Wednesday, January 17, 2018

My Top stories of 2017

Here's a look at some of my favorite and more fun articles that I produced for the Sun Sentinel in 2017. (Except for the Sun Sentinel barber photo, I shot all the others with handy smart phone.)

Shipping container homes: This is a thing down here in South Florida. People are buying former shipping containers, refurbishing them and making them into homes and AirBnB rentals. 

Miami Marlins barber: The Miami baseball team has its own in-house barber. That's Hugo "Juice" Tandron who trims players' hair (and those of the opposing team) for home games at Marlins Park.

The Assassination of Gianni Versace: Crews from the Ryan Murphy F/X production descended on Miami Beach to recapture 1997 when Gianni Versace was slain in broad daylight. I got to hang out on set on Ocean Drive which looked like 1997 with in-line skaters and trucks and convertibles from that time.

The Caretaker: My Versace film coverage led to an interview with Fernando Carreira, the elderly caretaker who stumbled upon Andrew Cunanan hiding in a Miami Beach houseboat. Carreira still lives in South Beach, in a studio with walls covered with news articles about the capture.

The return of Que Pasa, USA?: The popular 1970s PBS sitcom about a Cuban family in Miami is coming back as a stage production. I grew up watching this show with my family. At the press conference in November, I got to meet two of the show's supporting characters, Connie Ramirez (pictured below) who played Violeta and Barbara Ann Martin who played Sharon who are returning for the new production.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Lights, camera, incentives!

For a while, it seemed TV show and movie productions were everywhere in South Florida, practically tripping over one another.

Shows such as USA's "Burn Notice" and “Graceland,” HBO’s “Ballers” and A&E’s “The Glades” and movies such as “Ride Along 2” were filmed here, with the region’s gleaming skyscrapers, lush palm trees and Instagram-worthy beaches as backdrops.

But then the state's tax credits, which were given to productions that film here, dried up. And the productions packed up and left or didn't come at all. 

I wrote an article on how Miami-Dade, Miami Beach and other South Florida municipalities are trying to court those productions back to the region.  ("The Birdcage'' and "Miami Vice" were fixtures in Miami Beach back in the day.)

While there have been some recent high-profile productions in town such as filming for the upcoming FX mini-series "The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story'', it's a far cry from seeing regular shoots for "Bloodline'' and "Magic City."  

Filming of the FX Gianni Versace miniseries last May on Ocean Drive.  By Johnny Diaz

Monday, November 20, 2017

Remembering Que Pasa, USA? and the gay episode

In the late 1970s, there was a bilingual PBS sitcom called Que Pasa, USA? that truly captured the Cuban-American experience through the fictional Pena family.  Every week on Miami's Channel 2, another slice of immigrant life was told through the multi-generational family of father Pepe, mother Juana, teen children Joe and Carmen, the abuelos, Antonio and Adela as well as their friends and neighbors.

The show is making a comeback of sorts, returning as a live stage production, Que Pasa, USA? Today...40 Years Later." I wrote a story about the show, its legacy, the soon-to-come updated stage version for 2018 and a where-are-they-now with the cast.

Only three of the original cast members are returning for the stage version:  Ana Margo who played daughter Carmen; Connie Ramirez who played Carmen's Cuban amiga Violeta and Barbara Ann Martin who played Carmen's all-American friend Sharon.  I was also able to interview Ana Margo in which she talks about playing Carmen again and the show's enduring legacy.

The show was part of my childhood in Miami Beach. It was probably the first show I saw that looked and sounded like my family.  The hardworking stubborn Cuban father; the mom who was mostly a housewife until she joined the workforce, the daughter who attended a private school and had to be chaperoned on dates; the Spanish-only-speaking grandparents who always chimed in with something old-school but funny to say.

And there was Steven Bauer (sigh) He played the sexy older Cuban son Joe who was always looking for another hot girl to date.

The show launched his career. He went onto a successful movie career that has included 1982's Scarface. He also starred in the 1985 romantic thriller Thief of Hearts and the music video of the same name by Melissa Manchester.

Although I enjoyed all 39 episodes of Que Pasa, USA and watched them with my family and friends,one particular episode has stood out over the years -  "Is Joe Gay?  That episode follows Joe as he starts hanging out with a classmate presumed to be gay who takes him to a dance club called Heaven.

The Penas become suspicious of this chico and they go undercover to the club to see what Joe has been up to. (By going undercover, the grandparents, parents and Carmen all conspicuously don sunglasses inside the club to much comic effect.)

The show was ahead of its time in tackling taboo subjects from santeria and dating outside one's ethnicity to homosexuality.  I remember that gay men and women who were like that were often made fun of in Latin households or worse - not talked about at all. And here was a show in the late 1970s that captured all the different attitudes from the family members but with bilingual humor written so brilliantly by Luis Santeiro (who would go on to write for Sesame Street.)

On a side note, the cashier at the nightclub (see her in the 21 minute mark) was my substitute teacher at the Head Start program at Biscayne Elementary School in Miami Beach. Her name was Caridad Villar (or Mrs. Villar as I used to call her) and she was an actress on the side. If you made it on Que Pasa, USA, you enjoyed some celebrity, at least in Miami.  And even today, my dad and I remember Mrs. Villar from that episode. And I think a lot of gay men and women who grew up in Miami probably remember the episode, too.

Below is the Is Joe Gay? episode.

Monday, November 13, 2017

An Ode to the Ford Pinto from Netflix's 'Stranger Things'

As I binge-watch the second season of the Netflix scifi series Stranger Things, I've noticed a character popping up frequently.  It's not one of the adorable kids who use large walkie talkies to communicate with each other and ride their dirt bikes to get around their Indiana town as they look for (or run from) demogorgons.

I'm talking about an unsung cast member - the 1976 green Ford Pinto, driven by Winona Ryder's character Joyce Byers.  

The car has appeared in almost every episode this season. You see it whenever Joyce rushes to and from work and home or to her son Will's school in panic mode (which is how Winona Ryder has deftly played the mom character in both seasons.)

The car has some dents which may speak to Joyce's current economic situation - a single mom of two.

But the Pinto has caught my attention this season because, well, I think it's cute. It also revs up some auto nostalgia.

Growing up in Miami Beach in the 1980s (just like the main characters of Stranger Things) I remember seeing these little Pintos everywhere. They were mostly driven by elderly residents. Miami Beach was a huge retirement haven for the elderly at the time. And the cars reminded me of a cute turtle on wheels because of their round shape and the big round headlights which looked like a pair of surprised eyes. The car was the ultimate affordable hippie mobile.

The Pintos also reminded me of the bright orange Pinto that was a mainstay on another series, the former ABC primetime detective series Charlie's Angels.  Diehard fans may remember that the car was driven by Sabrina Duncan, the brainy angel played by Kate Jackson and then later by her replacement Shelley Hack who played Tiffany.  If you were a closeted gay kid, you either wanted to be one of the angels or own one of their Fords. As a hardcore car geek with a subscription to Popular Mechanics, I wanted Sabrina's orange Pinto. Really.

And because I was a fan of the show and a fan of small hatchbacks, I wanted one of these vehicles later on in high school.

But I also remember the Pintos were problematic.  In 2012, a Los Angeles Times listed the car as one of the worst ever in the US.

The model was prone to exploding when hit from behind because the gas tank was in the rear.

And according to Popular Mechanics magazine, about 1.4 million of the cars and its sister version the Mercury Bobcat were recalled by Ford so workers could install plastic shields to protect the tanks from catching on fire. (I ended up getting a used 1982 light blue Honda Accord as my first car, in case you were wondering.)

As the years went by, the Pintos faded away, often turning up in junkyards. I rarely see them on the road. About three years ago, I spotted a green Pinto just like the one in Stranger Things on Interstate 95 just north of Providence. It looked like it was in decent shape as it rolled down the highway (I followed it as much as I could to get a better look.)

About a year ago, I saw another Pinto with big sporty tires fueling up at a gas station in Miami's Coconut Grove. I was impressed by how the car had endured all these years. It still looked cool in a retro way (at least to me.) I smiled as it receded in my rear view mirror.

So the Pintos are still around, here and there and online on the Netflix show. I wonder if the Byers' Pinto will return for a third season and what stories it has to tell.


Monday, November 6, 2017

Boca Raton's secret weapon during World War II

During World War II, thousands of US pilots trained in a small air base in Boca Raton to learn the basics of flying with a portable radar device.

That story is being told in a new WLRN documentary that looks at the role that small town Boca played in helping win World War II.  I wrote an article about the one-hour film for the Sun Sentinel.

The film looks at how Winston Churchill dispatched England's top scientists to the US during the war.

Physicists and engineers at MIT in Cambridge developed a radar "the size of a fist" that could be installed in military planes to detect German submarines off the coast.

But the military needed a location that had consistent good weather and access to the open ocean. And that's where Boca Raton came into play.

It's a fascinating story, one that has been, ahem, under the radar because the training was a top secret at the time.

WLRN is broadcasting the documentary 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Nov. 6 and again 11 p.m. Nov. 8 and 7 p.m. Nov. 19.

For more details, visit WLRN's page on the documentary.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Cruise TV

It's been a year since a wave of new TV shows aboard cruise ships began airing on broadcast networks.

And I'm glad to see they are still sailing the airwaves, so to speak.

On Saturdays, I catch The Voyager with Josh Garcia on NBC. Each week, the Latino vegan  visits a port of call and then features a local merchant or tradesman. On a recent episode, he visited Juneau, Alaska (brrr!) where he checked out a salmon hatchery and a crab boat. In a warmer episode, he explored St. Thomas in the Caribbean where he met up with a sandalmaker (and got a pair of custom-made sandals.)

On Sundays on ABC, I tune into Ocean Trek with Jeff Corwin who also spends some time visiting a port while highlighting some of the Carnival Cruise Line ships' amenities. And then we have the various incarnations of Bravo's Below Deck series which take place aboard mega yachts and feature Fort Lauderdale captains Lee Rosbach and Sandy Yawn.

Here is a round up of these new TV cruise ship shows that I wrote from last year and here is a profile I recently wrote about the Below Deck captains for the Sun Sentinel's City & Shore magazine.

And speaking of cruising, I can't believe it's been three years since the cast and guest stars of the Love Boat reunited in Fort Lauderdale for the christening of a new Princess Cruises ship. I covered the event  for the Sun Sentinel and got to meet all these 1970s, 80s stars including Christopher Knight from The Brady Bunch. I managed to file the story before getting off the ship.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Blake Lee of Miami stars on CBS crime drama

Miami native Blake Lee plays a computer programmer on the new CBS crime drama "Wisdom of the Crowd." On the show, he helps Jeremy Piven's character, who developed a crowd sourcing app called Sophe, solve crimes in San Francisco. The show is kind of like everyone using Facebook and their smartphone to find suspects or missing people.

Folks might remember Blake from the 2015 James Franco movie "I Am Michael'' where Blake played Boston journalist and author Benoit Denizet-Lewis who wrote the New York Times Magazine article that was the basis for the film. (I wrote a story about Benoit and his Good Men Project online magazine for men when I was a Business reporter at The Boston Globe a few years ago.)

This week, I wrote a short profile about Blake, how he discovered his acting chops at Miami Palmetto Senior High and how he enjoys spending time with his husband Ben Lewis and their adorable Jack Russell terrier named Todd when he's not shooting the CBS show in Los Angeles.

(Photo of Blake Lee from CBS)

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The Dog Sketcher

I used to sketch and paint in high school. It was something freeing, fun and relaxing. But as writing and college demanded more of my time, I gradually let go of drawing and moved on.

That changed in the last few months. After writing a profile on a South Florida artist named Magda Love and her lush colorful murals and after watching my partner's niece Lu sketch whenever she visited Miami, my curiosity called to me. Could I still draw? Is the skill still there?  I was determined to find out.

So last April, I headed to an art store that sits across from the University of Miami in Coral Gables. I bought a new sketch pad, a pencil and eraser. I sat on my blue sofa on that Friday night. I took a deep breath and just let my right hand do its own thing for a few hours.

I sketched a photo of my partner and his dog and then my bestfriend and then the dog again. And in the following weeks, I found pure joy in drawing dogs especially ones that I know (including my partner's fox terrier Luna who loves to pose for the camera. That's her posing for me in the top left sketch on this blog.)

These dog sketches have become a fun escape from all the writing that I do for work and my fiction. I usually produce the sketches on Saturday mornings because I'm an early riser and the drawing is a peaceful way to start the weekend.

Look, I know I'm no Picasso or Romero Britto. Perhaps I should be using #baddrawer whenever I post these on Instagram. But I feel that I am learning and improving with each sketch. I'm still trying to work on accurately sketching the dogs' bodies which can be challenging depending on their position (looking up, laying down on their sides, etc.)

Someone asked me the other day to explain my drawing process and that's been difficult to describe.

My eyes dart back and forth, becoming mini copy machines that help my right hand transplant the image or photo onto paper. I usually start with drawing the eyes, then the nose and I work in a circle from there, going round and round to fill out the face (and fur if it's a dog.)

As I draw, I fall into a Zen-like zone and time disappears, similar to when I run my two to three miles a few times a week.  It's r-e-l-a-x-i-n-g.

And I am always surprised by how the sketch turns out when I am done because I never know where the sketch will take me.

The sketches simply put a smile on my face and it seems to do the same for the dogs' owners. I framed one of Joey, my 93-year-old godfather's York Terrier, and gave him the sketch because art should be shared especially if it brightens one's spirits.

 I recently drew Chuby, a cute maltese (pictured to the left).

Here are some of my sketches and photos of their real life counterparts from the last six months.

Lucrecia, an English Bulldog. She passed away recently. RIP

Joey the Cuban york terrier

Patch, my cousin's  Boston terrier from... Boston!