CAREENING SPACESHIPS AND THUNDERING HOOVES: THE MAGIC, MAJESTY (and Friendship) OF BUSTER CRABBE … AND AN ERA

    When I was a little kid, prior to the Civil War, I had an imagination as fertile and as wide as my large brown eyes, dreamily filled with awe and wonder.  My dad brought home our first television set in 1950.  It was an old RCA Victor TV with a screen not much bigger than my youthful head, but I was glued to its black and white imagery like flies on butter.  I was but four years old. In those early days of television, programming didn’t even begin until late afternoon or the dinner hour, but I would sit in front of the little brown box staring longingly at the Indian head portrait frozen in Cathode promise.

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ROD BROWN OF THE ROCKET RANGERS (1954 – 1955)

     Among the programs especially tailored for children in those pioneering days were “The Pinky Lee Show,” “Howdy Doody,” “The Roy Rogers Show,” “The Gene Autry Show,” “Hopalong Cassidy” (whose premature silver hair brought to mind my dad, and so became a beloved celluloid role model), “Disneyland” (1955) “Wild Bill Hickcock,” “The Cisco Kid,” “Space Patrol,” “Rod Brown of the Rocket Rangers,” “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet,” “The Lone Ranger,” (featuring the unforgettably velvet voice of Clayton Moore) and a more innocent version of what would become “The Texaco Star Theater” with Milton Berle.  Each Christmas season, the brash burlesque clown would soften his image for children and become a magical pied piper named Uncle Miltie.   “Rod Brown of the Rocket Rangers,” incidentally, was an early effort at “live” children’s science fiction programming which aired each Saturday morning.  It starred a young, attractive actor with a name chiseled in granite who would go one some years later to win an Academy Award for his portrayal of “Charly.”  Yes, Virginia, even actors as talented as Cliff Robertson came from humble, “childish” beginnings playing heroic space rangers. 

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WFIL Philadelphia studios (circa 1948)

    My unquestionable favorite of these early tv “space operas” was, however, “Space Patrol,” airing every Saturday morning on ABC TV (Channel Six locally in Philadelphia, PA) at ten thirty.  In those days, television broadcasts would often be aired thirty minutes earlier on the network’s radio affiliate in an audio version, and then aired live or on Kinescope for corresponding video audiences. Consequently, each Saturday morning at ten, my brother Erwin and I would tune into to WFIL Radio, and listen to an episode of “Space Patrol,” our young imaginations soaring, and then watch its visualization over WFIL TV, Channel 6 a half hour later. “Space Patrol” was easily the best written, directed, and acted science fiction adventure of the period, and began as a local origination series early in 1950 for Los Angeles tv audiences only.  

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The cast of SPACE PATROL (1950 – 1955)

     After it was picked up by the network later that same year, a nation of youthful space cadets could follow the thrilling exploits of Commander Buzz Cory, and his loyal companion, Cadet “Happy,” on their voyages through inter stellar space aboard the rocketship, “Terra.”  Buzz Cory was played by a former second world war two flyer, and decorated hero, by the name of Edward Kemmer, while his usually inept junior officer was played by Lynn Osborn.  Some half century after these shows first aired, I encountered Ed Kemmer at a “Fanex” science fiction convention in Baltimore where I told him that I had loved him for fifty years.  He replied “You couldn’t possibly be that old.”  I assured him that I could, and that I was.  Ed and I remained friends, and in touch through correspondence until his passing some years later. “Twilight Zone” fans may remember Ed as the concerned aircraft captain trying to calm another future star ship captain, Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) in Richard Matheson’s classic episode, “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet.”  “Space Patrol,” while sadly lost to broadcast antiquity after its five year run, was likely an early mold and inspiration for MGM’S science fiction spectacle “Forbidden Planet” (1956), and was clearly the architecture upon whose design “Star Trek” was ultimately fashioned.

    Now, I was a shy, sensitive, deeply impressionable lad at the age of four and, to tell the truth, not much has changed since I recently turned seventy.  My best and, indeed, only friend was my little brother Erwin who enthusiastically shared my youthful dreams and imagination.  We remain best friends to this day.  Erwin and I were quickly lost in the fantasy worlds of children’s television, and those illusory images became our dearest friends, and most trusted confidantes.  Local television stations joined their more prominent network incarnations, and soon began broadcasting their very own original programming for “neighborhood” consumption.

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Gene Crane (L) and unidentified male (R). GRAND CHANCE ROUNDUP / WCAU-TV (1949)

     One of the most ambitious of these local origination programs was a “live” daily western adventure filmed in the parking lot of WCAU TV up on City Avenue.  “Action In The Afternoon” aired every weekday afternoon in the early fifties, and shot up the Eastern sky with cowboys, horses, saloons, and crackling shootouts.  They also aired a wonderful series for kids hosted by Gene Crane, and his companion “Willie, The Worm.”  I remember, with a soft Winter’s glow, each Christmas as Gene and Willie would sail off improbably to visit Santa’s busy workshop at The North Pole. Allan Scott hosted another popular children’s series entitled “Mr. Rivets,” and featured Allan (a distant cousin, I was told) with his mechanical companion, a friendly robot who’d accompany Scott on exciting  adventures, much in the same fashion as Gene and Willie.

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ACTION IN THE AFTERNOON: WCAU-TV (1953 – 1954)

     However, my favorite kiddie television host was a beloved old man with receding white locks and a mischievous laugh that enchanted children throughout the Delaware Valley in which I lived.  He was a kind, loveable old coot who magically appeared on competing tv stations as two entirely different fictional characters.  On WPTZ TV, Channel 3, he hosted classic black and white horse operas, featuring the likes of Hopalong Cassidy, Buck Jones, Hoot Gibson, Bob Steele, Tom Mix, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry.  The weeknight program was called “Frontier Playhouse,” and pictured a vintage drawing of a careening stagecoach as its logo.  Pete was simply Uncle Pete on these daily programs, and would entertain children in the studio with his sketches, cartoons, Western films, and movie serials.

     The program came on every night at six o’clock, and was richly received sustenance for two imagination starved little boys.  WPTZ TV, incidentally, also introduced another local talent to Philadelphia audiences way back in the primeval fifties.  He was a young, untried comic with a walrus moustache, and a cute blonde assistant who, as it turned out, was his wife.  This character artist had come from WTTM Radio in Trenton, New Jersey, where his wildly experimental humor led to a contract on Philadelphia television during those early years of the nineteen fifties.  I can remember watching his antics each morning as my mom dressed me for Kindergarten and grammar school.  He went onto a career in movies and television eventually.  The young, pretty, blonde assistant by his side each morning was Edie Adams, and the Thomas Alva Edison of experimental comedic sketch comedy was, of course, Ernie Kovacs.

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    Getting back to Uncle Pete, he soon graduated to daily early afternoon hosting duties on WFIL TV, Channel 6 across town, for the lunch school crowd.  I’d come home from school for an hour each day for my afternoon meal and watch this strangely familiar buckskinned wrangler who became known as “Chuck Wagon Pete.”  His full name, by the way, was Pete Boyle and, if this stirs a familiar recollection, he was the father of “Young Frankenstein” star Peter Boyle.  Many years after Pete lost his beloved local television gigs, I encountered him outside a tobacco shop in downtown Philadelphia.  He always had his trademark cigar perched precariously in his lips.  I had accompanied my mom for lunch and shopping at Wannamaker’s Department Store and there, as big as life, across from the store, stood my Uncle Pete Boyle chatting with another patron of the tobacconist.

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“Chuck Wagon” Uncle Pete Boyle

     I told my mom that I’d meet her in the store…that there was a man who I simply had to meet.  I walked up to this now elderly Pygmalion who had helped to shape and mold my early life, and told him how much he had meant to me those endless years ago, and that I would always love him.  He related how embittered and heartbreakingly disillusioned he’d become when the station that had promised him lifelong employment had callously dumped him for a younger “clown,” and forcefully deposited him into an unwelcome retirement.  Pete had a brief, if unmemorable, stint on our local educational television station, and died not long after that, but I always felt grateful that I was able to tell my cherished Uncle Pete how much I had, and always would love him.

    One of Pete’s nightly staples on “Frontier Playhouse,” and lunch time events as Chuck Wagon Pete, was running a daily chapter of a thrilling “cliffhanger.”  Cliffhangers, or “chapter plays” as they came to be known, dated back to the early “silent,” era and would buffer Saturday Matinees between cartoons and the feature presentation.  More commonly known as “serials,” these exciting fifteen or twenty minute episodes would usually place the hero and heroine in mortal peril, and end each week with a violent, precarious death defying finale from which no human being, either real or imagined, could ever realistically hope to be rescued from.  Yet, each week, as these adrenalin churning young boys would return to their neighborhood movie theaters to learn the fate of their favorite heroes and stars, their heroic screen characters would miraculously survive crashes, torture, monsters, and destruction…flexing their muscles and capes once more until yet another death defying challenge would place them wantonly at the gates of proverbial doom.

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ZORRO’S FIGHTING LEGION (1939)

     Among the first and most certainly revered of these fantastic adventure sound serials were “Zorro’s Fighting Legion,” produced by Republic Pictures in 1939, and starring Reed Hadley as the dashing Zorro, and “Flash Gordon,” produced by Universal Pictures in 1936, and starring every young lad’s heroic wish fulfillment, Larry “Buster” Crabbe.  “The Phantom Empire” produced by Mascot Pictures in 1934 became one of the first science fiction serials, if not the first of the sound era, and certainly the most visually impressive of those early chapter plays. While understandably dated by today’s standards, its imaginative concept of an underground, futuristic city, hidden from detection by the modern world above, remains a remarkable cinematic achievement.  Many of its exterior shots of the fabulous underworld city of “Murania” were actually filmed outside the rather spectacularly modern facade of Griffith Observatory deep in the suburbs of Los Angeles. It also served to introduce a radio cowboy singer named Gene Autry to the screen. Now, Reed Hadley donned Zorro’s mask and cape with regal attainment.  His deep majestic voice commanded awe and consummate respect by any child ever lucky enough to be seated in a darkened movie theater.  His black costume, mask, and hat, along with his crackling whip and magnificent white stallion represented one of the most fabulous images of my early childhood.  He was simply breathtaking to behold, especially to a sensitive six year old, when I first encountered both “Zorro,” and the warrior champion of the stars, “Flash Gordon,” somewhere around 1952.

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FLASH GORDON (1936 – 13 chapters) / with (L) Jean Rogers as Dale Arden and (R) Buster Crabbe as Flash

    Buster Crabbe was, I guess, my first childhood hero.  I can’t ever remember being more excited by anyone than by the heroic figure of “Flash Gordon” when I was an impressionable little boy.   I’d wait each week with breathless anticipation for the next spellbinding chapter in the 1936 original serial.  If I wasn’t watching the exploits of Alex Raymond’s intergalactic hero on television in the safety of my living room each day or week, then I’d likely be couched in my seat in the darkened Benner movie theater on a Saturday afternoon, hanging onto the precariously positioned edge of my trousers as each new terrifying creature threatened Flash, Dale, Happy and Prince Barin.  I remember being particularly astonished and frightened by the terrible Fire Dragon lurking within the inner passages and caves far below Emperor Ming’s spectacular palace on the planet Mongo.  Despite Mel Brooks’ assertion that “Mongo straight” in “Blazing Saddles,” the merciless dungeons and dragons of Emperor Ming’s sadistic and torturous underground chambers were decidedly crooked and menacingly curved. 

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     After Flash and Dale survived the first thirteen chapters of the original Universal saga, they went on to explore the red planet in “Flash Gordon’s Trip To Mars” (1938), and then “Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe” (1940).  Admittedly, the last serial was at times tepid, and nowhere near as much fun as the first two…but no red blooded lad worthy of the name was ever the same after hearing Franz Lizst’s fanfare from “Les Preludes” as it thundered across the screen in the opening titles of the final serial.  Was there ever a more pulse pounding, exhilarating opening theme to any movie in history?  If that didn’t get your blood racing, then you were probably fast asleep.  Of course, Buster would also star as another iconic science fiction hero when he played the title role in Universal’s accompanying serial, “Buck Rogers Of The 25th Century” (1938), as well as a daring private eye in Universal’s thirties companion serial, “Red Barry” (1938),… while a whole generation of baby boomers would thrill to the exploits of “Captain Gallant Of The Foreign Legion,” filmed in French Morocco especially for children’s television in the mid nineteen fifties.  Buster played the title role in this popular tv series for kids, which co-starred his own son, Cullen “Cuffy” Crabbe as his small, but inquisitive nephew.

    Now, for the younger generation who may not be aware of the old serials and the influence of Buster Crabbe upon today’s huge Summer blockbusters, “Flash Gordon” was, perhaps, the first modern “super hero.”  Beginning as a popular newspaper comic strip written and rendered by artist Alex Raymond, Flash Gordon was the most popular and imitated space adventurer of his day and arguably the inspiration for such modern science fiction film heroes as Han Solo and Luke Skywalker. While he had no particular super abilities “far beyond those of mortal men” as did Superman, he was in fact an intergalactic Indiana Jones, preserving freedom for Earth’s inhabitants while risking his own life in the face of alien persecution and danger.  

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(Top) FLASH GORDON – 1936 / (Bottom) STAR WARS – 1977

     Both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have openly admitted their debt to the original movie serials, while much of the style, tone, and epic plot contours of not only the “Indiana Jones” films but “Star Wars,” as well, is lifted from and directly inspired by the Universal and Republic serials of the nineteen thirties and forties.  The familiar “crawl” prefacing what has gone before that heralds each new “Star Wars” film, climbing from screen bottom to screen top, is taken directly from “Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe” (1940), while most modern action heroes can be traced back directly to Buster Crabbe and his stylistic heroics in “Flash Gordon,” “Buck Rogers,” “Red Barry,” and “Tarzan The Fearless.

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(L) ZORRO RIDES AGAIN – 1937 / (R) RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK – 1981

     Crabbe’s valiant disciples emulated his very masculine heroics.  Reed Hadley’s caped crusader in “Zorro’s Fighting Legion” (1939) inspired numerous stunt scenes and replications in Steven Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” particularly sequences involving Indy brandishing his flashing whip against venomous villains, and the infamous rampaging truck sequence in which hero and evil doer are thrillingly thrust beneath the wheels of the careening vehicle. Segments of most modern action television series conclude in fragmented cliff hangers, keeping their audiences on edge so that they’ll return after the commercials.  This familiar plot device, utilized so commonly for decades, is based largely upon the “serial” formulas utilized so thrillingly in cliff hanger chapter plays dating back to the silent era.  Most modern super hero and action adventure thrillers owe an enormous debt of creative inspiration and gratitude to a gold medal Olympic champion, and a series of motion picture serials that he filmed for Universal Pictures in the nineteen thirties. Buster Crabbe was easily the most famous, and influential action star of that revolutionary cinematic decade, and both he and the films that he starred in continue to inspire both Marvel and DC action adventure thrillers today.

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1932 Olympic Gold Medalist Clarence Linden Crabbe II (aka “Buster” Crabbe)

   Now, in early Summer, 1969, I learned that my friend Allan Asherman had recently interviewed Buster Crabbe for a magazine at The Concord Hotel in upstate New York.  Situated in the resort community of the Catskill Mountains, Buster had been “working” as the hotel’s celebrity “Swimming Instructor.”  A former Olympic Gold Medalist, Crabbe had turned a sports championship into a mildly lucrative Hollywood career, beginning as a stunt double for Joel McCrea in Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 1932 RKO thriller, “The Most Dangerous Game,” becoming a serial star with the “Flash Gordon” series, working as a B Western cowboy star playing “Billy Carson” in a series of low budget oaters  for Monogram Pictures (with All “Fuzzy” St. John) in the nineteen forties, and even starring as Tarzan in one of the earliest sound jungle films, “Tarzan, The Fearless” (1933).

    I asked Allan if he might introduce me to Buster, and Allan said that that he would ask the aging actor if that might somehow be arranged.  I began shaking with excitement when Allan telephoned some days later and said that Crabbe had agreed to the meeting, and that an appointment with my first hero might actually become a reality, a reality merely dreamt of for much of my youth.  I was thrilled beyond words or imagining.  So, on a brightly lit summer day in 1969, Erwin and I began our fateful journey by bus to the Catskill Mountains in New York.  We first had to take a rather stuffy, crowded vehicle from Philadelphia to Manhattan where we would meet Allan.  

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(L to R) Steve Vertlieb, Buster Crabbe, Erwin Vertlieb: Concord Hotel – 1969

     Once at our destination, the three of us journeyed by bus together to the famed Concord Hotel.  Erwin and I, being properly trained young gentleman, were attired in suffocating sports jackets, dress shirts, and ties in the sweltering heat.  The journey had taken some three or four hours, but we were determined to make a good impression on our celebrated lunch partner.  Upon our arrival at the hotel, we followed Allan around to the outer grounds of the hotel where the pool and swimming facilities were located and there, in swim trunks and glistening radiantly in the sunlight from a quick lap in the pool, was a lean, bronzed former Olympic champion and gold medalist who we recognized immediately as our boyhood hero.  I was nervous and somewhat uncomfortable in my formal attire, particularly as the afternoon sun was beating down hard upon these strangers in a strange land, but Buster couldn’t have been more charming and engaging.  We had lunch together on the grounds of the hotel, and shared an absolutely wonderful several hours with the delightful actor.

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Co-starring with real life son Cullen Crabbe on CAPTAIN GALLANT (NBC TV / 1955 – ’57)

     He regaled us with memories of his relationship with the beautiful Jean Rogers, with whom he had maintained a close friendship for years after “Flash Gordon” had completed filming.  He spoke affectionately of Frank Shannon who had played his esteemed mentor, Doctor Zarkov, in the serials, and recalled that Priscilla Lawson (Princess Aura in “Flash Gordon”) had been hit by a car and had lost her leg in a tragic accident.  One of his most entertaining recollections was of filming “Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion” in French Morocco.  It was not a particularly happy experience, either for cast or crew, and Buster remembered the ill temperament of the camels who would either bite the actors, or spit in their faces during filming.  By day’s end when shooting had completed and the production crew was at last over the “hump,” it appeared that their four legged co-stars were entirely unimpressed with the illusion and magic of Hollywood.  The afternoon went by much too quickly and, before long, it was sadly time to leave our enchanting host, and begin the long, arduous journey back home to Philadelphia.  Buster promised to write me, however, and true to his word, we began a long correspondence and friendship.

    Over the years that followed, I kept in touch with Buster through correspondence.  He seemed to value my loyalty to him, and to the recollection of his career in Hollywood.  While others may have forgotten him, or sought out his company only once and then forsaken him, he mentioned on numerous occasions that my friendship was steadfast, and never wavering.  During a trip to Philadelphia as a featured guest celebrity at a local science fiction convention in 1979, Buster was bound and determined to find me, and get together just one more time.  

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Vertlieb and Crabbe: dinner in Philadelphia (1979)

     At his booth at the film conference, and wandering over to other tables and conventioneers during the weekend proceedings, he asked if anyone there knew of Steve Vertlieb.  Of course no one had, but Buster remained undeterred.  He found a telephone directory in his hotel room, and scoured through it to find anyone with my last name.  There he came upon a telephone number for someone named Charles Vertlieb.  He called the number, and identified himself.  He asked Charles Vertlieb if he was, by chance, any relationship to me.  As luck would have it, Charles answered “Yes, I’m his father.”  My dad told him that I was out of town in Baltimore visiting friends, but that he’d be happy to relay any message to me upon my return.  Buster asked him to have me call him at his hotel room at the Holiday Inn, and that he’d love to meet me for dinner.  What followed, however, with my father and I might have been taken from a scene out of an old Abbott and Costello comedy.

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“To Steve & Erwin. Loads of luck. Buster Crabbe”

    When I returned home late Sunday evening, I asked my dad if anyone had called for me during my absence.  My dad, being a faithful receptionist and secretary, relayed the news that Buster Crabbe had telephoned for me.  And I, being a totally trusting and respectful son, responded “No, really, did anyone call?”.  My dad repeated dutifully that Buster Crabbe had called, and that he wanted me to call him at his hotel.  Not one to be blindly taken in by tall tales, I said “Seriously, Dad, did anyone telephone for me?”  He persisted, as did I, for roughly thirty minutes until it at last occurred to me that maybe there was a wisp of truth in his frustrated pleading.  Consequently, I dutifully telephoned Buster the next morning in his hotel room.  He was, indeed, in town and wanted me to join him for dinner.  He related the story of how he’d gone from person to person at the film conference, trying to find a connection to me and that he’d finally thumbed through the Vertlieb listings in the Philadelphia phone directory until he’d found my dad.  We agreed to meet in his room Monday evening down at fourth and Arch streets. When we met he remarked once again how he was so impressed with my continued loyalty and support throughout these many years, and that we simply had to meet for dinner while he was in Philadelphia.

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(L) Crabbe as BUCK ROGERS (1939 serial / twelve chapters), and guest starring as “Brigadier Gordon” on BUCK ROGERS IN THE 25TH CENTURY (NBC TV – orig. airdate 9/27/79)

     He ordered a cab, and we drove into Chinatown where he treated me to a sumptuous Chinese dinner.  As conversation waned and Buster’s appetite eventually diminished late into the evening, he lifted his plate and began emptying his uneaten leftovers into my plate with his fork.  He was quite adorable, really.  Like a caring Jewish mother, he admonished me to “Eat, Eat, Eat.”  As the evening expired at last, he hailed a cab and we drove back to his hotel where I expressed sincere wishes for his continued happiness, and promised solemnly to keep in touch.  We did remain in contact through correspondence over the years remaining to him, and I always cherished his letters and his friendship.  That was the last time that I’d ever have an opportunity to be with him, however.  On April 23rd, 1983, Buster passed away from a sudden heart attack as he was dressing for dinner at his home in Scottsdale, Arizona.  He was seventy five years old.

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Crabbe at age 72 in 1980

    Somewhere around 1977, as one of my frequent vacation trips to Los Angeles was drawing near, I mentioned to Buster that I’d be flying West in the weeks ahead to visit my brother.  He asked if I’d like to stop off in Arizona for a couple of days to stay with him and his wife at their home.  Foolishly, I said that I was on a rather tight, pre-arranged itinerary in Los Angeles, and that I simply wouldn’t be able to allocate the time, but that I deeply valued and appreciated his very generous invitation.  How I wish that I might reverse time somehow, and take him up on his offer.  It would have been a wonderful opportunity to grow closer to the man who had become, and would remain, my first and most enduring boyhood hero.  Childhood passes much too quickly, and then it’s gone in a wisp of smoke and imagery. Yet, how special are those rare role models, influences, and original boyhood heroes, whose integral part in our impressionable development remain with us always and, without whom, perhaps, might have shaped us  as very different, decidedly less heroic and impassioned human beings?

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                                                                                                                 Steve Vertlieb   

More by STEVE VERTLIEB @ The GullCottage / Sandlot Online Film Blog, Multi-media Library