photo Courtesy: Pinterest

Though Shakey’s remains a thriving chain to this day, there isn’t a single restaurant to be found outside of (primarily) California, several other faraway states or the Philippines.  Indeed, the likelihood I would ever set foot inside one, let alone anytime soon, had now become a dream that might never come true.

In 2010, I was working a side job doing sales for a percussion manufacturer based out of California, a job which took me out to the annual NAMM convention in Anaheim for several days of music industry geekdom, the likes of which I’d never seen before or since.  As it just so happened, a quick search indicated a Shakey’s existed within walking distance of the convention center where NAMM was being held-why on Earth would I consider passing up an opportunity to visit my beloved restaurant again?

Accompanied by my wife, who had made the journey to California with me, we embarked on the walk to dinner one night following a day of NAMM festivities, which though lengthier than expected, did in fact deposit my wife and I at the steps of the hallowed restaurant, where my disbelief at seeing a Shakey’s again almost immediately transitioned to pure, unbridled joy.  

18841_290627290860_6622367_n.jpg

I was back.

DSC00855.jpg

Unfortunately, the buffet was closed for the evening, but it didn’t matter-to experience that pizza once more was all I needed.  A conversation with the waitress and a short while later, heaven arrived at our table in the form of this. 

DSC00854.jpg

I couldn’t help but savor every last bite, as if I was again a child, snatching a few pieces for the road.

I haven’t been back to a Shakey’s, as well as California since, and at this time it remains unclear when or if I’ll return.  It saddens me to fathom this-to be separated from your favorite food by half a country is a heartbreaking feeling, but the memories I maintain of my history with Shakey’s remain as clear as the day I first set foot inside one.  Recipes for imitation Shakey’s pizza do in fact exist online, and while I will presumably attempt to make my own at some point, nothing will compare with the sensation of helping yourself to plate after plate with the promise of ice cream, video games and a satisfied hunger palate immediately after.  It was a part of my youth, and a large one at that.  Nothing more needs to be said to Shakey’s than a sincere thank you-every time I bite into a pepperoni-laden slice of deliciousness, I’ll forever remember what I was like to be there, and await the day I’ll go back again.

  Photo Courtesy: Pinterest

Photo Courtesy: Pinterest

Bartz's - A Wisconsin Legend

  Photo Courtesy: Facebook

Photo Courtesy: Facebook

The Bartz's in Brookfield, Wisconsin was one of those places that, growing up, sat tantalizingly on Bluemound Road, always catching my gaze as my parents drove my brother and I to day care, my job at nearby Fun World or any number of business situated alongside a busy street I once unusually considered my favorite road.  Though I still find it odd that I once awarded such a distinction, could one really argue with a roadway that contained, among other kid-friendly places of retail commerce, such businesses as Best Buy, Half Price Books, Funcoland, Toys "R" Us and the Brookfield Square shopping mall? 

It is for this reason that visiting Bartz's was made all the more special whenever we stopped by.  Viewed by many as a destination where one can purchase a wide variety of party-related items, a trip inside your standard Bartz's presents a world unlike any other-on first glimpse, the store may give off the appearance of so many similar retail establishments, but one doesn't need to take more than a few steps to find that is most certainly not the case.  Aisles are filled in a well-organized manner with everything you need to make your next party fly off the proverbial chain, and don't be surprised if you happen upon products related to a forgotten Twilight sequel or Batman reboot, for the next time you'd like to throw a party themed after a Twilight sequel or Batman reboot.

  "Tonight we're gonna party like it's 2005, or possibly 2010." -Prince

"Tonight we're gonna party like it's 2005, or possibly 2010." -Prince

What's that?  You'd like your next get-together to have the feel of a crime television show parody?  Look no further than Bartz's.

IMG_0005.JPG

There's even swag for the grillmaster in your life, and an assortment of Disney Channel memorabilia.  It's not just the reasonable prices, it's the charm.

  Who am I kidding?  I want it all.

Who am I kidding?  I want it all.

Unquestionably, what Bartz's has en masse is a surplus of TLC, and nowhere is that represented better than in the costume department-a vast selection of high-quality outfits guaranteed to ensure generous applause at your next office Halloween soiree sits at Bartz's year round, accompanied by a litany of masks that, depending on the store, either sit off in their own dedicated section, as is the case with the Menomonee Falls branch, or on a shelf below the ceiling encircling the perimeter of the sales floor.  Make no mistake-these masks are quite realistic, and 100% a reason why a visit to Bartz's should be scheduled for as soon as possible.  If you think the masks are looking at you, possibly even chucking a bit under their rubbery breath, you're not alone.

Heck, Menomonee Falls even has a candy counter, though it no longer houses sugary treats and instead sits dormant at the base of a flight of stairs next to a door previously used as a secondary entrance. Now a relic of the Bartz's of yesteryear, it's still nifty to look down and imagine purchasing a sack of nonpareils to accompany your new, terrifying mask.

IMG_0004.JPG

I mean, c'mon, they even use this Sesame Street bus as a display.  What a place.

IMG_0003.JPG

The words above don't even begin to describe my feelings towards Bartz's-even as the number of locations in the Milwaukee area have decreased over the years, I'm grateful that a few remain as continued icons in the world of party necessities, as well as a reminder of a chain that's aged as I have-even others in my age group, such as the fine team at Milwaukee Record, posted an article about a Bartz's POG commercial from decades prior, another indicator of the impact these stores had on my generation.  I truly wish nothing but the best for Bartz's, and know that the next time I'm in need of a guitar-shaped pinata for my next holiday bash, my journey will take me to a little place in suburban Wisconsin where, even if all I walk away with is a smile, I'll consider that visit a success.

THE GARCADE

  Photo Courtesy: jsonline.com

Photo Courtesy: jsonline.com

The history of the neighborhood video arcade goes back decades, a story that played an important role in kicking off the modern electronic gaming era and one which has been subject to countless books & documentaries, most notably 2007's The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters and Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade.  As immortalized in the latter, what was once a cultural phenomenon of the 1980s unfortunately faded into obscurity as time went by and the local arcade became a thing of the past, like most widespread trends tend to do.  I myself can still recall many a childhood trip to Aladdin's Castle, a now-defunct arcade chain with a location in Brookfield, Wisconsin, where countless quarters were poured into Data East's Real Ghostbusters or my brother found himself sitting within the cockpit of Race Drivin'.

In recent years, however, arcades have seen something of a resurgence, riding the wave of nostalgia fueled by the generation of that era, now older and in a position to financially capitalize on the things we fondly remember.  The current arcade model, as seen at such venues like Galloping Ghost in Illinois, features a fully stocked room full of games, but with one catch-an entry fee that, when paid up front, will allow the patron to play any game on the premises as many times as they want, for as long as they desire.  Gone are the days of token plugging-with every game in today's arcade set to free play, once you pay for admission, it's Arkanoid, San Francisco Rush or a few rounds of pinball from the moment you arrive to the moment you choose to leave.

One of the more recent additions to the family is The Garcade-located in the Milwaukee suburb of Menomonee Falls, The Garcade's library of games seemingly spans arcade history, the sheer volume of which ranges from early coin-ops to the latest shoot-'em-ups, all lovingly restored to pristine condition.  In most cases, LEDs have been retrofitted inside the displays, giving the games new life as this enhanced illumination helps to further show off the beautiful artwork gracing these classic machines.  Furthermore, if The Garcade's onslaught of electronic magic has you gasping for breath at the thought of another attempt at Donkey Kong, Galaga or RoadBlasters, fear not, as a comfortable sitting area where one can enjoy a cool beverage or snack sits off to the side, allowing customers a few moments respite before returning to the games we've never forgotten.

A Menomonee Falls resident myself, I'm not just biased towards The Garcade's convenient location-it's truly wonderful to see another arcade pop up, one with such care being shown toward its attractions and a focus on things to come-half of The Garcade is currently devoted towards game repair, with a wish to continue acquiring old games and bringing them back to the way they used to be when times were simpler.  It is for these reasons that I believe this place to have a strong future, as bright as the top of a scoreboard or an ancient monitor guiding a yellow creature away from four hungry ghosts.  Come for the games, but stay for the memories.

Game on!

The Garcade is located at N85W15920 Appleton Avenue in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin.

JOLT COLA

  Photo Courtesy: Grub Street

Photo Courtesy: Grub Street

As any teenager of the 1990s will atest, I often found myself privy to various urban legends as I ventured through those unquestionably awkward years, many of which were proven to be false but some of which ultimately, fantastically, wound up incredibly true.  Tales of the aftermath of ingesting pixie sticks mixed with Coke ran rampant amongst my friends, in addition to the horrifying accounts of what might happen if more than one Atomic Fireball or Warhead was shoved into one's mouth at once.  Indeed, Jolt Cola was one such legend-over the years I’d hear stories of this near-mythical caffeinated beverage, one that could keep a video game-crazed youngster up all night so as to complete the latest Final Fantasy in one sitting or play Pilotwings on endless repeat.

Though I was fortunate to taste such similar drinks at that time as Kick, Jolt remained elusive, something I knew existed but was never conveniently sold at any nearby 7-Eleven, PDQ or Kwik Trip.  As such, like many things as one grows older, Jolt was soon forgotten, but a viewing of 2010's underrated Robert Downey Jr./Zack Galifinakis buddy comedy Due Date accelerated the memory of said cola back into the forefront of my then-late-20s mentality, as the road trip premise contained a scene in which Downey Jr. & Galifinakis make a pit stop at a gas station where a battery can of the drink was purchased-much to Downey Jr.'s chagrin-and quickly consumed.  The movie produced more than a chuckle or two, and something was now extremely apparent-having been somewhat inspired by Galifinakis, a moment in film which seemed to confirm the existence of Jolt Cola at that time, I now knew I needed to find it through whatever means necessary.

So began a quest to track down Jolt Cola, one that saw me checking in roughly every roadside gas station as time went by, all to no avail.  Every vacation I took, every out-of state trip I made, every time I found myself on the road with family or friends almost certainly included as many visits to the refrigerated section where I would always walk away disappointed at the complete lack of Jolt Cola.  My journey did reach something of an end, however, in October of 2012, when I stopped at a grocery store known as Jungle Jim's in Cincinnati, Ohio while on tour with my band at the time, and let me be one of many to say that this place is absolutely worth the trip.  Though a first glimpse might present this establishment as yet another supermarket, the volume of product and random knick knacks scattered throughout set it apart from your neighborhood food source and put it in a league all its own.  Leftover animatronics from Showbiz Pizza, Chuck E.  Cheese and a General Mills cereal super band serve as in-store entertainment, while a substantial portion of the store features copious amounts of international goods and one of the most unique restrooms I've ever seen.  It was here, amidst the vast aisles of soda and ethnic foods that I finally found 20 oz.  bottles of Jolt and much celebration occurred.  

And yet, I still desired the can.  Furthermore, as Jungle Jim's was several states away from my home in Wisconsin, acquiring Jolt on a regular basis was, unfortunately, not to be.

In August of 2017, a strange, surprising happening took place-Jolt Cola suddenly appeared on social media, with several sites touting a return of Jolt at Dollar Generals throughout the country.  My interest now piqued once again, I awaited the release date with the anticipation one who obsesses over '90s pop culture gems such as Jolt might feel, though several trips to local Dollar Generals soon after produced no results.  One such location hadn't even heard of the drink, while another appeared closed, though I believe this to be more of an economic issue and seriously doubt this had anything to do with the probable absence of Jolt.  Was my past repeating itself, taunting me with the promise of the mysterious Jolt Cola only to laugh in the face of a 35-year old who just wanted to experience the past all wrapped up in a colorful, cylindrical aluminum package?

Luckily, a visit to the quaint mid-Wisconsin town of West Bend in December of 2017 included a trip to their local Dollar General, and despite my hesitations as I entered the store on a chilly Sunday afternoon, a swing down the Dollar Deals aisle brought me firmly in front of this.

Jolt Cola.jpg

I couldn't believe it.  There was my past, a legendary beverage and relic from my youth, now staring me directly in my stunned face.

I wasted no time, scooping up half the inventory and heading to the checkout as quickly as possible before scores of sugary, caffeinated soda fanatics stormed the West Bend Dollar General, loudly proclaiming that every Jolt Cola shall soon be theirs.  Only when I had paid for said goods and was safely driving away that I could finally exhale with gleeful relief.  At last, it was mine.

Over the past few years, I've seen the return of such previously defunct products as Ecto Cooler, Crystal Pepsi and, on a regional level, Jolly Good.  The return of Jolt Cola is a welcome addition to the list, though many might say it was never truly gone, and a drink I look forward to consuming every time I need that titular jolt of energy such a beverage promises.

Now, where's my copy of Pilotwings?

EULOGY FOR A BOOKSTORE

  Photo Courtesy: Yelp

Photo Courtesy: Yelp

When it came to nurturing my love of reading growing up in the suburbs of Wisconsin, I often found it difficult to gain access to quality reading material outside of trips to the library or any number of used bookstores scattered somewhat randomly throughout the area.  Indeed, a youth without a license to drive or steady supply of income will undoubtedly encounter roadblocks in their efforts to procure a new book, but without a nearby retailer of decent literature, the aforementioned issues remained moot.  

In July of 1990, I had recently finished the second grade and was on the verge of my eighth birthday-it was during this summer that my family made the first of what would become a near-thirty year ongoing tradition of summer vacations to Minocqua, a small town in northern Wisconsin that has over time become a popular destination for many to enjoy.  Our week has always consisted of fishing, taking in the local cuisine, relaxing in our cottage on Lake Kawaguesaga and, of course, numerous trips into downtown Minocqua so as to check out the countless shops befitting a small town such as this, all soundtracked by the familiar call of numerous loons scattered about the area.

It was here that I first set foot inside a Book World.

  Photo Courtesy: Wisconsin Rapids Star Tribune

Photo Courtesy: Wisconsin Rapids Star Tribune

A visit to Book World feels like the warmth of an old, familiar blanket-the store may not possess the size of a major retailer, but still manages to maintain a sizable inventory and cozy, clean environment that welcomes one in immediately.  The smell of fresh paperback hangs about the air, a familiar scent akin to a trip to a familiar elementary school library.  The aisles are just wide enough to browse comfortably, while the outer walls house magazines, cookbooks and a children's section wherein one is likely to find any number of youth paging through their favorite Dr.  Seuss or Berenstain Bears.

  Photo Courtesy: Wisconsin Rapids Star Tribune

Photo Courtesy: Wisconsin Rapids Star Tribune

Over the years, I made sure to make a least one purchase from Book World every time I visited Minocqua, whether it was the novelization of Walt Disney classic The Rocketeer or the latest issue of Rolling Stone.  Exposing my children to Book World was also something of importance, especially as I charged myself with the task of hitting any and every branch I came across-over the years, I found my way to, among others, locations in Eagle River, Stevens Point, Wisconsin Dells, Sister Bay and a beloved site in Ripon, the town in which my father had grown up.  Indeed, many a visit to Ripon more than likely included a stop at Book World, and it wasn't uncommon to receive a gift certificate from my grandparents for Christmas year after year.  Many a time spent perusing their Biography section exposed me to notable individuals of whom I never would have otherwise known, and as a youth who also possessed a love of writing, it's hard not to look at my time spent within any Book World as anything but highly influential on me.

In December of 2017, my son and I made our way to the West Bend location for what I knew might very well be my final Book World experience.  Upon entering the store, that all-too familiar smell hit me, and I knew this would be an emotional visit.  Making sure to walk away from Book World with at least one item in memoriam, I decided to let my son decide what said item would be-much to my surprise, he chose a stuffed loon.  

Zach Loon.jpg

When it comes to this memento of Minocqua, this time with my son, this wonderful chain as a whole and the realization that the end of Book World is imminent, these truly encapsulate the definition of a memory that will forever live on, in the adults who may reminisce to their children about that store they used to visit, and in those children who accompanied them.  If ever a legacy was to be left behind, it's not just in the product, but in the feel of a place seemingly extracted from nostalgic days gone by.  For some, it might just be a store, but for me, it was so much more.  Like the ending of a favorite book, it will never be forgotten.

FUNSET BOULEVARD

  Photo Courtesy: Yelp

Photo Courtesy: Yelp

As a person who lives his life with the mentality of someone still feverishly working his way through the fourth grade, I frequently find myself in a nostalgic mood when partaking in activities such as, for example, a innocent visit to Toys 'R Us or a trip to Chuck E.  Cheese with my wife & children.  Indeed, many a birthday party throughout my younger days saw yours truly running between a table filled with pizza and any number of games such as the perennials Skee-Ball, Whack-A-Mole and the like.  A few dives into the ball pit and a sing-along with the animatronic band usually rounded out what was always a stellar experience.

However, life being what it is, I soon aged out of children's amusement centers and, despite having held employment throughout high school at Brookfield, Wisconsin institutions Fun World (formerly All Seasons Family Fun) and even Chuck E.  Cheese at one point, my interests lay elsewhere.  As the years went by and my relationship with then-girlfriend/now-wife Kathy grew, we found ourselves spending the occasional evening searching for a place to eat, and on more than one instance the road to dinner took us back to Chuck E.  Cheese, where we'd spend a hour winning copious amounts of tickets and washing down suburban Italian cuisine with vast amounts of dispensable soda.  It was a moment where we felt like kids again-clearly, the good old days had returned.

In 2008, while on a trip back from Green Bay with Kathy, we decided to stop in the quaint Fox Valley town of Appleton for a visit to Funset Boulevard, a place my wife had been to as a youth.  I immediately fell in love with the place, and though it would be another four years before we returned, now with our 10-month old daughter in tow, the feelings upon re-entering were just as rich.  The time between visits grew shorter as the years went by, to the point where were found ourselves gracing the hallowed grounds of a middle-Wisconsin amusement center at least once a year. 

A walk inside Funset Boulevard feels like a passage into days gone by-a first glimpse might exude the appearance of any number of similar businesses, but that quickly changes once immersed within.  A large assortment of arcade games, ranging from the latest racing/shoot-em-up/Dance Dance Revolution variants to a section of Galaga-esque classics, fills a portion of the floor, while nearby exists a wealth of skill games, one of which may or may not be themed after Ghostbusters.  Funset Boulevard even has a working Guitar Freaks, an early-2000s precursor to Guitar Hero, and no respectable venue such as this would be complete without the mighty Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Arcade Game, arguably the king of all games.

  Photo Courtesy: www.govalleykids.com

Photo Courtesy: www.govalleykids.com

For the actual children, a giant play structure filled with tunnels, nets, slides and the like sits next to a simply adorable train and a soft play area for the smaller patrons, complete with a tiny ball pit, percussion instruments and even a puppet stage adorned with pictures of 1993's beloved adaptation of The Little Rascals and, interestingly, an ancient teaser poster for Home Alone.  There's also lazer tag, a scaled-down bowling alley, bumper cars and a carousel.  Scattered throughout are a number of themed coin-operated rides as well, from the Batmobile to The Jetsons.  Truly, Funset Boulevard has everything.

Feeling winded?  Maybe the onslaught of Funset Boulevard's entertainment has taken it out of you, so to speak.  Luckily, overlooking the main play area is a fully staffed restaurant with a decent menu and friendly service befitting of such a classy establishment, with photos from classic films and even another Batmobile in which one can consume their meal.  In case you're wondering if sitting in a replica Batmobile will make your food taste better, the answer is a resounding yes.

Funset Boulevard is worth the drive, a place that feels like the perfect marriage between the past and present, one that caters beautifully to the very young and the young at heart.  It may not seem like much to some, but to a person like myself, to a wide-eyed child ready for a good time, and to anyone looking to spend a few hours surrounded by joy, Funset Boulevard is all of that, and much more.  

I'll see you there.

ECTO COOLER: PART DEUX

image.jpg

Here we go again.

The announcement that Ecto Cooler, beloved drink of my youth, would be returning to store shelves in May of 2016 was met with widespread joy from both the Ghostbusters and classic beverage communities as a whole, as well as myself.  Furthermore, additional details that revealed how not only would Ecto Cooler be released in the box format most of us recall from our respective childhoods, but a can variant that changed color as you consumed the drink took this event to a whole new level of nostalgic bliss.

Unfortunately, while the boxes were plentiful following Ecto Cooler’s spring comeback, the cans were somewhat harder to come by.  Amazon would stock the item intermittently, and the only brick-and-mortar location that carried the can at the time happened to be, oddly, Cinemark movie theaters.  With the nearest Cinemark a solid hour from my residence and my laziness getting the best of me, I resigned myself to being satisfied with the boxes-which I was.  Like an ill-advised Ghostbusters reboot, the cans would come in time.

Rumors soon swirled regarding the cans hitting store shelves sometime over the summer of 2016, though these rumors soon were proven to be untrue.  Luckily, the waiting game soon paid off, as a tip directed me in September of 2016 to Woodman’s, a Wisconsin-based grocery store chain where I had, ironically, first looked for the elusive drink back in May.  An email to the fine staff at Woodman’s confirmed the tip, and in no time I was on my way, with my two children in tow for the second part of my Ecto Cooler odyssey.

To be honest, that’s really where my story ends, as we found the cans within a minute of our arrival and shortly thereafter were on our way back home, where the newly purchased six-pack was immediately refrigerated as any container of Ecto Cooler should be.  However, to revisit similar emotions as those I felt back in May when I tasted the drink for the first time since I was a child was a unique experience-it’s a gift that keeps on giving.

Plus, as if it were a fine wine, when paired with the recently unveiled Ghostbusters Little Golden Book, it’s a match made in heaven.

image.jpg

Cheers!

FEED THE BEAST

image.jpg

Normally, I wouldn’t do this.

When reviewing any piece of media, I’ll take it in from start to finish, no matter how bad or painful it might be if what I’m experiencing is of the worst quality imaginable.  This is a trait of most, if not all critics-they’ll tough it out all the way to the credits like a cornered Steve Rogers in the opening scenes of 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger.  However, in the case of the new AMC drama series Feed the Beast, not only did I stop watching a mere twenty minutes into the pilot episode, but I knew I still had to say something about it, largely due to my excitement leading up to the show’s premiere on June 5th, 2016.

On paper, all the elements seemed to lead to a decent premise-two friends open a restaurant so as to seek redemption for their respective dark pasts and to simultaneously pay off a massive debt to the mob.  Starring David Schwimmer, best known for his performance as Ross on Friends, and Jim Sturgess, one of the many stars of 2012’s excellent Cloud Atlas, I couldn’t help but be intrigued-any story mixing food and gangsters strikes me as intriguing, plus the inclusion of the two leads, both of whom I enjoy, seemed to indicate that Feed the Beast might very well be yet another entry onto AMC’s long list of incredible programming.

Unfortunately, it isn’t long into Feed the Beast’s debut when the show becomes buried under an avalanche of rotten tomatoes in the form of a cliché-loaded story, mediocre characters and forced New York accents that ensures it has a long, possibly impassible road, ahead of it if it wants to reach the level set by AMC powerhouses like Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead.  Creator Clyde Phillips, known for his work on Dexter, takes plot points from similar, better shows and films so as to create a concoction not unlike something Jim Sturgess’ lowlife chef Dion might prepare.  Unlike the classy fare Dion is seen preparing, on the other hand, Feed the Beast is not dissimilar to casserole you’ve tasted before, and would rather not taste again.

Oh, and about that premise?  Dion is a talented cook who, after being released from prison, unites with his best friend/wine expert Tommy (Schwimmer) to open a high-end Greek restaurant in an effort to fully realize their broken dreams of culinary glory while paying back a large sum owed to a local mobster, played by Michael Gladis (Mad Men).  This is where Feed the Beast could have stopped and solely focused its efforts, but sadly other ingredients quickly enter the mix primarily in the form of Tommy’s backstory, who’s suffering from the death of his wife/restaurant partner in a hit-and-run and which has thrust him into the world of help groups & alcoholism, while his son Elijah has gone mute after witnessing his mother’s demise.  While I can always appreciate fully developed characters with backstories that serve the overall show and speak to the viewing audience en masse, twenty minutes in to a brand new series doesn’t feel like the time to start filling my figurative plate with plot points better unveiled gradually as the show goes by.

There’s also a detective, I think, in pursuit of Dion, for reasons unknown.  I had stopped watching by that point.

The biggest disappointment comes from Schwimmer and Sturgess, two talented actors who phone in their performances and seemingly prevent the audience from liking them in any way.  Schwimmer’s Tommy is simply a battered version of Friends’ Ross, while Sturgess also sheds his English accent for one of the most hackneyed New York voices you’re likely to hear-in trying too hard to make himself look worn down and street smart, he comes off as any background character from Donnie Brasco.  Plus, while he does sport a smooth, well-spoken, off-putting tone to his vocal affections, Michael Gladis as “The Tooth Fairy” may be the least intimidating mob associate I’ve ever seen.

Although I don’t see myself re-visiting Feed the Beast, I do wish it well, if for no other reasons than David Schwimmer, Jim Sturgess, and an overall premise that could work if cleaned up and focused drastically.  There might still be potential, but like so many needless mushrooms in an otherwise delightful plate of spaghetti, they must be removed to ensure quality.  In case you’re wondering, I don’t like mushrooms.

Luckily, we’ll always have scenes like this, which over the course of a mere few minutes is already better, funnier and more charming than AMC’s latest offering.  Goodfellas, you’ll always have a place in my heart.

ECTO COOLER: THE PAST AWAKENS

image.jpg

As a life-long fan of all things Ghostbusters, having a tasty beverage branded with an iconic character from the franchise only made the time following the release of the original two films all the more worthwhile.  It was during this time that the then-running Real Ghostbusters cartoon was retitled Slimer! And the Real Ghostbusters, ostensibly done to capitalize on the popularity of the green ghost who had gone from the team’s first capture in the 1984 classic to sidekick on The Real Ghostbusters and, to a lesser degree, the 1989 sequel Ghostbusters 2.

Hi-C, clearly having noticed this and armed with a desire to introduce a new flavor to the market, released a new variant of juice with Slimer on the front of every box called Ecto Cooler to the delight of young fans and widespread acclaim overall.  So popular was said drink, a tasty mixture of orange and tangerine, that it lasted well beyond the run of the television series (and its 1997 reboot Extreme Ghostbusters) into 2001 until fading into a Jell-O Pudding Pop-shaped abyss of nostalgia.  Sad, by true.

When the new millennium kicked into gear and the children of the Ecto Cooler era became adults, the pre-YouTube and social media landscape was instead occupied by scores of independently-run web sites, and with Generation Y bursting with memories of dormant fads, forgotten trends and obscure oddities of our youth, the internet quickly gave birth to a small subset of pages devoted to such things, most notably the now-defunct X-Entertainment.  It was on this site that a series of articles about Ecto Cooler appeared, some of the first to truly shed light on the drink-on X-Entertainment, site administrator Matt Caracappa used this opportunity to discuss everything, from the original commercial advertising Ecto Cooler & the flavors that may or may not have replaced it to a video in which he actually opened an ancient box of Ecto Cooler and took a drink, with predictable results.

Unfortunately, no amount of throwbacks online or ad-hoc recipes could do anything to bring Ecto Cooler back…that is, until the spring of 2016, when it was officially announced that the beloved juice would be returning to store shelves, largely to coincide with the release of the all-female Ghostbusters remake/reboot/sequel/prequel set to hit theaters in July.

The circumstances were irrelevant.  Ecto Cooler would, at long last, make its triumphant comeback.

Even if the drink ended up being available for a limited time only, to be able to literally taste a part of our childhood once more in the traditional box or a new snazzy color-changing can, was all we needed.  No longer would we casually drink our box of Ecto Cooler in our respective elementary school cafeterias-as kids, we simply consumed the flavored water and properly disposed of the box in the nearest, most convenient, trash receptacle.  Unquestionably, the epitome of taking something for granted.

The release date of May 30th, 2016, couldn’t have come sooner, especially as pre-release reports of Ecto Cooler sightings began to emanate from the East Coast.  It didn’t help that other online reviewers had already been shipped samples of the drink in collectible packaging a few weeks earlier, all of whom gave the product high marks and a wealth of ecstatic smiles.  The wait was awful.

Imagine my disappointment when, on the appointed day, I made my way to four locations in the Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin area, hoping to purchase a piece of my past, to no avail-Ecto Cooler was nowhere to be found.  Although it appeased me somewhat that many other people around the country appeared to be having no better luck than I, it didn’t do anything to put the drink on its special spot in my cupboard, now did it?  Furthermore, additional visits to other stores over the next few days continued to produce no results.  I’m not even going to mention the other places I checked out in the days leading up to Ecto Cooler’s second debut, although I suppose I just did.

Luckily, a simple, desperate email sent to roughly every brick-and-mortar Pick ‘n Save in existence elicited a corporate response that put my anxiety at ease-the elusive Ecto Cooler was poised to hit the local grocery chain as early as Friday, June 3rd.  Even though my frustration over the delay had been grazing peak levels by that point, the knowledge that a possible end to my quest was in sight gave me a small amount of relief.  I now felt the same way I did on May 29th-here we go again.  Would it actually be happening this time?

The answer is, thankfully, a resounding yes.  On the afternoon of Thursday, June 2nd, I hurried across Silvernail Road to a nearby Pick ‘n Save, having been tipped off by the store director that the drink was now on display near the front cash registers.  Following a few moments of nervousness at the thought of another wasted visit, I entered the store with a surge of adrenaline, rounded the corner…and immediately saw it.

image.jpg

There it was, in all its beauty.  Childhood bliss, American-style.

I took in the sensation.  I can only imagine this is what travelling backwards through time literally felt like.  For the briefest of seconds, the Pick 'n Save on Silvernail Road seemed to take on the appearance of a grocery store in the early ‘90s.  I truly was a kid again.

However, I knew I couldn’t waste much time-surely, any minute now, a maniacal tribe of wild-eyed Ecto Cooler fanatics would storm the automatic doors and charge the display, taking every last box with a villainous cackle while I stood there in stunned disbelief. 

That would not happen today, not on my watch.  Mark my words.  Also, I don’t have a watch.

I grabbed three packs, tried not to make it look like I was clearly sprinting to the checkout, and after what felt like an eternity was out the door, clutching my purchases as if they were a newborn child.  I then immediately headed over to work, where I quickly made a dash to the office’s refrigerator, carefully placing the items inside so they could reach the requisite level of chill before consumption.  Again, an agonizing wait set in.

Before long, and with I now having seemingly aged twenty years in a week, I couldn’t contain my patience any further.  I opened a pack, snatched a box, inserted the affixed bendable straw and took my first sip since I was but a lad.

 Heaven. 

Heaven. 

The figurative time travel I had undergone earlier now accelerated to speeds previously unfathomable by yours truly, as Hi-C has done an outstanding job re-creating the drink.  From the old school logo, to the green hue of the beverage, to that taste, indistinguishable from the Ecto Cooler of yore, everything about this re-issue is pitch perfect and chock full of 21 grams of sugary wonder.

I sat, enjoying my box of ectoplasmic love, reminiscing of the days when a box of Ecto Cooler was the perfect companion in my lunch bag and something to look forward to when it came to eating lunch in the Pleasant Hill Elementary cafeteria.  I thought back to a simpler time, when my afternoon revolved around The Real Ghostbusters and the world was only as big as my hometown.  I remembered what it all felt like, and it was beautiful.

I finished the drink, knowing more liquid treasure awaited and that, thanks to the mysterious circle of life, I’d now be able to share this delicious memory with my own children.  But I didn’t throw the box away.

image.jpg

I know better now.

TREASURE MASTER? MORE LIKE TREASURE MASTER OF CRAP! GET IT?

 Judging from the cover, I believe this game was made in the ‘90s.

Judging from the cover, I believe this game was made in the ‘90s.

I’m sure I rented this video game purely out of curiosity when I was a kid, and was quick to realize what a horrendous mistake was made.  I can’t put into words what the goal of Treasure Master might be, because I could never get past the first few screens before it dawned on me that I had no idea what to do.  Without an instruction manual, you’re completely lost, left to explore and try just about everything before you sigh heavily with frustration, switch off your NES and turn on a very special episode of Doogie Howser.

 The giant magnet may or may not be helpful.  Don’t worry, the instruction manual is of no use.

The giant magnet may or may not be helpful.  Don’t worry, the instruction manual is of no use.

Treasure Master was actually designed as part of a gaming contest in the early ‘90s, wherein participants had some sort of time frame to beat the game and eventually make use of a password to unlock some sort of bonus level.  Upon beating the entire game plus bonus level, another secret code becomes available that just might qualify the lucky few (I stress the word “few”) for any number of fabulous prizes, which in the early ‘90s probably meant a Macintosh, Schwinn bicycle or a trip to Nickelodeon Studios to see a taping of Clarissa Explains It All.  Wikipedia mentions one of the prizes as being a Fantasy Rock Concert; one can only envision which has-been the game’s creators dragged out from retirement to fulfill this obligation.

The only redeeming factor is the music, which allegedly makes use of the old Starsky & Hutch theme.  It sounds OK, but isn’t nearly enough to save Treasure Master from spiraling into the catacombs of Suckville.  If anyone out there can attempt an explanation of how to play Treasure Master, I could care less.

Carry on.

TAKING THE "FUN" OUT OF FUNCOLAND

Chances are, if you happen to be between the ages of 25 and 40, you remember, and probably at one point lived within close proximity to, a store called FuncoLand.  The short version of FuncoLand’s history includes the fact that it sold used and new video games, allowed customers to sell their previously owned games for cash or store credit, and eventually merged with the nationwide chain of GameStop™.  The longer version includes more words.

What separated FuncoLand from other used video game stores of the 1990s (a time when such stores were as commonplace as a much sought-after variety pack of Kool-Aid Kool Bursts) were two factors-your initial excitement upon entering the store, and your eventual disappointment.  I’ll address the latter in a bit.  

Upon entering any of FuncoLand’s franchise locations (usually found nestled between a Men’s Wearhouse and Einstein Brothers Bagels in any nondescript strip shopping mall) the average customer would be drawn to the countless game boxes gracing the store walls, but the savvy customer knew to instead head over to the front counter, where a pile of newspaper-looking pamphlets lay waiting.  This was your price list, showing literally EVERY game available for EVERY major system at the time (my era included the NES, SNES, Sega Genesis, Turbografix-16, Neo-Geo, Game Boy and Game Gear).  The best part?  The prices were FAR more affordable than that nasty ol’ Best Buy down the street.  PLUS, the selection of games was much more vast and all-encompassing than that nasty ol’ Best Buy, still down the street.  Cue the excitement, Mr.  Holland!

 That's Mr.  Holland.  He's excited.

That's Mr.  Holland.  He's excited.

If you knew what you were looking for, you could then take your list up to the clerk and ask if the game is available.  At this point, much like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, you can then skip ahead to the next paragraph, but unlike a Choose Your Own Adventure book, your other choice does not include falling down a cavernous abyss or getting abducted by aliens.  If you didn’t know what you were looking for, you would then simply fold up the list, stick it in the front pocket of your carpenter jeans and head home, where you would spend HOURS pouring over every game on the list.  Notes would be taken.  Prices would be compared. 

 The bible.

The bible.

As a youth, I can recall counting my money time and time again to see which games would fall into my price range, which unfortunately meant I’d have to settle for Milon’s Secret Castle or the Sega Genesis adaptation of 1992’s sci-fi actioner The Lawnmower Man.  Nevertheless, I (or in this case, you) would take your list back to FuncoLand sometime later, ready to buy a game and go home happier than someone who had to settle for Milon’s Secret Castle or the Sega Genesis adaptation of 1992’s sci-fi actioner The Lawnmower Man.

Remember those game boxes I mentioned?  The ones attached to the wall like crudely painted cardboard wallpaper?  Well, these particular boxes did not house any games-in fact, the likelihood that these particular games were even available is/was pretty slim.  You couldn’t just take a box up to the counter to complete your transaction-in fact, ignore those boxes altogether.  They’re just for show, though I’m not sure what show they’re promoting.  Head over to the cashier and take out your list.  Start with the first game you checked off.  Ask if it’s available.

9 times out of 10, the answer with probably be a snotty, “No. “ With the wind now firmly out of your sails (the first game you mentioned is probably the one you wanted most), you’ll move down the list, asking if the next several games are also in stock.  Which they’re probably not.  Keep in mind, this is a used video game store, and this particular location is always at the mercy of its patrons to keep the supply of used games plentiful, but c’mon, 25 copies of Super Mario Bros. 2, 30 copies of The Legend Of Zelda and not ONE copy of Milon’s Secret Castle or the Sega Genesis adaptation of 1992’s sci-fi actioner The Lawnmower Man?

By now, the bespectacled clerk is anxiously waiting for you to finish so he can complete a sale and get back to his game of Faxanadu.  Eventually, you’ll settle on some game, one that may or may not even be on your list, and wait for the clerk to hand it over.  Now the excitement starts to build up again-you now have a new (used) game in your possession that you can’t wait to blow into the connecting end no less than 70 times so as to play it on your battered Nintendo Entertainment System.

As if he’s reading your mind, the clerk will now attempt the classic FuncoLand process of trying to upsell you into buying a bottle of video game cleaning fluid and an NES cleaning cartridge (known as The Eliminator™, which was its actual name).  Maybe you’ll buy it, maybe you won’t-truth be told, this fluid actually worked well until you learned that a 50/50 mix of isopropyl alcohol and water does the exact same thing.  Sigh!

Furthermore, the acne-scarred clerk will also try pushing a subscription to Game Informer, a magazine Destructoid.com once labeled, “complete shit. “ Again, you might subscribe, you might not.  Either way, by this point you’ve spent far more time in the store than you would like, are feeling frustrated and hungry, and regretting ever buying this game you really didn’t want in the first place.

You know something?  I should stop with the rant.  Maybe I’m being too hard on ol’ FuncoLand-after all, it was big part of my early teenage years and helped me to discover a wealth of games I’d never even played before, much less heard of.  The thing is, hindsight is always 20/20, and as I look back I can’t help but find fault in many of FuncoLand’s business practices.  Right down to their training video.

Off to Best Buy!

UNSOLVED MYSTERIES

 It begins.

It begins.

When you’re a kid, it usually doesn’t take much to scare you a bit.  Dark rooms, the threat of bedroom-dwelling monsters, strangers bearing candy and/or a ride to the candy store…all things a young mind will often label as Things You Need To Stay Away From At All Costs Or You’ll Probably Die.  For me, it was bees, but that’s another story.

Unfortunately, the seminal television program Unsolved Mysteries has contained all the topics mentioned above, and an abundance of other, decidedly more peculiar elements.  Seen by many as a more spine-chilling version of America’s Most Wanted, the version of Unsolved Mysteries we all know and fear officially debuted in 1987 with former Untouchables star Robert Stack as the infamous original host many still see as the true helmsman to this day.  What set the show apart from a program like Wanted was a unique combination of elements that made for an unforgettable television experience and a night where you would most likely not sleep at all.

The primary focus of Mysteries is/was self-explanatory: real-life traumatic events that, up to that point, hadn’t yet reached a conclusion.  The majority of stories ran the usual gamut of murders, kidnappings and other serious topics, all of which were presented through the use of professionally shot re-enactments and interviews with the actual people involved.  The show was also quite clear in its plea to viewers to assist in solving these dilemmas, and each story would end with a final recap of the key individuals involved and a phone number to call if anyone could shed further information on the matter at hand.  Furthermore, Mysteries wasn’t afraid to give viewers updates on old stories that had finally been resolved, especially if the viewing audience played a role.

Though the show may sound like you’re average run-of-the-mill reality crime drama, believe me when I say that the surface has merely been scratched.  The presentation of the stories, the narration, the music and Mr.  Stack himself all helped to take the show into full-fledged X-Files territory nearly every time Unsolved Mysteries graced your living room TV set.

The late Robert Stack was fortunate to have a long, illustrious acting career by the time he shuffled off this mortal coil in 2003, one that includes acclaimed performances in films like The High and the Mighty, Written on the Wind (for which he received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nod) and his memorable take on Eliot Ness on the hit series The Untouchables.  However, as host of Unsolved Mysteries, he arguably created one of his most interesting characters, utilizing his distinctive baritone vocal delivery and ghost-like presence that served to both narrate the re-enacted segments and the wraparound bookends before and after said segments.  Depending on the story, Stack’s setting would usually match the premise (if the story was about a murder in a library, for example, he’d not surprisingly be situated amongst shelves of books), but more often than not the show would initially open and close with Stack, almost always clad in a trench coat, trotting down a dimly-lit hallway or alley accompanied by a wealth of atmospheric smoke.  It didn’t matter if Stack was about to shed light on a decades-old hit-and-run or a family searching for an ancient tax document (I’m certain they did this one once), these segments always helped to set a highly ominous tone, almost unnecessarily so, to each and every scene of each and every episode.

 Happy?  Sad?  I think the emotion he’s conveying here is “trench coat".

Happy?  Sad?  I think the emotion he’s conveying here is “trench coat".

To make matters slightly worse, Stack’s naturally husky voice helped to elevate the quality from moody to creepy-it literally seemed impossible for him to say anything without sounding like a mix between Kathleen Turner and The Angel of Death.  Granted, this made for some great Hollywood-quality suspense during many of the re-enactments, but even when talking about something less dramatic or giving a heartwarming update to a story about a brother and sister re-united after 50 years, Stack still somehow managed to make them sound frightening as hell.

The music of Unsolved Mysteries was a character all its own.  The brainchild of virtuosos Michael Boyd and Gary Remal Malkin, Mysteries’ main theme, played during the intro to each episode as it’s accompanied by a montage of scenes and unnecessarily intense shots of the show’s logo flying directly into the camera, utilized synthesized drum beats and heavy use of the keyboard to bring together normal instrumental sounds (strings, piano, bass) and run them through the Terror Blender with the setting on high.  As a whole, Mysteries’ musical cornucopia went far beyond some of the most beloved horror movie scores, eclipsing such classics heard in such films as Halloween and Friday the 13th, nearly managing to establish a genre all its own.  When combined with Spooky Stack and his penchant for hanging around places where it appears someone was killed five minutes earlier, the show has now managed to shift into the fast lane of fear and permanently affix the pedal to the metal.

Plus, if you thought the ride was over once each story began to wrap up, you’d be sadly mistaken, I’m sorry to say.  Now comes the time when we’re told what the homicidal maniac/kidnapper/cult leader/abusive husband looks like, his last known whereabouts, and a picture of what the individual looked like at the time, as well as a digitally aged photo to represent what they might look like at the time the show aired (if a substantial amount of time had passed since the incident took place).  The problem is that digital aging technology has, in my opinion, never been perfect, and the results usually end up looking like what the humans looked like in the original Toy Story.  Not realistic, and always somewhat chilling to look at.  These are the photos Linda Blair used as inspiration for her role in The Exorcist, I swear.  Combining this with the fact that most stories were never updated in the years following the original airing of each episode, it would rarely take long for the audience to realize that said homicidal maniac/kidnapper/cult leader/abusive husband is still out there, probably looking horrifying.

 Oh dear.

Oh dear.

Yes, the bulk of Unsolved Mysteries was designed to raise awareness of serious happenings and see if the audience can play the role of detective, but where the show really managed to push some buttons was in the way they delved into the supernatural/paranormal.  Supposedly true stories of bizarre hauntings, ghostly encounters and even demonic possession took full advantage of the show's tone, seemingly tailor-made for stories like these.  However, when the show decided to discuss the world of UFOs, that's when the adrenaline kicked in and you realize the room's lights probably shouldn't be off.  I can recall many a time where I'd worriedly peek over my shoulder as Mysteries discussed the Allagash Abductions (four men allegedly abducted during a fishing excursion) or the Valentich Disappearance (a pilot vanishes after an apparent run-in with an unidentified aircraft), convinced an alien would be staring me right in my twelve-year old face.  Plus, even though it’s understandably not too difficult to give a synopsis of the Bermuda Triangle, the legend of Bigfoot, or some British Columbia sea monster an air of extreme concern, Unsolved Mysteries didn’t help in making the overall viewing experience any less uncomfortable.

I mean, c’mon, the show even managed to talk about miraculous events, like unexplained healings or whatever became of Noah's Ark as if they were reading the novelization of Saw 4.

It could be easy to say I'm nothing more than gripped by fear of the original run Unsolved Mysteries, and will thusly never watch it again.  The thing is, please recall my opening statements, in which I specifically mentioned the unforgettable nature of the program-it certainly left an impression, one that has allowed me to remember in great detail the things that made this show a standout in the annals of great television.  Thought the show does live on in a new format with a host that isn’t Robert Stack, history has yet to produce anything of the caliber that Unsolved Mysteries used to be, and for that I'm grateful.

Simply because I'd be too scared to watch it.