Hollywood

Bill “Bojangles’ Robinson & Me. Part I

Bill Robinson Part I

Original publish date: November 6, 2014

Republished: November 15, 2018

This past fall, I drove to a place called White’s Farm in Brookville,Indiana, not far from Cincinnati. Every Wednesday you’ll find over 100 flea market and antique dealers set-up in the hills and dales of an area once riddled with the remnants of Ancient Native American Indian Burial Mounds. “Brookville” is one of those shows that starts “flashlight early” with most dealers arriving around 3:00 a.m. and packed up and gone by 10:00 a.m. It was one of those “dew you can chew” kind of mornings replete with tiny droplets of water hanging so thick in the air that it seemed like you could catch them on your tongue like snowflakes.
While walking up a hillside my flashlight caught hold of a pile of old paper and photographs and I instinctively froze. After all, I’m a paper and photo guy and damp cool mornings are the bane of my flea market existence. Even from 15 feet away, I recognized a familiar face smiling out from the crowd. It was a hero from my past. It was Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
z bj stIf you’re old enough to remember Black and White TV, the original Sammy Terry TV show, Timothy Church-mouse or Cowboy Bob and Janie, then you should remember Bill Robinson. If you’re over the age of 40, you can remember a time before cable TV. A time when television stations actually went off the air at night and didn’t come back on until farm shows or cartoons popped up the next morning. Back then, it was a badge of honor to say you made it up to watch the flag wave to the rhythm of the National Anthem.
After the weekend cartoon shows were over and before the sports programming began, well, that was the time for America’s sweetheart: Shirley Temple. And right there next to that darling little dancer, matching her step-for-step, was Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. And here, right here in the soggy farm fields of Brookville,Indiana, was a 5×7 World War II Era photo autographed by Bojangles himself! I sheepishly asked the vendor what the story was on the group of photographs and he replied, “Oh those all belonged to a famous Big Band leader from Cincinnati and those are all gangsters from Newport (Kentucky).”
I held up the Robinson photo in particular and the seller stated, “Oh he (the band leader) was great friends with Bill Robinson.” I asked the dealer what he wanted for the photo and he said he was trying to sell the whole collection as one lot. He then added, “I have a whole suitcase of this stuff in my truck.” Oh really? Of course I asked to see the suitcase and sure enough, it was crammed full of wonderful things. I negotiated a price, more than I expected to pay, but less than the value of my childhood memories. In instances like this, you lead with your heart, dig for your wallet and hope your wife will understand.
z 68735-004-9F4018D8For the sake of full disclosure, I must admit that I once owned a photo signed by Bill Robinson. Bojangles signed it for an Indiana Mayor whose name now escapes me. I sold it to a collector in the late 1980s for $ 100. But I rationalized the sale of the relic because the photo literally looked like it had been dipped in water and $ 100 might as well have been $ 1,000 to me and my young bride. By finding this photo on a dew soaked Southern Indian hillside, I felt the pendulum had swung back my way.
I took the suitcase home and eagerly, but carefully, began to disassemble the contents. As my fellow collectors will attest, it doesn’t get much better than this. Suitcases full of unpicked goodies fill the slumber-time dreams of every collector, regardless of the subject one desires to collect. This suitcase did not disappoint.
Turns out that this grouping represented the personal memorabilia of 1930-40s Era Queen City Big Band Leader, musician and composer “Deke” Moffitt (1906-1976). During his career, Moffitt performed with Red Skelton, Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, Perry Como, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Martha Raye, Betty Grable and the Three Stooges. After his touring career was over, Deke became music director for a Cincinnati theatre and later a high school music teacher.

z Publicity Photo
Big Band Leader Deke Moffitt

Among the collection were contracts, sheet music and records of songs Deke had composed and letters / correspondence from Deke’s years on the road, many from famous musicians. There was even a photo of Deke clowning around outside of what looked like a theatre backstage door with the Three Stooges (Larry, Moe & Shemp). But what caught my interest were the few items from Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Along with the photo I mentioned previously, there was a handwritten note to Deke and a telegram from Bill. I’ll tell you what else was in there later on in the article.
First, I want to try and explain why Bill “Bojangles” Robinson matters to me and more importantly, why he should matter to you. The predominate reason for my admiration is simple: I can’t dance. For the same reason I guffaw at the Three Stooges, giggle at Groucho Marx and crack up at the Little Rascals, I can’t help but stop and gaze in wonder whenever I see the masters dance. Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Gregory Hines, John Travolta: they all stand on the shoulders of Bill Robinson. Except none of the above were burdened with the constraints of Jim Crow America.
z bojangles1Friends say there were three certainties about Bill Robinson: he loved to eat vanilla ice cream, gamble with dice or cards, and dancing was his life. At the time of his divorce his wife Fannie accused him of being a danceaholic-a man willing to sacrifice everything to dance. While his personal life was full of contradictions, his peers and historians agree he was one of the greatest American dancers of all time.
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was born Luther Robinson in Richmond, Virginia, on May 25, 1878. He claimed he did not like the name Luther, so he traded names with his younger brother Bill. Apparently his little brother didn’t like the name either so he changed his name to “Percy” and later became famous on his own as a dancer and musician. Although orphaned and reared by a grandmother who had been a slave, Bill Robinson would become the best known and highest paid African American entertainer in the first half of the twentieth century. Robinson began hoofing in beer gardens at age 6 and quit school the next year to begin work as a professional dancer. His career started in minstrel shows then moved to vaudeville, Broadway, the recording industry, Hollywood movies, radio, and television. He died 65 years ago this week on November 25, 1949.
The name “Bojangles” mirrors it’s enigmatic namesake. Some say the name referred to his happy-go-lucky ebullience while others claim the name refers to Bill’s fiery, argumentative disposition. Today, the word Bojangles refers to to a style of percussive, rhythmic tap-dance originated by African Americans. The word is southern in origin and means “mischief maker.” The nickname was appropriate for Robinson, whose popularity transcended his race, despite a personal life chronicled by newspapers and magazines as a series of misadventures and court appearances.
While Robinson didn’t invent tap dancing, he was the artist chiefly responsible for getting tap dance “up on its toes” by dancing upright and swinging. Before Robinson tap was most often a stoop shouldered, flat-footed shuffle style, sometimes known as “sand dancing'”. Robinson performed on the balls of his feet with a shuffle-tap style that allowed more improvisation. This new style got him noticed and eventually made him a legend. Bojangles’ unique sound came from using wooden taps and his direct claim to fame would be the creation of his famous “stair dance,” which involved tapping up and down a flight of stairs both backwards and forwards. A style he unsuccessfully attempted to patent.
z bojangles0001Following the demise of vaudeville, Broadway beckoned with “Blackbirds of 1928,” an all-black revue that would prominently feature Bill and other black musical talents. Soon, he was headlining with Cab Calloway at the famous Cotton Club in Harlem. Robinson is also credited with having introduced a new word, copacetic, into popular culture, via his repeated use of it in vaudeville and radio appearances. Robinson was a true pioneer in his field with many “firsts” to his credit.
A popular figure in both the black and white entertainment worlds of his era, he is best remembered today for his dancing with Shirley Temple in a series of films during the 1930s. Although a trailblazer and acknowledged pioneer, Robinson battled inner demons that belied his demeanor as a happy and easygoing character on the big screen. On one hand, he had to deal with discrimination and racial injustice by whites and on the other hand, he was labeled as the quintessential “Uncle Tom” by his own people. Decades of dealing with this untenable double standard turned Bojangles into a split personality capable of unwavering loyalty and kindness to some while turning him into an angry man, frustrated by his second-class treatment in society who was known to flash a gun to others. Measured by today’s standards and celebrity shenanigans, Robinson’s behavior would be considered tame.
Next week, I’ll continue the story of this man and tell you what else I found in that suitcase.

Abe Lincoln, Presidents, Sports

The Abraham Lincoln Handball.

Lincoln handball pic

Original publish date:  September 20, 2018

Abraham Lincoln is in the National Handball Hall Of Fame. What, you say? There’s a national handball Hall of Fame? Well, I don’t know if such an entity exists or whether the 16th president is enshrined there. But if it does and he ain’t…he should be. I do know that Lincoln is inducted into the wrestling Hall of Fame, but that’s another story.
Serious Lincoln fans have likely heard a reference to the “alley by the journal office” a few times over the years but may not know much about it. Abraham Lincoln was known to be a sportsman for most of his life in an age when organized sports were hard to find. Undoubtedly, you’ve heard about Lincoln’s prowess as a wrestler and extraordinary strength as a young man. He was known to “roll ten pins” (bowling) and play billiards and chess but admitted that he never excelled at any of them. Mr. Lincoln engaged in these games for exercise and amusement, both physically and mentally. During play he routinely regaled those present with jokes, western anecdotes and stories which made him popular with opponents and teammates alike.
z Railsplitter1.previewLikewise, you may have heard that he was a handball player, as have I, but details have always been hard to find. The game of handball was much better suited to Lincoln. At 6 feet 4 inches tall, his long legs and gangly arms served the rail splitter well. Muscles honed while wielding an axe as a youth were kept tight and toned as an adult. Lincoln milked his own cows and chopped his own wood even though he was a successful, affluent lawyer with little time to spare.
In the years before Lincoln was elected president he was a successful Springfield lawyer and often played handball in an alley by the Illinois state journal newspaper office to ease his stress load. The paper occupied a three-story building at 116 N. Sixth Street. The building next door immediately south was a three-story building that housed a store operated by John Carmody. The next building south was known as the Logan building, owned by Judge Stephen T. Logan.
The large vacant lot between these two buildings was the site of the storied impromptu handball court used by lawyer Lincoln and his friends. The brick walls of the Carmody store and Logan building formed at the front and back walls of the handball court and the other two sides were enclosed by wood fences standing 6 to 8 feet high. The fences also had wooden bench seats for visitors watching the matches or for players waiting their turn to take on the winner.
z lincoln hbThe term handball really didn’t exist in Lincoln’s day. It was called a “game of fives” by Abe and his contemporaries. When Mr. Lincoln went to town, he frequently joined with the boys in playing handball. In the Springfield version, players choose sides to square off against one another. The game is begun by one of the boys bouncing the ball against the wall of the Logan building. As it bounced back, and opponent strikes it in the same manner, so that the ball is kept going back and forth against the wall until someone misses the rebound. ‘Old Abe’ was often the winner, for his long arms and long legs served a good purpose in reaching and returning the ball from any angle his adversary could send it to the wall. The game required two, four or six players, spread equally on each side. The three players who lost paid 10 ¢ each, making 30 ¢ a game. So as you can imagine the games got pretty serious.
z FivesCourt clerk Thomas W.S. Kidd spoke of Mr. Lincoln’s love of the game: “In 1859, Zimri A. Enos, Esq., Hon. Chas. A. Keyes, E. L. Baker, Esq., then editor of the Journal, William A. Turney, Esq., Clerk of the Supreme Court, and a number of others, in connection with Mr. Lincoln, had the lot, then an open one, lying between what was known as the United States Court Building, on the northeast corner of the public square, and the building owned by our old friend, Mr. John Carmody, on the alley north of it, on Sixth street, enclosed with a high board fence, leaving a dead wall at either end. In this ‘alley’ could be found Mr. Lincoln, with the gentlemen named and others, as vigorously engaged in the sport as though life depended upon it. He would play until nearly exhausted and then take a seat on the rough board benches arranged along the sides for the accommodation of friends and the tired players.”
In May of 1860 the most noteworthy game of handball in our country’s history took place on this court. The Republican National Convention, held in a woodframe building specifically designed for use known as the “wigwam”, had kicked off in nearby Chicago on May 16th. The Whig party had imploded, the free soilers were migrating and the anti-Catholic populists from the Know Nothing party were flocking to the Republican Party with its anti-slavery message. Even though this promised to be a raucous convention, the eventual GOP nominee, “Abram Lincoln”, decided to stay home and play handball instead. According to Lincoln he, “was too much of a candidate to go to Chicago and not enough of a candidate to stay away.”
Most Lincoln scholars agree that Abe played handball all three days of the convention (May 16 – 18) to relieve stress while waiting for news to arrive by telegraph at the Illinois state journal newspaper offices. The last day of the GOP convention, Friday, May 18, 1865, Lincoln rose bright and early and headed downtown. Although nervous and anxious, Lincoln greeted neighbors and friends on the streets and on the square around the Illinois Capital Building.
At 8:30 a.m. Lincoln nervously visited the second floor office of lawyer James C Conkling located at 119 S. Fifth Street. Mr. Conkling had just returned from Chicago and Lincoln was anxious to hear any news from the convention. Conkling told Lincoln to relax, assuring him that he was sure to be nominated that day. Lincoln however, was not so confident and told Conkling, “Well, Conkling, I guess I’ll go back to my office and practice law.” But here is where the narrative takes a mysterious turn.
Lincoln did not arrive back to his law office until just before 10 am. We know this from accounts of the many well-wishers, friends and supporters who were waiting the arrival of their candidate on the corner of Sixth and Adams on the square. Shortly after ten, Edward L Baker, one of the editors of the Illinois state journal, appeared at the office of Lincoln and Herndon with two bulletins in his hand. The first one announcing that the delegates were filing back into the wigwam; the second, that the names of the candidates for president had been presented to the chairman of the convention.
The initial news was not good. When voting for the nomination began, William H. Seward led on the first ballot with 173 1/2 votes. Lincoln was a distant second tallying 102 votes. There were 465 delegates at the convention, making 233 votes necessary for the nomination. Simon Cameron received 50; Salmon P. Chase got 49, Edwin Bates had 48. Witnesses claimed that, upon hearing the news, Mr Lincoln threw himself upon a horsehair couch in the office without expressing any opinion on the news. By all accounts, Lincoln was very guarded in all of his statements that morning.
After a few minutes, Lincoln arose from the chair and said: “The dispatches appear to be coming to the Journal office… Let us go over there.” When the Lincoln entourage arrived at the foot of the stairway leading to the telegraph office on the north side of the public square, Lincoln said: “Let’s go up; it must be about time for the second ballot.” The results of the second ballot were coming across the tickertape as Lincoln entered the room. The telegraph operator handed the news to Mr. Lincoln. On the second ballot, most of the Pennsylvania delegation jumped over to Lincoln, putting him in a near-tie with Seward (184 for Seward and 181 for Lincoln). Although silent, witnesses remember a look of satisfaction appearing on Lincoln’s face.
News soon arrived that on the third ballot many additional delegates switched to Lincoln, and he won the party’s nomination. Lincoln was nominated and would be elected the nation’s 16th president. He appointed Seward Secretary of State, Cameron Secretary of War, Chase Secretary of the Treasury, and Bates Attorney General.
But where was Lincoln from 8:30 am to 10 am? His longtime friend and bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon was the first to say that Lincoln was playing handball during that period. Henry Wirt Butler confirmed that he was engaged in a game with the candidate at Mr. Lincoln’s request while awaiting news from the convention. When young Mr. Butler was born, Lincoln was a practicing attorney in Springfield living at the home of Mr. Butler’s parents. He had just finished reading the Life of William Wirt and suggested that the baby be named after the former U.S. Attorney General. When the boy whom Lincoln had named grew to be a young man he became a favorite of the Great Emancipator’s and read law for some time in his office. It should be noted that Wirt was barely 20 years old and Lincoln was 51 at the time of the game.
z 1891 - Bloxham FivesLincoln’s friend, Dr. Preston H Bailhache, recalled a handball game played on a court built by Patrick Stanley in an ‘alley’ in the rear of his grocery in the Second Ward, which is still standing. “I have sat and laughed many happy hours away watching a game of ball between Lincoln on one side and Hon. Chas. A. Keyes on the other. Mr. Keyes is quite a short man, but muscular, wiry and active as a cat, while his now more distinguished antagonist, as all now know, was tall and a little awkward, but which with much practice and skill in the movement of the ball, together with his good judgment, gave him the greatest advantage. In a very hotly contested game, when both sides were ‘up a stump’ – a term used by the players to indicate an even game – and while the contestants were vigorously watching every movement, Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Turney collided with such force that it came very near preventing his nomination to the Presidency, and giving to Springfield a sensation by his death and burial. Both were badly hurt, but not so badly as to discourage either from being found in the ‘alley’ the next day.”
2516a4fa5cb6c7cf47acacefaa2aeb93Another eyewitness was the unofficial gatekeeper of the Handball Court, William Donnelly, a nephew of John Carmody. Years later, Donnelly offered this account to a reporter, “I worked in the Carmody store and usually had charge of the ball court. I smoothed the wall and leveled the ground. I made the balls. Old stockings were rolled out and wound into balls and covered with buckskin. Mr. Lincoln was not a good player. He learned the game when he was too old. But he liked to play and did tolerably well. I remember when he was nominated as though it were yesterday. It was the last day of the convention and he was plainly nervous and restless.”
Donnelly continues: “He played handball a good deal during every day of the convention, evidently to relieve the over-strained mind. I was standing down in front of the Carmody store when Edward L. Baker, Charlie Zane (Judge) and one or two others brought word from the telegraph office that he was nominated. It was the bulletin showing the result of the third and last ballot. I naturally followed the crowd upstairs to the editorial room on the second floor. The stairway was in the alley outside the building. The telegram was read and then handed to Mr. Lincoln who read it out aloud again. After a lot of hand shaking, we returned to the street below. Mr. Lincoln appeared anxious to get away. When he came to the entrance of the ball court, the players gathered round, congratulated him and pledged him their support.”
The account continues: “He thanked them, looked at the telegram he had in his hand and said: there’s a little woman over on eighth Street that will be glad to hear the news; if you’ll excuse me, I’ll go and tell her. He then left for home. I can see him now as he went away. He leaned forward and walked mighty fast. The boy that went with him had to run almost to keep up with him. Mr. Lincoln never came back to the court or played handball after the day he was nominated. I did not vote for Mr. Lincoln in 1860. There were only three Irishmen who did. They were called Irish Republicans and were regarded as curiosities.”
z kidsJohn Carmody recalled another handball game: “An incident took place, during one of those games, which I have retained clearly in my memory. I had a nephew named Patrick Johnson who was very expert in the game. He struck the ball in such a manner that it hit Mr. Lincoln in the ear. I ran to sympathize with him and asked if he was hurt. He said he was not, and as he said it he reached both of his hands toward the sky. Straining my neck to look up into his face, for he was several inches taller than I was, I said to him, ‘Lincoln, if you are going to heaven, take us both.’”
For years a myth circulated that Abraham Lincoln was playing handball when he was notified that he had received the nomination for President. Obviously that legend must be filed alongside the myth that Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg address on the back of an envelope on the train ride to Gettysburg. Neither story is wholly true but there is a grain of truth in each. Lincoln was playing handball at the time the delegates in Chicago were voting and he edited the Gettysburg address on the train.
Historians confirm that Abraham Lincoln never returned to that handball court after that day. Years later, President Lincoln spoke about his athletic prowess on the night of his reelection as President in 1864: “For such an awkward fellow, I am pretty sure-footed. It used to take a pretty dextrous man to throw me.”
z sm hbIn October of 2004, the Smithsonian Institution displayed Abraham Lincoln’s handball as part of their exhibit “Sports: Breaking Records, Breaking Barriers.” It’s small (about the size of a tennis ball), dirty and well worn and really, really old. The ball has “No. 2” stamped on the side but it is unclear if the stamp was on the ball when Lincoln handled it or if it was stamped on the side for reference years later. It came from the Lincoln Home in Springfield, where Lincoln lived with his family from 1844 until 1861.
The ball was found in the 1950s in a dresser drawer when Lincoln’s Springfield home was being restored. Smithsonian officials say the descendants of one of the men who played handball with Lincoln donated it to the Lincoln Home. A contemporary newspaper article verified that the ball was indeed one of those used by Lincoln to play handball in the alley. Personally, I have my doubts about the provenance of the Smithsonian’s Lincoln handball, but, for the purposes of this article, we’ll leave that alone for now.
There is one footnote about that handball you won’t find in the Smithsonian’s official literature. On May 18, 1860, while Lincoln was having a friendly neighborhood game of “fives” to calm his nerves, just a few blocks from the Wigwam, on the second night of the convention, the McVicker’s Theater just a few short blocks away was opening “Our American Cousin” -the play Lincoln would be watching at Ford’s Theater his last night on Earth.
z 6603301_3_lAlthough Assassin John Wilkes Booth was not in the production, he would appear at the McVicker’s 4 times in different productions between 1862 & 1863 while Mr. Lincoln was in the White House. Ironically, the McVickers Theatre was the very first place where actor Harry Hawk began theater work as a call boy, or stagehand. Hawk was the actor on stage alone at the moment of Lincoln’s assassination and likely uttered the last words Mr. Lincoln ever heard. Who knew a well worn piece of leather sports equipment could have so many connections?

Creepy history, Hollywood, Pop Culture

Frankenstein comes to Irvington.

frankenstein pi

Original publish date:  October 11, 2018

Matthew Weedman, Assistant Professor of Art at Wabash College will be presenting his talk “IT’S ALIVE! ELECTRICITY, CINEMA AND METAPHOR IN FRANKENSTEIN” at the Bona Thompson Memorial Center at 2 pm, Sunday, Oct.14. The subject seems a perfect fit for the upcoming Historic Irvington Halloween Festival. But how much do you really know about Victor Frankenstein’s monster? When you think of Frankenstein, do you envision Boris Karloff’s 1931 version? Mel Brooks’ 1974 version? Robert DeNiro’s 1994 version? How about TV’s Herman Munster? Or maybe even the Burger Chef knockoff Crankenburger commercial character from the 1970s? It seems that Frankenstein is in the eye of the beholder. However, with this monster, there is more than meets the eye.

z Frankenstein
Eighteen Hundred and Froze To Death. That is the epithet given to the year 1816 by those who survived it. 1816 also became known as the year without a summer. In the spring and summer of 1816, the eastern United States was blanketed by a persistent blood red “dry fog” that often blotted out the sun. Neither wind nor rainfall could disperse this crimson fog. Temperatures dipped below freezing every day in May and snow was recorded regularly in June. July and August saw frost on the ground and ice on the rivers from the northwest territory to the eastern seaboard. Europe and the rest of the world was locked in a long cold volcanic winter caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora the year before. Located on Sumbawa Island in the East Indies, it was the greatest eruption in Earth’s recorded history up to that time. Crops failed universally and for three years following Tambora’s explosion, almost anywhere in the world, if you were alive you were hungry.
z frankenstein-dracula-fbWhat better time to introduce two of the world’s most popular monsters? Frankenstein and Dracula were born on the same night in the same weekend in 1816. They were brought to life by Mary Shelley and Lord Byron during a contest to see who could create the scariest monster. The weekend was wet and stormy and Lord Byron suggested the reading of ghost stories to pass away the dreary weather. Sitting around a log fire at the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva, the company of friends amused themselves by reading German ghost stories translated into French from the book Fantasmagoriana. The members of the party were Lord Byron and his mistress Claire Claremont, his doctor John Polidori, Percy Bysshe and Mary Shelley. Lord Byron is known for his poetry, mostly Don Juan. After reading a few stories, Byron suggested that each member of their party write their own story of horror.
That weekend challenge changed the face of the literary world forever. Byron wrote a small novella about a nobleman who rises from the dead. Later on Dr Polidori would use Byron’s unfinished novella and not only would the nobleman rise from the dead, but he would also have to drink the blood of others to sustain himself. Byron named his creation of his nobleman that rose from the dead a vampyre.
Mary-Shelly-Featured-Image-LARGEUnable to think of a story, young Mary became anxious, in the introduction to her book she recalled: “Have you thought of a story? I was asked each morning, and each morning I was forced to reply with a mortifying negative.” During one evening in the middle of summer, the discussions turned to the nature of the principle of life. “Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated”, Mary noted, “galvanism had given token of such things”. It was after midnight before they retired, and unable to sleep, she became possessed by her imagination as she beheld the grim terrors of her “waking dream.” In September 2011, astronomer Donald Olson, after visiting the Lake Geneva villa and inspecting data about the motion of the moon and stars, concluded that her “waking dream” took place “between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m.” on June 16, 1816, several days after the initial idea by Lord Byron that they each write a ghost story.
Mary Shelley was just eighteen years old when she began writing “Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus”. Shelley wrote the first four chapters in the weeks following the suicide of her half-sister Fanny. This was one of many personal tragedies that impacted Shelley’s work. The horror masterpiece came two years after she’d become pregnant with her first child, a baby she never named. On the eleventh day after her child’s birth, she wrote in her diary: “I awoke in the night to give it suck it appeared to be sleeping so quietly that I would not awake it.” The next diary entry, written the next morning, reads simply, “Find my baby dead.” Her grief at the loss can be seen in later diary entries, “Dream that my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived.” and “Awake and find no baby.”
Pregnant again only weeks later, she was likely still nursing her second baby when she started writing “Frankenstein,” and pregnant with her third by the time she finished. She didn’t put her name on her book, preferring to publish her novel anonymously in 1818. The first theatrical production of “Frankenstein” was staged in London in 1823. By that time the author had given birth to four children, buried three, and lost another unnamed baby to a miscarriage so severe that she nearly died of bleeding that stopped only when her husband had her sit on ice.
In 1822, her husband drowned when his sailing boat sank during a storm. The last decade of her life was dogged by illness, probably caused by the brain tumor that was to kill her in 1851 at the age of 53. Although principally noted as the literary creator of Frankenstein, it should be noted that Shelley was one of the world’s first fighters for women’s rights. After her husband’s death, she continued to practice her feminist principles by extending aid to women whom society disapproved of. On the first anniversary of Mary Shelley’s death, her box-desk was opened. Inside was found locks of her dead children’s hair, a notebook she had shared with Percy Bysshe Shelley, and a copy of his poem Adonaïs with one page folded round a silk parcel containing some of his ashes and the remains of his heart.
In this his 200th anniversary year, Frankenstein is as popular today as ever. The book tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, a doctor who creates a grotesque, intelligent creature by piecing together cadavers collected by the young scientist. The seed for the horror classic can be found in a trip by author Shelley through Europe in 1814. Her journey traveled along the river Rhine in Germany not far from Frankenstein Castle, where, two centuries before, an alchemist was engaged in experiments. On another trip, she travelled in the region of Geneva (Switzerland) where much of the story takes place. The idea for the novel came to her in a dream about a scientist who created life and was horrified by what he had made; her dream later became her novel’s story.
Although the name “Frankenstein” is often used to refer to the monster itself, in the novel, the monster is identified by words such as “creature,” “monster,” “demon,” “wretch,” “abortion,” “fiend,” and “it.” About this apparent misnomer, Shelley, perhaps thinking back on the death of her own unnamed child years before, remarked “This nameless mode of naming the unnameable is rather good.”
Frankenstein - 1931When “Frankenstein” was published it became an immediate sensation. Mary Shelley crafted her book so that readers’ sympathies would lie not only with Frankenstein, whose suffering is dreadful, but also with the creature, whose suffering is worse. Shelley skillfully directs her readers’ sympathy, page by page, paragraph by paragraph, sometimes even line by line, from Frankenstein to the creature. Shelley deftly navigates the creature’s vicious murders, first of Frankenstein’s little brother, then of his best friend, and, finally, of his bride. In 1824, one critic wrote, “The justice is indisputably on his side and his sufferings are, to me, touching to the last degree.”
Shelley’s dialog is amazing. “It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils,” relates Victor Frankenstein. The rain patters on the windowpane; a bleak light flickers from a dying candle. He looks at the “lifeless thing” at his feet, come to life: “I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.” Having labored so long to bring the creature to life, he finds himself disgusted and horrified—“unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created”—and flees, abandoning his creation, unnamed.
“Hear my tale,” the creature insists, when he at last confronts his creator. “I was a poor, helpless, miserable wretch; I knew, and could distinguish, nothing…But, feeling pain invade me on all sides, I sat down and wept.” He learned to walk, and began to wander, still unable to speak—“the uncouth and inarticulate sounds which broke from me frightened me into silence again.” Eventually, while secretly observing the villagers talk, “I discovered the names that were given to some of the most familiar objects of discourse: I learned and applied the words fire, milk, bread, and wood.” In time, the creature acquired “a cursory knowledge of history…I heard of the division of property, of immense wealth and squalid poverty; of rank, descent, and noble blood.” He learned that the weak are routinely abused by the powerful, and the poor despised. “I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion,” the creature says, before, in the book’s final scene, he disappears on a raft of ice.
Shelley’s novel offers many deeper moral and political ambiguities not often found in the versions that followed. Her novel questions whether Victor Frankenstein is to be blamed for creating the monster-usurping the power of God, and of women-or for failing to love, care for, and educate him. Mary Shelley was dead by then, her own chaotic origins already forgotten. Nearly everyone she loved died before she did, most of them when she was still very young. Of this mortal reality, Shelley, commented, “the last relic of a beloved race, my companions extinct before me.”
In his 1919 essay ‘The Uncanny’, Sigmund Freud says that “apparent death and reanimation of the dead have been represented as most uncanny themes”. This, of course, can be related to Frankenstein’s reanimation of a creature made from dead body parts, joined together. When Frankenstein looks upon his creation’s ‘yellow skin… watery eyes… shrivelled complexion and straight black lips,’ he is disgusted and realizes the monster symbolizes Frankenstein’s own death. With so much death and tragedy littering her wake, Shelley too was acutely reminded of her own mortality.
In Mary Shelley’s introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein (written two decades before her death), the author states, “I saw-with shut eyes, but acute mental vision-I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion. Frightful must it be, for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”
z frankenstein_1931_stillA century later, a lurching, grunting Boris Karloff defined the most widely accepted version of the creature in Universal Pictures’s 1931 production of “Frankenstein.” Karloff’s monster-portrayed as prodigiously eloquent, learned, and persuasive in the novel-was no longer merely nameless but all but speechless, too. “Frankenstein” has spawned many different depictions in the two centuries since its publication. For its bicentennial, the original, 1818 edition has been reissued in paperback form by Penguin Classics as “The New Annotated Frankenstein.”
Matthew Weedman will address the Frankenstein topic indepth this Sunday afternoon (2 pm at the Bona Thompson Memorial Center) with his talk “IT’S ALIVE! ELECTRICITY, CINEMA AND METAPHOR IN FRANKENSTEIN”.

Creepy history, Indianapolis, Irvington Ghost Tours, Pop Culture, Television

Whispers from the Grave.

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Original publish date: October 18, 2018

This will be my 16th season of leading October ghost tours in Irvington. Along the way I have made many friends, some of whom return year after year to take a stroll through haunted Irvington. I have been fortunate to meet many talented and famous people who have come on the tours. I have connected with family members of the personalities I talk about on the tours and I have been privileged to hear first-hand accounts and stories that mirror the fun and spooky atmosphere of autumnal Irvington. That is what makes October in Irvington so special to me.
whispersThis coming Saturday, October 20th at 2 PM, several of those famous friends will be here in Irvington at the Irving theater to share their talent with our community in a program I have called, “Whispers from the Grave. Testimony of Irvington’s Most Famous Crimes.” Over the past decade and a half I have gathered testimony, witness accounts, personal statements and personality sketches of the characters, both good and bad, from the stories I share on the tours. This Saturday, local celebrities, journalists and members of the media will lend their talents to the voices of these characters. Much of this spoken word performance will offer accounts that have not been heard for over a century. This testimony, told in its entirety using the words of the subjects themselves, is always poignant, sometimes shocking and often scandalous.
The doors of the Irving theater will open at 1 PM this Saturday and will close promptly at 2 PM for the start of the presentation. No one will be admitted after 2 PM out of respect for the performers and the solemn content. Parental discretion is advised and content may not be suitable for all audiences. This is the real thing in the performance promises to prove the old adage that “truth is stranger than fiction.” The performance is free to the public, but a $ 5.00 minimum donation is requested. The proceeds will benefit the Free Press of Irvington.

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Photo by Lauri Mohr Imaginemohr photography.

Those of you who have taken my tours understand that an Irvington ghost tour is really a history lesson disguised as a ghost story. Over the years proceeds from the tours over the years have helped fund many local philanthropic endeavors including the Irvington food bank at Gaia works, the IHS / Bona Thompson Museum, Halloween festival, the Irvington Council, the children’s Guardian home, the Girl Scouts, and several scholarships for local high school students. This Saturday’s presentation will be an opportunity for guests to better understand the foundation of the ghost tours by hearing accounts from the people who lived it.
daveJoining us Saturday will be long time Q 95 star and stand up comic Dave “the King” Wilson reading the words of DC Stephenson. David Curtis Stephenson was the Grand Dragon of the Indiana Ku Klux Klan who reigned supreme here in central Indiana during The Roaring 20s. Stephenson controlled Indiana politics from the governor’s office to the mayor’s office with Klan money and influence from his University Avenue home here in Irvington. Gathering testimony and statements from Stephenson’s made all the more harder by the fact that after his 1925 trial for murder concluded, the official court papers mysteriously disappeared.
Nicole2 – time Emmy award-winning former WTHR on air personality & meteorologist Nicole Misencik who will be voicing Madge Oberholtzer. Tragically, Madge was the undeserving victim of DC Stephenson’s crime in the spring of 1925. Madge was an Irvingtonian and former student at Butler College whose death at the hands of Stephenson brought down the Ku Klux Klan, which was the most powerful organization in the country at the time. Madge’s testimony was so graphically detailed that when it was read aloud in open court in Noblesville Indiana, women fainted and grown men got up and left the room. Nicole will recount Madge’s 9 – page deathbed declaration and its entirety for the first time in public and nearly a century.
brandonFormer WTHR reporter Brandon Kline will be voicing Pinkerton detective Frank Geyer, the man who brought America’s first serial killer to justice. Brandon will wear the hero cape by voicing this legendary Pinkerton agent who is dogged determination alone solved Irvington’s first murder, that of 10-year-old Howard Pitezel. Brandon’s hero duty will be doubled when he also voices Irvingtonian lawyer Asa J Smith who recorded Madge’s deathbed declaration in what promises to be a most memorable exchange with his wife Nicole.
JulieBoomer TV personality, longtime WZPL radio host and former WISH – TV alumni Julie Patterson will be voicing the last wife of HH Holmes, Georgiana Yoke. Ms. Yoke, a native of Franklin Indiana, is easily the most unknown character in the presentation. Georgiana’s family has deep connections to Indianapolis’east side at both Garfield Park and Holliday Park. Georgiana narrowly escaped death at the hands of her husband and, after his death by hanging, could not escape the cloud of suspicion that hung over her in Indianapolis after her husband’s crimes were revealed. Julie’s interpretation of Georgiana will also include her court testimony, some of which was delivered by her husband HH Holmes while acting as his own counsel.
edEd Wenck, long time local radio host, journalist, author and on-air television personality, will be voicing America’s first serial killer HH Holmes. Allegedly responsible for over 200 murders, Holmes admitted to killing 27. The arch fiend came to Irvington in October 1894 on the heels of the 1893 Chicago world’s fair. His crimes are numerous, gruesome and unspeakable. Ed will voice America’s first serial killer using Holmes’ own words which are guaranteed to make your skin crawl.

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Sgt. Jo Moore

Special guest Jo Moore, retired IMPD Sergeant, will be voicing the unsung hero of the Holmes saga in Irvington, Detective David S Richards. Sgt. Moore will help outline the details of the alleged “Curse of HH Holmes” that lingered for over a quarter century after the serial killer was hanged. Sgt. Moore has been instrumental in meticulously researching the lives and duty roster of Indianapolis policemen whose honorable recognition is long overdue. Jo has also led the charge to create a museum archive honoring fallen members of Indianapolis police departments past and present. Her own son, Officer David Moore, prominent among them.

 

 

 

 

These Circle City personalities, all of which are friends of Irvington, have strong backgrounds with the press and public service. Their individual love of Indianapolis history will shine through during their performances. It promises to be an afternoon to remember. So join us this Saturday, October 20th at 2 PM inside the Irving theater for this unique performance. Remember, parental discretion is advised and the content may not be suitable for all audiences and most importantly, no one will be admitted after 2:00 PM.

 

Hollywood, Pop Culture, Television

Batman and the Playboy Bunny.

Batman and Playboy

Original publish date:  January 24 , 2011
Republished:  November 8, 2018

The first Playboy club opened at 116 East Walton in downtown Chicago, Illinois on February 29, 1960. Playboy magazine owner Hugh Hefner decided that Leap Year would be an appropriate time to open up his controversial club on Chicago’s Gold Coast. After all, Hefner had started Playboy magazine in his Hyde Park kitchen on Chicago’s South Side in 1953 and in the years that followed, Playboy became the most popular men’s publication in the country. I imagine that many of you can recall the famed men’s clubs that used to stretch from coast-to-coast and around the world (40 clubs worldwide at its height) and suspect that more than one of you may even still have a Playboy Club gold key tucked away in your dresser drawer somewhere. Whether you liked Hef’s idea or hated Hef’s idea, what cannot be denied is the impact his Playboy Clubs made on American pop culture.

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Hef’s personal key card

But there is one aspect of the Playboy Club that you may not be aware of. The Chicago Playboy Club is credited with spawning the popular “Batman” television series of the Mid-1960s. That’s right, in the early 1960s, the Playboy Club in Chicago was screening the old 1940s Era Batman movie serials for their guests every Saturday night. These private screenings became very popular among the club’s hip clientele. Playboy party goers would cheer and applaud the Dynamic Duo, and boo and hiss at the villains. During one of these party screenings, east coast ABC executive Yale Udoff, a Batman fan in childhood, attended and was amazed at the reaction the old serials were getting. He contacted ABC executives who eventually developed a prime time Batman series in the hip & fun style of the wildly popular Man from U.N.C.L.E. TV show. z extralarge
For two and a half seasons from January 12, 1966 to March 14, 1968, a total of 120 episodes were produced and they strangely mirrored their Playboy Club Genesis by packing star power and sexuality in nearly every episode. Just as the biggest names in Hollywood flocked to the Playboy Clubs, soon many of these same big names wanted to make cameo appearances as villains on the Batman TV show. The guest star list reads like the Hollywood walk-of-fame: Burgess Meredith, Otto Preminger, Vincent Price, Eli Wallach, John Astin, Art Carney, Tallulah Bankhead, Roddy McDowell, Liberace, Ethel Merman, Ida Lupino, Rudy Vallee, Milton Berle, Shelley Winters, Carolyn Jones, Liberace, Van Johnson, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Cliff Robertson, Joan Collins and Anne Baxter (TWICE!). z BatmanVillains
Do you remember THESE Batman villain names: Lola Lasagne, The Puzzler, Nora Clavicle and her mechanical mice, Lord Marmaduke Ffogg, Lady Penelope Peasoup, Olga-Queen of the Kossacks, The Sandman, Colonel Gumm, Shame, Clock King, False Face, Louie the Lilac, Bookworm, King Tut, and the Mad Hatter? Do you remember the Batclimb Cameo that opened many of the TV episodes? 14 episodes featured a window that would be opened by a celebrity for a short conversation as the Dynamic Duo scaled a building using Batarangs and Bat-ropes. The scenes were actually filmed on a horizontal surface with the camera rotated by 90 degrees to give the illusion that the Duo were on a vertical wall. Their capes were held up by strings (usually off-camera, but on occasion visible). These Batclimb cameos featured big names like Jerry Lewis, Dick Clark, Sammy Davis Jr., Bill Dana as astronaut José Jiménez, Werner Klemperer as Colonel Klink from Hogan’s Heroes,Ted Cassidy as Lurch from The Addams Family, Don Ho, Andy Devine as Santa Claus, Art Linkletter, Edward G. Robinson, and famously Van Williams and Bruce Lee as Green Hornet and Kato. And was there a sexier costume on 1960s television than Catwoman? Julie Newmar, Lee Meriwether, Eartha Kitt in skin tight black vinyl & sequins? Forget about it!z catwomen
During the same era, the Playboy Club phenomenon was soaring too. During the last three months of 1961, more than 132,000 people visited the Chicago club, making it the busiest night club in the world. Playboy Club membership became a status symbol. Only 21% of all key holders ever went to a club. At $25.00 per year per membership, Playboy earned $25 million for every 1,000,000 members. This revenue stream was critical to the development of the Playboy empire.
The success of the club was tied directly to the costumed Playboy Bunnies. According to Hugh Hefner, the Bunny was inspired by Bunny’s Tavern in Urbana, Illinois (opened 1936). Hef was one of the many Univ. of Illinois students who studied at Bunny’s during his years on campus. These Bunnies, with their royal-satin corsets, white collar, cuffs, bowtie, bunny ears and fluffy white tails served “Keyholders” as VIPs of the club. The bunny costume also featured black sheer to waist pantyhose and matching high-heeled shoes. The outfit became a powerful symbol of the Playboy Clubs which was quickly elevated to icon status. It was also the first commercial uniform to be registered by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (U.S. trademark registration number 0762884).z tv
More than once, the club was described by the media as a “Disneyland for adults.” The layout of the club was described as, “Each of four floors was designed as a ‘room’ in a mythical and fabulous bachelor pad—there was Playroom, a Penthouse, a Library, and a Living Room. Teak and leather furniture, wood-paneled walls and rich, autumnal shades prevailed in the decor. Playboy magazine was in evidence everywhere-from framed original cartoons in the ‘cartoon corner’ of the Living Room, to huge, back-lit pictures of Playmates in the Playmate Bar.”
z play4_0The Chicago club opened on a bitterly cold day in Chicago, yet lines of eager prospective members stretched around the block, warmed by ideas of what was to be found inside. Membership was available to anyone willing to purchase a key – $50 for residents and $25 for out-of-towners. The club “key” itself was metal and topped off with a rabbit head, later replaced by a gold plastic credit card to carry in a wallet. Hefner was present at the grand opening until the club closed at 4am. Keyholders gawked at ladies in their colorful Playboy Bunny outfits and dined on steaks and salads (no fancy hors d’oeuvres or desserts here), drank cocktails and bought packs of cigarettes and Playboy logo lighters. Most club items were available for the standard price of $1.50 per item (an exorbitant price at the time, especially for drinks and cigarettes). In the club’s first year, entertainment included the most popular stars of the day, including Mel Torme, Barbara Streisand and a 19-year-old Aretha Franklin.
The Playboy Club was an instant success. In the first year, there were 106,000 Keyholders and the place sold more food and drink than any other restaurant or club in town. Clubs quickly opened in Miami and New Orleans and, between the first three, brought in over $ 4.5 Million in gross profits during that first year. Playboy Club Keyholders were served by Playboy Bunnies in their skimpy attire. Each Bunny outfit featured a satin rosette with the bunny’s name, worn on the hip. But, it was made very clear that she was unavailable for anything but the serving of cocktails. Keyholders could look but not touch.
z bunnymanual1The Bunnies themselves were instructed, in a 44-page “Bunny Manual”, that they could not date customers, give out their phone numbers, or meet their boyfriends or husbands within two blocks of the club. If they did, they would face the tortuous penalty of being banned from the “bunny hutch.” There were different types of Bunnies, including the Door Bunny, Cigarette Bunny, Floor Bunny, Playmate Bunny and the Jet Bunnies (specially selected to serve on the Playboy “Big Bunny” Jet). To become a Bunny, women first had to audition. Prospective “Kits” (short for “Kitten Rabbits”) underwent thorough and strict training before officially becoming a Bunny. Bunnies were required to be able to identify 143 brands of liquor and know how to garnish 20 cocktail variations. Customers were also not allowed to touch the Bunnies, and demerits were given if a Bunny’s appearance was not properly organized.
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A Bunny also had to master the required maneuvers to work. These included the “Bunny Stance”, a posture that was required in front of patrons. The Bunny must stand with legs together, back arched and hips tucked under. When the Bunny is resting or while waiting to be of service, she must do the “Bunny Perch”. She must sit on the back of a chair, sofa, or railing without sitting too close to a patron. The most famous maneuver of all, the “Bunny Dip”, was invented by Kelly Collins, once renowned for being the “Perfect Bunny”; to do the “Bunny Dip” the Bunny gracefully leaned backwards while bending at the knees with the left knee lifted and tucked behind the right leg. This maneuver allowed the Bunny to serve drinks while keeping her low-cut costume in place. Strict regulations were enforced by special workers in the guise of patrons.
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The Playboy Bunny mantra? “Always remember, your proudest possession is your bunny tail.” To ensure enforcement, a “Bunny Mother” was hired and served both as confidant and enforcer of the rules. The Bunny Mother was in charge of scheduling work shifts, hiring, firing and training. The Playboy Club’s numerous conservative enemies kept the clubs on their toes and Hefner went so far as to hire private detectives to continuously test the Bunnies and bartenders by trying to entrap them by offering money for favors and thinly disguised requests for sex. The Club Manager had only two responsibilities for the Bunnies; floor service and weigh in. The Bunnies were weighed by the club manager before every shift and could not gain or lose more than one pound (let that sink in for a z bunnydating

moment ladies). Playboy Enterprises required all employees to turn in their costumes at the end of employment. Somewhere out there is a warehouse full of old Playboy costumes. The only two bunny costumes on public display are in the collections of The Smithsonian and the Chicago History Museum.
z Gloria-Steinem-sexual-Most readers are aware of feminist Gloria Steinem’s crusade to expose the sexist treatment of Playboy Bunnies in her 1983 book “Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions.” The article featured a photo of Steinem in Bunny uniform and detailed how women were treated at those clubs. The article was first published in 1963 in Show magazine as “A Bunny’s Tale”. But are there any other famous former Bunnies out there? Well, yes, the “hutch” is littered with the names of young, struggling Hollywood actresses. Some are familiar: Lauren Hutton, Sherilyn Fenn (Twin Peaks TV star), Barbara Bosson (Hill Street Blues TV star), Patricia Quinn (Magenta from Rocky Horror), Kathryn Leigh Scott (Dark Shadows TV star) and many others. Jon Bon Jovi’s mom, Carol Sharkey, was a Bunny as was Kimba Wood, Bill Clinton’s nominee for Attorney General in 1993. At least 32 former Bunnies were also Playboy Magazine Centerfold “Playmates.” Rock stars Dale Bozzio (Missing Persons and Frank Zappa) and Blondie’s Debbie Harry were also Bunnies. Harry once famously remarked, “The girls there were part of the entertainment; part of the sort of mystique, the excitement, the naughtiness of it. But on the inside of that job, the girls were treated very, very well. There was a lot of benefits: health benefits, job security, good salary, good money. It was a very sought-after kind of job.”
z club girlsThe Chicago Playboy Club enjoyed a long and successful quarter century run, but closed in 1986. Today, the “One Magnificent Mile Building” has replaced the Chicago Playboy Club, and in 2000, that stretch of Walton was given the honorary name of “Hugh Hefner Way.” The original magazine headquarters was located nearby as was the original Playboy Mansion at 1340 N. State St., both of which have also moved on. Sadly, nothing has quite replaced the Playboy Club in Chicago. Hugh Hefner died at his home in Holmby Hills, Los Angeles, California, on September 27, 2017, at the age of 91. The cause was sepsis brought on by an E. coli infection. He is interred at Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles, in the $75,000 crypt beside Marilyn Monroe. “Spending eternity next to Marilyn is an opportunity too sweet to pass up.”
And Batman? The franchise, which existed decades before the TV Show, rolls on through the present day. Although the 1960s Batman TV series campy reputation continued to be associated with the character for years after the show ended, various creators worked to return the character to his dark roots, culminating in the Batman movies that remain popular with present day fans. A cultural icon, Batman has been licensed and adapted into a variety of media, from radio to television and film, and appears on a variety of merchandise sold all over the world such as toys and video games.z Bob-Kane-and-Batman-Through-The-Ages-678x381
Who would have thought that two iconic American institutions so widely opposite from one another shared such a common thread as this? That’s what you have to love about America. Its the differences that draw us together proving that opposites attract to make, dare I say it? Strange bedfellows. Besides, didn’t Hugh Hefner remind you just a little bit of Batman’s alter-ego, Bruce Wayne. Yeah, now it all makes sense.

 

Indianapolis, Museums

Feast & Famine-Henry Flagler and the last Indianapolis Street car. Part II

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Alan E. Hunter on the last Indianapolis Street Car, Photo by Rhonda Hunter.

Original publish date:  July 23, 2018

At 11:59 pm on Thursday July 12, 2018, the Indiana Transportation Museum (ITM) in Noblesville, Indiana ceased to exist when the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office swarmed the grounds at Forest Park and sealed the property. The closing, although known by all parties involved, still came as a shock to the system for the dedicated volunteers working furiously to save the engines, railcars and equipment they have so lovingly cared for over the past half-century. Even though everyone knew it was coming, no one really expected it to happen.
As an intensely interested (but uninvested) observer of what happened that week after Independence Day, I immediately recognized the politics involved on both sides. There can be no doubt there were strong opinions on both sides of the issue. Like all parties involved, I have my own opinion. However, I am neither a train-guy nor an investigative journalist. I have a background in historic preservation, particularly when it comes to my birth state of Indiana, and I write about Hoosier history. I don’t think it’s my place to take sides in this debate. What’s done is done, what’s right is right and in the words of Buffalo Springfield, “Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.”
From the moment that I walked into that chaotic scene one week before it’s closing, I was struck by the dedication of the people working on those trains. Whether talking about on-site volunteers from the ITM or those from neighboring rail museums, one thing was clear from the start, when it comes to trains, these people are passionate about preservation. The people I’m talking about don’t have PhD’s, don’t serve on boards of directors and don’t give a damn about self-promotion or the politics involved. They love trains, period. So when I heard the news of the ITM’s closing, I felt it would be best to honor these folks rather than add to the chatter of discontent.

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The last Indianapolis Street Car. Photo by Kris Branch.

In part one of this article, I detailed the quest that brought me to the ITM in the first place: the search for the last surviving Indianapolis streetcar. I had been tipped off to the car’s presence at ITM by Meg Purnsley, friend and dedicated Indianapolis preservationist. My first inquiries about the fate of car # 153 were met with puzzled looks on the greased streaked faces of the first few people I encountered. Finally I was directed to the trolley barn just east of the Hobbs station depot where I found Craig Presler hovering over a couple wooden trolley cars located there. As it turned out, locating Craig was my first good find of the day, but certainly not my last.
When I asked Craig about the fate of Indy streetcar 1-5-3, he answered, “Well I can take you to where it was but it was crushed some time ago.” What? I was gobsmacked by the news and immediately sick to my stomach. Thank goodness my wife Rhonda was there to prop me up else I may have fainted dead away on the spot. Craig walked us a couple hundred yards past another trolley barn and pointed to a train car parked near the tree line. “The car you’re looking for was located right behind this one,” said Craig. “But it was crushed some time ago.” I’m no Indiana Jones, but as I looked into the trees several yards past the wood line, I saw the gleam of a window. “What’s that? Is that it?” I asked Craig. Then, time slowed down like a scene from a Quentin Tarantino movie as Craig said, “Maybe, I guess it didn’t get crushed after all.”
In a flash, Rhonda and I found ourselves blazing a trail through the thick overgrowth towards that window. With each step, the shadowy silhouette of car 153 emerged from the wilderness. It was in pretty bad shape, but it was there. Knowing that time was not on my side, my every thought went to getting this car out of these woods before it was too late. As I said before, I am not a train guy and have no idea what it would take to get this relic out of these woods. Craig assured me that it could be done and pledged to help in any way that he could. Meantime, the hour was getting late and I needed to try and find a home for this historic streetcar. I arranged to meet Craig the next day to talk more about saving the car.
Once home, I fired up the lines of communication to anyone I thought might be able to help save this car. I updated former Indiana National Road Association Presidents Meg Purnsley and Ron Sanders on the dire situation. Both assured me that INRA might be a suitable home. I contacted Stevi Stoesz Kersh, Executive Director of Indianapolis City Market, who enlisted her help and counsel. I even contacted Dale Harkins of the Irving theater for his advice. The Facebook community chimed in with concern and caring comments. The support was there, no doubt, but we were running out of time.
The next day Rhonda & I returned to the ITM. Once again I sought out Craig Presler. As detailed in part one of ths story, Craig directed me towards Laddie Vitek of the Illinois Railway Museum and William Whitmer of the “Hoosier Heartland Trolley Co.” who met us at the car in the woods. Both agreed that the car could (and should) be saved. The only question was, how could we do it?

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Craig Presler on back of the Flagler Car, Photo by Steve Hunt.

We spent the rest of that second day walking and talking with Craig Presler. Although my focus was on the last surviving Indy streetcar and how to save it, I could plainly see that news of the museum’s closing was devastating Craig. Turns out Craig Presler’s history with the ITM is nearly as old as the museum itself. He came to Noblesville in the early 1970s and worked at Firestone for over three decades while volunteering his time to the ITM on nights and weekends. He lives within walking distance of the museum and when he retired last year he made plans to devote the lion’s share of his time guiding visitors through the train cars at the ITM. In particular the lavish railcar known as “The Flagler Car.”

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Craig Presler inside the Flagler Car, Photo by Kris Branch.

Craig Presler knows every square inch of Henry Flagler’s 1898 private railcar. The name Flagler is familiar to anyone who has spent any time visiting St. Augustine Florida but really, Flagler is second only to Walt Disney when it comes to the state of Florida’s prominence as a tourist mecca. Henry Morrison Flagler (January 2, 1830 – May 20, 1913) was a founder of Standard Oil and an early partner of John D Rockefeller in Ohio. He almost singlehandedly developed the Atlantic coast of Florida and he founded Florida’s East Coast Railway. Today, he is known as the father of Miami and Palm Beach, Florida.
“Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony Holman bought this car for his wife’s birthday in 1968 and in turn we got it several years ago,” says Craig. “The wood is all Canarium which is a blonde mahogany native to the Canary Islands. Henry Flagler pretty

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Tim Poynter inside of the Flagler Car, Photo by Steve Hunt.

much owned the whole east coast of Florida and he told the builders of the car that he wanted it to look sunny like Florida. The rail line continued to operate the car until about 1951 – 52 when it was purchased by a man from Anderson named Ike Duffy who managed a meatpacking plant but who, more importantly, is remembered today as a founding father of the NBA. He started one of the inaugural franchises known as the Anderson Packers. Ike use the train to promote his business and rode it around to all his meatpacking plants in Noblesville, Lebanon, Anderson, Muncie and Brazil. He would serve his employees lunch that he actually cooked in the kitchen of this car. When Ike Duffy died in 1968, Tony Hulman bought it. I’m told that he took it to Chicago twice and that Mrs. Hulman never rode in it.”

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Craig Presler on back of the Flagler Car, Photo by Tim Poynter.

Craig delighted showing visitors (like us) all of the secret compartments and high-end accouterments that were found all over the Flagler car. It had self-closing windows, drawers and beds all over the place. Zinc lined compartments to hold and chill champagne bottles and the finest blinds, carpeting, curtains and Persian rug styled monogrammed blankets money could buy. It was easy to see that this car was a large part of Craig Presler’s life. When I asked him what would become of the car after the museum closed, he said, “I’m told the car is being moved to our affiliate in Logansport and that I will be able to go up on the weekends and continue to give tours.”
As Rhonda and I exited the the railcar following Craig’s impromptu tour, two officials I had been talking to previously about the ITM’s closure pulled me aside and informed me that while we were touring the car, it had been sold. It was going to be moved to a museum in Monon Indiana some 90 miles away. They finished by saying, “Don’t tell Craig, he does not know yet.” Knowing how much Craig loved this car, I knew this was going to be devastating news. As we left that day we arranged to meet Craig the next morning.

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Craig Presler, Rhonda Hunter, Kris & Roger Branch & Alan E. Hunter  in the Flagler Car, Photo by Tim Poynter

We showed up on Saturday, but this time with reinforcements: Kris and Roger Branch, Tim Poynter and Steve Hunt. One way or another we were going to save this car. I noticed that Craig had a plastic bag hooked on his belt loop. It contained a spray can of adhesive and some specialty tools. Craig said he brought them to fix a small piece of woodwork in the Flagler car he had pointed out to us the day before. The damaged area was so small as to be indiscernible to anyone else but Craig. The sad part is that the sight of that bag made me realize instantly that no one had yet told Craig his beloved Flagler car had been sold. He insisted on showing the Flagler car to the new additions in our group. That was Craig’s last tour. (the Flagler car made it out at 11:45. It was the last train out before the gate were locked.)

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Tim Poynter in the Flagler Car, Photo by Steve Hunt.

The realization was all the more ironic because the object of my quest, the dilapidated shell of the last surviving Indianapolis streetcar was moldering away in the woods not 20 yards away from that opulent Flagler car. Before I could ponder the dichotomy of the situation any further, I received a text message from William Whitmer telling me that the streetcar had been saved. We met at the streetcar and William delivered the good news.
William explained how he had stepped up and bought the car just in the nick of time. William had arrived at the streetcar, receipt in hand, just as the wrecker was creeping slowly towards it. “I couldn’t believe it,” William said, “I literally had to stand in front of the streetcar and wave my arms to get them to stop. They had been told the streetcar was scrap and that they were there to break it up. Five more minutes and the streetcar would have been crushed. The driver didn’t want to believe me until I showed him the receipt.”
William said that after our discussion the day before, “We did a very preliminary examination on the car body. The frame and car bolster (where the truck/wheels attach) is in solid shape. The actual structural steel is not too rotted. Side bracing is acceptable, and a lot of the upright steel frame is acceptable. The car is in overall better condition than we thought originally, making restoration far more likely.”
Then he shocked me by saying, “If it hadn’t been for you Al, this car would have been lost.” I was unprepared for that statement. Although humbled, I had to admit that it was not entirely my doing. First, I was there on a story for the Weekly View. Secondly, I was acting on a tip from Meg Purnsley. So without the paper and the heads up from Meg, this story would never have happened. And most importantly, without the quick action by William Whitmer and his Hoosier Heartland Trolley Group , the last surviving Indianapolis streetcar would have been lost forever. Will informs me that it may take up to 10 years to restore the car. He insists that he will keep us updated on the progress.
The streetcar has been saved but the museum is lost forever. While I no longer worry about the fate of the engines and cars, I do worry about the people. In particular my new friend Craig Presler. What is to become of him? His baby, the Flagler car, now resides nearly two hours away. The museum that was his passion is no more. The site will undoubtedly be plowed under and a swing set, waterpark or zip line will take its place in a year or so. All of the sabre rattling by the city of Noblesville about the ITM’s chemical hazards will be forgotten and no environmental cleanup will take place. Because none was needed. Another historical treasure lost to the temporal winds of political folly.
Luckily, William Whitmer assures me that his group has a place for Craig Presler and any other displaced ITM volunteer looking for a place to land. One thing can be sure, after the dust settles in the woods of Forest Park, much soul searching will be needed in the preservation community. In my opinion, it certainly smacks of just another backdoor “eminent domain” situation in Hamilton County. What I can say for sure is that I met many hardworking volunteers during the last days and hours of the Indiana Transportation Museum in Noblesville. Their individual flames burned bright. Some were warmed by the flame. Others were burnt by it. And although the flame of the ITM has burned out, that of the last surviving Indianapolis streetcar burns on.

 

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Back of the Flagler Car, Photo by Kris Branch.
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The Flagler Car, Photo by Kris Branch.
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The washroom of the Flagler Car, Photo by Steve Hunt.
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Bedroom in the Flagler Car, Photo by Steve Hunt.
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Fireplace inside of the Flagler Car, Photo by Steve Hunt.
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Interior of the Flagler Car, Photo by Tim Poynter.
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Hallway of the Flagler Car, Photo by Tim Poynter.

 

Indianapolis, Museums

Feast & Famine-Henry Flagler and the last Indianapolis Street car. Part I

 

ITM train

Original publish date:  July 16, 2018

By the time you read this, the Indiana Transportation Museum (ITM) in Noblesville will be gone. If you are a fan of trains, or a lover of history in general, no doubt you’ve been keeping tabs on the sad demise of this central Indiana institution. Reports of problems at the ITM have been circulating for quite some time now. Over two years ago, the port authority ordered the museum to halt one of its most popular excursions, the Indiana State Fair train from Noblesville to the fairgrounds, deeming the tracks unsound.
Before the issue could be addressed, Fishers, Noblesville and Hamilton County leaders announced plans to remove a 9-mile section of the tracks and turn the rail bed into a walking trail. Soon after that, the port authority and the Noblesville Parks Board terminated its 50+ year lease agreement with the ITM at Forest Park. In early 2018, the City of Noblesville accused the ITM of contaminating the site. The city reportedly based their accusations on unfounded complaints about leaking oil drums, which turned out to be trash cans used by the Forest Park garage, not belonging to the ITM. By late June, the ITM had been given two weeks to vacate the property. The decision was signed off on by Mayor John Ditslear, who was the chief critic of the way the museum had maintained the property.
“The ITM has not shown good stewardship with the resources entrusted to them for more than fifty years,” Ditslear said in a statement. “The City of Noblesville is taking these proactive measures now to protect our residents and our heritage, to ensure Forest Park is cleaned up and to bring the trains back to our community with a new operator.” Former museum Chairman John McNichols claimed the move was part of a strategy by the city to bankrupt the museum and seize its equipment. It should be noted that McNichols resigned the day of my initial visit.

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Photo by Kris Branch.

I was contacted Friday morning July 6th by my former President Meg Purnsley, late of the Indiana National Road Association. I seved as Meg’s INRA Vice-President some time ago and we have kept in touch in the years since. Meg sent me a message informing me that the museum was closing and inventory was being liquidated, and in some cases, destroyed. A tragedy to be sure, but what made Meg’s message most disturbing was the revelation that the ITM was home to the last surviving Indianapolis streetcar. Within minutes, I was in my car and on my way to the museum.
When I arrived at the ITM, located at the back of Forest Park, the site was a frenzy of activity. Paver bricks were being pried up in front of the Hobbs Station depot, the sign was being removed, massive cranes were crawling into position and workers in hardhats were scurrying about the grounds in a controlled panic. Workmen armed with acetylene torches and driving backhoes grimly stalked the yard. Everyone was doing something. The scene must have resembled a busy rail yard from the turn of the last century. Train cars of every type and era littered the rails like silent sentinels over last stand hill. In short, it was a sad sight. If there ever was a railroad triage, this was surely it.
Before we go any further, I think it is important to understand just what was lost here.The Indiana Transportation Museum dates back to 1960. It began as an all-volunteer effort to preserve the state’s history of railroads. The museum signed its first lease with the city of Noblesville on Jan.1,1965. The group operated over the former Nickel Plate Road line stretching over a distance of about 38-miles from Indianapolis and Tipton originally built for the Indianapolis and Peru Railroad. The rail line originally connected to the Norfolk Southern railroad in Tipton, the CSX railroad in Indianapolis, and the Belt Railroad owned by Eli Lilly and Company. The rail line operated as a freight railroad hauling coal to the Cicero power generating plant until 2003.

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Photo by Kris Branch.

Today it is the property of the Hoosier Heritage Port Authority which is owned by the cities of Fishers, Indianapolis, and Noblesville. Aside from the ITM’s excursion trips (State Fair train, corporate outings & the seasonal Polar Bear Express) they also ostensibly operated a working museum of engines, railcars and trolleys for interested tourists and school groups for decades. The ITM’s all-volunteer not-for-profit facility was dedicated to preserving, protecting and restoring the railroads of Indiana. The ITM’s charter was to inform and educate the public by operating trains to demonstrate how people traveled in the past. The ITM’s train yard stored around $3 million in equipment on site, tallying 100 pieces on it’s roles, including eight locomotives, innumerable box cars. historic tolleys and countless historical artifacts. About 30,000 people visit the museum each year.
The museum is home to many pieces of railroading history, with an emphasis on locomotives and equipment connected to the Nickel Plate Railroad. As of this date, the fate of many of those pieces remains uncertain. A number of pieces in the ITM collection have been cut up, as the museum struggles to obey a local circuit judge’s order to vacate the property by July 12. Technically, anything left on the site after that deadline is considered abandoned and, according to the court order, would become the property of the city of Noblesville.

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The last Indiana Streetcar as found in the woods. Photo by Kris Branch.

Knowing this, it can be easy to understand the depth of my concern for the streetcar that brought me here, the last survivor: Indianapolis Street Railway car # 153. During my visit, I was fortunate to run into Laddie Vitek of the Illinois Railway Museum who generously shared his wealth of streetcar knowledge with me. It should be noted that the old car is in pretty rough shape. The seats are gone, as are the wheels, doors, steering wheel, many of the windows and just about anything else that would make it track worthy. But the shell is there and it is easy to see the ghost of the old trolley hidden in the leafy environs of Forest Park.
Thankfully, the roof of the streetcar was tarped by some forward-thinking ITM volunteer, undoubtedly saving what was left of the old trolley. I noticed what appeared to be two gas tanks, one on each side. Laddie corrects me by saying, “Those aren’t gas tanks, they’re sand tanks. The conductor could release sand onto the rails for traction when needed. After all, it was an electric streetcar.” Did I mention I’m a preservation minded amateur historian, not a train guy? Laddie crawls under the trolley and slaps his hand on a massive steel plate. “Plate’s solid, the wheels could still attach here.” he says.
Laddie informs me that this was a Peter Witt design front entrance, center exit car made by the Brill Company out of Philadelphia in 1935. “This was a 600 roll PCC Dynamic Friction car, wooden tongue-in-groove and brass window sashes. Very sturdy and very restorable.” he explains. In laymen’s terms that means it ran on 600 volts of electricity, using a dynamic friction brake system and the ceiling was made of intricate wood parquet fitted tightly together. Brass window sashes, I understood. “It could be saved.” said Laddie.
It should be noted that while the fate of this particular car is still in limbo, a number of important cars and locomotives have been saved. While perusing car 153, I was joined by William Whitmer, a longtime museum volunteer and dedicated train enthusiast, who understood the importance of saving this car. He explained that he and his group, “Hoosier Heartland Trolley Co.” are already in the process of saving three other historic trolley cars in the museum’s collection.
William reports, “Cars # 429 and # 437 are both cars built by the St. Louis Car Company in 1925. They are both considered to be standard coach interurban cars. # 437 is known as the Marion and car # 429 is known as the Noblesville. # 81 is a car built by Jewett for the Indianapolis & Martinsville in 1902. Also a coach interurban.” William is not sure whether the last surviving Indianapolis streetcar was built in 1932 or 1935 but confirms that is was built by Brill for the Indianapolis Street Railway. “If we find out that it was built in 1932, that would make it even more important historically.” Regardless, the importance of saving this particular car cannot be understated.
However, the crown jewel of the museum is the 1898 private railcar of Henry Morrison Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railroad (FEC) #90. Fortunately, I had the good fortune to have Craig Presler as my tour guide for the Flagler car that day. I met Craig in the trolley barn where he introduced himself kindly, “That’s Presler, like Elvis with an r instead of a y.” he said. Craig knows as much about the ITM and these rail cars as anyone else on the property. Most importantly, Craig knows more about the Flagler car than anyone else at the ITM. And fortunately for you, Craig will tell us all about that car and the current situation at the ITM next week, in part two of this article.

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Photos of the interior of the last Indiana Streetcar as found in the woods.

Photos by Kris Branch.