Two in the morning. Sitting on the sofa with my laptop perched on my legs while channel surfing. Two hundred channels are showing five different infomercials and there’s a late 80’s television movie starring little Gary Coleman that I actually watch for more than ten seconds. For those of you too young to remember, Gary Coleman was the child actor who played Arnold Jackson on the 80’s sitcom Different Strokes. His trademark catch phrase was “Whuchyoutalkinabout, Willis?” Like most child actors, Coleman had difficulty finding good roles in Hollywood after the show was cancelled and his life spiraled into tabloid fodder. I briefly toy with the idea of searching the Internet for how many terrible television movies Gary Coleman made, but I can’t do it. That would just be too sad. Researching terrible horror movies like Vampyros Lesbos is one thing, but when I Google the words GARY COLEMAN FILMOGRAPHY, it’s all over for me. The moment I type those words, I may as well give up on life.
I start flipping through more channels and find a low-budget movie from the 1960’s. A hot rod filled with groovy teenagers goes off the road in a mudslide. Dazed, confused and soaked from the hammering rain, they do the only sensible thing: they get out of the car and dance to the tune playing on the radio. Then the dancing turns into a kind of a free-for-all Woodstock mud pit. I notice that the leader of the pack is played by a young Beau Bridges. Meanwhile, in a middle-class living room, two teen sweathearts are making out while the girl’s little brother conducts experiments in his basement laboratory. One of his experiments causes an explosion that manages to pry the sweatheart’s lips apart long enough for them to check on his well-being. This is when I notice that the kid is played by Ronny Howard from The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days. I wonder whatever happened to him? Apparently, the kid scientist has accidentally created some kind of pink goo. A stray cat runs over, eats some goo, and suddenly becomes the size of a Cadillac. This gets the boyfriend seeing dollar signs so he goes outside and tests the goo on two ducks. The ducks grow to the sound of a sliding guitar. The boyfriend exclaims, “With the price of beef what it is, can you imagine how much money we could make with cattle 5 times their size?” I don’t really have a clue how much money you can make with that, but I also don’t have a clue what a farmer would do with a cow 5 times the size of a regular cow.
I hit the remote and change the channel.
A Spiderman cartoon from the late 60’s bursts into action. Spidey is battling Dr. Octopus and the heroic web slinger is making for a hasty retreat. While I ponder the fact that I watched this cartoon series religiously as a child, and that this might actually be the first time I’ve seen it in color, a giant, open-bottom cage drops from the ceiling of a cave and traps Spiderman.
Now, when I was a kid I loved these traps, but now I’m wondering what Doc Ock was thinking when he built his secret cave lab. Did he say, “I’ll need to build a booby trap exactly right here. I know what I need! A giant, steel cage! Hmm, it’ll never fit through the door so I’ll have to build it inside. I’ll need solid steel bars, an Acetylene torch, welding mask, maybe some bolts. Then when it’s done, I’ll need to hoist it from the ceiling of this cave. I’ll probably need a wench ‘cause my mechanical arms aren’t long enough to reach that high. I wonder how you use a wench? And when I drop the cage, will it trap my victim or miss ever-so-slightly and crush their head? Hmmm. Maybe I should just run a trip wire attached to some beer cans instead.”
Clearly, I was talking myself out of a Spiderman cartoon so I flipped back to Beau and Ronny again. An amateur rock band is playing on a stage in front of a bunch of kids when the pair of gargantuan ducks enter the room and … (sigh) … dance to the music.
The ducks are hilariously dangled on “invisible” fishing line to make it appear they’re dancing. The kids are not even surprised to see giant birds on the dance floor. The money-hungry boyfriend runs in and proudly announces, “Hey, man… those are my ducks!” Everyone replies, “Cool!” I wonder how cool they’d think it was if the ducks started picking them off like grub worms? In the next scene, we see the teenagers in a park barbequing a giant duck on a spit. Just out of animal-lover principle, I went back to Spiderman.
I noticed something both funny and very interesting about the way these cartoon scripts were written: they over-explain everything. Spiderman couldn’t dodge a single bullet without adding, “Be careful, spidey . . . one wrong move and it’ll be curtains for you!” On the television, Spidey’s arch-foe The Lizard emerges from a swamp scaring some fishermen. Rather than just running away, they yell, “What is it?” The Lizard hilariously introduces himself stating, “I’m a lizard man!” Just in case it still isn’t clear, he continues with “…half-man, half-lizard!” At this, I imagined my child self sitting in front of our black and white television in the late 60’s and repeating out loud in amazement, “He’s a lizard man!”
The year is 1969. Somewhere in California, a young Beau Bridges and little Ronny Howard are spending their profits from that stupid movie about giant dancing ducks, but here in Tucson, it’s a warm, spring afternoon and I run home from the school bus as fast as my striped, multi-colored polyester pants can carry me. I reach our oversized, metal mailbox, swing down its large door and stare into the black, cavernous void. Nothing! I tell myself not to panic, that maybe mom has already gotten the mail out. So I chug to the house, as I have for the past 4-6 weeks, and there on the kitchen table it sits. Never in my few young years of life had I ever received my own package that I personally ordered all by myself and paid for with my own allowance money.
Within moments, I’ve opened the official Spider-Man Web Shooter, complete with red and blue elastic wristband and a suction cup-tipped dart tied to a string just like the real Spider-man’s. Okay, the suction cup is kinda silly, but necessary to simulate real web-sticking ability. How else was an 65-pound boy going to swing from room to room? But I was no chump. Before I risked my neck swinging, I first had to test the dart’s suction power.
I donned the web shooter, tying one end of the gleaming white string to the mechanism and the other to the loop at the back of the dart. Slowly, I pushed the dart back into the spring-loaded chamber where it successfully locked into place. I took careful aim at the kitchen wall, gently pressed on the button featuring Spidey’s face and . . . silently watched the dart bounce off the wall. No stick. I don’t remember the exact number of times I tried this but I’m estimating around 240. The only thing it did stick to was a mirror. Hah, success! Now, if I’m ever cornered by Dr. Octopus in a Disco, I’ll be able to escape! Providing my enemies give me time to wet the suction cup with a little saliva first.
As the hour passed, I was getting the sense that this web shooter may not be all it’s cracked up to be. I decided to give it a real test and ran outside to my favorite climbing tree. The trunk spread out in three sections creating a sort of foot stool. The branches above stemmed off perfectly every couple of feet. As I climbed, I wondered how Spiderman removed sticky sap from his gloves, because this was going to stain my hands until at least high school. But of course, he stays in the city! Smart thinking.
After reaching a considerably high swinging height, I stood on a limb and took careful aim at a branch in front of, and a little above me. I could hear the web shooter sound effect in my head from the Spiderman cartoon as I fired off a perfect shot, the dart wrapping the string around the branch just as I planned! As I grabbed hold of the string with both hands preparing to swing as Spidey would, something occurred to me: No way in hell is this cheap piece of plastic going to hold me. So for the rest of that afternoon I would use my imagination to swing around New York City, help someone in need, then unravel my string from a tree branch.
I remember going back in the house for supper, kind of bummed out and my mom said, “Why don’t you take it to school and show your friends?” Yeah, that’s just what I need, my friends daring me to swing from high altitudes on a piece of freakin’ kite string.
42 years later, the memory recedes and I’m sitting on the sofa at three in the morning. Click. Back to the giant ducks and little Ronny Howard. Beau Bridges must have eaten some of that pink goo because he’s a giant now, and he’s trying to spear the greedy boyfriend with telephone poles but constantly misses. The boyfriend is battling giant Beau with a sling like David and Goliath. Then the kid who played the son in the TV series The Rifleman climbs down a rope wearing a gas mask and carrying an ether-drenched cotton ball the size of a bean bag chair. Apparently, Beau’s go-go dancer girlfriend is also a giant because The Rifleman’s son jumps on her giant boobies and holds the cotton ball under her nose until she passes out. Ronny Howard, the little brat that started this mess, must have invented a cure while I was gone, because he shows up on his bike trailing an orange cloud of the antidote behind him. He rides in circles around giant Beau until the orange fumes return him to normal size. There‘s harpsichord music playing in the background, so maybe that was the real antidote. I’m not really sure. As soon as Beau returns to normal size, the boyfriend decks him and all the teenagers standing around haul ass because the cops show up.
So, the world is saved by Ronny Howard. But, just like Gary Coleman, Ronny would never be heard from again in the world of entertainment. Well, maybe Gary Coleman did make some movies. After all, it’s right here at my fingertips. All I have to do is type the words . . .