April 25, 1898 Newsies

As late as 1900, fully 18% of the American workforce was under the age of sixteen.

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US presidential election results from 1796 to 1820 gives a good idea of partisan press circulation, where Green shaded states usually voted for the Democratic-Republican Party, while brown shaded states supported the Federalist Party

During the early colonial period, American newspapers were “wretched little” sheets in the words of America’s “1st newsboy”, Benjamin Franklin.  Scarcely more than sidelines to keep presses occupied.

Newspapers were distributed by mail in the early years, thanks to generous subsidies from the Postal Act of 1792. In 1800, the United States could boast somewhere between 150 – 200 newspapers.  Thirty-five years later, some 1,200 were competing for readership.

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Lithograph from the “Great Moon Hoax” of 1835

Today we hear a lot about “fake news”, but that’s nothing new.  In 1835, the New York Sun published 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, one of the best known astronomers of his time.

Whatever it took, to sell newspapers.

Two years earlier, Sun publisher Benjamin Day ran a Help-Wanted advertisement, looking for adults to help expand circulation. “To the unemployed — A number of steady men can find employment by vending this paper. A liberal discount is allowed to those who buy and sell again“. To Day’s surprise, his ad didn’t produce adult applicants as expected.  Instead, the notice attracted children.

Today, kids make up a minimal part of the American workforce, but that wasn’t always so. Child labor played an integral part in the agricultural and handicraft economy, working on family farms or hiring out to other farmers.  Boys customarily apprenticed to the trades, at 10 – 14. As late as 1900, fully 18% of the American workforce was under the age of sixteen.

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Brooklyn newsboy, ca. 1910 Photo by Lewis Hine (Library of Congress)

Benjamin Day’s first newspaper “hawker” was Bernard Flaherty, a ten-year-old Irish immigrant. The kid was good at it too, crying out lurid headlines, to passers-by: “Double Distilled Villainy!” “Cursed Effects of Drunkenness!” “Awful Occurrence!” “Infamous Affair!” “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!”

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Hordes of street urchins swarmed the tenements and alleyways of American cities. During the 1870s, homeless children were estimated at 20,000 – 30,000 in New York alone, as much as 12% of school-age children in the city.

For thousands, newspapers were all that stood in the way of an empty belly.

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Homeless children sleeping in Mulberry Street district of New York, circa 1890

Adults had no interest in the minuscule income, and left the newsboys (and girls) to their own devices.  “Newsies” bought papers at discounted prices and peddled them on the street.    Others worked saloons and houses of prostitution.  They weren’t allowed to return any left unsold, and worked well into the night to sell every paper.

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For that, newsies earned about 30¢ a day.  Enough for a bite to eat, to afford enough papers to do it again the following day, and maybe a 5¢ bed in the newsboy’s home.

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Competition was ferocious among hundreds of papers, and business practices were lamentable.  In 1886, the Brooklyn Times tried a new idea. The city was expanding rapidly, swallowing up previously independent townships along the Long Island shore. The Times charged Western District newsboys a penny a paper, while Eastern District kids paid 1 1/5¢.

The plan was expected to “push sales vigorously in new directions.” It took about a hot minute for newsies to get wise, and hundreds of them descended on the Times’ offices with sticks and rocks. On March 29, several police officers and a driver’s bullwhip were needed to get the wagons out of the South 8th Street distribution offices. One of the trucks was overturned, later that day.

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That time, the newsboy strike lasted a couple of days, enforced by roving gangs of street kids and “backed by a number of roughs”. In the end, the Times agreed to lower its price to a penny apiece, in all districts. Other such strikes would not be ended so quickly, or so easily.

In those days, the Caribbean island of Cuba was ruled from Spain. After decades spent in the struggle for independence, many saw parallels between the “Cuba Libre” movement, and America’s own Revolution of the previous century.  In 1897-’98, few wanted war with Spain over Cuban interests more than Assistant Naval Secretary Theodore Roosevelt, and New York publishers Joseph Pulitzer & William Randolph Hearst.

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This was the height of the Yellow Journalism period, and newspapers clamored for war. Hearst illustrator Frederic Remington was sent to Cuba, to document “atrocities”.  On finding none, Remington wired: “There will be no war. I wish to return”.  Hearst wired back: “Please remain. You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.” President McKinley urged calm, but agreed to send the armored cruiser USS Maine, to protect US “interests”.

The explosion that sank the Maine on February 15 killing 268 Americans was almost certainly accidental, but that wouldn’t be known for decades. Events quickly spun out of control and, on April 21, 1898, the US blockaded the Caribbean island. Spain gave notice two days later, that it would declare war if US forces invaded its territory. Congress declared on April 25 that a state of war had existed between Spain and the United States, since the 21st.

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Several days later, newsboys were shouting the headline:  “How do you like the Journal’s war?”

The Spanish-American War was over in 3 months, 3 weeks and 2 days, but circulation was great while it lasted. Publishers cashed in, raising the cost of newsboy bundles from 50¢ to 60¢ – the increase temporarily offset by higher sales. Publishers reverted to 50¢ per 100 after the war, with the notable exceptions of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.

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Brooklyn newsboys, 1908

Newsies struck the two in 1899, refusing to sell their papers. 5,000 newsboys blocked the Brooklyn Bridge, bringing traffic to a standstill. Competing papers such as the New York Tribune couldn’t get enough of the likes of strike “President” Dave Simmons, the boy “prize-fighter”, Barney “Peanuts”, “Crutch” Morris, and others.  The charismatic, one-eyed strike leader “Kid Blink”, was a favorite: “Friens and feller workers. This is a time which tries de hearts of men. Dis is de time when we’se got to stick together like glue…. We know wot we wants and we’ll git it even if we is blind”.

Neither Hearst nor Pulitzer ever dropped their price, but they did agree to take back unsold papers.

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Some worked well after midnight, to sell every paper

Long before modern notions of child welfare, street kids had precious few to look out for them, beyond themselves.  “Dutch” Johnson, Brooklyn’s “Racetrack Newsie”, caught cold, in 1905.  The illness soon turned more serious, and he was found unconscious on a pile of catalogs.  Brought to Bellevue Hospital by the East River,  the 16-year-old was informed that it was pneumonia.  This was before the age of antibiotics.  There was no chance.

“It goes”, Dutch said, in a voice barely audible.  “Only I ain’t got no money and I’d like to be put away decent”.

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H/T http://newsieshistory.tumblr.com for this image

Bookmaker “Con” Shannon offered to take up a collection for the burial.  He could have easily produced hundreds from bookies and gamblers.   Dutch’s diminutive successor “Boston”, spoke up.  “Naw”, he said “we’re on de job and nobody else”.  So it was that “Gimpy”, “Dusty”, and the other urchins of Sheepshead Bay pitched in with their pennies, their nickels and their dimes.  $53.40 bought the plot in Linden Hill Cemetery, with its small stone marker.  Not a plain black wagon and a nameless grave in some Potter’s Field.

 

 

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.
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April 24, 1959 The Day the Music Died

There’s a popular story that the 1947 Beechcraft Bonanza was called “American Pie”, but the story is a myth. The single engine airplane bore only the tail number: N3794N.

Jiles Richardson was a Texas DJ in 1958, the year he found recording success of his own with a song called “Chantilly Lace”.

Richie Valenzuela was only 16 when Del-Fi Records producer Bob Keane discovered the singer in California. “Donna”, a song he had written for his high school sweetheart Donna Ludwig, was on the way to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, right alongside the 45’s “B” side, an old Mexican standard turned Rock & Roll tune called “La Bamba”. By 1958 he was one of the hottest young recording artists of his time.

Charles Hardin Holley, “Buddy” to his friends and family, learned guitar, four-string banjo and lap steel guitar from his older brothers, Travis and Larry. The boy took to music at an early age, winning his first talent contest at the age of five. A music critic would one day describe the Lubbock Texas native as “the single most influential creative force in early rock and roll.” Contemporary and later musicians claiming inspiration from his work include the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Elvis Costello.

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58 years ago, his name changed as the result of a misspelling in a recording contract, Holly was headliner of the “The Winter Dance Party Tour”. Richardson, performing as the “Big Bopper” and Valenzuela, professionally known as Ritchie Valens, were on the tour, along with Dion and the Belmonts, Holly’s friend from Lubbock and fellow musician Waylon Jennings, and a young Owasso, Oklahoma Rockabilly musician and former “Crickets” band member, an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation named Tommy Allsup.

The musical tour included 24 cities in 3 weeks, a grueling schedule under the best of circumstances, but theirs were anything but the best. The tour bus had no heat, and a three-week winter bus tour of the upper Midwest is no place to be without heat. It was so cold that Holly’s drummer, Carl Bunch, suffered frostbite in his feet and left the tour in Clear Lake, Iowa.

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Holly was sick of it, and decided to charter a plane for himself and some of his guys. At least that would give him time to do laundry before the next performance.

Dwyer Flying Service got the charter with a 1947 Beechcraft Bonanza, at $36 per person. There’s a popular story that the four-seater aircraft was called “American Pie”, but the story is a myth. The single engine airplane bore only the tail number: N3794N.

Richardson was running a fever at the time, so Waylon Jennings gave up his seat so the Big Bopper could ride in comfort. Allsup and Valens flipped a coin for the last seat, the coin landing heads up. Ritchie Valens had won the coin toss.

On learning that Jennings wasn’t going to fly, Holly said “Well, I hope your old bus freezes up.” Jennings replied “Well, I hope your plane crashes.” It was just a good ribbing between friends, but the comment would haunt Jennings for the rest of his life.

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N3794N left the ground in a snowstorm, shortly after 1:00am on February 3. The pilot, Roger Peterson, may have been inexperienced with the instrumentation, or he may have become disoriented in near whiteout conditions. One wing hit the ground in a cornfield outside of Clear Lake, and the aircraft corkscrewed into the ground, throwing the three musicians clear of the plane. There was no fire, just a small aircraft being swallowed up in a snow covered cornfield.  The bodies would lie in the field until late that afternoon.

The show would go on. Needing to fill in at the next stop in Moorhead, Minnesota, they found a 15 year old talent across the state line in Fargo, and so began the musical career of Bobby Vee.

download (97)A boy named Don McLean heard about the plane crash while doing his morning paper route. One day, the future singer/songwriter would pen the words “February made me shiver, with every paper I’d deliver”.

Allsup returned to Odessa, resuming his musical career and opening a club in Dallas. in 1979. He called it “Tommy’s Heads Up Saloon”, after the coin toss that saved his life.

Distraught, Buddy Holly’s widow miscarried their only child, shortly after the wreck.  His last song reached #1 on the UK charts on April 24, 1959, the first posthumous release ever to do so.  In the US the song charted at 13 on the Billboard Hot 100, it would be his last top 20 hit in the country.  The name of the song, was “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore.”

Inscribed on Ritchie Valens’ gravestone are the words, “Come On, Let’s Go.”  The last surviving member of Buddy Holly’s 1959 touring band “The Crickets” passed away last year, on January 11.  Tommy Allsup was 85.

 

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.

March 31, 2016 A Talent for Music

The 1104th worked to find and defuse explosives, though on several occasions, the unit had to drop its tools and fight as Infantry.

James and Kate Kaminski’s little bundle of joy came into the world on June 26th 1926, in Brooklyn.

The Kaminskis named this, their fourth son, Melvin James. The elder James died of tuberculosis at 34, when the boy was only two. A small Jewish kid growing up in a tough Brooklyn neighborhood, Kaminsky learned the value of being able to crack a joke. “Growing up in Williamsburg”, he said, “I learned to clothe it in comedy to spare myself problems—like a punch in the face”.

download (41)The boy had a talent for music. He was taught by another kid from Williamsburg, named Buddy Rich.  By 14 he was good enough to be playing drums for money.

Melvin attended a year at Brooklyn College before being drafted into the Army, in WWII. After attending Army Specialized Training at VMI, Corporal Kaminsky joined the 1104th Combat Engineers Battalion of the 78th Infantry Division, in the European theater.  There, he served through the end of the war.

He and his unit worked to find and defuse explosives, though on several occasions, the 1104th had to drop its tools and fight as Infantry.

download (40)At one point, Kaminsky’s unit gathered along a River. The Americans were so close they could hear German soldiers singing a beer hall song, from the other side. Kaminsky grabbed a bullhorn and serenaded the Germans back, crooning out an old tune that Al Jolson used to perform, in black face:  “Toot Toot Tootsie, Goodbye”.  After he was done, polite applause could be heard, drifting across the river.  I can’t imagine many Allied soldiers ever tried singing to their Nazi adversaries, during World War II.  The ones who actually pulled it off, must number precisely, one.

Kaminski went into show business after the war, playing drums and piano in the Borscht Belt resorts and nightclubs of the Catskills. It was around this time that he took his professional name, adopting his mother’s maiden name of Brookman and calling himself “Mel Brooks”.

images (45)Brooks started doing stand-up, when the regular comedian at one of the clubs was too sick to perform. By ’49 he was “Tummler”, the master entertainer at Grossinger’s, one of the most famous resorts in the Borscht Belt.

Soon he was making $50 a week writing for his buddy Sid Caesar and his NBC program “The Admiral Broadway Review”.

In 1968, Mel Brooks wrote and produced the satirical comedy film “The Producers”, about a theatrical producer and an accountant who set out to fleece their investors. The scheme was to create a play so awful that it was sure to flop on Broadway, then to abscond to Brazil with investors’ money.  The problems started, when the show turned out to be a hit. The fictional play is a musical, called “Springtime for Hitler”.  Even before the time when taking offense became an industry, I don’t know many guys beside Mel Brooks who could have gotten away with that one.

There isn’t one of us who doesn’t know his work. Three of his movies made the American Film Institute’s top 100 list of comedy films.  From the 2,000 year old man with “over forty-two thousand children, and not one comes to visit me” to Blazing Saddles’ “Candygram for Mongo” (“Mongo likes candy”).

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“As long as the world is turning and spinning”, Brooks says, “we’re gonna be dizzy and we’re gonna make mistakes”.

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Brooks has risen to the top of his chosen profession, winning the coveted “EGOT”, an acronym for the entertainment industry’s four major awards, the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. Only eleven others have ever risen to this level: Richard Rodgers, Helen Hayes, Rita Moreno, John Gielgud, Audrey Hepburn, Marvin Hamlisch, Jonathan Tunick, Mike Nichols, Whoopi Goldberg, Scott Rudin, and Robert Lopez.  As of this date, Brooks only needs another Oscar to be the first “Double EGOT”, in history.

Two years ago, March 31, 2016, the Averhill Park K-12 School District in upstate New York kicked off a three-day production of “Young Frankenstein”.  Let me know if you can think of another 90-year-old guy, who remains that current.  I can’t think of one.

“Well, just being stupid and politically incorrect doesn’t work. You can be politically incorrect if you’re smart”.

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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.

March 22, 2228 Final Frontier

Kirk was killed in 2329 on the Enterprise (B), after the ship was eaten by a Nexus energy ribbon on its maiden voyage. Only he didn’t die, because Jean-Luc Picard found him alive in the timeless Nexus, negotiating hotel deals for Priceline.com. Or something like that.

On this day in the year 2228, a boy was born to George and Winona Kirk. He would go on to become the youngest captain in Starfleet history but, before he could boldly go where no man has gone before, he had to have a name.

The former WWII fighter pilot and veteran of 89 combat missions Gene Roddenberry had 16 suggestions for a name, among them “Hannibal”, “Timber”, “Flagg”, and “Raintree”.  The television screenwriter and producer decided on James T. Kirk, based on a journal entry from the 18th century British explorer, Captain James Cook, who wrote “ambition leads me … farther than any other man has been before me“.

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Kirk was killed in 2329 on the Enterprise (B), after the ship was eaten by a Nexus energy ribbon on its maiden voyage. Only he didn’t die, because Jean-Luc Picard found him alive in the timeless Nexus, negotiating hotel deals for Priceline.com. Or something like that.

In his 1968 book “Making of Star Trek“, Roddenberry writes that James Kirk was born in a small town in Iowa. Full time “Trekkie” and part time Riverside, Iowa Councilman Steve Miller thought “Why not Riverside”. In 1985, Miller moved that Riverside declare itself the Future Birthplace of James T. Kirk. The motion passed unanimously. Miller poked a stick into the ground behind the barber shop, (good thing he owned the property), declaring that this was the place.  An engraved monument was erected, and so it was.  Riverside, population 963, became the “Future Birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk.  A bench was added later, along with a Shuttlecraft-shaped donation box.

jk6Riverside’s official slogan was changed from “Where the best begins” to “Where the Trek begins,” the annual “River Fest” summer festival, became “Trek Fest”.

Star Trek fans, ever-jealous protectors of series trivia, sometimes wonder why the March 22, 2228 date on the Riverside monument differs from the March 22, 2233 date usually cited as Kirk’s future birthday. The 2233 date didn’t come around until eight years after the monument, with the publication The Star Trek Chronology: The History of the Future. 2228 or 2233 you can take your pick, but both agree on March 22, which happens to be William Shatner’s birthday.

download (24)In case you ever wondered what the “T” stands for – its “Tiberius”.

The Space Foundation of Colorado Springs bills itself as “the world’s premier organization to inspire, educate, connect, and advocate on behalf of the global space community“.  A 2010 survey conducted by the organization found that James Tiberius Kirk was voted the 6th “most inspirational space hero of all time“, tied with Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.  Tied for 6th place, with the first human in space.  A guy who went there, and came back.  A guy who…you know…actually…exists.

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.

February 8, 1960 Of Dogs and Dolls

If you’ve ever loved a dog, I need not explain the final stanza.

At 256 tons with a barrel of 111′ 7″, the German super gun hurled 38″ shells into the city of Paris, from a range of 75 miles. If you were there in 1918, you may never have heard of the “Paris gun”. You’d have been well aware of the damage it caused.  You never knew you were under attack from this thing, until the explosion. The lucky ones were those who lived to see the 4’ deep, 10’-12’ wide crater.

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“Paris Gun”, 1918

image1361Parisian children made little good luck charms, as “protection” from the Paris gun. They were tiny pairs of handmade dolls, joined together by scraps of yarn.  Their names were Nénette and Rintintin

The dolls were said to provide protection for their owners, but only under certain circumstances. You couldn’t make your own and you couldn’t buy them, they had to be given to you, as a gift. They also had to remain attached, or else the little dolls would lose their protective powers.

That July, one observer noted: “It is taking a long chance in these wild days of war . . . to go about unprotected by a Nénette and Rintintin. Curious little mascot dolls they are, that have taken Paris by storm. . . . But their charm is not to be purchased. Until you have been presented with a Nénette and Rintintin, you have not their sweet protection; and if you have the one without the other, the charm is broken.”

42ffc2cfe8f593f96a1bd77e07dcfc8cUS Army Air Service Corporal Lee Duncan was in Paris at this time, with the 135th Aero Squadron. Duncan was aware of the custom, he may even have been given such a talisman himself.

In the wake of the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, Corporal Duncan was sent forward to the small village of Flirey, to check out the area’s suitability for an airfield. The village was heavily damaged by shellfire, and Duncan came upon the shattered remains of a dog pound. Once, this kennel had provided Alsatians (German Shepherd Dogs) to the Imperial German Army. Now, the only dogs left alive were a starving mother and five nursing puppies, so young that their eyes were still closed.

Corporal Duncan cared for them, selling several once the puppies were weaned. He sold the mother to an officer and three puppies to fellow airmen, keeping two for himself. Like those little yarn dolls, Duncan felt those two puppies were his good luck charms. He called them Nanette and Rin Tin Tin.

Returning home after the war, Duncan placed the dogs with a police dog breeder and trainer in Long Island. Nanette contracted pneumonia and died, the breeder giving Duncan a female puppy, “Nanette II”, to replace her.

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Etzel von Oeringen was born on October 1, 1917 in Quedlinburg Germany, trained as a police dog and serving in the German Red Cross, during WW1.  Left impoverished after the war and unable to support even a dog, his owner declined larger offers in preference to the most humane option, selling him to a friend in White Plains, New York.

Rin Tin Tin signed photoBetter known as “Strongheart”, Etzel appeared in silent films throughout the ’20s, becoming the first major canine film star and credited with enormously increasing the popularity of the breed.

A friend of silent film actor Eugene Pallete, Duncan became convinced that Rin Tin Tin could become the next canine movie star.  “I was so excited over the motion-picture idea”, Duncan wrote, “that I found myself thinking of it night and day.”

Walking his dog on “Poverty Row”, 1920s slang for B movie studios, did the trick. Rin Tin Tin got his first film break in 1922, replacing a camera shy wolf in “The Man from Hell’s River”. His first starring role in the 1923 “Where the North Begins”, is credited with saving Warner Brothers Studios from bankruptcy.

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Rin Tin Tin

Between-the-scenes silent film “intertitles” were easily changed from one language to another, and Rin Tin Tin films enjoyed international distribution. In 1927, Rin Tin Tin was voted Most Popular Actor by Berlin audiences.

There’s a Hollywood legend that may or may not be true, that Rin Tin Tin received the most votes for Best Actor at the 1st Academy Awards, in 1929.  Inclined to take themselves oh-so seriously and wanting a human actor, the Academy threw out the ballots. German actor Emil Jannings got Best Actor on the 2nd ballot.

Rin Tin Tin appeared in 27 feature length silent films, 4 “talkies”, and countless commercials and short films. Regular programming was interrupted to announce his passing on August 10, 1932, at the age of 13.

An hour-long program about his life was broadcast the following day.

Suffering from the Great Depression like so many others, Duncan couldn’t afford a fancy funeral. By this time, he couldn’t even afford the house he lived in.

Duncan sold the house and returned the body of his beloved German Shepherd to the country of his birth, where Rin Tin Tin was buried in the Cimetière des Chiens et Autres Animaux Domestiques, in the Parisian suburb of Asnières-sur-Seine.

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WW2 K-9 Recruiting poster, featuring Rin Tin Tin III

Duncan continued breeding the line, careful to preserve the physical qualities and intelligence of the original, while avoiding the less desirable traits that crept into other GSD bloodlines.

Duncan may have been obsessive about it, at least according to Mrs. Duncan. When she filed for divorce, she named Rin Tin Tin as co-respondent.

Rin Tin Tin and Nanette II produced at least 48 puppies.

Unique among the belligerents of WW1, the United States was the only country with no service dogs among its military forces.  The next war, was a different story.  The United States Armed Forces had an extensive K-9 program in WW2, when private citizens were asked to donate their dogs to the war effort.

One such dog was “Chips”, the most decorated K-9 of the war.  Rin Tin Tin III, reputed to be grandson to the original but likely a more distant relation, helped to promote the program.

Rin Tin Tin was awarded his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on February 8, 1960. Lee Duncan passed away later that same year.

At some point, Duncan had written a poem, one man’s tribute to a beloved companion animal, who was no more.

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“Lee Duncan, 67, holds a pair of Rin Tin Tin’s descendants, Rin Tin Tin 5 and 6, in 1958”. H/T NPR.org, for this image

If you’ve ever loved a dog, I need not explain his final stanza.

“…A real unselfish love like yours, old pal,
Is something I shall never know again;
And I must always be a better man,
Because you loved me greatly, Rin Tin Tin”.

 

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 too. 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.

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February 2, 1887 Groundhog Day

Midway between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox and well before the first crocus of spring has peered out across the frozen tundra, there is a moment of insanity which helps those of us living in northern climes get through to that brief, blessed moment of warmth when the mosquitoes once again have their way with us.

Here on sunny Cape Cod, there is a joke about the four seasons. We have “Almost Winter”, “Winter”, “Still Winter” and “Bridge Construction”.

images (16)Midway between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox and well before the first crocus of spring has peered out across the frozen tundra, there is a moment of insanity which helps those of us living in northern climes get through to that brief, blessed moment of warmth when the mosquitoes once again have their way with us.

The ancient Romans observed their mid-season festival on February 5, the pagan Irish on February 1. For Christians, it was February 2, Candlemas day, a Christian holiday celebrating the ritual purification of Mary. For reasons not entirely clear, early Christians believed that there would be six more weeks of winter if the sun came out on Candlemas Day.

Clergy would bless and distribute candles needed for winter, their length representing how long and cold the winter was expected to be. Germans expanded on the idea by selecting an animal, a hedgehog, as a means of predicting weather. Once a suitable number of Germans had come to America, they switched over to a more local rodent: Marmota monax.  The common Groundhog.

groundhogpuppetGroundhogs hibernate for the winter, an ability held in great envy by some people I know. During that time, their heart rate drops from 80 beats per minute to 5, and they live off their stored body fat.  Another ability some of us would appreciate, very much.

The male couldn’t care less about the weather.  He comes out of his burrow in February, in search of a date.  If uninterrupted, he will fulfill his groundhog mission of love and return to earth, not coming out for good until sometime in March.

But then there is the amorous woodchuck’s worst nightmare in a top hat.  The groundhog hunter.

In 1887, there was a group of groundhog hunters in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, imaginatively calling themselves the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. One of them, a newspaper editor, declared on February 2, 1887, that their groundhog “Phil” was the only True weather forecasting rodent.

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There are those who would dispute the Gobbler’s Knob crowd and their claims to Punxsutawney Phil’s weather forecasting prowess. Alabama has “Birmingham Bill”, and Canada has Shubenacadie Sam. New York can’t seem to decide between Staten Island Chuck and New York City’s very own official groundhog, “Pothole Pete”.  North Carolinians look to “Queen Charlotte” and “Sir Walter Wally”, and Georgia folks can take their choice between “Gus”, and “General Beauregard Lee”.

Since the eponymously named Bill Murray film from 1993, nothing seems to rise to the appropriate level of insanity, more than Groundhog Day drinking games. For the seasoned Groundhog enthusiast, “beer breakfasts” welcome the end of winter, across the fruited plain. If you’re in the Quaker state, you can attend the Groundhog day “Hawaiian Shirt Beer Breakfast”, at Philadelphia’s own Grey Lodge Public House. If you’re in Des Moines, stop by the The High Life Lounge, where free Miller High Life beers will be served from 6am, to eleven. And for the late sleeper, there is the annual screening of the Bill Murray Masterpiece, at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema Beer Dinner.

Fun fact: Bill Murray was bitten, not once but twice, by the groundhog used on the set.

groundhog-day-driving

It appears that there is no word for groundhog in Arabic, accounts of this day in the Arab press translate the word as جرذ الأرض.  “Ground Rat”.  I was pretty excited to learn that before al Jazeera gets carted off, toe tag first.

If anyone were to bend down and ask Mr. Ground Rat his considered opinion on the matter, he would probably cast a pox on all their houses. It’s been a long winter. Mr. Ground Rat’s all dressed up for a date.  He has other things on his mind.

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October 30, 1938 War of the Worlds

Traffic was jammed in both directions in the little town of Grover’s Mill, NJ, 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. It was the God of Death to the Babylonians of 3000BC, 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 that story to life.

1920s-radioThe 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.

A short time later, another “news flash” reported that there had been 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.

mars1The 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’s 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.

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 Grovers 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 a Martian looked like.

images (5) The New York Times reported on Oct. 31, “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”.

The USA Today newspaper, reporting on the 75th anniversary of the broadcast, reported “The broadcast … disrupted households, interrupted religious services, created traffic jams and clogged communications systems,”

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