Music, Pop Culture, The Beatles

The Quiet Ronette and the Quiet Beatle.

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Original publish date:  February 14, 2019

Ten years ago, the dead body of a 67-year old woman was discovered in Engkewood, New Jersey. Her death came sometime that week and, for the most part, her passing went unnoticed. It remains so a decade later. But, in the weeks and months before the British invasion hit our shores, she was the hottest third of a fairy-tale girl group featured on magazine covers, 45 sleeves and album covers all over the world. She dated George Harrison, Mick Jagger, George Hamilton and Johnny Mathis. Her name was Estelle Bennett and together with her sister Veronica and cousin Nedra Talley, they were known the world over as The Ronettes.

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The Ronettes. L.to R. Nedra, Ronnie and Estelle

One of the most popular groups (male or female) from the 1960s, they charted nine songs on the Billboard Hot 100, five of which became Top 40 hits. The trio came from Washington Heights in New York City, and took their name from lead singer Veronica; better known as Ronnie Spector. The Ronettes’ most famous songs were “Be My Baby”, “Baby, I Love You”, “(The Best Part of) Breakin’ Up”, and “Walking in the Rain”. The later won a Grammy Award in 1965, and “Be My Baby” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999. The Ronettes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, just a couple years before Estelle’s death, officially from colon cancer, but those who knew her said she died of a broken heart.
The girls had been singing together since they were teenagers in Spanish Harlem. In 1959, they entered a talent show at the Apollo Theater and won as “The Darling Sisters.” Ronnie was then 16, Estelle 17, and Nedra 13. Soon they were appearing at local sock hops and charity shows. By 1961 they were dancing and singing at New York’s Peppermint Lounge during the Chubby Checker “twist” dance-craze. They were featured in “Twist-A-Rama” shows and toured with Joey Dee and the Starlighters, whose song “Peppermint Twist” was a standard of the era. In time, they were discovered by New York city’s famous disc jockey “Murray the K,” who had them appear in his “rock ‘n roll revues” held at the Brooklyn Fox Theater. In March of 1963, they moved to Phil Spector’s Philles Records and changed their name to “The Ronettes”.

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Estelle

The Ronettes were an exotic contradiction, singing songs in flirting tones about puppy love like edgy big apple street sirens while still looking somehow lonesome and vulnerable. Their heavy mascara framed Cleopatra eyes, their tight slit skirts exposed shapely legs and their tall, jet-black beehive hairdos screamed sex appeal… and danger. All three girls were of mixed-race decent and all three were undeniable young beauties. Ronnie and Estelle had a white father and a mother of African-American and Cherokee descent. Nedra Talley was black, Indian and Puerto Rican. Despite their vampish appearance, the girls were kept off the street by their parents and led tame, sheltered lives. Sometimes at school, they were bullied for their mixed-race looks. Hard to imagine from the girls who Darlene Love (He’s a Rebel) described as “the bad girls of the ’60s.”
Estelle Bennett (July 22, 1941 – February 11, 2009) was the quieter of the two Bennett sisters. When they were in school, Estelle concentrated on her homework and brought home good grades. Ronnie, more of an extrovert, spent her time singing and cultivating her “look”. Estelle was thr fashionista of the two, always reading Glamour, Vogue, and other fashion magazines. Estelle was valedictorian of her class at George Washington High School in Manhattan and went on to study at Manhattan’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Estelle worked at Macy’s durig the day, attended fashion school at night, and sang with The Ronettes on the weekends. And above all, Estelle loved singing and the recognition that came with it. She was the “pretty” Ronette, the one whose dance card was always the fullest. Although content to remain in the shadow of her younger sister, Estelle always soaked up her fair share of the spotlight. Those who knew Estelle described her as gentle and intelligent, and the driving force behind the Ronettes’ style. As cousin Nedra recalled: “She was not pretentious at all, but she carried herself with a sophistication that a lot of guys thought was really sexy. And she had a very, very good heart.”
z 61GlwzA3WkLBy the time the girls signed with Phil Spector in 1963, thanks mostly to Estelle, the Ronettes had their look precisely calibrated. In August of 1963 “Be My Baby” was released and by October, it had shot to No. 2 on the Billboard pop chart, making the Ronettes instant stars. The girls embarked on a tour of Britain in December of 1963 into early 1964. The Ronettes were the only girl group to tour with the Beatles. The Rolling Stiones were their opening act. When they toured, the Ronettes always traveled with at least one family member. In late 1964, the group released their only studio album, Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes Featuring Veronica, which entered the Billboard charts at number 96.

 

 

It was during that tour of ’63-’64 when The Beatles George Harrison, the “quiet Beatle”, began dating Estelle Bennett. The two hit it off immediately. According to Estelle, “We kept running into each other at parties and gatherings and always found our eyes meeting no matter how many other people were in the room. George and I talked whenever we’d see each other. We found we liked the same things, long walks while wearing comfortable clothes and being with sincere people who liked us for ourselves and not because we were in show business. I think I was the happiest when I was talking with George. There was something about him that made me open up and spill out anything that was on my mind. I think he felt the same way, for he’d often call late in the evening and talk on the phone for hours.”

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Estelle Bennett and Paul McCartney

z EstThe duo were inseperable for the remainder of the English tour until The Beatles left for Paris. When The Beatles came to America, the Ronettes met them at their hotel in New York City. The Ronettes, in fact, were on hand February 8, 1964 to welcome the Beatles as they arrived in New York for their first U.S. visit and Ed Sullivan Show appearance. But the relationship fizzled out, Estelle saying, “We saw each other many times. I was with him at the party after their concert and on other evenings when we just sat around the hotel with the rest of the group. But somehow things weren’t the same. We couldn’t recreate the same relationship we had when I was in London…Over there he’s at his best, he’s relaxed, he’s George Harrison, Englishman and not George Harrison, Beatle.”
During that same tour, Estelle was also romantically linked with Mick Jagger.

 

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The Rolling Stones and The Ronettes.

z esIn Keith Richards autobiography “Life” he admitted that he was dating Ronnie when the Stones toured with the Ronettes in 1963. He recalled there that Mick Jagger got with Estelle because she was less “chaperoned” than Ronnie. The pairings were viewed as controversial for a couple of reasons. One was that management, particularly The Beatles’ Brian Epstein, wanted “the boys” to remain single for fans’ sake. And two, interracial pairings were taboo back in those days. Frowned upon in the U.K. and nearly suicidal in parts of the U.S.A.
z 1012_large_1In 1965, the Ronettes continued to record and tour while making a few appearances on television, including a CBS special and the NBC pop music show, Hullabaloo. However by this time, Phil Spector was busy with other artists. The 1965 song “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” produced and co-written by Spector for The Righteous Brothers, became a No. 1 hit. And by early 1966, he was preoccupied with Ike & Tina Turner. By now, The Ronettes were being moved to the back burner by Spector and some of their songs, such as “I Wish I Never Saw the Sunshine”, and two songs co-written by Harry Nilsson, “Paradise” and “Here I Sit,” were held back for decades. They had one last hurrah in August 1966 when the Ronettes (minus Ronnie) joined the Beatles on their 14-city U.S./Canada tour as one of the opening acts. As for the Rolling Stones, during one visit they made to New York in the 1960s, Ronnie’s mother ended up cooking for them at her Gotham City home.

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John Lennon and Estelle Bennett

In late 1966, after several singles failed to make the charts, Phil Spector stopped releasing new records, the Philles label shut down and the Ronettes disbanded. Nedra Talley married New York radio station programming director Scott Ross. Estelle Bennett married road manager Joe Dong and the couple had a daughter, Toyin. After the Ronettes’ break-up, Estelle took it hard. Her cousin, Nedra said “Estelle did not want the Ronettes to end.” Estelle recorded one single for Laurie Records, “The Year 2000/The Naked Boy.” It didn’t do well and she quit the music business. After she left music, her life began a descent into another world.
By 1968, Estelle seemed to lose her moorings. At one point, she was hospitalized with anorexia. Not long after her grip on reality began to loosen considerably. Estelle was often seen wandering the streets of New York, telling people she would be performing with the Ronettes at a particular jazz nightclub. Estelle’s daughter Toyin explained she had never really known who her mother was. “From the time I was born she suffered with mental illness. I never really got to know Estelle in a good mental state.” Cousin Nedra Talley Ross, reported that Estelle had led a hard life, struggling with schizophrenia and anorexia.
z 5001334_wenn1183096Fellow 1960s singer Darlene Love, who once described The Ronettes as Rock’s tough girls, said the last time she saw Estelle, “She didn’t remember me.” By the early 2000s, Estelle Bennett was homeless. In 2007, The Ronettes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Love recalled seeing Estelle at the induction ceremony. “They cleaned her up and made her look as well as possible…She looked the best she could for somebody who lived on the street. It broke my heart.” It was decided that she was too fragile to perform. A back-up singer with Ronnie Specter’s new group stood in for an encore performance of “Be My Baby”.

 

“Be My Baby” sold millions of copies, both in the 1960s and since then, having been used in the opening segments of films such as Martin Scorsese’s 1973 film Mean Streets and 1987’s Dirty Dancing. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked the song at No. 22 on their list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys has called “Be My Baby” one of the greatest pop records ever made and is his “all-time favorite song.” Wilson was in his car when he first heard the tune on the radio, and being the composer and arranger that he was, stopped the car to give the song a closer listen. “I had to pull off the road,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. The choruses blew me away.” Wilson, in fact, wrote a famous Beach Boys song, “Don’t Worry Baby,” initially as a follow-up intended for the Ronettes, but it was turned down for that purpose.

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Estelle Bennett of The Ronettes with daughter Toyin March 2007

When Estelle was found dead in her apartment by police, after relatives had been unable to contact her, Kevin Dilworth, a friend and former Newark, New Jersey Star-Ledger newspaper reporter said, “I think she really just died of a broken heart. After the Ronettes disbanded in 1966, I don’t think she was ever right again…” Dillworth added that the only time he really saw her come to life was at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame of March 2007: “When they came out of the main ceremony… when she walked down the hallway, and the paparazzi … all the flashing cameras, and the people asking for autographs … her eyes just lit up. She was so excited, and she was back on top of the world again. But she went right back to anonymity.”
z 33775602_130379126909Posthumously, all agreed that growing up, Estelle had been a force in creating the Ronettes’ style and act – and that she had a heart of gold. “Estelle had such an extraordinary life,” said her cousin, Nedra. “To have the fame, and all that she had at an early age, and for it all to come to an end abruptly. Not everybody can let that go and then go on with life.” “Not a bad bone in her body,” said her sister Ronnie in a press statement. “Just kindness.” At that 2007 Hall of Fame ceremony, Estelle spoke only two sentences during her acceptance speech, “I would just like to say, thank you very much for giving us this award. I’m Estelle of the Ronettes, thank you.” No, Estelle, we thank you.

 

Pop Culture, Music, John F. Kennedy, Auctions

American Pie and the Day the Music Died. Part II

American Pie part II

Original publish date:  February 7, 2019

Sixty years ago, February 3, 1959, three of Rock ‘n Roll’s biggest stars- Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson, known as the Big Bopper- were killed in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa. The day became known as, “The Day the Music Died.” 13-year-old Don McLean was folding newspapers for his paper route in the early morning hours of February 4, 1959 when he got the news. Ten years later, McLean recorded an album in Berkeley, California called “Tapestry” in 1969. After being rejected 72 times by multiple labels, the album was picked up and released by Mediarts, a label that had not existed when he first started looking. It attracted good reviews but little notice outside the folk community. McLean’s major break came when Mediarts was bought by United Artists, paving the way for his second album, “American Pie”.
z 10713201_1The album launched two number one hits in the title song and “Vincent”. American Pie’s success made McLean an international star. The title track went on to become an anthem for late stage baby boomers. Decyphering the song’s lyrics became a national pasttime, sparking rumors that persist to this day. “American Pie” was the number-one US hit for four weeks in 1972. The song was listed as the No. 5 song on the RIAA project Songs of the Century and was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress.
z 74282792McLean has really never divulged the song lyrics meanings. He has said: “They’re beyond analysis. They’re poetry.” His silence has simply added fuel to the speculation. In 2009, on the 50th anniversary of the crash, he stated that writing the first verse of the song exorcised his long-running grief over Holly’s death and that he considers the song to be “a big song … that summed up the world known as America”. It should be noted that McLean dedicated his album to Holly. Every line of the 8 1/2 minute song has been carefully culled over and, rightly or wrongly, “explained” by fans and pundits alike ever since. Some of them are simple, others, not so much.
z don-mclean-american-pie-part-one-1972“A long, long time ago.”: American Pie was written in 1971 but talks about the 1950’s. “I can still remember how that music used to make me smile.”: McLean’s favorite music were the golden oldies of the 50’s. “And I knew if I had my chance, that I could make those people dance, and maybe they’d be happy for a while…”: Fifities music was primarily made for school dances and sock hops and McLean was waxing nostalgic about creating the same atmosphere with his music. “But February made me shiver.”: His idol, Buddy Holly died in a February plane crash in Iowa. “With every paper I’d deliver.”: He was a newspaper delivery boy in New Rochelle, New York. “Bad news on the doorstep, I couldn’t take one more step.”: Denotes the day he got the news of the plane crash. “I can’t remember if I cried, when I read about his widowed bride.”: Buddy Holly’s wife was pregnant when the accident occurred and soon after had a miscarriage. “But something touched me deep inside, the day the music died.”: Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper died together on the same day and fans felt that these three were that only major artists left. Elvis got drafted, Little Richard turned gospel, Bill Haley was forgotten, Jerry Lee Lewis was scandalous and Chuck Berry was a convicted criminal.
z monotones-book-of-love-56a96b6d3df78cf772a6cf2a“Did you write the book of love?”:”The Book of Love” was a hit in 1968 by the Monotones. “And do you have faith in God above, if the Bible tells you so?”: Don Cornell’s book “The Bible Tells Me So” (1955) and the Sunday School song “Jesus Loves Me,” with the line “For the Bible tells me so.” were presumed memories from McLean’s childhood. “Now do you believe in rock & roll?”: McLean was a former folk singer, a medium supplanted by Rock n’ Roll. “Can music save your mortal soul?”: Music may be the only thing that can save the listener from the social upheaval of the sixties. “And, can you teach me how to dance real slow?”: another perceived reference to the innocence of the 1950s. “Now I know that you’re in love with him, ’cause I saw you dancing in the gym.”: Buddy’s widow Maria Elena remarried. “You both kicked off your shoes.”: 1950s sock hop reference. “Man, I dig those rhythm and blues.”: Buddy Holly was living in Greenwich Village at the time of his death and frequenting the Jazz bars with his young wife. “I was a lonely teenage broncin’ buck with a pink carnation and a pickup truck.”: likely a tip of the cap to Marty Robbins 1957 song A White sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation). “But I knew I was out of luck, the day the music died.”: Holly’s death presaged an end of innocence.
z R-9587200-1483213325-5153“Now for ten years we’ve been on our own.”: It was a decade after Holly’s death when McLean put out his first album in 1969. “And moss grows fat on a rolling stone.”: Bob Dylan’s song “Like a Rolling Stone” signified (to many) the death of folk music. “but that’s not how it used to be.”: Again referring to Dylan’s musical changes. “When the jester sang for the king and queen.”: A veiled reference to Dylan as the jester. The king was Peter Seger and the queen Joan Baez. The two biggest names in folk music in the ’60’s. “In a coat he borrowed from James Dean.”: Although some see this as reference of Dylan’s “Freewheelin'” album cover where he is wearing a red windbreaker, it has also been explained as the movie idol’s death coming so close to Holly’s. “And a voice that came from you and me.”: again a reference to Dylan being the voice of his generation. “Oh, and while the king was looking down the jester stole his thorny crown.”: When Elvis “The King” left for the Army, Dylan stepped up to take his place. “The courtroom was adjourned, no verdict was returned.”: Dylan left the folk scene and went electric, then had his motorcycle wreck and disappeared for awhile. “And while Lennon read a book of Marx.”: Like Dylan, John Lennon and The Beatles switched genres from a pop band to serious musicians with an even more serious message. “The quartet practiced in the park and we sang dirges in the dark, the day the music died.”: The Beatles performed their last live concert at Candlestick Park and were broken up by the time this song became well known. There are many music aficionados out there who will argue that this verse is not about Bob Dylan at all but rather about the Kennedys. In that case, the lyrics should be pretty self explanatory.
z manson01_300x300“Helter Skelter in a summer swelter.”: In the summer of 1968, Charles Manson massacred an entire family spurred on by the Beatles song “Helter Skelter” from the white album. “The Byrd flew off with to a fallout shelter.”: The Byrd’s were a popular folk-rock group who had a hit with Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” in 1965. Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” appeared on his “Bringing It All Back Home” record, which features the image of a fallout shelter sign in the lower left corner. “Eight miles high and falling fast then landed in the foul grass.”: Eight Miles High was the first ever psychedelic song by the Byrds and tall grass refers to marijuana. “The players tried for a forward pass with the jester, on the sidelines in a cast.” Bob Dylan’s 1966 motorcycle wreck sidelined him and led to the success (out of necessity) of his back-up band, “The Band” whose 1968 and 1969 albums are considered classics. “Now the half time air was sweet perfume while sergeants played a marching tune.” Perceived reference to Dylan’s time off and the 1967 Beatles album Sgt. Pepper. “We all got up to dance, but we never got the chance.”: reference to the protests at the 1968 Chicago DNC and Kent State massacre of 1970. “Cause the players tried to take the field.”: The National Guard at Kent State University. “The marching band refused to yield.”: resulting in the deaths of of four students and wounding of nine others. “Do you recall what was revealed, the day the music died.”: Kent State University in Kent, Ohio.
z woodstock_a-G-5129968-0“And then we were all in one place.”: The Woodstock Festival took place in August 1969. 400,000 of McLean’s generation were there. “A generation lost in space.”: with the Apollo 11 moonlanding, the kids who grew up watching Lost in Space were coming of age. “With no time left to start again.”: The deaths of Buddy Holly and James Dean were harbingers for assassinations of the 1960s that could not be undone. “So come on Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack flash sat on a candlestick.”: Reference to the Rolling Stones song Jumpin’ Jack Flash. “cause fire is the devil’s only friend.”: The Rolling Stones 1968 album Sympathy for the devil. “Oh, and as I watched him on the stage.”: In December of 1969, the Stones attempted another Woodstock at Altamont Speedway. A free concert with the Hell’s Angel’s handling the security. The Stones paid them with beer and handfuls of acid and during the performance of “Sympathy for the Devil,” a black man was beaten and stabbed to death by the Hell’s Angels. “My hands were clenched in fists of rage no angel born in hell could brake that Satan’s spell.”: The Hell’s Angels. “As the flames climbed high into the night, to light the sacrificial rite.”: The stones were helicoptered out after the murder and mayhem ensued. “I saw Satan laughing with delight, the day the music died.”: Historians point to the Stones at Altamont as the death of the sixties and good no longer triumphed over evil.
“I met a girl who sang the blues and I asked her for some happy news, but she just smiled and turned away.”: Considered as a reference to Janis Joplin’s death by an accidental heroin overdose on October 4, 1970. “I went down to the sacred store.”: Nostalgic return to a once safe place. “Where I heard the music years before, but the man said the music wouldn’t play.”: pining for the forgotten golden oldies of the good old days. “And in the streets the children screamed.”: Race riots, political protests and militant groups now ruled the streets. “The lovers cried and the poets dreamed.”: The political assassinations of the sixties had destroyed the promise of the future. “But not a word was spoken. The church bells all were broken.”: The age of Nixon-Agnew & Reagan was now usurping religion as their mantra fueled by the so-called silent majority. “And the three men I admire most, the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”: McLean is Catholic and this is a tribute to the Holy Trinity. “They caught the last train for the coast.”: The April 8, 1966 Time magazine cover had asked the question “Is God Dead?” and The Beatles John Lennon had echoed the sentiment the same year. “The day the music died. And we were singing.”: McLean’s shock and despair at Holly’s death seemed insurmountable but it in fact led to his own birth as a musician and after all, music soothes the savage beast.
z 079402b9031ff1066dbb65cdf00c801aThis song’s refrain may be the hardest part of the song to explain. “So bye, bye Miss American Pie. Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry. And them good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye singing This will be the day that I die, this will be the day that I die.” The rumor was that American Pie was the name of the doomed plane carrying Holly, Valens and Richardson. Not true. It was also suggested that McLean was dating a Miss America contestant while writing the song. Also not true. Years later, McLean stated that Miss American Pie is as “American as apple pie, so the saying goes.” When taken on the face of it, I believe the refrain came together as a chorus simply because it was catchy. All hidden meanings aside, that may also be true about the entire song. Practically speaking “Chevy” rhymes with “levee”, it’s that simple. Still, theorists propose that the song’s refrain comes from Buddy Holly’s “That’ll be the day,” that eventually says “that I die.”
To further confuse the issue, an internet site notes that the Levee was a bar in Purchase, NY near McLean’s hometown and that there is also a town named Levee located about 15 minutes from his old school. According to local lore, McLean first wrote the lyrics on paper napkins in a bar in between gigs at Caffe Lena coffeehouse. A plaque on the wall of the Tin & Lint bar reads: “American Pie written by Don McLean, summer 1970.” McLean denies that story and in 2011 he told a local newspaper reporter that he wrote the song with the famous line “Bye, bye Miss American Pie” in Philadelphia. McLean himself said the chorus came to him suddenly while out shopping in a pharmacy in Cold Spring, New York. “I drove as fast as I could back home-I didn’t have a pencil and paper with me-and scribbled that down and put it in the tape recorder.”
McLean bristled when asked about the meaning of the song; “Over the years I’ve dealt with all these stupid questions of ‘Who’s that?’ and ‘Who’s that?’ These are things I never had in my head for a second when I wrote the song. I was trying to capture something very ephemeral and I did, but it took a long time. You will find many interpretations of my lyrics but none of them by me… Sorry to leave you all on your own like this but long ago I realized that songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence.”
z Don-McLean-American-Pie-Handwritten-Lyrics-52711In February 2015, McLean announced that Christies Auction House in New York City would sell his original lyrics for the iconic song. McLean explained his reasoning in Rolling Stone magazine: “I’m going to be 70 this year. I have two children and a wife, and none of them seem to have the mercantile instinct. I want to get the best deal that I can for them. It’s time.” The lyrics are 18 pages and contain 237 lines of manuscript and 26 lines of typed text and includes lines that didn’t make the final version as well as extensive notes. Christie’s described the lot as “Comprising: 4 pages manuscript in pencil on four sheets of blue paper stock, 11 pages manuscript on 10 sheets in pencil and ink on ruled spiral paper (including one a half sheet), 2 pages manuscript in pencil on two sheets of yellow paper stock, and one page typed manuscript on blue paper (with four lines holograph notes on verso in purple ink and pencil). Together 18 pages of manuscript on 17 sheets. ” The lot sold on April 7, 2015 for $1.2 million ($1.57 million with buyer’s premium).
After the auction when asked what “American Pie” meant, McLean jokingly replied, “It means I don’t ever have to work again if I don’t want to.” McLean said he would reveal the meaning of the song’s lyrics after the original manuscript was auctioned off. In the auction catalog, McLean revealed: “Basically in American Pie things are heading in the wrong direction. … It [life] is becoming less idyllic. I don’t know whether you consider that wrong or right but it is a morality song in a sense.” The catalog confirmed some of the better known references in the song’s lyrics, including Elvis Presley (“the king”) and Bob Dylan (“the jester”), and confirmed that the song culminates with a near-verbatim description of the death of Meredith Hunter at the Altamont Free Concert, ten years after the plane crash that killed Holly, Valens, and Richardson.
After the sale, McLean said that he would be selling off more from his music collection adding that he had just embarked on a program to lighten the load and get rid of things. “I hadn’t thought about the lyrics much. They were upstairs in a box of lyrics probably a foot thick with all kinds of songs I’d written that people know. But, of course there’s no song like that song and so I decided to sell them and see what happens. I know that people feel like that song belongs to the public so I thought a public auction would be the best thing to do.” McLean added that the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame wanted his lyrics but he refused because “they didn’t want me. I’ve never been in the rock n roll Hall of Fame, I’m an outsider. I’ve been very famous all my life. Many people have been inducted into the Hall of Fame but I haven’t because I’m a contrarian. The wanted my lyrics but I said to them ‘well, you don’t want me in the Hall of Fame so to hell with you’.” Fits in well with American Pie’s loss of innocence, don’t you think?

Music, Pop Culture

American Pie and the Day the Music Died. Part I

Bye Bye American Pie Part I

Original publish date:  January 31, 2019

60 years ago this Sunday was the day the music died. On February 3, 1959, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson were killed along with pilot Roger Peterson in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa. The event was immortalized by Don McLean in his 1971 song “American Pie”. Sixty years of rumors, innuendo and urban legends have followed since that frozen Tuesday morning. The facts get twisted, the accusations become tangled and conspiracy theories are contorted to fit a new narrative. One thing that never changes are the facts.

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Richie Valens, Buddy Holly & The Big Bopper

Three months before the crash Buddy Holly terminated his association with the Crickets. For his prophetic “Winter Dance Party” tour of 24 Midwestern cities in 24 days, he assembled a new band consisting of Waylon Jennings on bass, Tommy Allsup on guitar, and Carl Bunch on drums. The tour also featured Ritchie Valens, J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Dion DiMucci and his band The Belmonts. To save room (and money) Holly’s group was utilized as the backing band for all of the acts. The tour began in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on January 23, 1959. The rigorous travel schedule soon became a logistical problem; instead of hopping from town-to-town in a logical pattern, the tour zig-zagged chaotically, sometimes with distances between cities over 400 miles.

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All of the musicians traveled together in a series of reconditioned school buses prone to breaking down and poorly heated inside. Five separate buses were used in the first eleven days of the tour. The bands had no “roadies” back then, so the artists themselves were responsible for loading and unloading equipment at each stop. Because the tour was scheduled in winter, the travel route consisted of waist-deep snow and the weather featured temperatures from the 20s to as low as −36 °F. Shortly after the tour began, Richardson and Valens began experiencing flu-like symptoms. A bus breakdown in the middle of the highway near Ironwood, Michigan in subzero temperatures resulted in drummer Bunch being hospitalized for severely frostbitten feet. While Bunch recovered in the hospital, Carlo Mastrangelo of The Belmonts took over the drumming duties for Buddy Holly. When Dion and The Belmonts were performing, either Valens or Holly manned the drums. On Monday, February 2, Dion DiMucci took over the drums for the performance in Green Bay, Wisconsin and, after driving 350 miles, again took over the drum stool for that final concert in Clear Lake, Iowa.z surfballroom99
Clear Lake had not been a scheduled stop, but the tour promoters, hoping to fill an open date, called the manager of the local Surf Ballroom and offered to do the show. When Holly arrived at the venue that evening, he was visibly angry with the ongoing problems with the bus. The next gig was 365-miles north / northwest to Moorhead, Minnesota, which took them directly back through two towns they had already played within the last week. To make matters worse, the following day, they were scheduled to travel back directly south to Sioux City, Iowa, a 325-mile trip. Holly decided to charter a plane to take himself and his band to the Fargo, North Dakota airport, a 2 1/2 mile drive to Moorhead.
A 1947 single-engine, V-tailed Beechcraft 35 Bonanza airplane was chartered from the Dwyer Flying Service of Mason City, Iowa to fly Holly and his band to Hector Airport in Fargo. Tickets were $36 per passenger on the single-engine plane that could seat three passengers plus the pilot. One of the urban legends that sprang up years later was that the plane was called American Pie. In fact, the plane had no name other than its NAA code of N3794N.

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Waylon Jennings & Buddy Holly

Richardson was still battling the flu and asked Waylon Jennings for his seat on the plane. When Holly learned that Jennings was taking the bus, he teased the future country legend by joking, “Well, Hoss, I hope your ol’ bus freezes up.” Jennings responded: “Well, then I hope your ol’ plane crashes.” Jennings, who would be known by the nickname “Hoss” given him by Holly, was haunted by that bad joke for the rest of his life. Richie Valens, who was also struggling with the flu, asked Allsup for his seat on the plane even though he had an admitted fear of flying. Valens had witnessed a plane crash that took the life of his best friend on January 13, 1957. The two agreed to toss a coin to decide. Valens won the seat but lost his life.
Dion later said that Holly approached him along with Valens and Richardson to join the flight (the plane had 6 seats). In a 2009 interview, Dion claimed that Holly called him, Valens, and Richardson into a vacant dressing room and said “I’ve chartered a plane, we’re the guys making the money [we should be the ones flying ahead]…the only problem is there are only two available seats.” According to Dion, the coin toss for the seat was between Dion and Valens. Dion said that he won the toss, but ultimately balked at the $36 fare ($310 in today’s money) which equaled the monthly rent his parents paid for his childhood apartment, he could not justify the expense and opted for the bus instead. One report claimed that Buddy Holly wanted to charter the plane so that he could do his laundry. Reportedly, Holly was tired of traveling in cold uncomfortable buses and rattling through the Midwest wearing dirty clothes. Some witnesses claim that he chartered the plane in part so that he could arrive early and find a washing machine.
Holly, Valens, and Richardson departed from the Mason City Municipal Airport. The weather at the time of departure was reported as light snow, a ceiling of 3,000 feet AMSL (above mean sea level) with sky obscured, visibility 6 miles, and winds from 20 to 30 mph. And it was going to get worse. The plane took off normally from runway 17 (today’s runway 18) at 12:55 am CST. A witness watching the take-off from a platform outside the control tower was able to see clearly the aircraft’s tail light for most of the brief flight, which started with an initial left turn onto a northwesterly heading and a climb to 800 ft. The tail light was then observed gradually descending until it disappeared out of view. Eight hours later, with no news from the pilot or sign of the passengers, airport owner Hubert Jerry Dwyer retraced the doomed planes route in another airplane. At around 9:35 am, he spotted the wreckage less than 6 miles northwest of the airport. The sheriff’s office dispatched Deputy Bill McGill, who drove to the crash site, a cornfield belonging to Albert Juhl.
z 21885S17-Buddy-Crash 1 jpgThe Bonanza had banked steeply to the right and entered a nose-down death spiral before it augured in at around 170 mph. The right wing tip hit the ground first, sending the aircraft cartwheeling across the frozen field for 540 feet before coming to rest against a wire fence at the edge of Juhl’s property. The bodies of Holly and Valens had been ejected from the torn fuselage and lay near the plane’s wreckage. Richardson’s body had been thrown over the fence and into the cornfield of Juhl’s neighbor Oscar Moffett, while Peterson’s body was entangled in the wreckage. The County coroner certified that all four victims died instantly, citing the cause of death as “gross trauma to brain” for the three artists and “brain damage” for the pilot.
The official investigation was carried out by the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB, precursor to the NTSB) later concluded that the accident was due to “the pilot’s unwise decision to embark on a flight” that required instrument flying skills he had not proved to have. A contributing factor was the “seriously inadequate” weather briefing provided to Peterson, which “failed to even mention adverse flying condition which should have been highlighted”.
z 453458f69e2f0ed48916ea5c5d248be1The charter plane’s wreckage was strewn across nearly 300 yards of snow-covered cornfields. The death certificate issued by the Cerro Gordo County Coroner noted the clothing Holly was wearing, the presence of a leather suitcase near his body and the following personal effects: Cash $193.00 less $11.65 coroner’s fees – $181.35, 2 Cuff links: silver 1/2 in. balls having jeweled band, Top portion of ball point pen. Notably missing from the list were Holly’s signature eyeglasses.
z f4b5dca9f34d4a6b2865eae4b3285230On February 29, 1980, a pair of glasses were found in a filing cabinet of the Cerro Gordo County Sheriff’s office in Mason City, Iowa. The glasses were found in a manila envelope marked simply, “Charles Hardin Holley received April 7, 1959”. Along with the glasses, four dice, a cigarette lighter and a watch belonging to one Jiles Perry Richardson were also in the envelope. The lenses of the glasses were missing but the watch still ran pretty well. The relics had been resting unrecognized for nearly twenty-one years. They had been found at the scene of the February 3, 1959 plane crash, placed in storage as evidence and forgotten.
The wristwatch and cigarette lighter belonged to the Big Bopper and the horn rimmed glasses belonged to Buddy Holly. It is widely believed that the envelope had remained undiscovered because nobody recognized the innocuous plain sounding name Charles Hardin Holley written on the outside. The envelope was found while some records were being moved. Officials speculated that the leftover items had been found by a farmer two months later after the snow melted. The coroner’s office collected (and then misplaced) them in the process of moving to a new county courthouse. Buddy’s glasses had been thrown clear of the plane wreckage and buried in the snow. Those glasses were special, they were Buddy Holly’s trademark. The focal point of a carefully crafted look. They became the single item most remembered by his fans.
The Big Bopper’s watch was inscribed on back for a 1957 disc-a-thon, representing an important milestone in his life. In May 1957, at the Jefferson Theater in Beaumont Texas broadcasting from radio station KTRM, the Big Bopper beat the record for continuous broadcasting. His record was marked at 122 hours and 8 minutes (a little over 5 days) during which the Big Bopper stayed on air and awake the entire time. The dice were unattributed but played into an urban legend that circulated claiming that the crash happened after a game of chance went bad and one of the performers shot another (usually told as Holly and Richardson) which, like most urban legends, has no basis in fact whatsoever.
Another urban legend claimed that the plane crash was caused by some mysterious in-flight gunplay. The rumor claimed that Richardson’s death was the result of an accidental firearm discharge on board the aircraft that caused the crash. The rumor began two months after the crash when a farmer found a .22 pistol known to have belonged to Holly at the crash site. The rumor further claimed that Richardson survived the initial impact and froze to death while crawling out of the aircraft in search of help. The fact that his body was found farther from the wreckage than the other three was offered as proof of that theory.

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THE BIG BOPPER

On March 6, 2007, at the direction of the musician’s son Jay Perry, Richardson’s body was exhumed from it’s Lone Star grave for reburial in a more fitting part of Beaumont, Texas’s Forest Lawn cemetery. According to the autopsy report, when the casket lid was raised, it revealed a fairly well-preserved corpse dressed in a black suit with a blue & gray striped tie. The Bopper wore socks, but no shoes. The mottled, bluish face was slightly moldy and misshapen, no doubt owing to the shifting of mortician’s putty used to reconstruct the crushed skull. The fingers had “mummified into curled, dark brown talons.” X-rays of Richardson’s body concluded that the musician had indeed died instantly from extensive, non-survivable fractures to almost all of his bones; no traces of lead were found from any bullet. The report further stated that Richardson had probably died quickly from massive head injuries suffered in the plane crash. Putting any unsavory internet rumors to rest forever.
z Photo-of-JP-The-Big-Bopper-Richardson-casket-from-1959Remarkably, The Bopper’s thick brown hair was “still perfectly coiffed in his familiar, 1950s flat-top.” Strangely, the Bopper’s son Jay was present during the entire autopsy. On the subject of the Bopper’s still perfect flattop, his son stated, “It was awesome.” and went on to say, “I talked to him. I got to know my dad a little better.” Jay, showing signs that he inherited his father’s droll humor, joked that the Big Bopper would never have chosen to be buried in such a tie. The Bopper was re-interred in a replacement casket donated by the Batesville Casket Co. of Batesville, Indiana in March of 2007.
The toll was incalculable: The singers of “Peggy Sue” and “Come On Let’s Go” and “Donna” and “La Bamba” were all dead. Holly was just 22 and Valens only 17. Rock and roll would never be the same. Holly’s pregnant wife, María Elena, learned of his death by watching television. A widow after only six months of marriage, she suffered a miscarriage shortly after, reportedly due to “psychological trauma”. Holly’s mother, at home in Lubbock, Texas, heard the news on the radio before she screamed and fainted. Following these inexcusable death notification circumstances, a policy was adopted by authorities not to disclose victims’ names until after their families have been informed. That policy remains in affect today. Holly’s widow did not attend the funeral and has never visited the gravesite. Holly and Richardson were buried in Texas, Valens in California, and Peterson in Iowa.
Photo of Buddy HOLLYAnd whatever happened to those glasses? When that envelope was discovered, Holly’s parents claimed the glasses, as did his widow, and on March 20, 1981, a judge awarded the eyeglasses to María Elena in the same Mason City courthouse where they were discovered. Maria kept them until October 1998, when she sold them to Civic Lubbock, the nonprofit cultural organization that created the Buddy Holly Center. The price was $80,000. Today the glasses, visibly scarred from the plane crash, are on exhibit at the center, in a case near Holly’s Fender Strato-caster guitar. Other pieces in the collection include Buddy’s stage clothing, letters, photos, and a book containing handwritten song lyrics.
Thirteen years after the crash, Don McLean wrote a song about the tragedy: “American Pie,” an 8½-minute epic with an iconic lyric about “the day the music died.” Next week, in part II of this story, we’ll take a look at that song.

John F. Kennedy, Politics, Pop Culture, Presidents, Sports

Do You Remember January 22, 1973?

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Original publish date:  January 22, 2019

Were you alive on January 22, 1973? If so, consider this a reminder, if not, let me show what a typical day was like for a late-stage Baby Boomer like me. January 22, 1973 was a Monday in the Age of Aquarius. All in the Family was # 1 on television and The Poseidon Adventure was tops at the box office. Carly Simon was riding the top of the charts with her hit song “You’re so vain.” A song that has kept people guessing who she’s singing about to this day. Is it Warren Beatty? Mick Jagger? David Cassidy? Cat Stevens? David Bowie? James Taylor? All of whom have been accused. Carly has never fessed up, although she once admitted that the subject’s name contains the letters A, E, and R.

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The month of January 1973 had started on a somber note with memorial services in Washington D.C. for President Harry S Truman on the 5th (he died the day after Christmas 1972). Then, Judge John Sirica began the Nixon impeachment proceedings on the 8th with the trial of seven men accused of committing a ” third rate burglary” of the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate. Next came the Inauguration of Richard Nixon (his second) on the 20th. Historians pinpoint Nixon’s speech that day as the end of the “Now Generation” and the beginning of the “Me Generation.” Gone was JFK’s promise of a “New Frontier,” lost was the compassionate feeling of the Civil Rights movement and LBJ’s dream of a “Great Society.” The self-help of the 1960s quickly morphed into the self-gratification of the 1970s, which ultimately devolved into the selfishness of the 1980s.

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The line between want and need became hopelessly blurred and remains so to this day.
Twelve years before, John F. Kennedy decreed, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” On January 20th, 1973, Richard Nixon, purposely twisted JFK’s inaugural line by declaring , “In our own lives, let each of us ask—not just what will government do for me, but what can I do for myself?” At that moment, the idealism of the sixties gave way to narcissistic self-interest, distrust and cynicism in government of the seventies. Although it had been coming for years, when change finally arrived, it happened so fast that most of us never even noticed.
January 22nd was warm and rainy. It was the first Monday of Nixon’s second term and it would be one for the books. That day, Nixon announced that the war in Vietnam was over. The day before, his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger and North Vietnamese politburo member Lê Đức Thọ signed off on a treaty that effectively ended the war; on paper that is. The settlement included a cease-fire throughout Vietnam. It addition, the United States agreed to the withdrawal of all U.S. troops and advisers (totaling about 23,700) and the dismantling of all U.S. bases within 60 days. In return, the North Vietnamese agreed to release all U.S. and other prisoners of war. It was agreed that the DMZ at the 17th Parallel would remain a provisional dividing line, with eventual reunification of the country “through peaceful means.”
That same day, the United States Supreme Court issued their landmark decision 410 U.S. 113 (1973). Better known as Roe v. Wade. Instantly, the laws of 46 states making abortion illegal were rendered unconstitutional. In a 7-2 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a woman’s right to privacy extended to her right to make her own medical decisions, including having an abortion. The decision legalized abortion by specifically ordering that the states make no laws forbidding it. Rove V. Wade came the same day as the lesser known ruling, Doe v. Bolton, 410 U.S. 179 (1973), which overturned the abortion law of Georgia.

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The Georgia law in question permitted abortion only in “cases of rape, severe fetal deformity, or the possibility of severe or fatal injury to the mother.” Other restrictions included the requirement that the procedure be “approved in writing by three physicians and by a three-member special committee that either continued pregnancy would endanger the pregnant woman’s life or “seriously and permanently” injure her health; the fetus would “very likely be born with a grave, permanent and irremediable mental or physical defect”; or the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest.” Only Georgia residents could receive abortions under this statutory scheme: non-residents could not have an abortion in Georgia under any circumstances. The plaintiff, a pregnant woman known as “Mary Doe” in court papers, sued Arthur K. Bolton, then the Attorney General of Georgia, as the official responsible for enforcing the law. The same 7-2 majority that struck down a Texas abortion law in Roe v. Wade, invalidated the Georgia abortion law.
The Roe v. Wade case, filed by “Jane Roe,” challenged a Texas statute that made it a crime to perform an abortion unless a woman’s life was in danger. Roe’s life was not at stake, but she wanted to safely end her pregnancy. The court sided with Roe, saying a woman’s right to privacy “is broad enough to encompass a woman’s decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy.” Dozens of cases have challenged the decision in Roe v. Wade in the 46 years since the landmark ruling and the echoes of challenge are heard to this day.

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And what did Nixon think about that day’s ruling? The same Oval Office taping system that would bring about his downfall in the Watergate Scandal recorded his thoughts on Roe V. Wade for posterity. “I know there are times when abortions are necessary,” he told aide Chuck Colson, “I know that – when you have a black and a white, or a rape. I just say that matter-of-factly, you know what I mean? There are times… Abortions encourage permissiveness. A girl gets knocked up, she doesn’t have to worry about the pill anymore, she goes down to the doctor, wants to get an abortion for five dollars or whatever.” Yep, that was the President of the United States talking. And his day wasn’t even over yet.
At 3:39 p.m. Central Time, former President Lyndon B. Johnson placed a call to his Secret Service agents on the LBJ ranch in Johnson City, Texas. He had just suffered a massive heart attack. The agents rushed into LBJ’s bedroom where they found Johnson lying on the floor still clutching the telephone receiver in his hand. The President was unconscious and not breathing. Johnson was airlifted in one of his own airplanes to Brooke Army General hospital in San Antonio where he was pronounced dead on arrival. Johnson was 64 years old. Shortly after LBJ’s death, his press secretary telephoned Walter Cronkite at CBS who was in the middle of a report on the Vietnam War during his CBS Evening News broadcast. Cronkite abruptly cut his report short and broke the news to the American public.

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His death meant that for the first time since 1933, when Calvin Coolidge died during Herbert Hoover’s final months in office, that there were no former Presidents still living; Johnson had been the sole living ex-President Harry S. Truman’s recent death. Johnson had suffered three major heart attacks and, with his heart condition recently diagnosed as terminal, he returned to his ranch to die. He had grown his previously close-cut gray hair down past the back of his neck, his silver curls nearly touching his shoulders. Prophetically, LBJ often told friends that Johnson men died before reaching 65 years old, and he was 64. Had Johnson chosen to run in 1968 (and had he won) his death would have came 2 days after his term ended. As of this 2019 writing, Johnson remains the last former Democratic President to die.

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Nixon mentioned all of these events (and more) on his famous tapes. All the President’s men are there to be heard. Along with Colson, Nixon talks with H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman (whom ha calls a “softhead” that day), Bebe Rebozo, Ron Ziegler, and Alexander Haig. Haldeman is the first to inform Nixon of LBJ’s death in “Conversation 036-051” by stating “He’s dead alright.” For his part, Nixon states in “Conversation 036-061” that it makes the “first time in 40 years that there hasn’t been a former President. Hoover lived through all of 40 years” and then refers to the recent peace treaty, “In any event It’ll make him (LBJ) look better in the end than he would have looked otherwise, so… The irony that he died before we got something down there. The strange twists and turns that life takes.”

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Another event took place that night to round out the day, but unlike the others, you won’t find mention of it on the Nixon tapes. In Jamaica, a matchup of two undefeated heavyweight legends took place. Undisputed world heavyweight champion Smokin’ Joe Frazier (29-0) took on the number one ranked heavyweight challenger George Foreman (37-0) in Jamaica’s National Stadium. Foreman dominated Frazier by scoring six knockdowns in less than two rounds. Foreman scored a technical knockout at 1:35 of the second round to dethrone Frazier and become the new undisputed heavyweight champion (the third-youngest in history after Floyd Patterson and Cassius Clay). This was the fight where ABC’s television broadcaster Howard Cosell made the legendary exclamation, “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!”
“This is a peace that lasts, and a peace that heals.” Nixon announced to the American people the next day. The announcement came exactly 11 years, one month and one day after the first American death in the Vietnam conflict: 25-year-old Army Specialist 4th Class James Thomas Davis of Livingston, Tenn., who had been killed in an ambush by the Viet Cong outside of Saigon on Dec. 22, 1961. For you budding numerologists out there, that translates to 11-1-1. It was all downhill from there. LBJ’s death precipitated the cancellation of several Inauguration events and a week later, on January 30, former Nixon aides G. Gordon Liddy, James W. McCord Jr. and five others were convicted of conspiracy, burglary and wiretapping in the Watergate incident. The dominoes were falling and eventually “Down goes Nixon! Down goes Nixon!”

Ghosts, Indianapolis

The Ghost of old George Pogue.

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Original publish date:  November 1, 2018

Halloween is over and once again, it is time to box up the decorations and compost the jack-o’-lanterns to get ready for the next holiday season. This October I spent some time tracking an old muse from my childhood, George Pogue. Not only is Pogue Indy’s oldest cold case, he is also the Circle City’s oldest ghost story. Over the past few weeks I have re-shared past stories on Pogue’s run and the story of his disappearance. This week I’ll talk about his legacy.
The city of Indianapolis owes George Pogue a debt of gratitude. It was Pogue whom most historians credit as being our city’s first white settler. In 1819 Pogue followed a meandering narrow deerpath paralleling the banks of a pristine little stream that eventually fed into the West Fork of the White River. The Genesis of this once craggy little creek can be found near the intersection of Massachusetts and Ritter avenues on the east side. It spills into the White River south of the Kentucky Avenue bridge in the shadow of Lucas Oil Stadium.

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Pogues-Run-Covered-Bridge-1850s-Etching by Christian-Schrader

Prior to Pogue’s arrival, native American Indians would often follow Pogue’s Run hunting the wildlife that naturally gathered there. 58-year-old George Pogue, a blacksmith from Connersville, blazed the trail present-day eastsiders know as Brookville Road. Depending on which historian you talk to, on or about March 2, 1819, Pogue built (or occupied) a cabin where Michigan Street currently crosses Pogue’s Run for his family of seven. After Pogue’s mysterious disappearance in April 1821, the creek he followed to arrive in the Whitewater basin became known as Pogue’s Run.
If you Google Alexander Ralston’s original plat map of the city of Indianapolis, you will see Pogue’s run traversing diagonally across the southeast portion of the “Mile Square” area like a giant black snake. Just as Pogue’s mysterious end did not fit the desired narrative put forth by Indianapolis’ founding fathers, Pogue’s run disturbed the orderliness of Ralston’s tidy grid pattern. Before the state government could be moved to Indianapolis from Corydon, fifty dollars was spent to rid swampy Pogue’s Run of the mosquitoes that made it a “source of pestilence”.
Seems that poor old Pogue’s run never had a chance. It was too small to be a canal and too big to be a latrine. So city planners decided that the troublesome trickling waterway needed to be “straight jacketed” once and for all. Pogue’s run was prone to flooding and it had a funky odor hanging over it that wrinkled the tapestry the city’s elite were trying to create. So, beginning in 1914, a year long, million-dollar project variously known as the “Pogue’s Run Drain” and the “Pogue’s Run Improvement” was undertaken to hide the historic waterway. City planners felt that the stream’s submersion beneath downtown Indianapolis (from New York Street on the east side to the White River on the west side) would make the perfect aqueduct to alleviate flooding in the Circle City.
Sounds like a reasonable, viable engineering solution made by concerned public servants to obviate a city eyesore while protecting the citizenry at the same time, right? Well, it may run a little bit deeper than that. A number of factors influenced the decision to “straitjacket” Pogue’s Run, including the economic and human costs from decades of violent flooding, public health risks from diseases, and the stream’s unsightly and unpleasant smell due to years of sewage and industrial pollution. The covering of Pogue’s Run paved the way for the expansion of railroad track elevations, which in turn alleviated congestion on Indianapolis’ busy streets and avenues. It also enabled the city to create Brookside Park in 1898 at the spot where Pogue’s run enters downtown Indianapolis.
Although the legendary waterway now more closely resembles a drainage ditch, make no mistake about it, Pogue’s Run is real. It runs under the city of Indianapolis for nearly two-and-a-half miles, and it’s possible to walk from one end to another. Every underground tunnel presents an irresistible mystery, but Pogue’s Run has a more ghostly history than most. The Pogue’s run tunnels are reportedly home to the spirit of old George Pogue who lords over the dozen or so unfortunate victims of the floods that plagued the city via the waterway for nearly a century before it was covered over.
As detailed in previous articles, one morning George Pogue walked out his front door in search of his lost dog and disappeared forever. He was also trailing a Native American man known as “Wyandotte John” whom he suspected of stealing horses from his farm. Pogue walked over hill and was never seen again. His body was never found. Even though Pogue vanished nearly 200 years ago, his name hits the headlines every few years. It seems that whenever a foundation for a business in downtown Indianapolis is dug and human remains are found, the ghost of George Pogue rises from his unknown grave.
The first widely used cemeteries in Indianapolis didn’t start popping up until long after George Pogue disappeared. While the “City Cemetery”, ironically located on Kentucky Avenue near the White River where George Pogue disappeared, can be traced back to 1821, it was not at all what we would consider a cemetery today. Greenlawn Cemetery was added around 1834 as an 8 acre addition. By 1852 this pioneer cemetery had reached 25 acres and was quickly running out of room. Crown Hill opened in 1864 and Greenlawn quickly fell out of favor. By the 1890s, Greenlawn was gone. In George Pogue’s time, people were often buried where they were found or nearby where they worshiped, worked or lived. Burial records are scarce, wooden markers disintegrate and landmarks disappear. So it is not uncommon for human remains to pop up from time to time even today. So, needless to say, George Pogue does not rest in peace.
When the city of Indianapolis buried their troublesome waterway in 1915, Pogue’s run, like its namesake, disappeared. The trickling little stream is now forever trapped underground. And so is the ghost of George Pogue. Legend claims that Pogue is doomed to walk this underworld purgatory until his remains are found and he is given a proper burial. Pogue leads a small army of ghosts whose souls were lost in the flooding that once plagued the area.
Today, no one thinks much about the creek that runs underneath downtown Indianapolis. True, Hoosiers cling tightly to the White River by naming parks, streets and events in its honor. But unlike other major American cities, the Circle City has very few myths or legends surrounding its chief waterways. That is unless you count the tales of late-night TV host David Letterman and his friends attempting to traverse the central canal via canoe back in the “naptown” days. As a homegrown Hoosier, it has always been a mystery to me why the Pogue’s run waterway has not been more prominently featured in our city’s weird history.
During George Pogue’s era, antebellum times and the years after the Civil War and Reconstruction, flooding was not really a concern in Indianapolis. The Circle City really had no riverfront development to speak of, roads were sparse and unpaved and any excess winter water thaws had plenty of places to go. In past columns I have detailed a few of the many floods that plagued Indy in the years before the Pogue’s run tunnels were created. The Easter Sunday floods in 1913 brought twelve inches of rain in a five day period and the White River crested to 31.5 feet; 19.5 feet above flood stage. No one knows what the true crest was because the city’s measuring equipment and gauges washed away at 29.5 feet. 70,000 cubic feet per second, an amount 50 times greater than normal, sent torrents of water rushing through the city. In Indianapolis, 7000 families lost their homes and over 25 deaths were reported as a result of this flood. Statewide, 200,000 people lost their homes and over 200 lives were lost. More than a few of those bodies were never found and their spirits, like that of its namesake, haunt the Pogue’s run tunnels today.
A couple of Sundays ago I was joined by several Irvington Ghost tour volunteers in a search of the Pogue’s run tunnels. Rhonda and I were joined that day by our daughter Jasmine, friends Elise Remissong and Jada Cox, Kris and Roger Branch, Steve Hunt, Tim Poynter, Christy and Cameron McAbee, Trudy and Steve Rowe and Cindy Adkins. WISH-TV Channel 8 TV’s Joe Melillo also joined us for a pre-Halloween trek in search of the ghost of old George Pogue. The results of our trip can be found on the WISH TV website under Joe’s banner. Joe’s segment captured only a fraction of what took place down there.
That day, the Colts were playing the Buffalo Bills at Lucas oil above us. (the Colts won 37 to 5) Inside the century old pitch-black tunnel the water had slowed to a trickle. The entrance to the Pogue’s run tunnel is hidden in a thickly wooded area within sight of the downtown skyline. The city of Indianapolis maintains Pogue’s run very nicely and has recently constructed a two-story wooden walkway leading down to the tunnel entrance. Upon entering the mouth of the tunnel the original stream can be seen entering the concrete spillway looking much as it has for nearly two centuries.
The concrete walls leading into the tunnel are festooned with spray-painted graffiti indicative of its big city location. The water stream is contained down the center of the trough with dry foot paths on either side. About 100 yards down stream inside the tunnel, a separate parallel tunnel is revealed through large round vents in the walls that are easy to step through. The upper channel is the spillway used for relief of excess water flowing through Pogue’s run when necessary. These walls are also peppered with graffiti as expected. Mostly introspective, sometimes profane, the graffiti is often nonsensical; logical only to whomever placed it there.
There are rats down here along with spiders, snakes and the occasional stranded fish from floods past. There is also evidence that the homeless population of Indianapolis occasionally seek shelter in the tunnels, but most of that evidence gets washed away by the floodwaters on a regular basis. The temperature outside is just above freezing, but it is warm here in the tunnels. So warm that it is easy for our team of urban spelunker’s to feel overdressed. The water can be deep in places depending on the rainfall. The total blackness of the Pogue’s run tunnels cannot be understated. Without the aid of a trusty flashlight or lantern, it is impossible to see your hand held in front of your face.
The ceiling and sidewalls are cracked in places, betraying rushing floodwaters of years gone by. The side tunnels are made of brick and occasionally they branch off the main route to parts unknown. Cell phones are useless in the tunnel; there ain’t no service down here . There are manholes and open grates that I suppose could be accessed to determine one’s location, but thanks to Stephen King’s “It” (and Pennywise the sewer clown) I wouldn’t recommend it. In places, perhaps owing to the day’s Colts Sunday atmosphere, it is possible to hear activity on the streets above including music and conversation. But mostly it is quiet. Occasionally cars passing above make high-pitched traffic sounds that can be confused with the cries of a baby or wounded animal, but the logical mind soon determines the source. Once in a while one of these vehicles will pass directly over a manhole with a thunderous result that echoes through the tunnel and shakes even the most resolute of subterranean urban explorers.
Upon closer examination, evidence remains of those original pre-World War I era tunnels. Brick troughs and well foundations pepper the tunnels as do the rotted remains of wooden trusses and the occasional displaced iron train rail, the presence of which immediately elicits the thought “how did that get down here?” Oddly, there’s not much of an echo down here. The voice carries, but it doesn’t carry far. When the visitor cups the mouth and lets loose a “Hello”, it rolls only a few rods before disappearing into the darkness. But is there anything else down in the old Pogue’s Run tunnels?
As a student of history, I often find myself asking that question. Is there anything else? I rely on a few friends with deeper insight in that department to answer that query. Tim Poynter, founder of the SPIRIT Paranormal team, observed a few spirits lingering in the tunnels of Pogue’s run, “I encountered the spirit of a light-skinned black man dressed in mid 20th century clothing within a few hundred feet of the opening. His attitude seemed to be one of ‘stay back’which is not uncommon. I imagine this was the spirit of a homeless man who passed while living down there in the tunnels.” Intuitive Cindy Adkins echoed Tim’s feelings at the mouth of the tunnel, “I did not see the gentleman until we got into the tunnel. I was not getting a bad feeling at all just that we were invading his space and he did not like that too well.” Cindy would encounter this man further down in the tunnels of Pogue’s run.
WISH-TV Channel 8 TV reporter Joe Melillo segregated three of our number, Cindy Adkins, Christy McAbee and Steve Hunt, deep within the depths of the Pogue’s Run tunnel. Here, light and sound go to die. Joe watched as the trio “spoke” with the dead. Cindy Adkins is a gifted intuitive and the only person I have encountered who has had an actual conversation with a ghost on tape (or EVP). When Joe Melillo turned on his camera, this man’s spirit came out to play.
“The gentleman is over 6 feet tall,” says Cindy. “He told me there was a house fire and his big two-story home was completely engulfed in flames. He told me his family was killed in the fire. His house was near Pogue’s run and he lived down there in the tunnels. He likes it down in the tunnels and he doesn’t want to leave. But while we were down there and Joe was taping, a woman joined us. Her initials were C. L. and I kept getting the date 1964. She was lost down there in the tunnels and said that she died of a drug overdose. Christy, Steve and I managed to clear her spirit and send her on her way to the light. But the man is still down there. He just laughed when I asked him if he wanted to leave too.”
As I write this article, Joe Melillo’s segment has yet to air. His WISH-TV Channel 8 Pogue’s run segment airs on Halloween morning. When asked for his thoughts and impressions on the Pogue’s run adventure, Joe Melillo siad, “I would say the best way to describe the experience for me was stifling… Almost suffocating. Very dense down there and it made me have a headache. Overall I did feel something, but I am more of a history guy so the paranormal things don’t hit me as hard. When we sat with the group of paranormal investigators I was there to document the exercise, but nothing happened to me specifically. I was so ready for someone to touch me or to see a shadow figure, but I got nothing. At least this time. Maybe next time I’ll have better luck.” Yes, Joe, maybe next time. Sounds like the Pogue’s run entities will still be there, waiting for you.

Indianapolis, Uncategorized

George Pogue and why he matters.

 

imag41962

Original publish date:  October 25, 2018

George Pogue, a 54-year-old Carolina blacksmith, had no idea he was making history when, on March 2, 1819, he settled on a hill overlooking a stream that connected to the White River a short distance away. George had simply followed a trail blazed by Native American Indians and wildlife through the wilderness made long before him. Pogue is widely regarded as the first white settler in Indianapolis and that trail he followed is now known as Brookville Road. As more and more white settlers arrived in the area in the months to follow, the shallow waterway became known as “Pogue’s Run.” Pogue migrated to the area now known as the eastside of Indianapolis from Connersville. The cabin he built for his family of seven sat roughly where Michigan Street crossed Pogue’s Run. The waterway that bears his name is as mysterious as the man himself.
imag41952Some historians argue that Pogue simply moved into an existing cabin that had been built and briefly occupied by Newton “Ute” Perkins. Others claim that John Wesley McCormick accompanied Pogue to Indianapolis from Connersville and deserves to be mentioned as the first settler in the Capitol city. But Perkins moved to Rushville “on account of loneliness” and McCormick settled near Bloomington where he later had a popular state park named in his honor. But for this historian, George Pogue is the man. Why? Because one day, George Pogue simply vanished from the face of the earth.
Whether Pogue was the first white man to settle here or not, he was certainly the first white man to die here. According to one contemporary account, George Pogue was a large, broad shouldered, stout man with dark hair, eyes, and complexion. His appearance was that of a Pennsylvania Dutchman; colorless, functional clothing with no ornamentation, a broad brimmed felt hat and a mustache-less beard stretching from ear-to-ear. One look at George Pogue would make anyone think twice about challenging him. He was one of the few in the area unafraid of the indigenous Delaware warriors that roamed the woods encircling them. After all, Pogue was one of the first to leave the comfort and safety of Fort Connersville in search of new lands to settle.
imag41972One evening at twilight, an Indian brave known as “Wyandotte John”, stopped at the Pogue family cabin asking for food and shelter for the night. Although wary of the request, some of Pogue’s horses had been recently stolen and he was determined to track down the thieves. The Indian had a bad reputation and the rumor was that he had been banished from his own tribe in Ohio for some unknown offense and was now wandering aimlessly among the various Indiana tribes in the area. Wyandotte John had spent the previous winter living rough, but comfortably, in a hollowed out sycamore log perched under a bluff just east of the area that, a decade later, would become the spot where the National Road bridge crossed the White River. On the inside of the log he had fashioned hooks by cutting forks from tree limbs, on which he rested his gun. At the open end of the log near the waterline he built his fire, which kept the wildlife away while heating the enclosure at the same time.
After Wyandotte John was fed, Pogue, aware that his guest was known to travel from one Indian camp to another, asked him if he had seen any “white man’s horses” at any of the camps. The Indian Brave said he had left a camp of Delaware’s that morning about twelve miles east at a settlement on nearby Buck Creek (Near present day Southeastern Avenue) where he had seen horses with “iron hoofs” indicating that they had been shod. Wyandotte John’s description of the horses led the blacksmith to believe they were his missing mounts. However, George Pogue was nobody’s fool. He began to think that Wyandotte John had described the horses so accurately that it might be a ploy to lure the blacksmith into the woods. He shared his suspicions to his family who begged him to let the matter go. George Pogue was not that kind of man.
obsession_warriorWhen the Indian left the next morning, Pogue grabbed his gun and his dog and followed as Wyandotte John walked towards the river and the pioneer settlement. Pogue followed for some distance waiting for the Indian to turn towards the native camps, but the Indian kept walking towards the white settlers. The two men disappeared over a rise and George Pogue was never seen or heard from again. The settlers formed a company of armed men to search all the Indian camps within fifty miles of the settlement looking for some trace of Pogue, but his fate remains a mystery to this day. The conclusion is that he was killed by Indians. Locals claimed to have seen his horse and several of his possessions in the hands of local tribes. The dog was purportedly killed, cooked and eaten.
Pogue’s Run occupies a strange place in our city’s history. The creek almost continuously alternating between the pride and the pest of the city. Starting as a large reed-choked puddle of water resting between a railroad track and a construction business near the intersection of Ritter and Massachusetts on the eastside of Indianapolis, Pogue’s Run meanders 11 miles through, alongside and at times beneath downtown streets and under some of our most famous buildings. And like old George Pogue, many lifelong Hoosiers have no clue about it.
7762As every Circle City student knows, Indianapolis was laid out in 1815 by Alexander Ralston, an assistant to French architect Pierre L’Enfant, the man who designed Washington D.C. Ralston chose to design the city in a grid pattern, similar to the District of Columbia. There was just one problem; Pogue’s Run. The swampy little creek named after the ghost of an enigmatic city pioneer, called a “source of pestilence” because of all the mosquitoes it attracted, disturbed the orderliness of Ralston’s master plan and required him to make contingencies for it.
Soon the decision was made to move the state capitol from Corydon to Indianapolis (then known as the “Fall Creek Settlement” an area sparsely populated by fur traders) but not before the state government paid a local $ 50 (roughly $ 750 today) to rid Pogue’s Run of the nuisance mosquitoes. Pogue’s Run was too small to be a canal, too unreliable to be an aqueduct and too big to be a latrine. Ralston had no choice but to incorporate the twists and turns of the wayward wandering waterway into his master grid plan. Pogue’s Run cut diagonally southwest through the original plat of Indianapolis, necessitating changes in the original layout of streets. Starting near what is now 34th Street and Arlington Avenue, it crosses Washington Street (the National Road) and drops below downtown Indianapolis before joining White River.
oregon_trailSince much of Pogue’s Run downtown path was diverted underground via hidden tunnels, it is hard for us to imagine today what it must have looked like to the eyes of Indianapolis’ earliest residents. However, the atmosphere of the original waterway was perhaps best captured in an 1840 painting by Jacob Cox. Titled “Pogue’s Run, The Swimming Hole”, this tranquil and pastoral landscape depicts a pair of cows drinking from a stream under a bridge where Pogue’s Run crosses Meridian Street. The image presents a realistic portrayal of the location as it appeared before it became the site where Union Station (which was originally built on pylons over Pogue’s Run) rests today . Although relatively unknown by today’s Circle City denizens, Antebellum Pogue’s Run was the subject of many works of art and poetry by our forefathers.
pogue's_run_white_riverToday, as the waterway runs south it most closely resembles its original creek form as it winds through a housing development fronting Massachusetts Avenue and continues through Brookside Park. Skirting the south edge of the Cottage Home neighborhood, between 10th and New York Streets , it disappears into an underground aqueduct. It continues flowing under Banker’s Life Fieldhouse and Lucas Oil Stadium, and empties into the White River at 1900 S. West St. near Kentucky Avenue.
Some Eastsiders (like my dad who went to Tech and was born and raised on Oriental Avenue) recalled Pogue’s Run as a tributary stream (he called it a storm sewer) that originally started near the old RCA plant north of Michigan Street, headed south through the Michigan / Rural Street intersection near Rupp’s subdivision & Lange’s nursery, down to East New York Street and Beville Avenue before veering off through the State Women’s Prison before following the Sturm Esplanade and entering Noble’s Subdivision. My dad went to junior high school in the old arsenal building on the Tech campus in the 1950s. He remembered playing football outside at recess after lunch on the southern end of the campus near a brick arch at the campus boundary. He claimed that arch was the spot where the Crooked Run tributary entered an underground pipe to join up with Pogue’s Run.
I grew up near the left-hand tributary of Pogue’s Run known as Brookside Creek just east of Sherman Drive north of 16th Street near Brookside Park. There, the creek still flows above ground. So as a child, I could easily conjure up images of wild animals, Native American Indians and buckskin clad pioneers roaming the ancient waterway. The spirit of the spectral pioneer waterway occasionally bubbled up to the surface within the concrete jungle of modern day Indianapolis.
When Union Station was refurbished in the mid-1980s, the original architectural drawings didn’t reflect the creek running underneath the station’s sub-basement. It had been a typical rainy season in the Circle City. As the construction crew dug deeper, the heavy equipment caused the floor to cave in and water came pouring into the work area like a scene from the Poseidon Adventure. The subterranean work crew barely escaped before the waters from Pogue’s Run filled the area. It can be assumed that the mistakes were not replicated when Lucas Oil & the Fieldhouse were excavated above Pogue’s Run.
For my part, I can remember sneaking into the massive mysterious concrete tunnels built to accommodate Pogue’s Run. Historically, most of them were created in 1915 with near continuous updates every decade or so since. There are some great photographs available on the net of that 1915 excavation (particularly underneath Meridian Street) for the Pogue’s Run tunnels that are well worth looking up. My memories revolve around massive oval shaped tubes that could easily accommodate the height of an average sized man. In spots, the tunnels were filled with ankle deep water (at least I told myself it was water) that could mostly be avoided by using a hybrid crab walk posture, but many areas of the tunnels were bone dry.
What I remember most was the darkness. I’m talking pitch darkness. You might enter thinking a match, candle or lighter would suffice, but you quickly availed yourself of that notion and returned later armed with a trusty flashlight. Inside the tunnels, you were greeted by the remains of civilization: shopping carts, empty beer cans, mattresses, graffiti of every imaginable type, discarded clothing and the sounds of scurrying little animals that you could never quite seem to fix your flashlight beam on. No matter how many times you ventured down there, you never really knew where you were. The scariest moment always came whenever a large truck drove over one of the many manhole covers above your head. It sounded like the scream of a Banshee from Irish mythology to me and I must confess that it drove me out of the tunnels in panic on more than one occasion.
As a kid, I imagined the mattresses were placed down there by make out artists who brought their girls down there for some “alone time” and that the clothing and beer cans were remnants left by teenagers having fun. The graffiti was their way of marking the scene of their glorious triumph. I could never figure out how the shopping carts got there. But now, as an adult, I realize that it is far more likely that the refuse I inadvertently stumbled across was more likely left by those less fortunate Hoosiers among us who descended into the underground tunnels in search of a warmer place to spend the night. If so, I’d like to think that the Pogue’s Run homeless might have a patron saint that protects them down there. A bearded former blacksmith with arms like Popeye dressed in clothing from a long time ago named George Pogue.

Next Week…Part II…The Ghost of old George Pogue.

Hollywood, Music, Pop Culture

God is Bigger than Elvis.

dolores-hart-elvis-presley

Original publish date:  May 12, 2012               Reprinted January 17, 2019

In just a couple of months, it will be 55 years since Elvis Presley starred in his second film, a film called “Loving You.” The film was noteworthy for a few different reasons; it was Elvis’ first movie in color, it featured his mother and father as audience members and it was for this film that Elvis dyed his hair from a sandy blonde to jet black to honor the King’s movie idol, Tony Curtis. It premiered on July 10, 1957 in Memphis and was released nationally on July 30, 1957. Elvis did not attend the inaugural showing in his his hometown, choosing to watch the film with his parents, Gladys and Vernon, at a private midnight showing screening instead. At one point, Elvis and his parents appear on screen together in a concert scene. His mother would die a year later and Elvis refused to watch the film again because it would remind him too much of his dear departed mother.article-0-11e20996000005dc-516_233x528
The film was the first of many portraying Elvis as a rising young music star and how that sudden stardom affected the character and those around him. An ominous portent of things to come in the life of Elvis Presley to be sure. The film starred Elvis alongside Wendell Corey, Lizabeth Scott and a young starlet named Dolores Hart. Some believe the film was cursed, pointing to the sad end of Elvis Presley 20 years later at the young age of 42, the sudden retirement of popular baritone blonde Lizabeth Scott after filming concluded, the decline and alcohol induced death of Wendell Corey just over a decade later and the fact that Dolores Hart quit acting and became a nun. Yes, the same beautiful actress who made 10 films in 5 years alongside heart throbs like Montgomery Clift, Warren Beatty, George Hamilton, Robert Wagner and, of course, Elvis became, and still is today, a Roman Catholic nun.
Hart (born Dolores Hicks on October 20, 1938 in Chicago, Illinois) was the only child of Catholic parents who separated and ultimately divorced, when she was just 3-years-old. Dolores was not raised Catholic, but was converted to Catholicism at the age of 10. Her parents were both actors and Hart described herself as a “Hollywood Brat”, following her actor father, Bert Hicks, around the back studio lots of Tinseltown and deciding at a young age that she wanted to be in movies. Instead, her father sent the precocious young girl to Chicago to live with her grandparents where she attended parochial school and “Dodged streetcars.”
Although far from the bright lights of Hollywood, her movie theater projectionist grandfather imparted his love for films and encouraged her dream of pursuing an acting career. Dolores would accompany her grandfather to the theatre and sit all day in the projection booth watching the films (without sound so as not to disturb his naps in the booth) and only wake him when it was time to change the reel. She studied theatre at Marymount College and in 1956 was signed as a “fresh, new face” to play the love interest of Elvis Presley in “Loving You.” Dolores, attended Mass every morning as a young actress in Hollywood and prayed to get roles she wanted. Her prayers were answered when Hart appeared again with Presley in 1958’s King Creole. Elvis was well known for his many off-screen affairs with his female costars, but Hart has always denied succumbing to Presley’s charm. dolores-hart-2-240
When asked, “What is it like kissing Elvis?” Hart always chuckles and replies, “I think the limit for a screen kiss back then was something like 15 seconds. That one has lasted 40 years.” In 1960, Hart ironically starred in “Where the Boys Are”, a teenage comedy about college students on spring break which has become a cult classic for film buffs. In the film, Hart plays a co-ed who struggles with her newly-developed sexuality and the sudden attention from the opposite sex. It was during filming of “Francis of Assisi” the next year in 1961, in which she prophetically played a nun, that she met Pope John XXIII. As she met his holiness, she exclaimed, “I am Dolores Hart, the actress playing Clare.” To which the Pontiff replied, “No, you are Clare!” (“Tu sei Chiara” in Italian).
Dolores first visited Regina Laudis, after an exhausting run on Broadway. A friend suggested she recuperate for a few days in the quiet of the abbey, so she went, and continued to visit periodically. On one of those visits, Ms. Hart spoke to the then-abbess about becoming a nun. The abbess told her she was too young and that she should go back and continue acting. She went on to star in four more films and became engaged to architect Don Robinson, who set to work designing the couple’s Hollywood dream home. A lavish wedding was being planned, complete with a wedding gown designed by legendary Hollywood costume designer Edith Head. It was then that a fortuitous letter arrived from the convent suggesting that if she was still interested in joining the order, now was a good time to do so.
dolores-hart-feet-2227911In 1963, she broke off her engagement and the 25-year-old actress joined the Benedictine Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut as a Roman Catholic nun. She would ultimately become the Prioress of the Monastery. Legend claims that while on the final leg of a promotional tour for her last movie, “Come Fly with Me” starring Hugh O’Brian, Ms. Hart literally stepped out of a Hollywood limousine and into the abbey.
Sister Dolores took her final vows in 1970. She chants in Latin eight times a day. In 2006, she visited Hollywood again after 43 years in the convent to raise awareness for peripheral idiopathic neuropathy disorder, a neurological disorder that afflicts many Americans, including herself. At first, the condition, which affects a person’s ability to walk, went undiagnosed and left her wheelchair bound. For a time, Sister Dolores thought she was going to die. Finally a New York City doctor discovered a treatment that eased her symptoms and has helped restore her ability to walk. On April, 2006, she testified at a Washington congressional hearing on the need for research on the painful and crippling disease that affects the central nervous system. That suffering taught Mother Dolores an important lesson. She said, “You have to become dependent on the gift of human beings, and you discover that God is an incarnate reality. In the beginning, God was always a pie-in-the-sky reality. Now I had to realize that Jesus was there through the people who were assisting me, caring for me and doing the things that were bringing me through.”dolores-hart
Hart, whose pure beauty was often compared to Grace Kelly, used her movie fame to develop her Abbey of Regina Laudis’s expansion of its community connection through the arts. Paul Newman donated funds from his “Newman’s Own” food line to build a lighting grid and a better equipped stage for use in a year-round arts school at the Abbey. Another friend, Academy Award winning actress Patricia Neal also helped support the abbey’s theater.
Dolores Hart’s ultimate vision is the development and expansion of the Abbey’s open-air theater and arts program for the Bethlehem community. Every summer, the abbey’s 38 nuns on 400 acres of rural land, help the community stage a musical. Past performances have included West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, The Music Man and My Fair Lady. Although the Reverend Mother Dolores Hart has been Prioress of the Abbey since 2001 and has not appeared in a Hollywood movie for almost half-a-century, she remains a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. A designation that makes her the only nun to be an Oscar-voting member giving her a vote to help determine each year’s Oscar winners. She watches the movies on screener DVDs and invites her fellow nuns to see the good ones.
god-is-the-bigger-elvisIn 2012 Benedictine nun Mother Prioress Dolores made a rare foray from her isolated life at the Abbey of Regina Laudis and traveled from her Connecticut home to Hollywood to celebrate an Oscar-nominated HBO documentary film titled, “God Is Bigger Than Elvis”. The film chronicles her life as an actress and a nun, including her close friendship with spurned fiancé, Don Robinson, who never married and who has visited Sister Dolores at the Connecticut monastery faithfully. One of the most touching moments in the film features Robinson and Prioress Dolores casually talking, Robinson referring to Hart as “Mother” while looking, and acting, like a typical elderly married couple. The scene takes on added significance when you realize that Don Robinson died shortly after the film was made, ending a platonic love affair that lasted a half a century.motherdoloreshart