Allen Varney, Writer and Game Designer


Live Shots From The Austin Chronicle (2 of 5)

by Allen Varney

Cadbury World: The Chocolate Experience

Birmingham, England, opening Summer 1990

The new '90s trend in family vacation entertainment: corporate factory theme parks. Cadbury, makers of chocolate favored and savored by connoisseurs on both sides of the Atlantic, has elevated chocolate from mere candy to world-view: The Chocolate Experience.

"CADBURY WORLD tells the magical story of chocolate," claims the brochure (itself styled to resemble a foil-wrapped bar), "going back to its beginnings in Central America where the natives once worshipped Gods of chocolate. You'll travel in time from 16th century Spain to meet the 'Dandies' of Georgian England, when drinking chocolate was 'all the rage.'"

Bar-shaped blurbs lovingly detail the attractions of the Cadbury "Factory in a Garden," including "Aztec Tasting: The Aztecs made chocolate with chili peppers and honey, frothed up and drunk cold. The recipe was quickly adapted to suit European tastes! Try it for yourself!"

The brochure boasts of the park's chocolate shop, self-service restaurant, children's play area, holiday events, Education Unit for school parties, baby-changing facilities, and "alternative exhibition." ("In a separate building, this exhibition displays hundreds of items we didn't have room for but which are still of great interest. Everyday pieces of Cadbury 'memorabilia'. . . .")

The text, written for a British audience, surrealistically fascinates the ignorant American: "See for yourself how the famous TV adverts are made, including the daredevil stunts of Milk Tray's Man in Black -- 'all because the lady loves Milk Tray.' Which is your favourite TV ad? Crunchie, Creme Egg, Flake, Fruit & Nut? There's so many!"

This treasure trove is open every day except Christmas, starting Summer 1990. Visit by road, rail, bus, or canal. (The Worcester & Birmingham Canal runs alongside the factory. Summer excursions from City canal basins.) "You should allow at least two hours for your visit." If you think I'm making this up, you flatter me.

Lucy in Disguise/Electric Ladyland

South Congress, the day after Halloween 1987

Is it my imagination, or is Halloween bigger now than New Year's? "Oh yes, it's the holiday in Austin," said the woman behind the costume return tables. She wore a gaucho hat, black vest painted with a skeletal ribcage, standard Lucy/Ladyland apron, and a spider on her forehead.

And is Lucy now the costume shop in town? "There's no store like it here -- no store like it anywhere in the country," she said. "People come in from Los Angeles." She was shuttling returned costumes into the store from the sidewalk tables. Customers waited in six lines, alphabetized by their last names. Like registering for a convention, where the admission price is not cash but bunny ears or giant foam-rubber bananas.

Was this their biggest year yet? "Probably." She's worked there "a year -- exactly. They hired me to help with last Halloween." She wasn't sure whether Halloween has become so popular everywhere, or if the holiday and the store are both among those many miracles that happen uniquely in Austin.

Yes to one, at least. Find another shop with racks of flapper dresses, vegetable suits, hoopskirts and opera capes, cufflinks and cummerbunds, leather and feathers, Mickey Mouse heads, a wide selection of plastic breasts, rubber hats that look like exposed brains, and big foam-rubber lobsters. Find that other shop, and it won't have the comic strip wallpaper, the giddily amoral range of wardrobes both puritan and naughty, the bonzo sales clerks. It won't be Lucy In Disguise.

I went to pick up my monk's robe on Halloween and the line was half a block long. A security guard let people into the store two and three at a time, as previous customers walked out. "It's all part of our master plan to control Halloween," the woman laughed. "One of these years we'll take over and decree that everyone must wear the same costume. Can you imagine sixty thousand people on Sixth Street all wearing the same costume?"

Sixty thousand clowns, I suggested, or wrestlers.

"Actually sheep were what I had in mind," she giggled. She thought the police would like it: " -- 'What is your number, citizen?' -- 'I am Lamb No. 309, sir.'" Baaaa!

Phone Deejay

WordPerfect Corporation support line, 5/23/1990

My gosh, a phone disk jockey! You know how you call a radio station or an airline, and you get put on hold with tinny-sounding Muzak? And sometimes taped commercials for whatever the company you're calling wants to promote? This, too, is changing for the '90s.

I called WordPerfect Corporation's Customer Support line with a question about their big-selling computer word processor, WordPerfect. This company (based in Orem, Utah) sells, I don't know, gazillions of these programs every year, and it spends a million bucks a month manning phone lines: two dozen different toll-free numbers, dedicated to different computer types, different products, Installation, Printers, Graphics/Macros, orders, shipping, and so on.

So, calling "Features," I got a technician on the line, ask my question, and he put me on hold to check his database. Tinny saxophone Muzak. Then, over the music, a silky voice said, "It's about 15 minutes in front of six o'clock here, thanks for calling WordPerfect Features." I checked the clock -- this was a live guy! He read a promo for the new version of WordPerfect, and I listened, wondering, Do I say something? Isn't it rude to interrupt an announcer on the air? Would he even hear me?

"You're one of, oh, about eight people waiting for support," the announcer (?) said, segueing smoothly. "More operators are coming on line, and you're first in line to be answered. And now more music here at WordPerfect Features." And the Muzak resumed. While I tried to figure out if he was talking to me personally, or it's some high-tech closed-circuit phone broadcast, my technician came back. "Yeah, we got a new deejay," he said, chuckling. "We get a lot of favorable comments about that. I haven't even heard him myself."

In a science fiction story I skimmed a few years ago that was otherwise forgettable (at least I've forgotten everything else about it), two characters were talking on the phone, and their conversation kept getting interrupted with little one-sentence commercials inserted by the phone company. It sounded funny at the time, but now, who can say? Think of those annoying junk phone calls from tape-recorded salesmen, sort of an answering machine in reverse; soon, maybe, the machine will make just one junk call, to everybody in town at once.

That phone on your desk or bedside table is still a communications instrument, right now. But it's becoming a genuine mass medium.

Ed's Kidnapping

Halloween 1987 to date

Dana Mardaga, a freelance commercial artist, used to date this dummy. No, a real dummy. Dana couldn't find a date for a Uranium Savages concert several years back, though she is strikingly cute and flashes a smile to die for, so she bought a coat, slacks, and mittens at Goodwill, stuffed them with newspaper, dressed the figure in her own cowboy boots, gave it head (as it were), rubber nose, and baseball cap, and voila, her date. She liked this companion, christened "Ed," so much -- what a great listener! -- that after the concert she let Ed move into the garage.

Ed joined Dana at several parties, and at one point dated her friend Lisa's mother. Another friend took Ed to a Halloween party at Soap Creek Saloon and won first prize for best costume, "The Date." Ed especially liked to spend Halloween sitting on Dana's front porch wearing a Frankenstein mask and greeting children. And yet this harmless pastime brought with it disaster.

Dana and Ed had so many plans. She subscribed to several magazines in Ed's name, and planned to let Ed hitchhike to visit Lisa in Boston. "I'd prop him up by the highway with his thumb out and a sign reading BOSTON, and my friend's address sewn on his jacket. I wanted to put stamped postcards in his pocket, so he could send mail to me wherever he went."

Alas, tragedy struck. Last Halloween Dana arrived home from a party at 3 AM. Ed still sat on the porch, a paragon of loyalty. When she woke the next morning, Ed was gone, kidnapped! She got a ransom note made of letters cut from Ed's newspapers: "Send $450,000 or you will see Ed dead." The note didn't even give a place to send the money, an amateur's mistake.

Helpless, she dreaded receiving a package holding Ed's nose or finger. She posted a sign in her yard, "KIDNAPPERS: BRING ED BACK." But to date she has heard no more from the kidnappers, the faded sign hangs listlessly, and she has given Ed up for lost. "I'm really hacked off," she says, holding back tears with admirable restraint. Yet another symptom of lawlessness in a society cut adrift from its values. My God, how long can this continue before no dummy is safe in any garage across the land?

According to Dana, Ed left no will. "He was kind of a drifter," she says.

The World Where Bush Lost

The day after the election, 1988

As I write, I have not seen the election results. I've kept the TV off all day, the radio tuned to classical music, and I haven't looked at the newspapers. Within my tiny one-bedroom apartment I preserve, as long as feasible, a media vacuum -- a world where we have not elected an opportunistic demagogue President, where a robotic delinquent is not Vice-President.

I was safe going out to the mailbox. Nobody sped by on the streets, horns honking, hanging out the window with banners reading WE TRULY WANT GEORGE BUSH TO LEAD US. Nobody was dancing through my apartment complex shouting, "Dan Quayle, justice at last!" I never met anybody who really liked these bozos, and in my little four-wall world they haven't won yet.

The problem, of course, is that the other bozo must have won instead. I can't get around that, except by carrying the fantasy to even more ludicrous lengths -- multiple airplane crashes, write-in campaigns for NONE OF THE ABOVE, or just utter apathy. Yeah, that's it! They gave an election and nobody came. Final tally, a tie, 2 to 2. Both of these losers turned out to be losers.

One of these years it's really going to happen. The electoral process no longer permits legitimate candidates, just marathon runners with nice smiles, spotless histories, and bottomless campaign chests. Only within my little apartment is the illusion of democracy still preserved.

What if we all just stayed inside like me? Pretend these guys just don't exist. President, what President? Maybe then we'd have a foreign policy, right? Talk about deficit reduction -- just forget to send a paycheck to the Oval Office. Pretty soon nobody would want the job, and that's the first requirement for a decent President. Right now no qualified candidate would take the office on a bet.

Oh well, back to work. Guess I'll go buy a paper.

The Cost of Dying

[Written for the Austin Chronicle's "Special Death Issue"]

Have you read Jessica Mitford's The American Way of Death? Fawcett, 1963 (revised 1978). A work of compelling anger, an expose of the shameless multi-billion dollar funeral industry.

In these benighted times death is the province of that peculiar American vampire, the funeral director. When you shamble away into the unknown, this licentious swindler falls upon your anguished relatives. Did you want to be put in a plain pine box, burned to ash, and the ashes scattered to the wind? Forget it. In the name of "grief therapy," this marketeer sells your heirs a huge casket you wouldn't want, made of copper or mahogany, lined with silk, and airtight, so festoons of anaerobic bacteria can turn you into an eternal mold colony.

The director's troupe of embalmers do things to your poor innocent body that I shudder to relate, and then they cosmeticize you like a department-store dummy and display you for ghoulish visitors. They hire organists and hearse drivers, on your tab. Whole fields of flowers are laid waste for your departing circus. Did you not want flowers? Doesn't matter. Florists lobby newspapers to keep "Omit Flowers" out of any obituary notice, so well-wishers continue to shore up their sagging balance sheets.

And how much does all this cost? Magically, it always totals the exact amount your pension fund and insurance policy pay your survivors. A big racket, American death.

If you want to keep these con artists from defrauding your loved ones, look for a memorial society. These grass-roots organizations guarantee their members a simple, inexpensive funeral that places dignity above commerce. The phone book index says to look under "Social Service Organizations," but I couldn't find any listed there. Do you suppose the funeral directors' lobby has buried them?

Brush With Stardom

Phoenix Airport, 12/21/1988

She stood behind the counter at America West Gate 35, a small young black woman with a figure that pulp writers call "pert." She confirmed my seat assignment. When I walked away, she chatted with her co-worker. She said, "I went on The Price is Right and won $31,000."

Of such eavesdropping are stories made, and I had a long layover to ask questions. Her name is Carol Teleman. She went to Burbank with half a dozen other airline employees (I hear they fly for free), and one had a ticket to the show. Getting in line in front of the studio at 8:30 AM, they interviewed to be contestants. Carol didn't realize she'd succeeded until the show began and the announcer shouted for her to "come on down!"

She bid on a dirt bike, won over three others, and got on stage with host Bob Barker. "He's real nice," Carol says, "and so calm." By guessing missing digits in prize prices, she quickly won a refrigerator, a grandfather clock, and a 1989 Lincoln Continental. Unfortunately she didn't spin quite well enough on the big price wheel to go to the final big-money round, but "I won a bunch of junk," Carol smiled. "The IRS is already knocking on my door, saying 'We'll be looking for you April 15.'"

In fact, Carol had to sell the car to pay taxes. She's already paid about five grand and now lives in a higher tax bracket. No, she hasn't quit her job -- "When you think about it, with taxes and all, it's not really so much." Her husband, an accountant, thinks winning was more trouble than it's worth. "But then, he has to do the work" of figuring the taxes, she says.

The path to stardom is rocky; the show was scheduled for broadcast December 6, but was pre-empted by a special report on Gorbachev's visit. Carol only saw her debut on TV the day before I talked to her, and she was so abashed by her ditzy behavior that she may never show the tape to anyone.

Would she do it all over again? She grew pensive. "It was a lot of fun," she said finally. "I'd always wanted to do it." But by law, winners can't go on another game show for a year, so Carol's not making plans for another shot at fame. She doesn't even know why the producers picked her in the first place. Looking at her, though, I knew.

She was pretty, petite, polished, pleasant, and polite -- the ideal of ordinary. If game-show moguls want a winner you can identify with, a cleaned-up you, they couldn't do better than Carol. I was excited to be this close to someone who is, in a real sense, famous. After all, more people saw Carol on that show (Gorbachev special notwithstanding) than have ever read, say, James Joyce's Ulysses.

But of her 15-minute allotment of fame that Warhol guaranteed us all, I imagine The Price is Right only supplied six or seven minutes. So here's another 30 seconds' worth.

Brave Combo

La Zona Rosa, 1/21/1994

The six and only, the unrivalled masters of acid polka and Latinized world pop, Brave Combo of Denton, Texas, played a house filled with frenzied Friday nightlifers from teens to seniors. Dancers packed La Zona's small floor like ants pack a hill, jammed almost too tight to jump, yet Brave Combo jumped them for hours. This band's playlist goes beyond eclectic and verges on random, "Guantanamera" to "The Anniversary Waltz" to "The Way of Love" (Cher) to Japanese and Greek pop to the theme from Jeopardy to salsa and conjunto and yes oh yes those polkas, all rocked-saxed-bassed-accordioned to involved rhythms and earsplitting volume.

Aside from adrenaline-pumping virtuosity, Brave Combo also excels in recasting old music in new lights, such as their dark and haunting "Hokey Pokey." Previously an inane dance tune, the Hokey Pokey here became a Saturnalia, played in the minor over a spectral bass line, sung in clamorous hollow tones. In another performance last year at Liberty Lunch, with a larger floor and a crowd well trained at an earlier polka workshop, Brave Combo's Hokey Pokey became a pagan rite from The Wicker Man. Under pale blue lights, concentric circles of frenzied jostling silhouettes put their left foot in and their left foot out. Maenads, great apes at a Burroughsian dum-dum, a Hokey Pokey by the orcs of Mordor. "Do the Ho-o-o-o-key Po-key!" Brave Combo cried in voices like wind in an Alpine cavern. "That's what it's all-l-l about!" You thought at any moment the crowd might sacrifice a bartender.

The La Zona audience, just as enthused but less fluent, bounced around as Brave Combo, having disposed of feet, hands, and bottom, began calling out other body parts: "Put your shoulders in, put your shoulders out --" After running through elbows, kneecaps, and money, bassist Bubba Hernandez came up with "neighbor," and the floor erupted in confused struggles. Afterward, Brave Combo founder Carl Finch wondered if a CD version of the Hokey Pokey, played in the car, might cause highway accidents. Hernandez suggested appropriate lyrics: "Put your accelerator in, put your accelerator out...."

Later in the evening Finch paused between songs to tell the apathetic crowd of an insight he'd had: "The songwriters we hear today don't write music; they write poems set to chords." No response. "They're the poets of our time, setting out their observations about society. And that's fine." The murmuring crowd grew a touch restive. "I just hope," said Finch, before launching Brave Combo into another electrifying polka, "that along with all the poetry, we don't lose track of the music." Well, I clapped.

Live Shots index, File 1, File 3, File 4, File 5

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