November 17, 1968 The Heidi Bowl

“Short of pre-empting Heidi for a skin flick, NBC could not have managed to alienate more viewers that evening.”

For a football fan, November 17, 1968 was shaping up to be one hell of a game.  The second-best team in the world Oakland Raiders if the results of Super Bowl II were any indication, against the future American Football League champion and Super Bowl III winner, New York Jets.

raiders-jets-heidi-bowlNBC executives, were thrilled.  The AFL was only eight years old in 1968 and as yet unproven compared with the older league, the NFL/AFL merger still two years in the future. 

This game was expected to keep viewers in their seats, adding to the already large audience expected for the 7:00pm presentation of Heidi, a modern remake of the children’s classic story from 1880.

Most pro football games were played in 2½ hours in those days, and league executives scheduled this one, for three.  The contract with Heidi prime sponsor Timex specified a 7:00 start and so the order went down.  There would be no delays.

The game did not disappoint, voted among the ten most memorable games in professional football history in 1997, and the most memorable regular season contest, ever.  The rivalry between the two clubs was intense, a high-scoring game where the lead changed, no fewer than eight times.  

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Network brass began to worry as early as 6:20 E.T., that the game wouldn’t end on time.  7:00 arrived with a minute & five seconds left to play and the Jets ahead, 32-29. 

Network and affiliate switchboards began to light up, fans demanding the game be broadcast in its entirety, while others asked if Heidi would begin, on time.  

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NBC Sports executive producer Don “Scotty” Connal and network president Julian Goodman had by this time agreed to “slide the network”, to begin Heidi as soon as Curt Gowdy signed off from the game.

By this time phone switchboards were jammed, solid.  NBC’s CIrcle-7 phone exchange blew twenty-six fuses, in an hour.  Broadcast Operations Control (BOC) supervisor Dick Cline nervously watched the clock as Connal frantically tried to call, but couldn’t get through.

The television audience watched Oakland running back Charlie Smith return the kickoff from the end zone to the Oakland 22-yard line with 1:01 remaining on the clock, when the feed was broken.

Heads exploded across the nation as callers reached out to newspapers and television stations, even local police departments, to demand the score.  And to bitch.   Humorist Art Buchwald wrote “Men who wouldn’t get out of their chairs in an earthquake rushed to the phone to scream obscenities [at the network].”

Meanwhile, the Oakland Raiders staged the most amazing come-from-behind rally in the history of sport, scoring two touchdowns in nine seconds.  Gamblers were apoplectic on learning the news, that the Raiders had beat the 7½ point spread. 

The film was just reaching a most tear-jerking moment as Heidi’s paralyzed cousin Clara was taking her first halting steps, as NBC broke in: “SPORTS BULLETIN: RAIDERS DEFEAT JETS 43-32”.

If half the nation hated NBC at that moment, now the other half did, as well. Sportswriter Jack Clary quipped, “The football fans were indignant when they saw what they had missed. The Heidi audience was peeved at having an ambulatory football score intrude on one of the story’s more touching moments. Short of pre-empting Heidi for a skin flick, NBC could not have managed to alienate more viewers that evening.”

heidi-game-news-bulletin-4-e1348762143862The “Heidi Bowl” was prime time news the following night, on all three networks. NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report aired the last sixty seconds while ABC Evening News anchor Frank Reynolds read excerpts from the movie, with clips of the Raiders’ two touchdowns cut in. CBS Evening News’ Harry Reasoner announced the “result” of the game: “Heidi married the goat-herder“.

NBC had no option but self-mockery, to redeem itself from the fiasco. One testimonial read “I didn’t get a chance to see it, but I hear it was great”. It was signed by Joe Namath.

A special “Heidi phone” was installed in the BOC, to prevent future such disasters. In 2005, TV Guide listed the Heidi Bowl at #6 of the “100 Most Unexpected TV Moments” in television history.

Actress Jennifer Edwards in the title role of the film, may have had the final word: “My gravestone is gonna say, ‘She was a great moment in sports'”.

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November 5, 2004 I Did not Die

For nigh on seventy years, few knew from where this little known bit of verse, had come.

In the early 1930s, Mary Elizabeth Frye was a Baltimore housewife and amateur florist, the wife of clothing merchant, Claud Frye.

A young Jewish girl was living with the couple at this time, unable to visit her sick mother in Germany, due to the growing anti-Semitic violence of the period.  Her name was Margaret Schwarzkopf.

Margaret was bereft when her mother died, heartbroken that she could never “stand by my mother’s grave and shed a tear.” Mrs Frye took up a brown paper shopping bag, and wrote out this twelve line verse.

She didn’t title the poem, nor did she ever publish it, nor copyright the work.  People heard about it and liked it so Frye would make copies, but that’s about it.

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For nigh on seventy years, few knew from where this little known bit of verse, had come.

Over the years, there have been many claims to authorship, including attributions to traditional and Native American origins.

The unknown poem has been translated into Danish, Dutch, French, German, Hebrew, Ilocano, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog and other languages, appearing on countless bereavement cards and read over untold funeral services.

The English translation of one Swedish version reads: “Do not weep at my grave – I am not there / I am in the sun’s reflection in the sea / I am in the wind’s play above the grain fields / I am in the autumn’s gentle rain / I am in the Milky Way’s string of stars / And when on an early morning you are awaked by bird’s song / It is my voice that you are hearing / So do not weep at my grave – we shall meet again.

Many in the United Kingdom heard the poem for the first time in 1995, when a grieving father read it over BBC radio in honor of his son, a soldier slain by a bomb in Northern Ireland. The son had left the poem with a few personal effects, and marked the envelope ‘To all my loved ones’.

For National Poetry Day that year, the British television program The Bookworm conducted a poll to learn the nation’s favorite poems, subsequently publishing the winners, in book form. The book’s preface describes “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep” as “the unexpected poetry success of the year from Bookworm’s point of view… the requests started coming in almost immediately and over the following weeks the demand rose to a total of some thirty thousand. In some respects it became the nation’s favourite poem by proxy… despite it being outside the competition.”

All this at a time when the name and even the nationality of the author, was unknown.

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Abigail Van Buren, better known as “Dear Abby”, researched the history of the poem in 1998, and determined that Mrs. Frye was, after all, the author.

Mary Elizabeth Frye passed away in Baltimore Maryland on September 4, 2004. She was ninety-eight.

The Times of Great Britain published her untitled work on November 5, as part of her obituary. ‘The verse demonstrated a remarkable power to soothe loss”, wrote the Times. “It became popular, crossing national boundaries for use on bereavement cards and at funerals regardless of race, religion or social status”.

I Did Not Die”
by Mary Elizabeth Frye

Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft star-shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.

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October 30, 1938 War of the Worlds 

Despite repeated notices that the broadcast was fictional, it’s been estimated that as many as 1.2 million thought the news, was real. According to Grover’s Mill folklore, a local named William Dock shot a water tower, mistaking it for a Martian in the moonlight. Traffic was jammed in both directions in the little town, as locals tried to get out, and curiosity seekers came to see what Martians looked like. 

34.6 million miles distant, the Red Planet is our nearest neighbor in the solar system.  To the Babylonians of 3000B.C. Mars was the God of Death, lending its name to the war gods of Greek and Roman antiquity, alike.

In the 19th century, amateur astronomer Percival Lowell was convinced that he saw canals on Mars, evidence of some great civilization. In 1898, H.G. Wells published a book about a Martian invasion of earth, beginning with a landing in England.  On this day in 1938, the Mercury Theater of the Air brought the story to life.

yphlejvzd8_w1024The radio drama began with a statement that, what followed, was fictional.  The warning was repeated at the 40 and 55-minute mark, and again at the end of the broadcast. It began with a weather report, and then went to a dance band remote, featuring “Ramon Raquello and his orchestra”. The music was periodically interrupted by live “news” flashes, beginning with strange explosions on Mars. Producer Orson Welles made his first radio appearance as the “famous” (but non-existent) Princeton Professor Dr. Richard Pierson, who dismissed speculation about life on Mars.

The-War-of-the-Worlds-Radio-BroadcastA short time later, another “news flash” reported a fiery crash in Grovers Mill, NJ. What was originally thought to be a meteorite was revealed to be a rocket machine as a tentacled, pulsating Martian unscrewed the hatch and incinerated the crowd with a death ray.

The dramatic technique was brilliant. Welles had his cast listen to the Hindenburg tape, explaining that was the “feel” that he wanted in his broadcast. Fictional on-the-spot reporter Carl Phillips describes the death ray in the same rising crescendo, only to be cut off in mid-sentence as it was turned on him.

The 60-minute play unfolds with Martians wiping out a militia unit sent against them, and finally attacking New York City with poison gas.

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Alien spacecraft, hovering over the trees

Despite repeated notices that the broadcast was fictional, it’s been estimated that as many as 1.2 million thought the news, was real. According to Grover’s Mill folklore, a local named William Dock shot a water tower, mistaking it for a Martian in the moonlight. Traffic was jammed in both directions in the little town, as locals tried to get out, and curiosity seekers came to see what Martians looked like.

The USA Today Newspaper reporting on the 75th anniversary of the broadcast, that “The broadcast … disrupted households, interrupted religious services, created traffic jams and clogged communications systems. “The New York Times reported on Oct. 31, 1938: “In Newark, in a single block at Heddon Terrace and Hawthorne Avenue, more than 20 families rushed out of their houses with wet handkerchiefs and towels over their faces to flee from what they believed was to be a gas raid. Some began moving household furniture”.

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Then as today, supposed “victims” of the broadcast and their lawyers lined up to get paid for “mental anguish” and “personal injury”. All suits were dismissed, except for a claim for a pair of black men’s shoes, size 9B, by a Massachusetts man who had spent his shoe money to escape the Martians. Welles thought the man should be paid.

In the end, the War of the Worlds was just what the broadcast described itself to be. A Halloween concoction. The equivalent of dressing up in a sheet, and jumping out of a bush, and saying, ‘Boo!’.

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October 5, 1968 Magic Carpet Ride

Steppenwolf gave us 22 albums, and we all know them in one way or another. Yet, the lead singer’s escape from the horrors of the Iron Curtain, is all but unknown.

Joachim Fritz Krauledat was born in Tilsit, East Prussia on April 12, 1944, a region later absorbed into the Soviet Union. The boy never met his father Fritz, a German soldier killed on the Eastern Front of WWII.

JohnKayYoungElsbeth had to flee with her infant son in the harsh winter of 1945, as the oncoming Soviet Red Army destroyed all in its path. The two would escape the Iron Curtain once again in 1948, this time in a dangerous nighttime dash which the then-four year old remembers, to this day.

They settled for a time in Hannover, West Germany, barely avoiding the communist noose as it closed around their former home in the east.

Krauledat was an indifferent student, due to poor eyesight. He’s legally blind and extremely light-sensitive, forced to wear dark glasses since the age of three.  An eye condition called achromatopsia left him entirely color blind, seeing the world in shades of black and white and gray.

The boy became interested in music, listening over the British Forces Broadcasting Service and the US Armed Forces Radio before his family moved to Canada, in 1958.

Joachim never became a Canadian citizen. He spent the next seven years practicing his music, performing as a folk and blues singer throughout North America. He joined a blues rock and folk group called “The Sparrow” in 1965, becoming part of the rock music scene in Yorkville, Toronto and later San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury and the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.

born-to-be-wild1By this time, Joachim Krauledat had taken to calling himself John Kay.  The band added a couple new members in 1967, changing their name to a character from a Herman Hesse novel.  “Steppenwolf”.

Steppenwolf became one of the world’s foremost rock bands, with standards like “The Pusher”, and “Monster”, releasing “Magic Carpet Ride” on this day in 1968. They gave us the term “Heavy Metal” with their rock anthem “Born to Be Wild”, but that didn’t refer to the music. “Heavy Metal Thunder” referred to large, loud, motorcycles.

Steppenwolf toured for over 40 years. There isn’t a Baby Boomer alive (or many of our kids), who wouldn’t read this and come away with one of their songs in his head. They’ve sold over 25 million records and licensed their songs in over 50 motion pictures. The music is iconic, from the sound track of the 1969 “Easy Rider” film to their last performance on July 24, 2010, at the three day HullabaLOU music festival in Louisville, Kentucky.

s1Steppenwolf gave us 22 albums, and we all know them in one way or another. Yet, the lead singer’s escape from the horrors of the Iron Curtain, is all but unknown. That, as Paul Harvey used to say, is the Rest of the Story.

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

September 26, 1995 Last Skate

There was nothing but potential in that rookie year, but that bright future was never meant to be.

Having come of age in this part of the world, it’s hard to imagine anyone over forty never having been to the old Boston Garden.

Originally built as a boxing venue, “The Garden” was then known as the Boston Madison Square Garden.

President Calvin Coolidge flipped a switch at the White House in November 1928, turning the lights on at the brand new arena.  Three days later, a crowd of 14,000 watched Dorchester native Dick “Honeyboy” Finnegan take the World featherweight championship away from French boxer Andre Routis, in a ten round decision.

From the earliest days, the Boston Garden was the site of political conventions, tennis matches, roller derbies and bike races.  There you could hear the sounds of a Christian revival one night, and a dance marathon the next.

FDR, Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower all delivered speeches from the floor of the Garden.  Legend has it that JFK mapped out his political strategy for the 1960 Presidential election, while watching a Bruins game.

I saw my first big-time rock concert, when Aerosmith played the Garden in 1975.

The Boston Celtics played to 16 championships on the old parquet, along with 19 Conference and 15 Division titles.

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Boston Garden is a painting by T Kolendera

Five times did the Bruins hold Lord Stanley’s Cup aloft on the home ice of the Garden, adding to 19 Eastern Division championships, two Conference championships, and a President’s trophy.

In the end, obstructed seats and a lack of air conditioning spelled the end for the Boston Garden.  On this day in 1995, Cam Neely scored the final goal in a 3-0 victory over the arch rival Montreal Canadiens.  There would be no more.

Many of the Greats of Boston hockey were there that night, to take a final skate around the Bruins’ home ice.   Johnny Bucyk was on-hand, along with Milt Schmidt.  There was Phil Esposito, Ray Bourque and Bobby Orr, and possibly the greatest, though few will remember the name of Normand Léveillé.

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A first-round draft pick in 1981, Léveillé scored 33 goals in his first 60 games with the Bruins.  There was nothing but potential in that rookie year, but that bright future was never meant to be.

On October 23, 1982, Boston was playing the Canucks in the ninth game of his second season.  Léveillé complained of feeling dizzy, and lost consciousness during trainers’ examination .  An aneurysm had burst inside of his head.  The delicate filaments of his brain were being torn apart, as a spider’s web is destroyed by a garden hose.

Emergency brain surgery was followed by three weeks in a coma.  At 19, Normand Léveillé would never play hockey again.  He was lucky to be alive.

boston-garden-finalBound to a wheelchair after thirteen years and barely able to stand without aid of a walker, Normand Léveillé came back to the Garden twenty-three years ago tonight, to skate there one last time.

Let sports reporter Brent Conklin finish this story:

“For the final skate, an ecstatic Léveillé held his cane in front of him, while Bourque, facing Léveillé, pulled him around the ice; the crowd clamored in approval as eyes throughout the Garden filled up with tears.

Léveillé’s girlfriend, Lucie Legare, said at the end of the ceremony: “He said the biggest emotion wasn’t to put on the (Bruins) sweater again, but to have his fellow men there, caring. I cried. It’s just too much.”

“It was the highlight of the day,” Orr said.

Thus ends a long chapter in the history of sports. And although the luxurious Fleet Center becomes the center of attention on Oct. 7 — when the Bruins open their season versus the New York Islanders — to the very last second of the post-game ceremony, memories were still being made and dreams realized at rickety old Boston Garden”.

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August 25, 1835 Hoax

Today we hear a lot about ‘Fake News’ but that’s nothing new.  On this day in 1835, the New York Sun published the first of a six-part series, about civilization on the moon.

Nine years ago, Richard and Mayumi Heene released a helium-filled gas balloon into the atmosphere, and claimed that their six-year-old son Falcon, was stuck inside. The world looked on in horror, as a young boy soared to altitudes of 7,000-feet. National Guard helicopters and local police, gave chase. The thing flew for more than an hour, only to come down with nobody on board. Rumors quickly turned into “reports”, that an object was seen falling from the balloon. A search was carried out, but revealed nothing.

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Later that day, the kid was found hiding in the attic. He’d apparently been there all day. In an interview with Wolf Blitzer for the Larry King Live television program, Falcon was asked why he’d been hiding. The boy turned to his father: “You guys said that, um, we did this for the show.” Busted. The Balloon Boy Hoax was born, for which Richard Heene was sentenced to 90 days in jail and ordered to pay $36,000, in restitution. Mayumi Heene was sentenced to 20 days in jail, to be served one weekend at a time.

Dino StampsThose of us of a certain age remember the “Thunder Lizard”, the Brontosaurus, that iconic dinosaur seemingly at the center of every museum display. The Sinclair Oil Company adopted the creature as its mascot. The United States Postal Service featured the animal, in a series of commemorative stamps.

Except that – oops – someone had put the wrong head on the thing and, the previously discovered ‘Apatasaurus’ was, in fact, a juvenile specimen of the same animal.

This wasn’t a ‘hoax’ so much as a mistake, forged by the great “Bone Wars”, of the 19th century. Dinosaur enthusiasts accused the Postal Service of fostering ‘scientific illiteracy’. An ironic charge, given the number of museums that had mislabeled the animal, for over a century.

The dearly departed Brontosaurus was more a mistake, than a hoax. Not so “The Earliest Englishman”, a few fossils discovered near the village of Piltdown.  Between 1911-’12,  a portion of a skull was discovered along with a jawbone and a few teeth. It was the ‘missing link’ between apes and humans.  Years of scientific thought would be spent, reconstructing the life and times of ‘Piltdown Man’, and fitting the creature into the narrative of our shared, evolutionary history.

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In 1953, the British Museum of Natural History revealed the whole thing to have been a fabrication, a clever hoax carried out with modern bones most likely those of an orangutan, and treated with chemicals to make them appear much older.

Today we hear a lot about ‘Fake News’ but that’s nothing new.  On this day in 1835, the New York Sun published the first of a six-part series, about civilization on the moon.

The “Great Moon Hoax”, ostensibly reprinted from The Edinburgh Courant, was falsely attributed to the work of Sir John Herschel, the most prominent astronomer, of his time.

The byline was that of the non-existent Dr. Andrew Grant, ostensibly a colleague of Dr. Herschel.  Herschel had in fact traveled to Capetown South Africa in January 1834, to set up an observatory with a powerful new telescope.

The articles took this one slender reed and ran with it, describing a 24-foot-wide behemoth instrument revealing fantastic creatures on the Moon, including bison, goats, unicorns and a two-legged creature resembling a beaver with no tail, that walked upright and carried its young in the manner of human mothers.   There were temple-building, vegetarian, furry bat-like humanoids, called “Vespertilio-homo”.

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The articles described palm trees and lush forests, with flowers and rushing rivers.  There were valleys with melon trees, and all of it witnessed through “an immense telescope of an entirely new principle.”

Readers couldn’t get enough, and circulation figures shot up from day one.  A committee of oh-so serious Yale University scientific types traveled to New York, in search of the Edinburgh Journal articles. Panicked newspaper employees sent these guys back & forth between the printing and editorial offices, hoping to wear them out.  It worked.  The committee returned to New Haven empty handed, never realizing they’d been punked.

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That September, the Sun admitted the whole thing to have been a gag. Herschel himself knew nothing about it.  The astronomer was amused, noting that nothing in his own work was quite that interesting, but would later become irritated at the incessant questions of those who took the thing seriously.

British journalist and Sun reporter Richard Adams Locke confessed to writing the series, not as a hoax, but as satire. Locke set out to ridicule some of the more outlandish astronomical theories then in publication, by the likes of Munich University professor of Astronomy Franz von Paula Gruithuisen, and his “Discovery of Many Distinct Traces of Lunar Inhabitants, Especially of One of Their Colossal Buildings.”  Of course, it didn’t hurt that such a sensational tale as civilization on the moon, would help sell newspapers.

Be that as it may, readers were amused, and newspaper circulation didn’t suffer. The Sun merged with the New York World-Telegram in 1950, and folded in 1967. The New York Sun newspaper founded in 2002, has no relation to the original.

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June 23, 1918 The Day the Clowns Cried

Strong men, bareback riders, trapeze performers and acrobats were killed instantly and others horribly maimed, as wooden circus cars telescoped into one another.  Confused and bleeding survivors stumbled from the wreckage, as gas-fed lanterns began to set fire to all that wood.

rome_hbo_image__3___medium_There is an oft-repeated but mistaken notion that the circus goes back to Roman antiquity.  The panem et circenses, (bread and circuses)” of Juvenal, ca AD100, refers more to the ancient precursor of the racetrack, than to anything resembling a modern circus. The only common denominator is the word itself, the Latin root ‘circus’, translating into English, as “circle”.

The father of the modern circus is the British Sergeant-Major turned showman, Philip Astley.  A talented horseman, Astley opened a riding school near the River Thames in 1768, where he taught in the morning and performed ‘feats of horsemanship’ in the afternoon.  Equestrian and trick riding shows were gaining popularity all over Europe at this time, performers riding in circles to maintain balance while standing on the backs of galloping horses.  It didn’t hurt matters, that the “ring” made it easier for spectators to view the event.

s-l1600These afternoon shows gained overwhelming popularity by 1770, and Astley hired acrobats, rope-dancers, and jugglers to fill the spaces between equestrian events.  The modern circus, was born.

From that day to this, the “Fancy Pants” dresses in red tailcoat and top hat, evocative of British fox hunting garb. This “Announcer” is commonly (and mistakenly) called the “ringmaster”, while the true ring master is the “equestrian director”, standing in the center of the ring and pacing horses for the riding acts.

In 1825, Joshuah Purdy Brown of Somers New York replaced the wooden structure common to European circuses with a canvas tent, around the time when cattle dealer Hachaliah Bailey bought a young African elephant, and began to exhibit the animal all over the country.

The exotic animal angle was a great success.  Other animals were added, and farmers were soon leaving their fields to get into the traveling menagerie business.  The unique character of the American traveling circus emerged in 1835, when 135 such farmers and menagerie owners combined with three affiliated circuses to form the American Zoological Institute.

Phineas Taylor Barnum and William Cameron Coup launched P.T. Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie & Circus in 1871, where the “museum” part was a separate exhibition of human and animal oddities.  It wouldn’t be long, before the ‘sideshow” became a regular feature of the American circus.

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There have been no fewer than 81 major circuses in American history, and countless “Dog & Pony” shows, programs so small as to include only a few family members and an assistant or two, with a couple of trained animals.  And all this time, I thought ‘Dog & Pony Show’ referred to the United States Congress.

The ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ closed for the last time on Sunday, May 21 2017, when ‘animal rights activists’ and changing tastes in entertainment finished the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus, ending a 146-year run.

In the mid-19th century, German animal trainer Carl Hagenbeck toured Europe with “ethnographical” spectacles, combining animals with native peoples such as the Sámi of the Scandinavian peninsula, complete with reindeer and sleds. Hagenbeck was among the first to develop animal training methods based on trust and reward rather than pain Hagenbeck-Wallace_Circusand fear, his demonstrations emphasizing the animal’s intelligence and tractability over ferocity.

In 1906, Hagenbeck sold his traveling animal show to American circus operator Benjamin Wallace, before going on to develop open zoological gardens and native panoramas which would be familiar to today’s zoo enthusiast, rather than the barred cells of his day.

The American war machine was spinning up to peak operational capacity in 1918, as the industrial might of the nation pursued an end to the war ‘over there’.

Hagenbeck-Wallace was one of the premier circuses of the day, moving about the country on three trains and employing no fewer than 1,000 roustabouts and assorted performers.

In the small hours of  June 22, an engineer with the Michigan Central Railroad was at the wheel of Train No. 41, an empty 21-car troop train.  Automatic signals and flares and at least one frantic signalman should have warned the driver that a stalled train lay on the track ahead, but he missed them all.  Alonzo Sargent was asleep at the wheel.

The following day, newspapers across the country told the story of  what happened next.

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On June 22, the circus was scheduled to appear at the Show Grounds at 150th and Calumet Avenue in Hammond, Indiana.  In the early morning darkness, an overheated axle box required one train to make an unscheduled stop.  It was 4am and most of the circus’ employees were asleep, when the Michigan Central locomotive smashed into the rear of the stalled train.

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The Hammond circus train wreck was one of the worst such accidents, in history.  Strong men, bareback riders, trapeze performers and acrobats were killed instantly and others horribly maimed, as wooden circus cars telescoped into one another.  Confused and bleeding survivors stumbled from the wreckage, as gas-fed lanterns began to set fire to all that wood.

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Hagenbeck-Wallace clown “Big Joe” Coyle

Those lucky enough to escape the horror were forced to watch in disbelief as friends, families and co-workers were incinerated alive.

Hours later a clown, “Big Joe” Coyle, could be seen weeping, beside the mangled bodies of his wife and two small boys.

127 were injured and an estimated 86 crushed or burned to death in the wreck.  The rumor mill went berserk.  Wild lions and tigers had escaped and were roaming the streets and back yards of Gary, Indiana.  Elephants died in an heroic attempt to put out the flames, spraying water on the burning wreckage with their trunks.

None of the stories were true.  The animals had passed through hours before on an earlier caravan, and now awaited a train which would never come.

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The Showmen’s League of America was formed in 1913, with Buffalo Bill Cody its first President.  The group had recently purchased a 750-plot parcel at the Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois and called it “Showmen’s Rest”, having no idea their investment would be used so soon.

A mass grave was dug for the unidentified and unidentifiable.  Some of the dead were roustabouts or temporary workers, hired only hours or days earlier.  Some performers were known only by stage names, their gravestones inscribed with names like “Four-Horse Driver”,  “Baldy” and “Smiley”.

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The Hagenbeck-Wallace circus was a big deal in those days.  Famed lion tamer Clyde Beatty was a member, as was a young Red Skelton, tagging along with his father, who worked as a clown.

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Only two shows had to be canceled, as erstwhile ‘competitors’ Barnum & Bailey and others lent workers, performers and equipment.  The show would go on.

In the world of elephants, an upraised trunk carries connotations of joy, while a lowered trunk symbolizes mourning.  At the Woodlawn cemetery of Chicago, five elephant statues circumscribe the mass grave of clowns, trapeze artists, strongmen and other circus performers.  Each has a foot raised with a ball underneath.  Every trunk, hangs low.  The largest of the five bears the inscription, “Showmen’s League of America.”  On the other four are inscribed the words “Showmen’s Rest”.