November 3, 1954 Godzilla

He was a Kaiju, a Japanese word meaning “strange creature”, more specifically a “daikaiju”, meaning a really, really big one.

In 1954, the fishing boat Daigo Fukuryū Maru (“Lucky Dragon No.5”) was working the grounds near the Marshall Islands, in the equatorial Pacific. At 6:45am local time, March 1, 23 fishermen were witness to “Castle Bravo”,  a thermonuclear test explosion that lit up the western sky “like a sunrise”.  Then came the sound the explosion.  The TX-21 device with a predicted yield of 6 megatons, and code named “Shrimp”.

For eight minutes, these twenty-three men watched the mushroom cloud rise into the sky.  An hour and one-half later came the fallout, the fine white dust, calcinated coral of the Bikini atoll, falling like snow from the sky.

None of the twenty-three crew members of the Lucky Dragon recognized the material as hazardous, and made no effort to avoid exposure.  Some even tasted the stuff.

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A few fishermen developed acute radiation sickness, over the next three days.   By the time of their return to Yaizu on the 14th, all 23 were suffering from nausea, headaches, bleeding from the gums, and other symptoms.  One was destined to die of a liver disorder on September 23,  a complication of radiation sickness.  They had entered the ranks of the “hibakusha”.  The “explosion-effected people”.

The atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were only nine years in the past at this time, and a fierce anti-nuclear sentiment was building in Japan. In this context, there arose a metaphor for all that destruction. Literally rising from the sea, this product of the Japanese entertainment industry took the form of a monster. “Godzilla”, Ishirō Honda’s first film released by Toho Studios, this day in 1954.

The name is a portmanteau, two words combined to form a third, of the Japanese word “gorira”, (gorilla), and “kujira”, meaning whale.  Godzilla was the Gorilla Whale, with the head of a Tyrannosaur, Stegasaur-like plates on his back and skin modeled after the keloid scarring of the hibakusha.

The original Godzilla (“ɡodʑiɽa”) was awakened by atomic testing and impervious to any but a nuclear weapon. Emerging from the depths with his atomic breath, havoc and destruction was always accompanied by the distinctive roar, a sound effect made by rubbing a resin glove down the strings of a bass violin, then changing the speed at playback.

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The actor who played Godzilla in the original films, Haruo Nakajima, was a black belt in Judo. His expertise was used to choreograph the monster’s movements, defining the standard for most of the Godzilla films, to follow.

Originally an “it”, Godzilla was usually depicted as a “he”, although that became a little complicated with the 1998 American remake “Zilla”, when he started laying eggs.

He was a Kaiju, a Japanese word meaning “strange creature”, more specifically a “daikaiju”, meaning a really, really big one. Godzilla is the best known, but certainly not the only such creature. You may remember other kaiju, including Gamera, Mothra, King Ghidorah, Mechagodzilla and Rodan.

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Godzilla has appeared in 28 original films, with more in the works. Over the course of his existence he has been a hero, a villain, and a destructive but values-neutral force of nature.

Godzilla got his own star on the Hollywood “Walk of Fame” in 2004, timed to coincide with the release of the 29th movie, “Godzilla: Final Wars.” Instead of nuclear weapons testing, this version was spawned by “environmental pollution”. It takes the superheroes of the “Earth Defense Organization” (but, of course) to freeze him back into the ice of the South Pole. The film was a flop, grossing less than $12 million after a production budget of $19 million.

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The franchise came roaring back ten years later, when Godzilla was released in 2014, grossing $200 million domestically and $529.1 million on worldwide sales.

A film franchise 64 years in the making is still going strong, and will continue to do so, for the foreseeable future. Godzilla: King of the Monsters is set to be released in 2019 and Godzilla vs. Kong, in 2020.

Tip of the hat to http://www.mykaiju.com, for most of the images used in this 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.
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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!’.

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.

October 6, 1945 The Curse of the Billy Goat

Red Sox fans are well aware of the famous choke in game 6 of the ‘86 World Series, resulting in the line “What does Billy Buckner have in common with Michael Jackson? They both wear one glove for no apparent reason”. What my fellow Sox fans may not be aware of, is that the former Cub was wearing a Chicago batting glove under his mitt. For “luck”.

For a Red Sox fan, there was nothing sweeter than the 2004 World Series victory ending the curse of the Bambino.  Babies grew up and had babies of their own during that time. There were grandchildren and great grandchildren, and sometimes even great-greats, and still the drought wore on. It was 86 years, the third-longest World Series championship drought in Major League Baseball history.

Long suffering fans of the Chicago White Sox endured the second-longest such championship dearth, following the “Black Sox” scandal of 1919.  For 88 years, that mournful cry came down through the ages:  “Say it ain’t so, Joe”.

curse-of-the-billy-goatYet, the suffering inflicted by the curse of the Black Sox and that of the Bambino, pales in comparison with the 108-year drought afflicting the Chicago Cubs since back-to-back championships in 1907/1908.  And they say it’s the fault of a Billy goat.

It was game four of the World Series between the Cubbies and the Detroit Tigers, October 6, 1945, with Chicago home at Wrigley Field. Billy Sianis, owner of the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago, bought tickets for himself and his pet goat “Murphy”.  Really.

Now, goats don’t smell any sweeter than most other livestock, save for the male in rut.  This part of the animals fertility cycle happens in the fall for many breeds and, while it’s pure speculation, the oft-repeated expression “smells like a goat”, comes to mind.  There are different versions of the story, but they all end with the pair being ejected, and Billy casting a curse. “Them Cubs“, he said, “they ain’t gonna win no more“.

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Sianis’ family claims that he sent a telegram to team owner Philip Wrigley reading, “You are going to lose this World Series and you are never going to win another World Series again. You are never going to win a World Series again because you insulted my goat.”
Billy Sianis was right. The Cubs were up two games to one at the time, but they went on to lose the series. They’ve been losing ever since.

Sam-and-Bill-Sianis-owners-of-Chicago-s-Billy-Goat-Tavern-2015Billy Sianis himself is gone now, but they brought his nephew Sam onto the field with a goat in 1984, to help break the curse.  They did it again in 1989, 1994 and 1998, and always the same result.

The Florida Marlins taunted the Cubs in August of 2009, parading a goat in front of the Cub’s dugout between the second and third innings. Chicago manager Lou Piniella was not amused, though the Cubs squeaked by with that one, 9-8.

In 2003, the year of the goat on the Chinese calendar, a group of Cubs fans brought a goat named Virgil Homer to Houston, during the division championship series. They couldn’t get him into Minute Maid Park, so they unfurled a scroll outside and proclaimed the End of the Curse.

Ol’ Virgil got them through that series, but the curse came roaring back in game 6 of the NL championship. It was Cubbies 3, Florida Marlins 0 in the 8th inning of game 6. Chicago was ahead in the series, when lifelong Cubbies fan Steve Bartman reached down and deflected a ball that should have easily been caught by Chicago outfielder Moisés Alou. The Marlins came back with 8 unanswered runs in the inning, while Bartman required a police escort to get out of the field alive.

cubsFor fourteen years, Chicago mothers frightened wayward children into behaving, with the name of Steve Bartman.

In 2008, a Greek Orthodox priest sprinkled holy water around the Cubs dugout. Goat carcasses and parts have appeared at Wrigley Field on multiple occasions, usually draped across the statue of Harry Caray.

Five fans set out on foot with a goat from the Cubs’ Spring Training facility in 2012.  “Crack the Curse” was supposed to do it.  These guys walked 1,764 miles from Mesa, Arizona to Wrigley Field. The effort raised a lot of money for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, but the curse of the Billy goat remained serene, and unbreakable.

Red Sox fans are well aware of the famous choke in game 6 of the ‘86 World Series, resulting in the line “What does Billy Buckner have in common with Michael Jackson? They both wear one glove for no apparent reason”. What my fellow Sox fans may not be aware of, is that the former Cub was wearing a Chicago batting glove under his mitt. For “luck”.

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2015 was the Year of the Goat on the Chinese zodiac. In September, five “competitive eaters” consumed a 40-pound goat in 13 minutes and 22 seconds at Chicago’s “Taco in A Bag”. The goat was gone. Surely that would work. The Cubs made it all the way to the National League Championships, only to be broomed by the New York Mets.

Mets 2nd baseman Daniel Murphy was the NLCS MVP that year, setting a postseason record for consecutive games with a home run. Mets fans joked that, Murphy may be the Greatest of All Time (GOAT), but he wasn’t the first.

1913MilwaukeeBrewers_goatThe cookies pictured above were baked in 2016, and that might’ve finally done it.  That’s right.  The Mother of all Droughts came to a halt in extra innings of game seven, following a 17-minute rain delay.  At long last, Steve Bartman could emerge from Chicago’s most unforgiving doghouse, his way now lit by his own World Series ring. The ghost of Billy Sianis’ goat, may finally rest in peace.

In reading up for this story, I discovered that the 1913/1914 Milwaukee Brewers roster included a nanny goat, called Fatima. Honest.  I wouldn’t kid you about a thing like that.

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.

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.

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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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.