Monday, December 9, 2013

Got Soap?

Soap operas may be on the decline today, but they have been around for years.  So what is the fascination?  Well, where else can we find brothers shooting long lost brothers they never knew they had, or sisters sleeping with the same schizophrenic man?  Only in the soaps do long dead folks return from the grave with amnesia after having plastic surgery.  Let’s not forget multiple personalities who share the same body, hating each other the whole time.  Or how about multiple people who share the same identity?  It all happens in the soaps.

Let’s take ‘Artie’ for example.  He died.  We all saw him fall off of a cliff after being shot in the stomach, but no body was ever found.  A few years later, a handsome stranger comes to town.  He calls himself ‘Jack’.  Jack has amnesia and can’t remember anything before his arrival.  After months of memory-struggling and hypnosis, he finally remembers that he is really Artie and a plastic surgeon has altered his entire body—even his height!
Artie remarries his wife who had long given him up for dead and becomes a model father to their children.  Another few years pass and the original Artie returns.  Now we have two and must wait in agonizing suspense for the DNA results.  The tests eventually reveal that the old Artie is the real Artie who had been held prisoner for the last seven years in a deserted monastery turned spy control center for the bad guys.

The new Artie is devastated and goes back to being Jack.  Once again, he has amnesia since he wasn’t really Artie like he thought.  Several more years pass and after much adventure and searching, Jack discovers he is really Freddie whom everyone thought died as a boy.  In reality, however, we learn that his mother faked his death and secretly sent him away.  Why, you ask?  Because that is how life goes in the soaps.
Soap characters have been married, divorced, shipwrecked, shot, short-changed, near death, stranded in the desert, lost in the jungle, held prisoner , wrongfully tried and imprisoned for murder, married again and divorced again.  Soap citizens also catch all kinds of maladies:  hysterical blindness, hysterical deafness, hysterical paralysis, all in one afternoon.

Every soap has a hero; he always carries a gun.  He’s tough.  We root for him as he takes care of all the bad guys and hope he gets the girl.  We feel sorry for him when he has to arrest his own mother for murder—except she’s not really his mother, but a woman who kidnapped him as a child and raised him as her own.  His real mother is a wealthy woman who decided to have a sex change is now our hero’s partner.
The heroine is everything to everybody.  She works around-the-clock, is active in community service and is always involved with at least one man.  How does she find time to do it all?  She doesn’t sleep!  She’s never dozed off once in the last decade or two!

The villain is another soap staple.  Rich and powerful, handsome and always impeccably dressed, he never looks scuzzy, but will use his own recently discovered children to get what he wants.  He owns all the big businesses in the area and donates large sums of money to local charities so people will admire him, but we know better.
Then there are the children.  Children of the soaps grow faster than the speed of light.  My son and a soap baby were born within a few weeks of each other.  While my boy prepared to enter high school, the soap baby already had two failed marriages, fathered several children from different women and was shot nine times in the head only to survive after lying in a coma for months.

Even though interest is dwindling in these daily episodic adventures, there are still loyal fans out there who grow emotional when their favorite characters are in jeopardy.  After all, we see those familiar faces in our living rooms every day.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Big Stars and Baby Boomer Ads

Stars and celebrities have endorsed products for years. In the late 1920s, movie star Louise Brooks modeled for Maybelline, and--a few years later--so did Paulette Goddard and Joan Crawford, Al Jolson, Gary Cooper, Claudette Colbert and many other stars--in fact, two-thirds of Hollywood's top fifty stars--hawked cigarettes in print and on the radio before World War II.
Heck, Bette Davis showed off her General Electric appliances in 1933 in a three-minute long commercial that you can watch on YouTube.  That's her--very blonde--on the right.
But it was television that created the celebrity endorsements Boomers remember.
Like Dinah Shore singing "See the USA in your Chevrolet." (You can watch a full 90-second commercial from 1952 on YouTube.)
In fact, Dinah was so closely associated with Chevrolet that when her 15-minute TV show expanded to an hour in 1956 and stayed that way for seven years, it was called The Dinah Shore Chevy Show.
Those old commercials may look and sound a bit cheesy now, but in the mid-1950s they were state-of-the-art. The jingles and slogans stand out in our memories . . . and they worked! With or without celebrities, when products appeared on television--any products, from PlayDoh to convertibles--sales took off into the stratosphere.
Of course, fifty or sixty years later, the glimpses of very young or very old stars makes the vintage ads all the more interesting. Vaudeville comedians, glamorous sex symbols, sitcom stars back before "sitcom" was a word, and serious actors all took a turn selling shampoo, cars, food, and more on TV.
Back then, the host of a TV show didn't always cut to a commercial--they often held up the sponsor's product and told viewers how great it was. Or, like Jack Benny and Arthur Godfrey, they'd work a mention of the sponsor into their opening monologue or sign-off.
Here are links to some nearly-forgotten classic commercials;
  • Lucy and Desi lit up their Philip Morris cigarettes at the end of their show, right in their TV living room. "The finest king-sized cigarette in America today: smooth, mild, and mellow, and easy on your throat."
  • Lucy and Desi also filmed a 1957 Ford Skyline commercial for their I Love Lucy sponsor.
  • Roy Rogers shilled for Jello, "the swellest dessert in the world." He even invited the viewers into his house to see all the neighborhood kids making Jello for him and Dale Evans. You can see that ad--which ends in a sing along with Roy, Dale, and the kids--by scrolling to "Jello" at the Internet Archive
  • At the same site, you can watch Buster Keaton in a beer commercial (scroll to "Keaton"); Chico and Harpo Marx yuck it up for Prom Home Perms ("Prom"); or the Three Stooges clown for Simoniz ("Stoogies")
  • Eddie Fisher's TV show, Coke Time with Eddie Fisher, left no doubt who his sponsor was. Fisher enjoyed a glass of Coke while rhapsodizing about how good it tasted. And by today's standards, it was a very small glass. In this 1954 complete show at the Internet Archive, Eddie's add comes about 10 minutes in, and he seems to be at Sardi's.
  • Marilyn Monroe--yes, Marilyn!--and Jack Paar did an ad for Coca Cola too. 
  • A 24-year-old Angie Dickinson sings while sitting in a Christmas sleigh for a Halo Shampoo Commercial.
  • Mattel hired a young, pre-Brady Bunch Maureen McCormick for their 1964 Chatty Cathy ad. McCormick also filmed a Twist 'n' Turn Barbie commercial (pictured below). WHen Chatty Cathy was rereleased six years later, guess who got to be Chatty's voice, recording all the new phrases the doll would say? Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.
Remember when Art Linkletter's picture appeared on the money that came with your Life game? Now that was a unique gimmick! Linkletter advertised the game on his two shows (People Are Funny and House Party) on two different networks (NBC and CBS, respectively), so his name and picture went on the game's $100,000 bills. And he got some real cash as well.
We might share more in another post someday but first, here's a word from our sponsor:
Vickey Kall, who blogs over at Boomer Book of Christmas and other spots, loves writing about bygone days and pop culture. Her latest book,The Boomer Book of Christmas Memories , tells the hidden histories behind Baby Boomer traditions like aluminum trees, Green Bean Casseroles, the TV specials and songs of the 50s and 60s, and of course, all those wonderful toys--including Life games and Chatty Cathys.
The Boomer Book of Christmas Memories is available as both a print or eBook--both in full color.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Halloween

Once again, it’s that time for ghastly ghosts, ghoulish goblins and glowing jack-o-lanterns so I have put together a list of important stuff everyone should know before they go trick-or-treating:

  • Halloween's origins date back 2,000 years ago to the ancient Celts who celebrated their new year on November 1st.  They believed that on the last night of the old year (October 31st), the dead returned to wreak havoc on earth.
  • The first jack o'lanterns were carved out of turnips in Ireland.  It was Americans who decided that pumpkins worked better.
  • During the eighth century, the Catholic Church designated November 1st All Saints Day and declare the night before All Hallow's Eve
  • Trick-or-treating had its beginnings in ninth-century Europe.  Back then, it was called Souling.  People trudged from place to place begging for soul cakes (square pieces of bread made with currants.  The more soul cakes they collected, the more prayers they promised to say.
  • The name jack o'lantern came from an Irish tale about a mean drunk named, (what else?) Stingy Jack who tricked the devil into climbing a tree. Jack then carved a cross on the tree trunk effectively trapping the devil out on a limb.  When Jack died, neither God nor the devil wanted him, so he was forced to roam the earth carrying a burning ember inside a hollowed out turnip to light his way.
  • To protect your home from evil spirits on Halloween, walk around your house three times backwards in a counterclockwise direction before sunset--after all you can never be too sure.
  • If you happen to see a spider on Halloween, pay close attention.  It could be the spirit of a loved one who is watching you.
  • If the spirit is no one you know, you may scare the spider away by ringing a bell.
  • All the single ladies, if you wish to see an image of your future mate in the mirror, wait until Halloween and then carefully peel an apple in front of it.  If the peel remains unbroken, your intended will appear in the mirror.  Sorry guys--it only works for girls.
  • In ancient times, people disguised themselves after dark on Halloween to confuse the evil spirits.  Nowadays, they just confuse each other.
 So now that you know the important stuff--go out and have a.....

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Black Maria (pronounced ‘muh-ri-uh’)

On the grounds of his Menlo Park laboratory, inventor Thomas Alva Edison and his right-hand man, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, designed America’s first motion picture studio.  While many believed that Dickson was really the brains behind the operation, Edison was still the boss after all and demanded his due credit.  They called their creation the Revolving Photograph Theater, or more formally, The Kinetograph Theater, when it opened in early 1893.  With a total cost of $637.67, the odd-looking building would not have won any architectural prize for beauty.  Wrapped in black tar paper on the outside, the austere structure’s interior was also painted black to ensure that filming resulted in the sharpest of images.  It was no wonder that Edison’s employees began calling the unwelcoming place ‘The Black Maria’—a contemporary term that referred to another inhospitable spot—a police paddy wagon.  
Lacking indoor lighting, sunlight was a crucial element in those early days of filmmaking so the studio’s hinged roof opened via a series of ropes, pulleys and weights.  The building itself even sat on heavy rollers allowing it to rotate and follow the sun’s movement throughout the day.  
All of the action occurred on a single stage and was captured by a Kinetograph (early camera) that rested on a nearby table. The table was mounted on tracks allowing limited camera movement.  Films were approximately 50 feet in length and ran for about one-half minute.  With Dickson acting as producer and often directing as well as manning the Kinetograph, subject matters included anything or anyone that might entice a spectator to take another look when visiting their favorite nickelodeon or peep show.  
Sports were highly favored.  Even boxing champion James J. Corbett took on his challenger Peter Courtney inside The Black Maria.  Corbett knocked Courtney out cold right in front of the camera on September 7, 1894.  Agile gymnasts, flexible wrestlers and quick-footed fencers also performed at the studio.  Even strongman Eugene Sandow, often referred to as ‘The Modern Hercules’ and the ‘Father of Modern Bodybuilding’, flexed his considerable muscles on film.  
Animals mimicking humans were another crowd pleaser.  Dancing bears, boxing cats and drum-beating elephants almost always brought spectators back for another peep.  Celebrated names also graced the laboratory grounds.  Wild West stars Buffalo Bill Cody and Annie Oakley both took aim and demonstrated their sharp-shooting skills complete with smoking guns.  And those that couldn’t shoot straight simply whirled their guns.  Rifle twirler Hadji Cheriff who was better known as Sheik Hadji Tahar, left the live stage long enough to perform part of his high-speed act at Edison’s studio. Exotic dancer Little Egypt, with her titillating hips, shimmied her way around the camera.  Even Ena Bertoldi, a female contortionist, happily twisted her limbs inside The Black Maria. 
Despite the wide assortment of subjects, it was a simple sneeze and an ordinary kiss that many spectators liked to see again and again.  When it was originally filmed, Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze (1894), the footage was only supposed to illustrate an article appearing in Harper’s Weekly.  The moving picture featured the mustachioed Fred Ott, Edison’s chief mechanic, as he inhaled a pinch of snuff, which resulted in a substantial sneeze.  As viewers experienced a good laugh, Edison had the film officially copyrighted.  
While Fred Ott caused giggles, stage actors Mae Irwin and John C. Rice set off some moral outrage—but that didn’t hamper ticket sales.  Re-enacting a scene from their hit play The Widow Jones, the pair engaged in what seemed a tender conversation resulting in a kiss that lasted a scandalous 15 seconds.  The film, so brazenly called The Kiss (1896), was condemned for such a lewd display.  Many declared it unfit for any decent citizen to view.  Some even thought the police should be summoned.  Of course, the negative buzz didn’t stop the paying patrons who just couldn’t help themselves despite, or perhaps because of, the ballyhoo.  
Eight years and hundreds of films later, America’s first movie studio had served its purpose.  Edison shut the place down opting for a modern filming facility in New York.  In 1903, he demolished the building, but the fledgling industry he launched there was about to soar.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Ch'a Ching!

According to Chinese legend, tea drinking began over 5,000 years ago.  It is believed that Emperor Shen Nung sampled the very first cup in 2737 B.C.  It seems that the Emperor thought water should always be boiled before drinking.  Supposedly during one of his travels, he and his posse stopped to rest.  As a faithful servant boiled water underneath a tree, several leaves fell into the pot.  The water turned a dark rich color and so intrigued the Emperor that he tasted it.  With royal backing, tea became a popular drink throughout China.

Credited as refreshing AND healing, the dark colored brew was known as ch’a and in 780 A.D. Chinese author and Buddhist monk, Lu Yu penned a three-volume masterpiece all about it.  Titled Ch’a Ching, Yu’s words became the definitive source on all things tea.  Proud of their fellow monk, other Buddhist holy men took their tea to Japan.  The Japanese, however, didn’t develop a taste for the drink until 1191 A.D. when Zenn Buddhist leader Yeisai brought seeds from a tea plant to Japan.  He too wrote a book about tea.  A shrewd salesman as well as a writer, Yeisai even ‘cured’ an ailing Shogun with his tea and then presented the Japanese leader with a copy of his book.  With a royal seal of approval, the book and the brew became instant hits.
It took a while longer for the Oriental drink to reach Europe.  The Portuguese first opened a trade route to the Far East and transported tea back to Lisbon where it was distributed by Dutch ships to the Baltic countries, as well as France and the Netherlands.  As more tea was imported, the price lowered and tea went from being an elite drink to a common brew enjoyed by all.  The Dutch even brought tea to their recently established colony, New Amsterdam—now New York.  Unwittingly, the colonists set the stage for a revolution, but it wasn’t until tea reached England that all the trouble began.

Believe it or not, England was the last to sip tea.  It wasn’t until after 1650 that tea was served at coffee houses throughout Great Britain along with coffee and chocolate.  King Charles II imposed a tea tax in 1660 and several years later, the crown outlawed the imported drink, but at the same time gave Britain’s East India company their very own tea monopoly.  By 1720, tea became a staple in the New World, but the tax issue embittered many of the settlers.  As taxes increased, the outraged colonists refused to drink English tea.  The whole debacle resulted in The Boston Tea Party when rebels dumped a shipload of tea into Boston Harbor, which eventually led to the American Revolution. 
Throughout the nineteenth century, tea remained a popular drink around the world.  In 1904, however, tea plantation owner Richard Blechynden gave the brew another twist.  That summer, he planned to pass out samples of his tea at the St. Louis World’s Fair, but the warm summer weather left him with few takers.  Desperate to drum up business, Blechynden cooled his tea with ice.  To everyone’s amazement, it was just as tasty cold.

Four years later, New York tea merchant Thomas Sullivan bagged tea leaves for the very first time.  The pre-measured sacks assured a good cup of tea with little effort.  The teabag soon became a staple in almost every home.  So the next time you sip some tea, you now know that you have something in common with both royalty and revolutionaries.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

A Better Idea

One-hundred and twelve years ago, an engineer for the Detroit Edison Company, built a horseless carriage and, in the driver’s seat, he won a car race—the only one he ever entered.

In front of thousands of onlookers, Henry Ford beat Alexander Winton at the Detroit Driving Club in Grosse Pointe, Michigan in the fall of 1901.  While Winton’s car overheated, Ford crossed the finish line averaging a heady 44 miles per hour.  He not only won the $1,000 purse, but also the interest of various investors who thought they should cash in on this mechanical marvel.  So with $28,000 in ready money, the Ford Motor Company was incorporated in 1903.  Ten workers earning $1.50 per day built the first two-cylinder Model A in what was once a Detroit wagon factory.  When Ford sold the vehicle to a local physician for $850, it became a hit.
But Henry Ford had an even better idea!

The four-cylinder Model B did not live up to the company’s expectations, but the Model C certainly did.  By 1907, the Ford Motor Company reaped a whopping $1,100 profit.  Ford continued identifying his automobiles alphabetically.  Some of the models were never mass produced, but considered only concept cars.  The Model N represented a total redesign.  Instead of a two-cylinder engine under the seat, the Model N boasted a four-cylinder engine under the hood.  By the time Ford was ready to build his most famous vehicle, he had exhausted the alphabet from A through S.  His next car represented the most modern automobile to date and he simply called it the Model T.
Ford formally introduced his Model T to the general public on October 1, 1908.  Known for its dependability, the car was soon nicknamed the ‘Tin Lizzie’ (‘Lizzie’ being a contemporary slang word used to describe a reliable servant).  The stripped down version minus a top, windshield and gas lamps went for $850.  After the first 500 cars were made, Ford enhanced the vehicle by adding a new starting crank.  In 1909, more options were featured:  robe rails, footrests, auto chimes and the tops (if you preferred one) could be ordered in either gray or black.

By 1910, Ford was producing 100 Model Ts per day.  The cars remained stationary while workers scurried all over the factory retrieving parts.  In order to meet the increasing demand, however, Ford had to improve production so he experimented with a crude assembly line at his new factory in Highland Park, Michigan.  Eventually production time was reduced to one hour and 33 minutes.  This in turn dropped the car’s price down to $360 making it available to middle class families.  In 1924, the price hit an all-time low of $290.  Over 15 million Tin Lizzies were sold in the United Sates alone with almost one million more going to Canada and another 250,000 shipped to England.  Up until 1927, the Model T represented one half of all cars built and as a result motoring evolved from an idle pastime of the rich into a way of life.
Will Rogers once commented:  “It will take a hundred years to tell whether, he {Ford} helped us or hurt us, but he certainly didn’t leave us where he found us.”  Well, 100 years have come and gone and it is clear that Henry Ford and his Model T revolutionized not only the way we work, but also the way we get there.  And life on the farm has never been the same.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Strangers No More

I usually don’t blog much about myself, but a few weeks ago, I published a post about finding family after 50 years of wondering where they were.  To my surprise, readers were interested!  I was even encouraged to write more about me.  Who knew?  So today, I decided to tell you all about a picture project I recently finished and how that exercise helped me meet two strangers—my father and mother.

Like many of you, I have lots of old black and white photos that have been sitting in boxes for decades—great-grandparents, grandparents, weddings, birthdays, holidays, etc.  Occasionally, I pull them out to peak at the past.  For me, my past includes two parents I never really knew.  My mother died when I was three, leaving me with very vague memories of her.  I have no idea what her voice sounded like or what made her laugh.  I only know what other people have told me, but these stories are their memories not mine.  I do remember my dad—Hollywood handsome, funny and with a silly streak that I believe I inherited.  Very young and unable to cope with my mother’s death, he left me in the care of her parents.  No blame.  No anger.  I wish he had stayed a part of my life, but he didn’t and that’s just how it was.
As my parents’ only child, I have their wedding album—an oversized blue book that captures the highlights of that summer day in 1953.  I also have envelope after envelope of candid shots taken in the church and the hall so I decided to buy a photo album and put all of these loose wedding pictures together.  After hours of sorting and assembling, I found two people who were obviously in love and made each other very happy. 
Starting with their wedding shower, I saw them unwrap gifts and smile at their good fortune.  Next, I discovered that they had a party the night before the wedding at my grandparents’ house complete with folding chairs set up in the backyard and beer!  My mother had written ‘bridal dinner’ on the envelope I found them in.  Then there were scads of pictures of their wedding day—the fun they had getting ready, the solemn church service and finally, the reception.  I saw them cut their cake, dance their first dance, and share a kiss—I could almost hear the clanging utensils that must have gone along with it. 

The next day, according to another envelope my mother had written on, they left for their honeymoon—Niagara Falls.  I had always known about this honeymoon destination (after all, it was a popular one in the fifties), but what I didn’t know was that they also traveled to New York City.  You can’t imagine how surprised I was to see my mother sitting in front of the Statue of Liberty and visiting Central Park—places I’ve been myself.  And she was smiling as my dad snapped away.  They even took pictures of each other standing at a hotel elevator and in unknown restaurants where they must have grabbed a bite and a drink.

Somehow, after I was finished with my new photo book of old pictures, these two people, whose time together was cut short, came alive for the very first time.  No longer strangers, I finally met my parents. 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Aristocratic Mountain Man

Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, better known as Pomp, was only 8 weeks old when he joined Lewis and Clark on their great expedition traveling west on his mother’s back.  The son of Sacagawea and her French-Canadian fur trapper husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, Pomp had but one calling:  adventurer extraordinaire.

As an infant and toddler, Pomp won the hearts of the rugged men who traveled west with The Corps of Discovery.  It wasn’t unusual to find any one f them bouncing Pomp on his knee.  William Clark took an exceptional liking to the boy and, after their expedition, offered to raise Pomp as his own.  He assured Sacagawea and Charbonneau that their son would get a good education.  Trusting Clark as a man of his word, they left Pomp in his care.
Raised in St. Louis, Missouri by Clark, Pomp was a student of classical literature, math and science.  Not only could he read and write in English, but he also mastered Greek and Latin, as well as the violin.  Despite his formal education, however, young Pomp was still Charbonneau’s son.   At the age of 16, he joined the Missouri Fur Company and headed west to seek his fortune. 

In 1823, he met Duke Paul Wilhelm, a young German noble, also known as Prince Paul and the nephew of the King of Wurttemberg.  Prince Paul had come to America to study the unique wild plants and animals native to the western territories.  The two men drummed up a great friendship and when Prince Paul returned to Germany, Pomp went with him.  Once in Wurttemberg, the pair was welcomed into the royal fold.  It’s even said that Pomp played his violin for Beethoven at one particularly grand soiree.
After Prince Paul married Princess Sophie Von Turn und Taxis in 1827, he invited Pomp to move into their recently renovated castle.  Pomp then learned to speak German, Spanish and Italian while traveling throughout Europe and Africa with Prince Paul.  The princess didn’t approve of their wanderlust and the couple separated.  Pomp eventually returned to the United States preferring the life of a mountain man to that of an aristocrat.

For the next 15 years, Pomp worked with Antoine Robidoux’s fur brigade trapping beaver for their fashionable pelts.  Known for his quick thinking and cleverness, as well as his outgoing personality, he made friends with the likes of Joe Meek, Jim Bridger and the legendary Kit Carson.  By the 1840s, mountain men faced extinction as beaver fur became passé so Pomp moved on.
With his multi-lingual abilities, his vast knowledge of the west and his keen hunting skills, he soon found work as a guide.  The U.S. Army even hired him in 1846 to escort the Mormon Battalion from Santa Fe, New Mexico to San Diego, California during the war with Mexico.  Once on the west coast, Pomp became Alcalde, or mayor, of Mission San Luis Rey.  Because he was part Native American, however, local white men accused him of playing favorites and inciting rebellion.  Irritated, Pomp abruptly left his post and headed for northern California.  There he met acquaintances from the Mormon Battalion who were now building a mill for John Sutter.  They let Pomp in on Sutter’s big secret: GOLD!  Pomp was probably one of the original forty-niners.  He didn’t strike it rich, but he did stay on for 17 years, most likely providing some sort of service to the gold diggers.

In 1866, Pomp heard of another gold discovery—this time in Montana.  Even though he was 61, he took two friends in search of yet another adventure.  By the time they reached Oregon, Pomp fell ill with pneumonia.  He died on May 16, 1866 at Inskip Station.  The Shoshone, however tell a different tale.  They believe that Pomp was reunited with his mother on Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation where he died in 1885.  Either way, he led a full life embracing adventure wherever it came.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Sacagawea and The Corps of Discovery

She was only 16 and a brand new mother, when she and her husband joined The Corps of Discovery led by Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.  The daughter of a Shoshone chief, she spoke no English, but became an integral part of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, as well as an American legend. 

Envisioned by President Thomas Jefferson, The Corps was formed soon after the Louisiana Purchase.  Their purpose was to explore the newly acquired land and find an overland route to the Pacific Ocean.  The Corps assembled near St. Louis, Missouri in the fall of 1804 and the men traveled to present-day North Dakota where they set up camp for the winter.  It was there, they met the ill-mannered, middle-aged fur trader, Toussaint Charbonneau and his pregnant wife, Sacagawea, who had been kidnapped from her Shoshone tribe as a child.  Lewis and Clark hired Charbonneau as an interpreter to help talks with the Native Americans they were sure to encounter.  They believed his young wife might be an asset as well.  Clark wrote in his journal:  “A woman with a party of men is a token of peace.”  Sacagawea soon proved to be far more.
Eight weeks before The Corps was scheduled to continue their journey, Sacagawea gave birth to a son, Jean Baptiste, nicknamed Pomp.  Then on April 7, 1805, the group set out on their incredible journey.  Sacagawea gathered wild roots and berries for the men to eat.  She even saved critical supplies when a canoe tipped over—all while carrying her infant son on her back.  From that moment on, Lewis and Clark considered her an equal. 

As The Corps traveled west, they came across Shoshone Chief Cameahwait and his people.  It was a critical moment for the men.  They needed horses in order to continue their journey.  Talks with the chief were going nowhere so the men sent for Sacagawea.  She was to translate the chief’s words for her husband who would then interpret the conversation in French to a member of The Corps.  This man would then give the English version to Lewis and Clark. 
When Sacagawea caught sight of the chief, she grew overwhelmed and wept as she recognized her brother.  She not only got horses for The Corps, but also convinced her people to provide guides.  With the help of the Shoshone people, the expedition went on to reach the Pacific Ocean on November 8, 1805.  Sacagawea chose to remain with them and made the return trip to North Dakota nine months later.  While her husband received $500.33 for his services, she was left uncompensated.

We may not know exactly what happened to Sacagawea after the Lewis and Clark Expedition, but we do know that she played a vital role in their great success.  Each Corps member who kept a diary wrote of his admiration for her.  And what of her son, Pomp?  Stay tuned, you will find his story no less amazing.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Still Crazy After All These Years!

I rarely blog about myself.  I’m afraid you all would find me very boring.  Today, however, I will make an exception because something extraordinary has happened.  For those of you who don’t know me personally, let me explain.

My mother died in 1957 when I was just a wee thing.  I have very vague memories of her and what little I know has been told to me by other people lucky enough to remember her.  My bereft father, who never expected to be widowed at such a young age, left me in the care of my maternal grandparents.  Our living arrangement may not have been conventional, but I grew up in a wonderful home filled with love.  The last time I saw my dad was fifty years ago—that’s right half a century.  As a result, it was also the last time I saw anyone from his side of the family.
Fast forward to 2010.  I was writing my book, Bringing Up Oscar, and I joined to aid in my research.  One Sunday afternoon, I decided to take a break from work and look up my dad’s family.  Lo and behold, I found them!  My dad and his brother, Bob, had both passed away, but I was able to contact my Uncle Bob’s eldest daughter, Janice, who not only remembered me, but welcomed me with an enthusiasm I never expected.  It seems my cousins had been looking for me for years, but I never knew it!

I have since met Janice and her sister, Kim.  Through them, I learned that my dad’s sister, Irene, and her children had relocated to the west coast.  My Aunt Irene (my dad’s only surviving sibling) is now in her eighties and I recently had the opportunity to see her again.  While traveling out west last month, I made arrangements to visit her daughter, my cousin Shelia.  I remember Shelia as the girl with beautiful long, dark curls that floated behind her as she played and her brother, Jerry, as the handsomest boy who ever donned a military uniform.
After a great lunch with Shelia and her husband, Dean, we visited the rehab facility where my Aunt Irene is recovering from a nasty fall.  Seeing them after all these years was nothing short of a miracle.  It was better than finding a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow!

 As for my cousin, Jerry, he moved to Oregon so I haven’t seen him yet—but don’t you worry, Jerry—I’m coming for you next when you least expect it—unless, of course, you make it to Michigan before I get out there!!

Me and Shelia  - 1956

Me and Shelia - today

Aunt Irene

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Hi-Yo Silver! Away!

Recently, there has been lots of buzz about the new Lone Ranger movie starring Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp.  Most of us boomers will remember the old black and white television show with Clayton Moore in the title role and Jay Silverheels as Tonto.  The series ran from 1949-1957, but even before that, The Lone Ranger was a wildly popular radio show that originated in Detroit at WXYZ radio.

The Lone Ranger was the brainchild of ex-lawyer George W. Trendle (the ‘W’ stood for Washington) and writer Fran Striker (a man).  Trendle envisioned a western show with a wholesome masked hero that childen could look up to.  Stryker ran with the idea developing the characters and scripts.  The first installment aired on January 30, 1933 and was carried by several Michigan radio stations.  While Tonto was portrayed by senior actor John Todd for the duration of the series, the Texas ranger’s voice was originally provided by actor John L. Barrett and then another actor, George Stenius who briefly took over.  By May of that year, Trendle and Striker knew they had a bona fide hit on their hands and they brought in little-known actor Earle Graser in the title role. 
Graser, a graduate of Detroit’s Wayne State University, was born in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada in 1909.  A slight man, he did not fit the image of a western hero (see photo below) so he was told to keep a low profile in public.  Beginning on May 16, 1933 until his untimely death eight years later, Graser never missed a performance—all of which were broadcast live three days a week.  Graser lived in Farmington, Michigan (just up the street from me—honest) with his wife and daughter.  In the early hours of April 8, 1941, he was driving home from the radio station when he fell asleep at the wheel.  He struck a parked truck on Grand River Avenue in downtown Farmington and was killed just a few days shy of his 38th birthday. 

For the next several episodes, a critically wounded Lone Ranger could not speak above a whisper and Tonto took charge until Brace Beemer filled the void.  Beemer stayed with the role for 13 years until the radio series finally ended on September 3, 1954. 
And just in case, you didn’t know, Trendle and Striker were also the men behind another masked hero, Britt Reid aka The Green Hornet and a descendent of The Lone Ranger whose real name was John Reid. 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Boy Henrietta Raised

Since this past week marked the 114th birthday of legendary producer Irving Grant Thalberg, I thought it would be fitting to dedicate this blog to him and his early years:

Thalberg’s story began on May 30, 1899 in Brooklyn, New York.  William, his father, was a passive man who imported lace and often gave in to his ambitious wife, Henrietta, whose family owned a store in New York.  Disappointed in her husband’s laid-back attitude, Henrietta focused on her son hoping to transfer some of her drive onto him.  When doctors diagnosed the baby with a serious congenital heart defect, they warned that Irving probably wouldn’t live much past his 30th birthday.  William resigned himself to Irving’s poor health, but Henrietta had other ideas.  Her son would not be an invalid. 
The young lad spent his first seven years in bed while his mother took charge.  She bathed, massaged, and encouraged him with the intent that one day he’d actually go to school.  When that day finally came, doctors cautioned against it, but Henrietta wouldn’t listen.  She firmly believed that her son had a special purpose and needed a formal education to propel him into the future.

Henrietta was right.  Despite his physical shortcomings, Thalberg excelled intellectually.  A fervent reader, he devoured books and came to understand the makings of a good story.  After a bout of rheumatic fever, which further damaged his already weak heart, Thalberg graduated from high school and enrolled in secretarial classes, which eventually gave him a one-way ticket to Hollywood.
After completing his classes, Thalberg hired in as a secretary at the Universal Film Manufacturing Company founded by Carl Laemmle.  Before long, Thalberg was promoted to the prestigious position of Laemmle’s own secretary.  In between taking care of his boss, scheduling appointments and handling correspondence, Thalberg previewed movies along with Laemmle who came to value his assistant’s opinions. 

With trouble brewing in the California studio, Laemmle and Thalberg headed west to settle the matter.  With three middle-aged executives in charge of the company, Universal’s bottom line was suffering.  Laemmle gave Thalberg the job of fixing it.  After six months, Thalberg’s answer was simple—have one man in charge, not three.  Laemmle gave Thalberg the job.  At the tender of age of 20, Irving Grant Thalberg was running Universal Studio.  Not yet of legal age, this sickly boy from New York who was still dependent on his mother was about to change the way Hollywood worked and create a filmmaking legend that has yet to be equaled.

Monday, May 20, 2013

A Word About Popcorn

Popcorn is an American staple.  We eat it by the tubful--especially at the movies.  As a matter of fact, we consume about 16 billion quarts of popcorn annually—that’s around 52 quarts per person.  But what do we really know about this tasty treat?

Popcorn probably came from Mexico where 80,000-year-old corn pollen was discovered 200 feet below Mexico City.  Although it was grown in China, Sumatra and India, the oldest known popcorn was found in central New Mexico dating back more than 5,000 years.  Columbus discovered popcorn when he landed in the West Indies, and the Aztecs served it to Cortez when he marched into Mexico.
Popcorn was originally cooked by stirring the kernels in hot sand until they burst.  Decorative pots, used for popping corn, first appeared in Peru around 300 A.D.  With one handle and a hole in the top, these primitive poppers got the job done.  Native Americans used clay or metal pots and they offered deerskin bags filled with popped corn to the pilgrims at the very first Thanksgiving.  The colonists were so impressed that they ate it for breakfast with cream and sugar—a form of puffed cereal, if you will.

The popularity of popcorn rose in the 1890s as portable popcorn machines designed by Charlie Cretors became available.  Now vendors could push, or have their horses pull, these machines taking popcorn directly to the people.  Charlie Cretors’ family still makes most of the poppers used today in movie theaters and other places of entertainment. 
Sales slumped briefly during the early 1920s when theater owners banned popcorn because of its loud crunch.  Once they realized that they were heading for financial disaster, they once again began selling the popular snack.  Sales boomed again when home poppers became available during the mid-1920s.  Then came World War II with sugar being used for the war effort.  With less candy made on the home front, Americans consumed three times more popcorn than usual.

During the 1950s, popcorn sales declined once more when television caused the movie going public to stay home.  This situation was only temporary, however.  Americans soon figured out that they could enjoy their favorite treat right in their own living room.  With microwavable popcorn produced in the 1980s, sales soared again and the crunchy treat has steadily stayed in the forefront of favorite snack foods to this day. 
So how would you like your 52 quarts this year?  Buttered or plain?

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Enchanted Hill

When William Randolph Hearst decided to build a vacation home high above San Simeon, he didn’t let a little thing like location get in his way.  Camp Hill, the site he picked, rose 1600 feet above sea level with five miles of winding cattle paths connecting it to the village below.  With the Pacific on one side and the Santa Lucia Mountains on the other, it was an isolated spot that wouldn’t take kindly to development.

It all began in 1865 when George Hearst bought the Piedra Blanca Ranch for $30,000.  The 40,000 acres were located 200 miles south of San Francisco near San Simeon Bay.  The ranch became a favorite campsite for George, his wife, Phoebe and their only child, William Randolph.  As a man, the younger Hearst took his own wife and sons to the ranch whenever he could.  There they stayed, with as many as 50 people, including guests and servants, in a complex of tents.  Despite the remote location, the Hearsts entertained with style throwing lavish dances and elaborate parties. 
By the time, Hearst reached his mid-fifties, he decided it was time to get rid of the tents.  He envisioned a permanent vacation home high atop Camp Hill, now referred to as Enchanted Hill, overlooking the Pacific.  He first met with architect Julia Morgan n 1919.  Choosing a Mediterranean style, Hearst and Morgan made plans for the main house and three smaller guesthouses.  Before construction even started, however, Morgan had her work cut out for her.

Getting materials to San Simeon was next to impossible.  Forced to come by ship from San Francisco, a waterfront strike delayed deliveries.  Finally, in December 1919, the first shipment of lumber, nails and tools arrived on an old freighter.  Next, Morgan had to get the supplies and equipment up the hill.  She had the five-mile road rebuilt and found trucks powerful enough to haul everything to the top.  She also reconstructed the pier so larger ships, carrying more materials, could dock and unload in San Simeon Bay. 
Morgan’s job wasn’t limited to the buildings.  The grounds were rugged and not in keeping with Hearst’s Mediterranean theme.  First, the rocky ridge had to be terraced with some particularly stubborn areas requiring dynamite.  Next, topsoil was hauled up the hill and the terraces leveled.  Water had to be piped down from natural springs in the surrounding mountains.  Once the ground was ready, trees, plants and shrubs had to be shipped to San Simeon, and then carted up the five-mile road before being planted in their designated spots.

By 1921, the Hearsts were staying in Casa del Mar, the largest of the guest houses.  It took another five years before they moved into the main house, Casa Grande, which was only partially complete.  A passionate collector of antiques, Hearst filled the place with historic items from all over the world.  He even bought European castles, as well as a complete Spanish monastery stone by stone across the Atlantic to incorporate into his estate.  His love of animals moved him to build a private zoo.  His menagerie included ostriches, llamas, giraffes, lions and an elephant named Marianne.  The descendents of the original zebras still roam the ranch today and are often spotted by motorists driving along the Pacific Coast Highway.
Although, Casa Grande was never totally finished, Hearst called it home, affectionately referring to it as ‘the ranch’.  In his later years, when his son, William Randolph Hearst, Jr., questioned why he built such a fabulous estate in such an odd spot, his father replied:  “I just wanted to.  Period.  I loved the place.”

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Very First Barrymore

Herbert Arthur Chamberlain Hunter Blythe was born in India in 1849.  His father , a British citizen, worked in Fort Agra as a civil servant.  Growing up in the shadow of the Taj Mahal, Herbert later boasted that in deference to the local sacred cows, he was raised on goat’s milk.  That, he often told his friends, caused his children’s odd behavior.

As a young man, Herbert shocked his family when he traveled to London and took up boxing.  He was so good in the ring that in 1872, he won the Marquis of Queensberry Cup, which was awarded annually to the best amateur boxer in any class.  He also found work in the theater.  One evening his boxing prowess, along with his desire to act, joined forces when he came across the stage comedian, Charles Vandenhoff.  The entertainer was trying to protect his girlfriend from two attackers.  Herbert stepped in and saved the day with his fancy fisticuffs.  Vandenhoff was so grateful, he gave the young hero a job in his stock company.  To save the Blythes from any further embarrassment, Herbert then changed his name to Barrymore—Maurice Barrymore.  Legend has it that he saw the name on an old playbill hanging in the Haymarket Theater.  Wherever he found it, the extraordinary name he chose was destined for distinction.
Eventually, the handsome actor came to the United States where he found great success on the stages of New York.  He also found a best friend—actor John Drew.  Drew brought Barrymore to his mother’s house In Philadelphia.  The family matriarch, Louisa Lane Drew, a popular actress and manager of Philadelphia’s Arch Street Theater, disliked Barrymore immediately, but her daughter Georgiana was smitten.  After a quick courtship and against her mother’s wishes, the couple married on New Year’s Eve in 1876.  Their first child, Lionel, arrived on April 28, 1878. 

Georgie soon found herself expecting again.  Unfazed by his personal responsibilities, Barrymore, left his pregnant wife and infant son in the care of his mother-in-law and went west with a traveling troupe.  Unfortunately, the actor crossed paths with an outlaw and was shot in Marshall, Texas where he underwent extensive surgery that saved his life.  Upon his return to Philadelphia, Georgie delivered a girl, Ethel, on August 15, 1879. 
A recovered Barrymore continued working in the theater.  His good looks and quick wit earned him matinee idol status, but by the time their third child, John Sidney, was born on February 14, 1882, Barrymore was spending less and less time at home.  His drinking and philandering put a strain on the marriage.  Nonetheless, when Georgie died from tuberculosis in 1893, her death hit him hard—for a bit.  He soon found comfort in a much younger woman and married her without even telling his children. 

Eventually, Barrymore’s hard living caught up with him.  Divorced from his second wife, he began acting irrationally.  Always a quick study, he experienced difficulty remembering things and then became delusional often falling victim to rages.  Doctors diagnosed him with end-stage syphilis for which there was no cure at the time.  The disease ravaged him both physically and mentally forcing his children to commit him to the Long Island Home in Amityville.  Originally given six months live, Barrymore lasted four years in the sanitarium.
Barrymore passed the time feverishly writing.  He filled page after page of foolscap paper explaining to anyone who would listen that he was penning a new play.  Upon closer inspection, his handwritten words revealed the phrase ‘It was a lovely day n June’ written over and over again.  Finally on March 25, 1905, Maurice Barrymore died and his children buried him in the family plot in Philadelphia. 

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Purple Gang

The Five Points Gang ran Brooklyn while the Northside Gang ruled Chicago.  Philadelphia claimed the Boiler Gang.  But the City of Detroit was home to the baddest boys of all—the Purple Gang.  Their supremacy over the Motor City began in 1918 when the State Prohibition Referendum (a forerunner of national Prohibition) banned alcohol in Michigan making Detroit the first major city to go dry.  While some folks saw this as a problem, the Purple Gang heard opportunity knocking. 

Troublemakers from an early age, Abe, Ray, Joe and Izzy Bernstein formed a street gang who terrorized local merchants.  Supposedly one shopkeeper described the brothers as ‘tainted’ like bad meat turned purple.  With the state’s alcohol ban, the young Purples tried their hand at rum running.  Driving cars with false floorboards and second gas tanks, they headed south to Toledo, Ohio where legal booze was plentiful.  These sordid trips, however, were just practice runs for the real deal, which began in 1920 with the advent of national Prohibition. 
American laws were meaningless in Canada, and with only the Detroit River separating Windsor from the Motor City, rum running came naturally for the Purples.  Not only did the Bernstein Brothers and their bad boys control liquor prices in Detroit, they became the major supplier of illegal booze to the New York and Chicago underworlds.  For the next five years, the Purple Gang ruled with a strong arm and deadly bullets.  Known for their violent methods, even Chicago-boss Al Capone didn’t dare cross them.  As much as he wanted to expand his territory and cash in on the liquid loot, he held back.  Capone knew better than to risk the rage of the Purples. 

The Bernsteins wasted no time taking over most of Detroit’s blind pigs and cabarets.  They never thought twice about shooting up a joint if a proprietor refused to cooperate.  They even perfected a method of cutting liquor.  For every bottle of smuggled whiskey, they produced two and a half bottles of diluted brew.  By 1928, there were over 100 cutting plants operating in Detroit.  The illegal liquor trade became second only to the city’s auto industry.  While the Purples cashed in, their booming business also caused their downfall.
Stressed by the huge demand of their customers and the government’s crackdown on the city’s criminal element, the Purple Gang slowly unraveled.  In 1931, their infighting resulted in a triple killing known as the Collingwood Manor Massacre—one of Detroit’s worst gangland murders.  Three Purple leaders were convicted and sent to Marquette Prison in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with life sentences.  Although they remained a relatively strong force in Detroit’s underworld until 1935, the national crime syndicate eventually absorbed the remnants of what was once the powerful Purples.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

When Doug Met Mary

When Douglas Fairbanks met Mary Pickford for the first time, he swept her off her feet—literally.  By chance, one Sunday afternoon, actress Elsie Janis invited Doug and his then wife, Beth Sully, along with Mary and her spouse, Owen Moore, to visit her home in Tarrytown, New York.  As the five-some took a stroll around the estate, they reached a rather wide stream.  Elsie and Doug nimbly skipped over several stones to the other side, while Owen not-so-nimbly followed.  Afraid of falling, Beth turned back, but Mary in her high-heeled boots decided to try.  She found herself hesitating as she perched atop a log.  That’s when Doug took matters, and Mary, into his own hands.  He came to her rescue, picked her up and whisked her safely to the other side. 

Despite their respective marriages, the couple’s mutual attraction grew.  Mary liked that Doug treated her as an equal while he was happy to find someone who understood the entertainment world he lived in.  When his mother died in 1916, his overwhelming grief brought them closer and Mary soon left New York for California.  The situation was touchy, however, since silent film stars were presented to the public as wholesome, morally upstanding citizens.  An adulterous affair could destroy their careers.  Rumors ran rampant as each worked toward dissolving their respective marriages.  Finally on March 28, 1920 with both of their divorces final, Doug and Mary wed in a secret ceremony.
For the next three days, Mary went to work with tape wrapped around her ring and the newlyweds spent their evenings in seclusion.  Fearing the worst, they finally gave in and announced to the world what they had done.  While the media tried to condemn them, their fans wouldn’t buy it.  In their eyes, Mary could do no wrong and if Doug made their sweetheart happy, than that was fine by them.  Triumphant, Doug and Mary embarked on a European honeymoon where cheering crowds greeted them wherever they went.  The Hollywood couple soon became America’s answer to royalty and Pickfair their castle.

Their grand estate evolved into a focal point for famous visitors such as Amelia Earhart, Albert Einstein and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle  Even kings and queens, dukes and duchesses, lords and ladies from Alba to Vienna deemed Pickfair a must-see when traveling to the States.  Parties at Pickfair were legendary, but even when social events were not planned, their dining table was always set for 15.  According to Mary, Doug had a habit of inviting ‘funny people’ to dinner.   
Inseparable for the first eight years of their marriage, the couple eventually found their relationship strained as Doug’s wanderlust conflicted with Mary’s preference to stay home.  When Doug carried on with the much younger Lady Sylvia Ashley during a trip to London, Mary just couldn’t forgive him.  She filed for divorce.  Doug tried his best to change her mind, but as far as Mary was concerned, their life together was over.

Devastated, Doug gave up and traveled to New York with his only son, Doug, Jr.  They talked about making a movie together, but the elder Fairbanks impulsively sailed for Europe without saying a word.  Shortly after his departure, a telegram from Mary arrived at his hotel.  She was sorry and wanted him to come home.  Doug, Jr. frantically searched his father’s room for the name of the ship he was sailing on, but by the time he placed a call out to sea, Doug, Sr. wouldn’t listen.  He angrily accused his son of lying and always taking Mary’s side before he hung up. 
Despite the fact that Doug and Mary each remarried, they continued spending time together until Doug’s death in 1939.  Just before her own death forty years later at the age of 87, Pickford (who remained living at Pickfair) asked her friend and reporter Adela Rogers St. Johns:  ”Will Douglas ever forgive me?”  She must have still felt guilty about their unhappy ending.