One day as I perused the March 27, 1977 edition, I noticed that the Academy Award ballot for the Oscars that week has selections made by "TV Book movie reviewer John Cashman."
Unfortunately, internet searches on this lead turned up little. I found an obituary for one of his daughters, who died in 2001. It seems to refer to him in the past tense, and says father and daughter both worked on the TV books.
In April 2007, I got my hands on almost three years' worth of early 70's TV Books, expanding my collection from thirty-one to 175 (big thanks to Mike T. of Oceanside and Craigslist). Serendipitiously, I discovered the answers to my questions. First, in the TV Line Q&A column of the March 25th, 1973 issue, I found this:
Q. I am a middle aged housewife who has never written to a newspaper or magazine before, but I am being forced by my family to do so. The best part of your whole newspaper is the movie reviews in the TV section. We are constantly reading them to each other. Some are the best comedy writing I have ever read. We would love to know who writes them, and also see a picture of him. Please tell us something about him. Please thank him for the fun and laughs he brings to our home each week.---C.K., Dix Hills.
A. Though the Phantom Reviewer thanks you for your kind words, he continues to refuse to reveal his identity. But we conspired with the Newsday art department to get a rendering of the Phantom for you. One of the artists sneaked a peek at him the other day while he was asleep at his desk (he'd watched movies all night) and he awoke and, well, see above.
Continuing to search through the books, the December 8th, 1974 issue at last answered the big question, which was evidently still being asked by readers:
The Phantom Reviewer has finally decided to throw off the cloak of anonymity and reveal himself as the flesh and blood author of the wit and wisdom that has given readers so much pleasure. He is Newsday staffer John Cashman. Formerly day Nassau editor, John spent last year in California on a Stanford University fellowship and is now an Ideas writer, kibitzer and all-around pussycat. John, who was previously a columnist and has authored two books, is married and the father of four children. He has been going to the movies seriously for more than 35 years and has, thus far, written more than 4,000 movie reviews for the TV Book.
So that answered who he was, but not what became of him.
A while back, I received a few emails from one of his daughters. Our correspondence began in the comments section right here. Despite my belief that he must have been a night-owl (which he may very well have been at some point), she recalls him rising at four every morning to write notes. He was "quite an intellectual" who tended to be strict and introverted. He disliked any conversation during a movie (well, duh).
He won a Stanford fellowship in 1973.
In any case, it was always Cashman's droll reviews that inspired my tribute. They're often clever and funny, but more importantly for the format, they're brutally succinct. Sometimes there's a damning-with-faint-praise quality to them, as with this one of 1944's The Purple Heart: "Dated and embarrassing, but not bad of that ilk." Some reviews are damning with their ambivalence, such as the "Not good, not bad" earned by 1941's Honkytonk. I have so far found twenty-eight films described as "sitthroughable." He also delights in consistently pointing out the prettiness of Rhonda Fleming, and the not-prettiness of Vera Hruba Ralston. (I've also found about a dozen separate references to Alan Ladd taking off his shirt, but that's a topic to ponder another time.)
Another reason I love reading these reviews is that they recall an era when you never knew what treasure you might find among the meager offerings on your handful of channels. Many of the movies I'll list here probably haven't seen the light of the little screen in years, except perhaps on Turner Classic Movies, or mutilated and mired in commercials on AMC. Happily, some live on as experiments of "Mystery Science Theater 3000." And I recently acquired one, Creature From the Haunted Sea, in a DVD set of 50 horror movies for $15.99 at Big Lots along with many other public domain-type cinematic ephemera. (To quote a familiar Cashman line, it's even worse than it sounds.)
Cashman sometimes throws in obscure names or leaves you hanging with trivia that you would then have to see the film to figure out. (Of course, these days you can just look up South Sea Sinner on IMDb to see just who that piano player is, or Google "Abner Biberman"...)
Although I normally limit my childhood nostalgia collection to items from the years 1974-1983, I did purchase a Newsday TV guide from 1984 a while back. It strangely summed up why my fond recollections end around autumn '83. Well, certainly there's my entrance into public high school, an unceremonious end to the fun and hijinks of Catholic grade school. But I see there are no more cheesy horror and sci-fi flicks on Saturday mornings and afternoons. Indicating an end of innocence, if you will, the genre listing "adult" pops up frequently, where it had very rarely appeared in the older, mostly cable-free guides. And, worst of all, due to those new channels growing like kudzu, the reviews are strangled into one-line, snark-free encapsulations. (The 1973 TV movie A Cold Night's Death, for example, is described upon its initial showing as "Two men isolated in a snowbound mountain lab to study the effects of altitude on apes become victims themselves of a terrifying, unknown experiment." Eleven years later, it's summarized thus: "Two men are isolated.")
It was a new era alright, ushering in endless showings of bland Hollywood blockbuster slop and made-for-cable crap, while effectively discarding anything in black-and-white or made over twenty years ago.
While I would love to compile Cashman's work completely, I am for now sticking to the much easier task of just including the funniest or most trivia-laden reviews. If one doesn't interest you, keep reading--the next may have you laughing out loud. While it may seem from this collection that he delighted mainly in eviscerating the dross of Hollywood's output, I assure you he was, foremost, a movie lover.