August 19, 1906 The Damn Thing Works!

A baby was born this day in 1906 in a small log cabin near Beaver, Utah. His name was Philo, the first born child of Louis Farnsworth and Serena Bastian. He would grow to be the most famous man, you probably never heard of.

Inventor Thomas Edison was once asked about his seeming inability, to invent artificial light. “I have not failed”, he explained “I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

A baby was born this day in 1906 in a small log cabin near Beaver, Utah. His name was Philo, the first born child of Louis Farnsworth and Serena Bastian. He would grow to be the most famous man, you probably never heard of.

Birthplace of Philo Taylor Farnsorth

Philo was constantly tinkering. He was the kind who could look at an object and understand how it worked and why this particular one, didn’t. The family moved when he was 12 to a relative’s ranch near Rigby, Idaho. Philo was delighted to learn the place had electricity. 

He found a burnt out electric motor thrown out by a previous tenant and rewound the armature, converting his mothers hand-cranked  washing machine, to electric. 

It must’ve seemed like Christmas morning when he found all those old technology magazines, in the attic. He even won a $25 prize one time in a magazine contest, for inventing a magnetized car lock.

Farnsworth was fascinated with the behavior of molecules and excelled in chemistry and physics, at Rigby high school. Harrowing a field one day behind a team of two horses, his mind got to working. What if I could “train“ electrons to work in lines like I’m doing here, with these horses? Electrons are so fast the human eye would never pick up, the individual lines. Couldn’t I use them to “paint“ an electronic picture?

Image dissector

Philo sketched his idea of an “image dissector” for his science teacher Mr. Tolman, who encouraged him to keep working on his idea. Justin Tolman kept the sketch though neither could know at that time.  Farnsworth’s 1922 drawing would prove decisive one day in a court of law, over who invented all-electronic television.

From Japan to Russia, Germany and America more than fifty inventors were working in the 1920s, to invent television. History remembers the Scottish engineer John Logie Baird as the man who built and demonstrated the world’s first electromechanical television. Amazingly, it was he who invented the first color TV tube, as well.

Scotsman John Logie Baird invented the first (electromechanical0 TV

It was all well and good but Baird’s spinning electromechanical disk was as a glacier, compared with the speed of the electron. Clearly, the future of television, lay in the field of electronics.

The Russian engineer Vladimir K. Zworykin applied for US patent on an electron scanning tube in 1923, while working for RCA. He wouldn’t get the thing to work though, until 1934. Meanwhile, Philo Taylor Farnsworth successfully demonstrated the first television signal transmission on September 7, 1927. The excited telegram Farnsworth sent to one of his backers exclaimed, “The damn thing works!”

Farnsworth’s successful patent application in 1930 resulted in additional funding to support his work and a visit, from Vladimir Zworykin. RCA offered Farnsworth $100,000 for his invention and, when he declined their offer, took him to court over his patent.

“If it weren’t for Philo T. Farnsworth, inventor of television, we’d still be eating frozen radio dinners”.

Johnny Carson

What followed was a bruising, ten year legal battle, a David vs. Goliath contest Farnsworth would win in the end, but at enormous cost both financial, and physical.

In another version of this story, the one that never happened, Philo Farnsworth went on to great fame and fortune to enjoy the fruits of his talents, and all his hard work. Instead World War 2 happened. Farnsworth’s hard fought patent rights quietly expired while the world, was busy with something else.

Ever the tinkerer, Farnsworth went on to invent a rudimentary form of radar, black light for night vision and an infrared telescope. Despite all that his company never did run in the “black”. He sold the company in 1949, to ITT.

From the 1950s on, the man’s primary interest, was in nuclear fusion. In 1965 he patented an array of tubes he called “fusors” in which he actually started a 30-second fusion reaction.

Farnsworth never did enjoy good health. The inventor of all-electronic television died of pneumonia on March 11, 1971 with well over 300 patents, to his name. Had you bought a television that day you would have owned a device with no fewer than 100 inventions, by this one man.

Ever the idealist Farnsworth believed television would bring about ever greater heights in human learning and achievement, foster a shared experience bringing about international peace and understanding. Much the same as some once believed of the internet where the sum total of human knowledge was now available for a few keystrokes, and social media fosters new worlds of harmonious relations where cheerful users discussed the collected works of Shakespeare, the Codes of Hammurabi and the vicissitudes, of life.

Right.

Farnsworth was dismayed by the dreck brought about, by his creation. “There’s nothing on it worthwhile” he would say“, and we’re not going to watch it in this household. I don’t want it in your intellectual diet…Television is a gift of God, and God will hold those who utilize his divine instrument accountable to him“. – Philo Taylor Farnsworth

That all changed if only a bit, on July 20, 1969. American astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon and declared, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” It was probably a misspeak. Most likely he intended to say “one small step for A man” but, be that as it may. The world saw it happen thanks to a miniaturized version of a device, invented by Philo Farnsworth.

Farnsworth himself was watching just like everyone else alive, that day. Years later Farnsworth’s wife Emma, he called her “Pem”, would recall in an interview, with the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences: “We were watching it, and, when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, Phil turned to me and said, “Pem, this has made it all worthwhile.” Before then, he wasn’t too sure”.

June 22, 1918 Showmen’s Rest

127 were injured and an estimated 86 crushed or burned to death in the wreck.  The saddest thing you could ever imagine was the sight of a clown, his name was Joe Coyle, weeping inconsolably beside the dead and mangled bodies of his wife and two children.

In the world of the Big Top, the term “First of May” describes a new employee’s first season, with the circus.

There’s an oft-repeated but mistaken notion, that the circus goes back to Roman antiquity. The panem et circenses, “bread and circuses” of Juvenal (circa A.D. 100), refers more to the ancient precursor of the modern racetrack, than to the modern circus. The only common denominator is the word itself, as the Latin root ‘circus’, translates into English, as “circle”.

Astleys_royal_amphitheatre

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.

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

Equestrian and trick riding shows were gaining popularity all over Europe at this time, performers riding in circles to keep their 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.

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 a cattle dealer named Hachaliah Bailey bought a young African elephant, which he exhibited all over the country. The exotic animal angle was a great success. Other animals were added and soon farmers were 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 standard feature of the American circus.

There have been no fewer than 81 major circuses in American history, and countless smaller ones. ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ broke down its tent for the last time in 2017, when the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus ended a 146-year run. There was a time though, when the circus really WAS, the greatest show on earth.

hagenbeck-wallace-circus

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

At 3:56 on the morning of June 22, 1918, an engineer with the Michigan Central Railroad was at the controls of an empty 21-car troop train. Automatic signals and flares should have warned him that there was a stalled train on the track ahead. A frantic flag man tried and failed to get him to stop. Alonzo Sargent had been fired before, for sleeping on the job. Tonight, Sargent was once again, asleep at the wheel.

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

The 26-car Hagenbeck-Wallace circus train was enroute from Hammond Indiana to Monroe Wisconsin, when an overheated axle box required an unscheduled stop.

Most of the 400 circus employees were asleep at that early hour, in one of four rear sleeping cars.

The Michigan Central locomotive smashed into the rear of the stalled train at 60mph. Strong men, bareback riders, trapeze performers and acrobats were killed instantly. Others were horribly maimed, as wooden sleeping cars telescoped into one another. Confused and bleeding survivors struggled to emerge from the wreckage as gas-fed lanterns began to set all that wood on fire.

hammond-circus-train-wreck

Those lucky enough to escape looked on in horror, as friends and family members were burned alive. Some had to be physically restrained from rushing back into the inferno.

127 were injured and an estimated 86 crushed or burned to death in the wreck. The saddest thing you could ever imagine was the sight of a clown, his name was Joe Coyle, weeping inconsolably beside the dead and mangled bodies of his wife and two children.

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 the 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 one of two additional trains, and now awaited a train that would never come.

showmans-rest-circus-mass-grave

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

Only thirteen of the dead were ever identified. A mass grave was dug for the unidentified and unidentifiable. Most of the dead were roustabouts or temporary workers, hired just recently and known only by nicknames. Then there were the performers known only by stage names, their gravestones inscribed with names like “Baldy,” “4-Horse Driver”, “Smiley,” and “Unknown Female #43.

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

Today, the International Circus Hall of Fame is located in the former Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus winter headquarters in Peru, Indiana.

In the elephant world, an upraised trunk symbolizes joy. Five elephant statues circumscribe the Showmen’s Rest section of Woodlawn cemetery. Each has a foot raised with a ball underneath. Their trunks hang low, a symbol of mourning. The largest of the five bears the inscription, “Showmen’s League of America.” On the other four are inscribed the words: “Showmen’s Rest”.

May 17, 1781 Windows on their Souls

“A daguerreotype is a unique image — it isn’t a print, it isn’t a reproduction of any kind. When you have a camera set up to take a daguerreotype and the sitter is in front of you, for example, one of these old men who actually looked and knew and talked to leaders of the Revolution … the light is coming from the sun, hitting his face, and bouncing off of his face through the camera and onto that very same plate.”- Joseph Bauman

FOTR, Dr Eneas Munson

Imagine seeing the faces of the men who fought the American Revolution.  Not the paintings. There’s nothing extraordinary about that, except for the talent of the artist.  I mean their photographs – images that make it possible for you to look into their eyes. The windows, of their souls.

In a letter dated May 17, 1781 and addressed to Alexander Scammell, General George Washington outlined his intention to form a light infantry unit, under Scammell’s leadership.

Dr. Eneas Munson

Comprised of Continental Line units from Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, the Milford, Massachusetts-born Colonel’s unit was among defensive forces keeping Sir Henry Clinton penned up in New York City, as the Continental army made its way south to a place called Yorktown.

FOTR, Rev Levi Hayes

Among the men under Scammell’s command was Henry Dearborn, future Secretary of War under President Thomas Jefferson. A teenage medic was also present.  His name was Eneas Munson.

One day, the medic would go on to become Doctor Eneas Munson, professor of the Yale Medical School in New Haven Connecticut,  President of the Medical Society of that same state.  And a man who would live well into the age of photography.

Reverend Levi Hayes

The American Revolution ended in 1783.  By the first full year of the Civil War, only 12 Revolutionary War veterans remained on the pension rolls of a grateful nation.

Two years later, Reverend EB Hillard brought two photographers through New York and New England to visit, and to photograph what were believed to be the last six.  Each man was 100 years or older, at the time of the interview.

FOTR, Peter Mackintosh

William Hutchings of York County Maine, still part of Massachusetts at the time, was captured at the siege of Castine at the age of fifteen.  British authorities said it was a shame to hold one so young a prisoner, and he was released.

Reverend Daniel Waldo of Syracuse, New York fought under General Israel Putnam, becoming a POW at Horse Neck.

Adam Link of Maryland enlisted at 16 in the frontier service.

Peter Mackintosh

Alexander Millener of Quebec was a drummer boy in George Washington’s Life Guard.

Clarendon, New York native Lemuel Cook would live to be one of the oldest surviving veterans of the Revolution, surviving to the age of 107.  He and Alexander Millener witnessed the British surrender, at Yorktown.

FOTR, Jonathan Smith

Samuel Downing from Newburyport, Massachusetts, enlisted at the age of 16 and served in the Mohawk Valley under General Benedict Arnold.  “Arnold was our fighting general”, he’d say, “and a bloody fellow he was. He didn’t care for nothing, he’d ride right in. It was ‘Come on, boys!’ ’twasn’t ‘Go, boys!’ He was as brave a man as ever lived…He was a stern looking man, but kind to his soldiers. They didn’t treat him right: he ought to have had Burgoyne’s sword. But he ought to have been true. We had true men then, twasn’t as it is now”.

Jonathan Smith

Hillard seems to have missed Daniel F. Bakeman, but with good reason.  Bakeman had been unable to prove his service with his New York regiment.  It wasn’t until 1867 that he finally received his veteran’s pension by special act of Congress.

FOTR, James Head

Daniel Frederick Bakeman would become the Frank Buckles of his generation, the last surviving veteran of the Revolution. The 1874 Commissioner of Pensions report said that “With the death of Daniel Bakeman…April 5, 1869, the last of the pensioned soldiers of the Revolution passed away.  He was 109.

Most historians agree on 1839 as the year in which the earliest daguerreotypes became practically accessible.

James W. Head

When Utah based investigative reporter Joe Bauman came across Hillard’s photos in 1976, he believed that there must be others.  Photography had been in existence for 35 years by Reverend Hillard’s time.  What followed was 30 years’ work, first finding and identifying photographs of the right vintage, and then digging through muster rolls, pension files, genealogical records and a score of other source documents, to see if each had played a role in the Revolution.

FOTR, George Fishley

There were some, but it turned out to be a small group. 

Peter Mackintosh for one, was a 16-year-old blacksmith’s apprentice, from Boston.  He was working the night of December 16, 1773, when a group of men ran into the shop scooping up ashes from the hearth and rubbing them on their faces.  Turns out hey were going to a Tea Party.

George Fishley

James Head was a thirteen year-old Continental Naval recruit from a remote part of what was then Massachusetts.  Head would be taken prisoner but later released, walking the 224 miles home from Providence to the future town of Warren, Maine.

Head was elected a Massachusetts delegate to the convention called in Boston, to ratify the Constitution.   He would die the wealthiest man in Warren, stone deaf from service in the Continental Navy.

FOTR, Simeon Hicks

George Fishley served in the Continental army and fought in the Battle of Monmouth, and in General John Sullivan’s campaign against British-allied Indians in New York and Pennsylvania.

Fishley would spend the rest of his days in Portsmouth New Hampshire, where he was known as ‘the last of our cocked hats.”

Simeon Hicks

Daniel Spencer fought with the 2nd Continental Light Dragoons, an elite 120-man unit also known as Sheldon’s Horse after Colonel Elisha Sheldon.  First mustered at Wethersfield, Connecticut, the regiment consisted of four troops from Connecticut, one troop each from Massachusetts and New Jersey, and two companies of light infantry. On August 13, 1777, Sheldon’s horse put a unit of Loyalists to flight in the little-known Battle of the Flocky, the first cavalry charge in history, performed on American soil

FOTR, Daniel Spencer

Bauman’s research uncovered another eight in addition to Hillard’s record including a shoemaker, two ministers, a tavern-keeper, a settler on the Ohio frontier, a blacksmith and the captain of a coastal vessel, in addition to Dr. Munson.

The experiences of these eight span the distance from the Boston Tea Party to the battles at Monmouth, Quaker Hill, Charleston and Bennington.  Their eyes looked upon the likes of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and Henry Knox, the battles of the Revolution and the final surrender, at Yorktown.

Daniel Spencer

Bauman collected the glass plate photos of eight and paper prints of another five along with each man’s story and published them, in an ebook entitled “DON’T TREAD ON ME: Photographs and Life Stories of American Revolutionaries”.

To look into the eyes of such men is to compress time. To reach back over the generations before the age of photography, and look into eyes that saw the birth of a nation.

April 8, 1942 In the Zone

Rodman was no stranger to the brutal twists and the horrors of war. Nearly half his comrades were killed, fighting in the Philippines. The survivor’s guilt. What the man saw during WW2 changed his life, forever.

Military forces of Imperial Japan appeared unstoppable during the years leading to World War 2, attacking first Thailand, then the British possessions of Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong. The US military bases in Hawaii, Wake Island, Guam and the Philippines all fell, in quick succession.

On January 7, 1942 Japanese forces attacked the Bataan peninsula in the central Luzon region, of the Philippines. The prize was nothing short of the finest natural harbor in the Asian Pacific, Manila Bay, the Bataan Peninsula forming the lee shore and the heavily fortified island of Corregidor, the “Gibraltar of the East”, standing at the mouth.  Before the Japanese invasion was to succeed, Bataan and Corregidor must be destroyed.

In early December, the Far East Air Force (FEAF) outside Luzon possessed more aircraft than the Hawaiian Department, defending Pearl Harbor. In the event of hostilities with Japan, “War Plan Orange” (WPO-3) called for superior air power, covering the strategic retreat across Manila Bay to the Bataan peninsula, buying time for US Naval assets to sail for the Philippines. 

In reality, the flower of American naval power in the pacific, lay at the bottom of Pearl Harbor.  Eight hours after the attack on Oahu, a devastating raid on Clark Field outside of Luzon left 102 aircraft damaged, or destroyed. Army chief of staff general George C. Marshall later remarked to a reporter: “I just don’t know how MacArthur happened to let his planes get caught on the ground.”

General Douglas MacArthur abandoned Corregidor on March 12, departing the “Alamo of the Pacific” with trademark dramatic flair: “I shall return”.  Some 90,000 American and Filipino troops were on their own, left without food, supplies or support with which to fight off the onslaught of the Japanese 14th Army.

Starving, battered by wounds and decimated by all manner of tropical disease and parasite, the “Battling Bastards of Bataan” fought on until they could do no more. 

War correspondent Frank Hewlett was the last reporter to leave Corregidor, before it all collapsed. It was he who coined the phrase “Angels of Bataan“, to describe the women who stayed behind to be taken into captivity, to care for the sick and wounded. Hewlett wrote this tribute to the doomed defenders of that place:

Battling Bastards of Bataan

We’re the battling bastards of Bataan;
No mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam.
No aunts, no uncles, no cousins, no nieces,
No pills, no planes, no artillery pieces
And nobody gives a damn
Nobody gives a damn.

by Frank Hewlett 1942

Allied war planners turned their attention to defeating Adolf Hitler.

In the days following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the river gunboat USS Mindanao earned the distinction of taking prisoner the sole survivor of the midget submarine attacks carried out that day, Kazuo Sakamaki. Now short on fuel, Mindanao was reduced to harassing shore artillery and covering small boats evacuating soldiers, from the beaches. On April 8, 1942, Mindanao Executive Officer David Nash confided to his diary: “This has been a hectic day. It looks like the beginning of the end. The planes get nearer each day and this evening the word was received to get up steam and standby to get underway. Meanwhile Ft. Mills started shooting across our heads toward the Bataan lines. All night long our forces were obviously destroying equipment. It looks like evacuation from the Peninsula”.

Bataan fell the following day, some 75,000 American and Filipino fighters beginning a 65-mile, five-day trek into captivity known as the Bataan Death March. Lieutenant Nash was taken prisoner, surviving a captivity many did not to pass the remainder of the war at Bilibid, Davao, Dapecol and the infamous Cabanatuan prison camps.

With a commanding position over Pacific shipping routes, holding the Philippine archipelago was critical for Japanese war strategy. Capturing the islands was important to the US by the same logic with the added reason, this was a personal point of pride for General Douglas MacArthur. Two years almost to the day from that ignominious departure, the Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered MacArthur to come up with a plan to take the place back. Luzon would come first with the invasion of Leyte in the north, slated for early 1945.

That summer, US 3rd fleet operations revealed Japanese defenses were weaker than expected. The invasion was moved forward to October. Before it was over, the Battle of Leyte would trigger the greatest naval battle, of World War 2.

With deep-water approaches and sandy beaches, Leyte Island is tailor-made for amphibious assault. Preliminary operations for the invasion began on October 17. MacArthur made his grand entrance on the 20th announcing to the 900,000 residents of the island: “People of the Philippines, I have returned! By the grace of Almighty God, our forces stand again on Philippine soil.”

The fighting for Leyte was long and bloody involving 323,000 American troops and Filipino guerrillas. Day and night through mountains, swamps and jungles, by the time it was over some 50,000 Japanese combat troops were destroyed. Organized resistance ended on Christmas day. By the New Year there was little left, but isolated stragglers.

Not many can find humor in such a place as that. Private Melvin Levy was one who could. A member of the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 11th Airborne Division, that November, Levy and his comrades were fighting as infantry. He was part of the 511th‘s demolition platoon, nicknamed the “Death Squad” for its high casualty rate.

The C-47 came in low that day, but this wasn’t your normal bombing run. The plane was armed with “biscuit bombs”, crates of food and provisions intended to resupply the 511th regiment. With a comedian’s sense of timing, Levy was holding court before an enthralled group of soldiers, resting under a palm tree. Laughter filled the air as Private Levy delivered the punchline and asked his best friend Rodman, for a cigarette. Rodman took the one out of his mouth and handed it over before turning, for the pack. The biscuit bomb came in at 200 miles per hour, tearing Levy’s head from his shoulders, where he stood.

As the only other Jewish guy in the unit, Rodman presided over Levy’s funeral, the following day. He spoke a few words and placed a star of David, on Levy’s grave.

Nearly half his comrades were killed, fighting in the Philippines. Rodman himself was wounded twice and finished the war, in occupied Japan. He was no stranger to the brutal twists and the horrors of war. The survivor’s guilt. What the man saw during WW2 changed him, forever. The human wreckage wrought by the atomic bomb, the fire bombing, the results of the aerial mining of Japanese harbors literally code-named, “Operation Starvation”.

Rodman Edward Serling had opened a door, never to be closed. A door unlocked, with the key of imagination. Beyond that door is another dimension. A dimension of sound. A dimension of sight. A dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into, the Twilight Zone.

April 3, 1904 The Crying Indian

“Any man who thinks he can be happy and prosperous by letting the government take care of him; better take a closer look at the American Indian”. – Henry Ford

In the motion picture business, the term “silent film” is a retronym, a description coined after the fact to distinguish the genre from “talkies”. The Jazz Singer produced in 1927 was the first feature length picture featuring synchronous recorded music and lip-synchronized singing and speech. Within a decade, widespread production of silent films, had ceased. The era of the modern motion picture, was born.

For Iron Eyes Cody, a career spent in motion pictures reads like a history of the industry itself. This self-described son of a Cherokee father and Cree mother and born with the name “Little Eagle” began a long acting career, in the early 1930s.

Iron Eyes Cody with Roy Rogers in North of the Great Divide, 1950

To read the man’s Wikipedia page is to learn “He appeared in more than 200 films, including The Big Trail (1930), with John Wayne; The Scarlet Letter (1934), with Colleen Moore; Sitting Bull (1954), as Crazy Horse; The Light in the Forest (1958) as Cuyloga; The Great Sioux Massacre (1965), with Joseph Cotten; Nevada Smith (1966), with Steve McQueen; A Man Called Horse (1970), with Richard Harris; and Ernest Goes to Camp (1987) as Chief St. Cloud, with Jim Varney”.

“Iron Eyes learned much of his Indian lore in the days when, as a youth, he toured the country with his father, Thomas Long Plume, in a wild west show. During his travels, he taught himself the sign language of other tribes of Indians.”

Glendale Special Collections library

From future President Ronald Reagan to Bob Hope, there is scarcely anyone prominent in the first half-century of the entertainment industry who didn’t work with “Hollywood’s favorite Native American”. A close personal friend of Walt Disney, Cody appeared in over 100 television programs including many Disney productions. In 1974, Cody appeared on an episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, featuring native American dancers. That’s him chanting in the background, on Joni Mitchell’s 1988 song “Lakota” from the album, Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm.

Jay Silverheels, the native American actor who portrayed Tonto in the Lone ranger, used to question Cody’s story. Native American stunt man Running Deer pointed out that something seemed off, Cody’s background didn’t make sense but, no matter. No use getting in the way of a good story.

The period beginning with the Cold War and ending with Woodstock was a time of sea change in American life. Babies weren’t the only thing that “boomed”. The economy exploded and with it, disposable income. Families bought cars and televisions, bought TV dinners and went on road trips. Sperry & Hutchinson company “Green Stamps” were handed out at department stores, grocery stores and gasoline stations, redeemable for Fabulous Gifts and Prizes. During the 1960s, S&H boasted about producing three times the number of stamps, as the United States Post Office.

Along with all this conspicuous consumption came conspicuous amounts, of litter. Engine oil and other solvents were drained directly into sewer drains to become part, of inland waterways. Garbage was everywhere. The situation became so bad in 1969, Cleveland’s Cayuhoga River, caught fire.

The Santa Barbara oil spill of January and February 1969 killed aquatic wildlife by the tens of thousands and remained for years the largest such spill in American history, eclipsed only by the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster and the Deepwater Horizon spill, of 2010.

For Wisconsin Democratic Senator Gaylord Nelson, the time was right to bring a lifelong passion for environmental conservation, to center stage. Joined by Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey, the campaigns of 1969 culminated in the first “Earth Day” on April 22, 1970. President Richard Nixon and 1st Lady Pat Nixon planted a tree on the White House lawn, in celebration.

For Earth Day 1971, the nonprofit organization Keep America Beautiful launched the Public Service Announcement the Ad Council later called one of the “50 greatest commercials of all time.”

There he was, Iron Eyes Cody, paddling his canoe down that garbage infested river surrounded by smog, pollution and trash. Stepping onto the junk strewn shore, a bag of rubbish explodes at his feet, carelessly tossed from a passing car. Not a word was spoken, excepting the narrator’s voiceover. Just the actor, turning to the camera, a single tear coursing down his weathered cheek.

The “Crying Indian” ad incited a frenzy of neighborhood action. Cleanup brigades fanned out across the nation, reducing litter by an estimated 88% across 38 states. Iron Eyes Cody was rewarded with two Clio awards and his own star on the Hollywood Walk of fame. The “Face of Native Americans” was plastered across billboards, posters and magazine spots. Advertisers estimate his image was viewed no fewer, than 14 Billion times.

It’s hard to say that anything bad came of the story. The garbage was cleaned up, Hollywood raked in the cash, but Iron Eyes Cody had a secret.

In 1996, a reporter from the New Orleans Times-Picayune took a trip to Gueydan Louisiana and stumbled into that secret. “He just left” recalled Mae Abshire Duhon, Iron Eyes Cody’s sister, “and the next thing we heard was that he had turned Indian.”

Iron Eyes Cody was in fact Espera Oscar de Corti, born April 3, 1904 in rural southwest Louisiana, the second of four children born to Sicilian immigrants Antonio de Corti and Francesca Salpietra. Six years later, Antonio took his three boys and left for Texas, abandoning his wife and daughter. It was there that Cody (Corti) developed an affinity for the windswept deserts and for Native American culture.

In 1919, film producers came to the area to shoot a silent film, “Back to God’s Country”. Oscar was cast as an Indian child.

Following his father’s death five years later, Oscar traveled to California to pursue a career as an actor.

A cynic would call the man’s story a fraud and a fake, and maybe they’re right. Or maybe the transformation was as personal, as real to this Italian American, as it is possible to get. Off camera and on, De Corti portrayed a life borne of the First Nations. “Nearly all my life” he once told reporters, “it has been my policy to help those less fortunate than myself. My foremost endeavors have been with the help of the Great Spirit to dignify my People’s image through humility and love of my country. If I have done that, then I have done all I need to do“.

Iron Eyes Cody died peacefully in 1999 at the age of 94, leaving this poetic tip of the hat to the culture he had adopted, as his own. “Make me ready to stand before you with clean and straight eyes,” he wrote. “When Life fades, as the fading sunset, may our spirits stand before you without shame.”

March 16, 1968 Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay

Otis Redding’s iconic song and #1 hit, “Sittin’ on the Dock of the bay“, became the first posthumous number-one record on both the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B charts. The album by the same name was the first posthumous album to reach number one on the UK Albums Chart.

With his father suffering tuberculosis and often hospitalized, Otis Ray Redding Jr. quit school at the age of fifteen to help support the family. He worked at a gas station, but it was the occasional musical gig that got him noticed.  From Macon (Georgia) talent contests to local bands, Redding later joined Little Richard’s band “The Upsetters” when the singer abandoned rock & roll music, for gospel.

Redding began his musical career touring the “chitlin circuit” at a time of racial segregation:  a string of venues hospitable to black musicians, comedians and entertainers throughout the American south, northeast and upper Midwest.  Harlem’s Apollo Theater, the Regal Theater in Chicago, the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C, the Royal Peacock in Atlanta, and others.

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Redding joined STAX Records in 1962, a portmanteau of the founding partners and siblings Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton (STewart/AXton = Stax).

The label’s use of a single studio and a small stable of musicians and songwriters produced a readily identifiable sound based on black gospel and rhythm & blues which came to be known as Southern soul, or Memphis soul.

Singer-songwriter-musician Otis Redding became STAX Records’ biggest star in the five years before the plane crash that took his life: the “Big O”, the “King of Soul”.

Musicians from Led Zeppelin to Lynyrd Skynyrd to Janis Joplin and virtually every soul and R&B musician of the era have taken musical influence from Otis Redding. It was he who wrote the ballad R-E-S-P-E-C-T made famous by the “Queen of Soul”, Aretha Franklin.

His initial recordings were mainly popular with black audiences, but Redding and others crossed the “color barrier”, performing at “white owned” venues like Whisky a Go Go in LA, the Monterey Pop Festival of 1967, and venues throughout Paris, London and other European cities.

Redding’s iconic song and  #1 hit, “Sittin’ on the Dock of the bay“, became the first posthumous number-one record on both the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B charts.  The album by the same name was the first posthumous album to reach number one on the UK Albums Chart.

The song wasn’t intended to turn out the way it did.

Redding wanted to expand his musical footprint beyond the soul and R&B genre and took strong influence from the Beatles, particularly the layered sounds of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  If you listen to the song – the seagulls, the sound of lapping waves – that’s what he was going for.  Redding remembered those sounds from the rented houseboat in Sausalito where he wrote the first lines and asked Stax producer and guitarist Steve Cropper, to dub them in.

The “outro”, the twenty-five seconds’ whistling at the end, were nothing but a place holder. Cropper explains there’s “this little fadeout rap he was gonna do, an ad-lib. He forgot what it was so he started whistling.” No trouble, it could all be fixed an a second recording session session, after the tour.

That second session was never meant to be.

The kid who once pumped gas to help support the family boarded his own Beechcraft H-18 aircraft on December 10, 1967 along with Bar-Kays guitarist Jimmy King, tenor saxophonist Phalon Jones, organist Ronnie Caldwell, trumpet player Ben Cauley, drummer Carl Cunningham, their valet Matthew Kelly and the pilot, Richard Fraser.

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Bar-Kays trumpet player, Ben Cauley

The band had played two nights in Cleveland.  The next stop was Madison, Wisconsin. The plane took off despite warnings of foul weather.  The show must go on. Ben Cauley remembers waking from a nap to see band-mate Phalon Jones look out a window and cry out “Oh No!”  He then found himself alone, clutching a seat cushion in the 34-degree waters of Lake Monona.  He was the only survivor.

True to his word, Cropper mixed Dock of the Bay as he said he would, adding in the crashing waves and the seagulls and keeping the outro, the way Otis had left it.

Rhythm & Blues stations were quick to add the song to playlists already saturated, with Otis Redding. The song shot to the top of R&B charts and pop charts, weren’t far behind. Dock of the Bay reached #1 on the billboard Hot 100 on March 16, 1968 and stayed there, for four weeks.

Since that time an impressive list of musical talent has joined Otis Redding, for producing # 1 songs released after the artist was gone. David Bowie. Biggie Smalls. Janis Joplin. Tupac Shakour. John Lennon.

It must be some kind of band they’ve got going up there.

January 13, 1920 Fake News

In the English Standard Version of the Bible, proverbs 12:15 translates: “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice”. Socrates famously observed “I know one thing, that I know nothing. The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

It was a fine day in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. A good day to rob a bank. So thought 44-year-old McArthur Wheeler, but Mr. Wheeler was no ordinary crook. As they might say in the Shiddy o’ Bwahshtun, McArthur Wheeler was schmaht. Wikid schmaht.

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”. – Charles Darwin

As any 10-year-old will tell you, lemon juice makes a great, invisible ink. What better way to make Yourself invisible to bank cameras, (thought McArthur Wheeler), than to smear your face with lemon juice. The man even ran an experiment. A Polaroid selfie. The experiment was a success, notwithstanding the polaroid’s tendency to “wash out” subjects photographed, too close-up. No matter. The photo showed an over-illuminated blob where the face was supposed to be. Hypothesis: correct. Lemon juice Did make your face invisible, to cameras.

With his face slathered in lemon juice, McArthur Wheeler robbed not one bank on that day in 1995, but two. Law enforcement released surveillance video. By the end of the day, Pittsburg police had their man, incredulous though he was, that such a well-laid plan could have somehow, come off the rails.

That video must have been faked.

Cornell University psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger got wind of the caper and thought they’d study the episode, a little more closely. PsychologyToday.com tells us: “The pair tested participants on their logic, grammar, and sense of humor, and found that those who performed in the bottom quartile rated their skills far above average. For example, those in the 12th percentile self-rated their expertise to be, on average, in the 62nd percentile”.

The article continues: “The Dunning-Kruger effect results in what’s known as a “double curse:” Not only do people perform poorly, but they are not self-aware enough to judge themselves accurately—and are thus unlikely to learn and grow”.

If you’re thinking that explains a lot about certain politicians, you’re probably not alone. And what of the ‘News’? The one thing we all expect whether Democrat, Republican or Libertarian, is accurate information. From our politicians and from our “News” media.

Are we then to believe an industry, merely because it buys ink by the proverbial barrel? After the last few years, I certainly hope not. From the Russia “Collusion” hoax to Fox News’ reporting that President Obama…”at the end of his rope…sent [a] rambling, 75,000-word email to the entire nation” (it was an Onion story), our news and information media have worked overtime to earn the epithet, “Fake News”.

In October 2019, ABC “News” broadcast man-on-the-street video from Syria, depicting an attack by the Turkish military, on Kurdish civilians. ABC later apologized that the video was shot…at a gun range in Kentucky.

In April 2020, CBS did its part to add to the national COVID-19 hysteria, using Italian footage as a stand-in for a story about the failure, of New York hospitals. A month later the company staged lines and faked “patients” at the Cherry Medical Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan. But hey, it all made for some swell footage, right?

And who can forget NBC’s exploding truck video, concocted at the expense of General Motors. Worried that the crash test might not show the desired result, NBC rigged an incendiary device, just to be sure. The test worked swell and the sight of flaming pickup trucks, sure does make for some great “News”. But rest assured, Jane Pauley and Stone Phillips apologized, concluding that “unscientific demonstrations should have no place in hard news stories at NBC. That’s our new policy.”

There’s a knee slapper for you. “Unscientific demonstrations”.

Back to Dunning and Kruger. On this day in 1920, an unsigned editorial in the New York Times, made mockery of none other than Robert Hutchings Goddard. Yeah. THAT Robert Goddard. The guy with the space center, named after him.

Robert Goddard, a man who all but invented the space age, has 214 patents to his name. Two of them, a multi-stage rocket and a liquid-fuel rocket were patented as early as 1914.

On January 13, 1920, the New York Times opined that space flight was an impossibility, because propulsion systems had nothing to push against. Such a position seems defensible in 1920, but the Times just couldn’t resist that snotty, mean-girl touch, replete with sneer quotes: “That Professor Goddard, with his ‘chair’ in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react — to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.”

“The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people wrongly overestimate their knowledge or ability in a specific area. This tends to occur because a lack of self-awareness prevents them from accurately assessing their own skills”. – PsychologyToday.com

“The knowledge ladled out in high schools”. Good one.

In 1932, that same New York Times won a Pulitzer prize for Lying, about the systematic extermination by starvation of as many as ten million Ukrainians, by the Soviet government of Josef Stalin. To this day the “Grey Lady” has failed to repudiate that Pulitzer.

The “Newspaper of Record” printed 24,000 front page articles over the course of the second world war but oddly seemed oblivious to the Nazi holocaust, front page articles about which numbered precisely, twenty-six.

Front page, above-the-fold stories ran 44 days in a row about that mess at Abu Ghraib, just in case anyone missed the point. And the Times was certainly quick to defend that Dan Rather memo as Fake but Accurate. Never mind that the font didn’t exist, when the thing was supposed to have been written.

But fear not, the New York Times retracted that 1920 editorial. In July 1969. The day after the Apollo 11 launch. At that rate we can expect those East Anglia stories to come in, around 2050.

January 12, 1992 Daisy Bell

In 1961, physicist John Larry Kelly, Jr. and Louis Gerstman produced the first truly synthesized speech using an IBM 7094 computer. Kelly’s synthesizer recreated the song “Daisy Bell” with musical accompaniment from Max Vernon Matthews, a song made popular in 1892 and better known as “A Bicycle Built for Two.”

We live in an age when pocket sized devices are capable of producing text from speech, and speech from text. We’ve all tried with varying degrees of success, to dictate a text message or email. It may come as a surprise as it did to me, how long the idea of other-than-human speech has been around.

According to Norse mythology, Mímir was the wisest of the Gods of Æsir. Mímir or Mim was beheaded during the war with the rival Gods of Vanir after which Odin carried the thing around (the head), so that it may impart secret knowledge and wise counsel.

The Brazen Head of the early modern age was the legendary automaton of medieval wizards and necromancers and always said to give the correct answer, provided the question was…just right. William of Malmsbury’s History of the English Kings (c. 1125) contains the earliest known reference to such a talking, Brazen Head. Similar legends followed the polymath Pope Silvester II (c. 946 – 1003), the Dominican friar Albertus Magnus (c.1200 – 1280) and the English philosopher Roger Bacon (1214 – 1294).

Roger Bacon’s assistant is confronted by the Brazen head in a 1905 retelling of the story. H/T Wikipedia

In 1779, the German-Danish scientist Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein built a model of the human vocal tract which could produce the five long vowel sounds of the international phonetic alphabet.

Wolfgang von Kempelen of Pressburg, Hungary, described a bellows-operated apparatus in a 1791 paper, including facsimiles of tongue and lips to produce the nasals, plosives and fricatives required to mimic most (but not all) consonant sounds. Charles Wheatstone actually built the thing in 1846 after Kempelen died, calling his acoustic-mechanical speech machine, the ‘euphonia’.

“A replica of Kempelen’s speaking machine, built 2007–09 at the Department of Phonetics, Saarland University, Saarbrücken, Germany” H/T Wikipedia

At Bell Labs in the 1930s, the pioneering work of acoustic engineer Homer Dudley led to the Vocoder, a portmanteau of voice and encoder, capable of synthesizing and encrypting voice transmissions for use in  secure radio communications. The receiving apparatus or Voder, a keyboard operated device capable of independent speech synthesis, was demonstrated at the 1939 World’s Fair.

In the late 1940s, the pattern playback machines of Dr. Franklin S. Cooper and the Haskins Laboratories converted pictures of acoustic speech patterns, into recognizable speech. In 1961, physicist John Larry Kelly, Jr. and Louis Gerstman produced the first truly synthesized speech using an IBM 7094 computer. Kelly’s synthesizer recreated the song “Daisy Bell” with musical accompaniment from Max Vernon Matthews, a song made popular in 1892 and better known as “A Bicycle Built for Two.”

“Daisy, Daisy / Give me your answer, do. / I’m half crazy / all for the love of you…”

By sheer coincidence, the English futurist, science-fiction writer and television host Arthur Charles Clarke was visiting his friend and colleague John Pierce at this time, at Bell Labs’ Murray Hill facility.

If you think that name sounds familiar, you’re right. Today, Clarke joins American writers Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein as the “Big three”, in science fiction.

It is Clarke who wrote the script for Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 dystopic 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Clarke was so impressed with the Daisy Bell demonstration he wrote it into his screenplay. You may remember the climactic scenes of the film as fictional astronauts Frank Poole and Dave Bowman battle for their lives against Discovery’s supercomputer-gone-bad, the HAL9000, “born” this day in 1992 at the HAL Labs in Urbana Illinois, according to the screenplay.

After HAL hurled Frank Poole off into the black void of space and shut off life support to the rest of the crew while still in suspended animation, Dave Bowman is now the sole survivor of the Discovery mission, desperately seeking to unhook the power modules, to the HAL9000.

“I’m afraid I can’t let you do that, Dave”.

In the end, the servant of mankind-turned-evil supercomputer reverted to his most basic programming:

“It won’t be a stylish marriage / I can’t afford a carriage.”

“But you’ll look sweet/on the seat/of a bicycle built, for two.”

Fun fact: English songwriter and composer Harry Dacre first came to the United States, with a bicycle. Complaining about having to pay duty on the thing, Dacre’s American friend and fellow songwriter William Jerome quipped, “It’s lucky you didn’t bring a bicycle built for two, otherwise you’d have to pay double duty.” Dacre was so taken with the phrase he soon used it in a song, first popularized in a London music hall and first performed in the United States, in 1892. “Daisy Bell”.

February 3, 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, Valenzuela 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 age five.   One music critic would describe the Lubbock Texas native as “the single most influential creative force in early rock and roll.” Contemporary and later musicians claiming inspiration from Holley’s work include the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Elvis Costello.download (98)58 years ago, his name changed as the result of a misspelling in a recording contract, Buddy 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.  This were anything but the best of circumstances. The tour bus had no heat.  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.download (96)Holly was sick of it, and decided to charter a plane for himself and some of his guys. At least that would give them 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.  None could know that Jennings’ joke, would come true.  The comment haunted Waylon Jennings for the rest of his life.

HighFlight-TheMusicDied6N3794N left the ground in a snowstorm, shortly after 1:00am on February 3. The pilot, Roger Peterson, may have been inexperienced with the instrumentation.  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, barely a sound.  Just a small aircraft swallowed whole, by a snow covered cornfield.

The bodies would lie in that field until late in the 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 the place, “Tommy’s Heads Up Saloon”.  A nod to the “lost” coin toss that had 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 Buddy Holly’s last top 20 hit in the nation.

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 tour band passed away at the age of  85.  Tommy Allsup was a big fan of Western Swing, and member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.  Tommy’s son Austin is himself a singer/songwriter, that’s him in the picture.  Austin received messages of condolence on the passing of his father, including one from Ritchie Valens’ sister. “I told her in my message back“, he said “now my dad and Ritchie can finally finish the tour they started 58 years ago.”

Tommy Allsup
Hat Tip Texashillcountry.com for this image, and for the anecdote told above

 

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.

January 17, 1976 He Gave us Laughter

Prodigious abuse of drugs and alcohol got Belushi fired on multiple occasions, but he always came back.  John Belushi was an original.  There was no other.

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High School yearbook photo. “Killer” Belushi received a football scholarship to Western Illinois University, but turned it down.  He had other things to do.

Lead vocalist “Joliet Jake” Blues (John Belushi) and harmonica player/backing vocalist Elwood Blues (Dan Aykroyd) made their musical debut on January 17, 1976 in a comedy sketch on Saturday Night Live.

The Blues Brothers appeared on two more SNL sketches, both in 1978, before releasing their first album that same year: Briefcase Full of Blues. The Blues Brothers film created around the two characters was released in 1980.

Dan Aykroyd developed his musical talents during the late 1950s and early sixties at an Ottowa night club called Le Hibou (French for ‘the owl’), saying “I actually jammed behind Muddy Waters. S. P. Leary left the drum kit one night, and Muddy said ‘anybody out there play drums? I don’t have a drummer.’ And I walked on stage and we started, I don’t know, Little Red Rooster, something. He said ‘keep that beat going, you make Muddy feel good.”

Eric Idle of Monty Python was once an SNL guest host.  Idle paid the ultimate compliment to Aykroyd’s comedic ability, saying  he was “the only member of the SNL cast capable of being a Python“.

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John Belushi joined The Second City comedy troupe in 1971, playing off-Broadway in National Lampoon’s Lemmings, and played The National Lampoon Radio Hour from 1973 to ’75, a half-hour comedy program syndicated on over 600 stations.

hqdefault (10)He appeared from 1973 – ’75 on The National Lampoon Radio Hour, along with future SNL regulars Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase and Bill Murray. A number of radio segments went on to become SNL sketches in the show’s first couple of seasons.

Ackroyd tells a story about long days of rehearsals on the SNL set. An exhausted John Belushi would wander off and let himself into the house of a friend or a stranger, scrounging around for food and falling asleep in the house, unable to be found for the next day’s work. Such outings were the inspiration for the SNL horror-spoof sketch “The Thing That Wouldn’t Leave”.

Prodigious abuse of drugs and alcohol got Belushi fired on multiple occasions, but he always came back.  John Belushi was an original.  There was no other.

thingAnimal House, the film that launched Belushi’s career on the big screen, almost didn’t happen.

The first draft of the screenplay by Harold Ramis and Douglas Kenney was about Charles Manson in High School, entitled Laser Orgy Girls. The script was rejected, unsurprisingly, leading to a three-month cram writing session and an entirely different cast. Even then, the project only got off the ground when Donald Sutherland signed up to play Professor Jennings.

“Faber College” is really the University of Oregon, the only school that would let the production on campus. Years earlier, the Dean had declined to allow The Graduate to film there. He wasn’t going to miss another shot at Hollywood. Without even reading the script, this guy gave the production such carte blanche, that he allowed the use of his own office to film the Dean Wormer scenes.

I wonder if he ever had second thoughts.

Remember the band at the Dexter Lake Club? “Otis Day” was played by actor DeWayne Jessie. Animal House became so popular and such a boost to Jesse’s career that he legally changed his name.  To this day, he still tours with the band as “Otis Day and the Knights”.

There’s a popular myth that Belushi actually “chugged” a fifth of Jack Daniels during that one scene, but it was really ice tea.  Even so, Belushi’s abuse of drugs and alcohol, were legendary.  He would hire “bodyguards” and “trainers” to keep him on the straight & narrow, and then slip out the door.  Periods of sobriety were usually in response to a specific challenge – doing a movie, meeting a film deadline –  the same challenges that drove him over the edge and into another bender.

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On the evening of March 4, 1982, Belushi spent the evening partying with Catherine Evelyn Smith, a former back-up singer and groupie for The Band described as a “strung-out addict and a drug dealer”, and former SNL writer Nelson Lyon.  The three ingested massive quantities of alcohol and even more cocaine, stumbling about the precincts of West Hollywood, looking for another party.

According to Smith, the pair ended up back at Belushi’s room at the Chateau Marmont, where Belushi asked her to shoot him up with a “Speedball”, a combined injection of heroine and cocaine.  Comedian Robin Williams and actor Robert DiNiro visited over the small hours of the morning, to find the pair in a daze.  Williams left around 3:00am saying “If you ever get up again, call.”

He later said he didn’t understand what Belushi was doing with “that lowlife”.

rs-28717-22878_lgJohn Belushi was found dead the following morning.  The cause of death was originally thought to be an accidental overdose.  Cathy Smith was extradited from Canada and tried on first degree murder charges following a National Enquirer interview in which she admitted giving Belushi eleven speedballs. A plea bargain reduced the charge to involuntary manslaughter.  She served fifteen months in prison.

In his 1984 book Wired: The Short Life & Fast Times of John Belushi, investigative journalist and non-fiction author Bob Woodward writes of a man out of control. Belushi’s widow Judith Jacklin Belushi participated in the project, apparently hoping for a more sympathetic depiction. “Instead”, writes Rolling Stone, “she got 432 pages of cold facts, the majority of them drug related and ugly”.

Film critic, screenwriter, and author Roger Ebert wrote: “The protests over Woodward’s unflinching portrait of Belushi’s last days reminds me (not with a smile) of an old Irish joke. The mourners are gathered around the dead man’s coffin.
“What did he die of?” one asks the widow.
“He died of the drink,” she says.
“Did he go to AA?”
“He wasn’t that bad.””

belushi-photo

Judy arranged for a traditional Albanian Orthodox Christian funeral in which Belushi was interred, twice. The first was in Chilmark on Martha’s Vineyard, an island just off Cape Cod, in Massachusetts. There, a classic New England slate tombstone, complete with skull and crossbones, marks the location. The inscription reads, “I may be gone but Rock and Roll lives on.” An unmarked tombstone in an undisclosed location marks his final resting place.

John Adam Belushi is remembered on the Belushi family marker at his mother’s grave at Elmwood Cemetery in River Grove, Illinois.  This stone reads, “HE GAVE US LAUGHTER”.

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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.