Hollywood, Indianapolis, Indy 500, Pop Culture, Sports

Paul Newman and the Indy 500.

Paul Newman

Original publish date:  June 8, 2015     Reissued: November 21, 2019

I have many heroes in my life ranging from the rich and famous (Abraham Lincoln, Jimmy Carter, Harry Truman, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr. to name a few) to the not-so-famous (My wife Rhonda, my kids Jasmine & Addison, and my mother Ruth McDuffee) as well as people I admire but really wouldn’t want to emulate (Hunter S.Thompson, Wilt Chamberlain, Frank Sinatra, Keith Richards). However, one of the people from my life that I admire and aspire to emulate has a strong connection to Indianapolis and the month of May is no longer with us. Paul Newman died on September 26, 2008 but his spirit lives on at Indy and he will always be one of the first things I think of when I imagine the Indy 500.

            Way back in 1968, when I was a small child living on Bluebell lane (near 34th & High School Road) on Indy’s west side, I remember laying in my room in the middle of the day listening to the sounds of cars whizzing around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway track and napping to the sound of speed. A.J. Foyt was a frequent visitor to our neighborhood. A.J.’s chief mechanic lived two houses away and my dad was a time keeper in the tower for 40 years. The big deal for us was to walk over to the neighborhoods bordering the track in search of sites usually reserved for carnival sideshows. I remember seeing drunks sleeping in shopping carts and scantily clad women passed out in the grass of the coke lot. We ALWAYS found money, pop bottles to return for 8 cents a piece and coolers full of goodies left over by people watching the race who were obviously flying home.

z WINNING1SHHRws           Even though I was very young, I can remember that in May of 1968, Hollywood came to town to film a major movie at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the film was called “Winning,” and starred Paul Newman and his real-life wife, Joanne Woodward. The plot focused on an ambitious race driver determined to win the Indianapolis 500 in an effort to resurrect his flagging career. The film also starred Richard Thomas, soon to become more famous as “John Boy” on “The Waltons” TV series and Robert Wagner (of “Hart to Hart” TV fame). Several real-life racing figures-including the Speedway’s owner, Tony Hulman, and race driver Bobby Unser-portray themselves in the movie.

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The Greenie Meanie.

            I could have easily ridden my Schwinn “Greenie Meanie” 5-speed with sissy bar and wheelie poppers over to the Speedway Motel and see these guys. After all, they were filming some of the scenes in the motel itself and many of my neighbors and some of my family members could’ve gotten me access with no problem. Things were different then, there were no stalkers, no serial killers, no crazy Manson family maniacs on the Indy radar screen back then. Looking back, I sincerely wish I’d have made the trip.

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Paul Newman’s US Navy photo.

            Born January 25, 1925 in Shaker Heights, Ohio, Paul Newman showed an early propensity for acting and landed his first motion-picture role in 1954. He went on to star in more than 60 movies, including “The Long Hot Summer,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “The Hustler,” “Hud,” “Cool Hand Luke,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Sting,” “Slap Shot,” “Absence of Malice,” “The Verdict,” “Nobody’s Fool” and “Cars.” He garnered 10 Academy Award nominations, including eight for Best Actor. His sole Oscar win came in 1986 (Best Actor) when he reprised his role from “The Hustler” as Fast Eddie Felson alongside Tom Cruise in “The Color of Money.”

            Newman began racing cars in 1972, three years after completing the movie “Winning”. Newman and Wagner attended the Bob Bondurant racing school to prepare for the movie, and Newman performed many of the racing scenes himself without a stunt driver. The experience resonated with Newman for the rest of his life, to the point that he embarked on a successful second career as a driver. Newman’s greatest accomplishment as a driver was a second-place finish in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in ’79, driving a Porsche 935. He remained active in endurance racing, making his last start at the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway in 2006 at the age of 81. When he was racing, Newman kept a low profile at the track and maintained an intense focus on the task at hand. He always raced under the name P.L. Newman to avoid drawing attention to his status as a Hollywood icon.

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Mario Andretti & Paul Newman.

            Paul Newman, who died from cancer at the age of 83, was best-known as one of the most famous actors in the world, one of the most fervent race fans on the planet, one of the best race car drivers as a second career and, as founder of the popular Newman’s Own brand of organic food products, one of the most successful private sector philanthropists in the history of the United States, donating more than $250 million of after-tax profits to charity since 1982.

            It helped fuel my admiration for Paul Newman to know that many of the values he stood for in his lifetime were shared by me. For his strong support of Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and his strong opposition to the War in Vietnam, Newman was placed nineteenth on Richard Nixon’s enemies list, which he claimed was his greatest accomplishment. He attended the first Earth Day event in Manhattan on April 22, 1970. Newman was a vocal supporter of gay rights, including same-sex marriage. Newman was concerned over global warming and supported alternative energy development as a solution to our nation’s addiction to fossil fuels. In short, he was a man with a conscience.

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Roselyn Bakery.

            I was lucky, I got to meet Paul Newman several times at the track through my time keeper dad. Contrary to his reputation, he was always a gracious autograph signer for me and for anyone who was polite and said please and thank-you. But it was an unexpected encounter in 1992 that I will always cherish the most. I pulled into the Roselyn Bakery on Rockville road during the month of May to pick up Toffee Cookies for me and Butter Jumbles for my wife. As I waited in line behind a large crowd of people, I didn’t notice that there was a limousine parked idling on the side of the building.

             I was standing in line holding my 2-year-old daughter in my arms and waiting for my turn when the crowd of people parted and Paul Newman himself stepped from the crowds wearing his trademark glasses and said “Boo” to my daughter while tickling her tiny tummy. Jasmine squealed with delight and Paul Newman formed his finger and thumb into the shape of a gun and “shot” at us saying “Get the Butter Jumbles, they’re my favorite kid.” It happened so fast that before I knew it he was in the limo and out of the lot. Paul Newman was a good husband, father, grandfather and human being. I’m just happy I had the opportunity to meet him.

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Paul Newman on his last visit.

           When the Speedway Motel was torn down in February of last year, I recalled a quote from Newman’s last visit to the city of my birth a short time before his death, “It’s good to be back at Indianapolis,” he added. “It brings back a lot of fond memories. My favorite tradition was that it took a whole month. Indy started at the first of May, and you had your reservation at the Speedway Motel. If you wanted a room for two days, you took it for the whole month or you wouldn’t get it.”

So, if you really think about it and take that statement literally, it can easily be said that all of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway heroes of our youth, A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Al and Bobby Unser, Rick Mears, Johnny Rutherford, Rodger Ward, Gordon Johncock, the Bettenhausens’, the Vuckovichs’, and Paul Newman called our city home for one month every year. The month of May in Indianapolis.

Auctions, Creepy history, Criminals, Hollywood, Museums, Pop Culture, Travel

“Bonnie & Clyde” Part IV

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Original publish date: October 17, 2019

There have been some changes to my “Bonnie and Clyde” story series in the years since I first wrote it. Some nationally, others personally. This past September, my wife and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary. For our milestone anniversary we visited Las Vegas, Nevada. Which is an odd choice since neither of us gamble. Oh sure, we visited many casinos, but mostly just to say we did it. The casinos on the strip are slick and flashy and a must see but our favorites were the old casinos on Fremont Street where the Vegas legend was born. They ooze with historic personality and, in my opinion, are the real attraction for history loving visitors to “sin city”.
original_whiskey-petesOne of those “must see” old timey casinos is located about 30 miles southwest of the Vegas strip in a desert town called Primm, Nevada not far from the California border. Known as “Whiskey Pete’s”, the casino covers 35,000 square feet, has 777 rooms, a large swimming pool, gift shop and four restaurants. The casino is named after gas station owner Pete MacIntyre. “Whiskey Pete” had a difficult time making ends meet selling gas, so he resorted to bootlegging and an idea was born. When Whiskey Pete died in 1933, he was secretly buried standing up with a bottle of whiskey in his hands so he could watch over the area. Decades later, his unmarked grave was accidentally exhumed by workers building a connecting bridge from Whiskey Pete’s to Buffalo Bill’s (on the other side of I-15). According to legend, the body was reburied in one of the caves where Pete once cooked up his moonshine.
z 70184836_2595583403806240_2376225759279710208_nOh, I forgot to mention that Whiskey Pete’s is also home to the Bonnie and Clyde death car. As detailed in part III of this series, the car has had a long strange trip to Primm. The bullet-ridden car toured carnivals, amusement parks, flea markets, and state fairs for decades before being permanently parked on the plush carpet between the main cashier cage and a lifesize caged effigy of Whiskey Pete himself. According to the “Roadside America” website, “For a time it was in the Museum of Antique Autos in Princeton, Massachusetts, then in the 1970s it was at a Nevada race track where people could sit in it for a dollar. A decade later it was in a Las Vegas car museum; a decade after that it was in a casino near the California / Nevada state line. It was then moved to a different casino on the other side of the freeway, then it went on tour to other casinos in Iowa, Missouri, and northern Nevada. nfdbw6-b88265181z.120141120184822000g7f6eg40.10Complicating matters was the existence of at least a half-dozen fake Death Cars and the Death Car from the 1967 Bonnie and Clyde movie (which was in Louisiana and then Washington, DC, but now is in Tennessee).” Just in case of any remaining confusion, the Primm car is accompanied by a bullet riddled sign reading: “Yes, this is the original, authentic Bonnie and Clyde death car” (in all caps for emphasis).

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One of the facsimile death cars on display in Gibsland, Louisiana.

The car is encased in a glass cage and guarded by reconstituted department store mannequins dressed as the famous outlaw couple. And, after 85 years, the bullet holes, shattered glass and torn interior are just as shocking to our eyes as they were to those of our Great Depression ancestors. The doors are permanently shut (so there’ll be no more sitting), the bloody upholstery is long gone and covered by plastic and the steering wheel’s bakelite outer casing has been torn to pieces by long dead souvenir hunters . The car’s Swiss cheese exterior is still impressive and cringeworthy, even if you can’t stick your fingers in the holes. 20190908_100429The walls surrounding the death car are festooned with authentic newspapers detailing the outlaw lover’s demise and letters vouching to the vehicle’s authenticity. Cases contain other Bonnie and Clyde relics like a belt given by Clyde to his sister and classic candid photos of the star-crossed lovers and their families.

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The car is a must see, but my interest was equaled by the presence of Clyde’s shredded death shirt, peppered by innumerable ragged holes both front and back. A nearby placard proclaims: “Marie Barrow [Clyde’s sister] has personally signed the inside hem of the shirt to attest to the garment’s authenticity,” while another reads: “Bloodstains are evident throughout the shirt,” it continues, although time has faded them considerably. A closer examination of Clyde’s blue shirt (adorned by a repeated pattern of white snowflake flourishes) attests that the diminutive desperado wore a size 14-32. Sadly, try as I might, I was unable to view the object of my search: the Indianapolis H.P. Wasson’s department store tag. Amazingly, the shirt remains mostly intact. Although cut at the shoulders (giving the shirt a rather macabre looking superhero cape appearance) only a few of the buttons are missing and the single pocket that once covered the law breakers heart is unscathed. The exit hole in the back of Clyde’s collar is sure to elicit a gasp when the viewer realizes that this was the death shot, the one that severed Barrow’s spinal cord.
bcend-realcbA movie, obviously created many years ago, recreates the event using newsreel footage, landscape photography and contemporary interviews with family members and eyewitnesses. Here, it is revealed that the shirt was found, decades after the outlaw’s death, secreted away in a sealed metal box along with Clyde’s hat. The film itself has become a piece of Americana and the images of Bonnie’s torn and tattered body left twitching in the car, resting silently mere yards away, are equally breathtaking. Nearby, although not nearly as shocking as the Bonnie and Clyde death car, another bullet-scarred automobile is on display. This one first belonged to gangster Dutch Schultz and later, Al Capone. Signs around the car proclaim that the doors are filled with lead and, judging by the pockmarks of the bullets denting the exterior, it is true. Although, like every casino, Whiskey Pete’s job remains separating gamblers from their money, both cars are on display 24 hours a day for free.

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Just in case you find yourself in Las Vegas and want to take a side trip to see the death car, there is another stop along the way that is a must see for history-loving Hoosiers. In between Primm and Vegas lies a mostly abandoned mining town (population 229) known as Good Springs. The town is home to, according to legend, the oldest saloon in the state: The Pioneer Saloon (built in 1913). This is the saloon where Clark Gable spent 3 days slamming beers after receiving word of the plane crash and while awaiting confirmation of the death of his beautiful wife, Fort Wayne native Carole Lombard. The 33-year-old actress was the highest-paid star in Hollywood in the late 1930s. She died while returning from a war bond tour in Indianapolis on board TWA Flight 3 when the plane slammed into Mount Potosi, which is easily seen in the distance.
adventure-32301-original-1476134635-57fc06eb943f4The interior of the Pioneer Saloon remains unchanged. It is easy to imagine Gone with the Wind star Gable drowning his sorrows at a rickety table or bracing himself against the cowboy bar and it’s brass boot rail. Ask and the bartender will point out the cigarette burn holes in the bar caused by Gable when he passed out from a mixture of grief and alcohol during his somber vigil. The tin ceiling remains as do the ancient celing fans (it gets HOT in the desert) and the walls are peppered with bullet holes left by cowboys who rode off into the sunset generations ago. The bar’s backroom is a shrine to the Lombard / Gable tragedy but sadly most of the relics on display there are modern photocopies and recreations. Locals claim that Carole Lombard’s ghost haunts the saloon in a desperate attempt to contact her grieving husband. The saloon is also reportedly haunted by the ghost of an old “Miner 49er” who appears drinking alone at the far end of the bar before vanishing into thin air. Millennials flock to the bar as the birthplace of the game “Fallout: New Vegas” which also has a small shrine located there.

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Clyde Barrow’s Bulova wristwatch.

Ironically, in the years since I wrote this series and during the month of our 30th anniversary visit, Bonnie and Clyde have populated the headlines once more. On September 20, 2019 several personal items related to 1930s Texas outlaw were sold by a Boston auction house for nearly $186,000. The Bulova watch that Clyde wore when he and Bonnie Parker were killed sold for $112,500 (it had given to his father, Henry Barrow, after he retrieved his son’s body). A sawed-off shotgun that was used by the Barrow gang in 1933 sold for $68,750. A draft of a Dallas police “wanted” poster for Barrow sold for $4,375, a bullet-proof vest used by the gang sold for $ 30,000 and a bloodied bandage from the Barrow Gang sold for $3,000. 2215
The Western Field Browning Model 30 shotgun had been found after a gun battle that left two lawmen dead. On April 13, 1933, five lawmen assembled outside 3347 ½ Oakridge Drive in Joplin, Missouri to confront what they believed were bootleggers operating out of an apartment above the garage. Instead, they quickly discovered that they were up against the Barrow gang. While Bonnie, Clyde, and their associates escaped, they left behind almost everything they owned at the time: Bonnie’s poems, a bevy of weapons, and several rolls of undeveloped film. Those photos, featuring images of the nattily dressed couple clowning for the camera by pointing various weapons at each other, hit the newspapers and firmly established the myth of Bonnie and Clyde as star-crossed lovers on the run. The couple would be killed a year later.

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The Joplin garage hideout today.

After the shootout, Detective Tom DeGraff found the shotgun in the Joplin garage, and took it home as a souvenir. When he registered it under the National Firearms Act in 1946, he included an affidavit noting its origins. What’s more, the same shotgun can be spotted in images printed from the film rolls left behind at Joplin. In one photograph, it leans against one of the Barrow Gang’s cars. In 2012, the same auctionhouse sold several of Clyde’s guns for hundreds of thousands of dollars, including a 1911 Army Colt 45 Pistol for $240,000. This pistol was removed from Clyde’s waistband after the duo was gunned down by lawmen in 1934. Frank Hamer, the leader of the ambush that killed Bonnie and Clyde, kept it as a trophy.

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Bonnie Parker’s Colt .38 Special Revolver.

That September 2012 auction also included Bonnie Parker’s Colt Detective Special .38 revolver, carried by her at the time of her death. A notarized letter, dated December 10, 1979, spectacularly identified this gun by stating, “My father removed this gun from the inside thigh of Bonnie Parker where she had it taped with white, medical, adhesive tape. My father said that one reason she had the gun taped to the inside of her leg was that, in those days, no gentlemen officer would search a woman where she had it taped.”

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Frank Hamer’s note.

Included with this gun and mentioned in this letter is a framed handwritten note from Frank Hamer, written on the back of an old Texas Ranger Expense Account form, reading “Aug/1934 Davis hold onto this. Bonnie was ‘squatting’ on it. Frank.” Many of the guns carried by Bonnie and Clyde ended up in the possession of Texas Ranger Captain Frank Hamer as an unexpected bonus for his service. Hamer was promised that he could take anything the outlaws had in their possession at the time of their capture.

 

Other auction items included five original items collected off the floor of Bonnie and Clyde’s car: a woman’s silk stocking stained with blood on the foot and leg area, an unused .45 caliber bullet and casing from the Peters Cartridge Company with the date of 1918, a side temple from a pair of eyeglasses, a small wood-handled flathead screwdriver measuring 4 1/2″ long and an empty Bayer Aspirin tin; all of which sold for $11,400. This lot was accompanied by a notarized affidavit from the woman whose grandfather originally acquired these relics directly from the ‘death car’ after receiving permission to take them. Letter reads, in part: “My grandfather, Zell Smith, was a traveling hardware salesman who traveled that area of north Louisiana. He was also a friend of Sheriff Henderson Jordan. My grandfather was in Arcadia in 1934 on the day that the ambushed car was pulled into Arcadia. He, like many others, rushed to see the shot up car, and Sheriff Henderson let him and others that he knew ransack the car for souvenirs. My grandfather grabbed a handful of stuff off of the floor of the car, which the outlaws had been living in. He said the car was full of trash.”

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Bonnie Parker’s poetry book.

Last month’s auction included a little black book of 10 poems that Bonnie wrote in 1932 while jailed in Texas for a bungled hardware store robbery. Five of the poems were original compositions drawn from her life on the run with the Barrow Gang. The titles reflect the female outlaw’s life at that time: “The Story of ‘Suicide Sal,’” “The Prostitute’s Convention,” “The Hobo’s Last Ride,” “The Girl With the Blue Velvet Band,” and “The Fate of Tiger Rose.” Bidding for Bonnie’s poetry book reached about $25,000 before the lot was withdrawn by the consignor.
9334476db7b58cc57c37051c41acec99During the Great Depression, some viewed the duo as near folk heroes, like Robin Hood and Maid Marian. And, although Hoosier outlaw John Dillinger reportedly once told a reporter that Bonnie and Clyde were “a couple of punks”, he and his fellow gang member Pretty Boy Floyd reportedly sent flowers to their funeral homes. The Barrow gang killed a total of 13 people, including nine police officers. They finally met their match on May 23, 1934, when six police officers ambushed them and shot some 130 rounds into the car. Dillinger outlasted Bonnie and Clyde by about two months – he met his maker on July 22, 1934. Truth is, proceeds from auctions of items associated with these outlaws over the past two decades (which number in the millions of dollars) far outdistance the proceeds of all of their robberies combined.
wnl5boo20jpzFor my part, when we told our 25-year-old son about our anniversary trip to Las Vegas, he remained nonplussed by saying, “I would only want to go out there to see a town called Primm.” To which we said “been there, done that.” His reply, “I’d also like to go to a little town called Good Springs.” We answered, “Been there too.” He concluded by saying he’d like to see an old dive bar named the “Pioneer Saloon.” He was shocked when we said we went there too. Of course, the reason he wants to venture out there is video game related, not history related. Nonetheless, he was chagrined by our answers. I guess we old folks aren’t so square after all.

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Hollywood, Homosexuality, Pop Culture, Travel

Highway 127: The World’s Longest Yard Sale. 2016~~~ PART III

127 yard sale part III photo

Original publish date:  August 29, 2016

Over the past two weeks, I have shared with you tips and stories about the Highway 127 yard sale that takes place the first week of August and spans 690 miles through six states. Although we found many exciting and interesting items to add to our ever mounting number of side collections, it was one item in particular that came as a surprise.
At one of the tent cities near Liberty, Kentucky my wife and I encountered a dealer that we could hear before we could see. It was still fairly early in the day and I guess since the crowds were sparse, this seller decided the best way to drum up business was to bellow like a carnival barker to any prospective buyer that came within earshot. He looked like Burl Ives’ version of Big Daddy from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: large boned, bald-headed and wearing a white tank-top t-shirt, suspenders, dress slacks and wing tip shoes.
Amid the blusterous, braggadocio, and bombastic rhetoric the seller was hurling our general direction, my wife Rhonda pulled out a typed letter from a paper filled drag box. A “drag box” is a term we use to describe a large wooden box of great length and width but of shallow depth. Usually, these boxes contain castoffs and quick sale items or varying size and category. In short, you never know what you might find in one. Usually you are guaranteed to come away with nothing more than dirty hands but in this instance Rhonda picked up the one thing that seller was most proud of.

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Louise Brooks & Dante 1931.

As she held it in her hands, the seller barked “Read it! Read it! There’s some really wild stuff in there!” Rhonda perused the letter, smiled politely at the dealer and handed it to me. Dated July 20, 1963 from Rochester, New York, the letter was signed at the conclusion in red eye-liner pencil by a name vaguely familiar to me but one that I didn’t immediately recognize: Louise Brooks. As I scanned the document I agreed that it indeed lived up to the dealer’s hype. I bought the letter.
Here it is so that you may read it verbatim as I did. ” “7 North Goodman Rochester 7, N.Y. 20 July 1963. Dear Paul-It was nice talking “at” you the other night. I hope I didn’t go on too interminably. There has never been a community where I was accepted but always there were people who could teach me things. Living here in Rochester, I am compelled to be exclusively autodidactic. When I make an occasion contact with someone of your intelligence, or Herman’s, I have atendency (sic) to carry on. I thought a great deal about our conversation and I am thinking of writing a short romantic story, in the fashion of CAMILLE. I was putting it off for years. Then I re-read Tolstoy and weighed your comments carefully. You see, I didn’t think that I could write a man. But following Tolstoy’s example, I willdo (sic) the reverse and simply put my own feelings into a man. The CAMILLE style seems right because it was about a tramp and a bum: myself and George Marshall fit that description famously.”
The letter continues: “Yes, I did read LOLITA and I don’t think he is that obvious. Having been one, of course, I should know. Do you recall that Lolita was Lita Grey’s read name? And I am not so harsh as you are in my opinion of Elizabeth Taylor. She is not much of an actress, but then nothing much has been demanded of her. The day of reckoning will come, I think, when she will have to admit that she invented the idea of Richard Burton as a matchless actor cum great intellectual. The truth is, of course, that he is a boring actor, a pompous ass, and an ugly peasant who has used her egregiously. I can’t wait for your visit. We will do the town (ha!) and order rare prime rib at the Rio Bamba, which is to Rochester what Ciro’s used to be to Lotus Land. Bring a lot of money or a credit card. I have never been a cheap date. Louise Brooks” Ms. Brooks obviously typed the letter herself, which somehow made it cooler still.

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Louise Brooks. The Original Flapper Girl.

After I left the road and 90+ degree heat, I remembered who this woman was. Why, that’s Louise Brooks, Hollywood’s original flapper girl! When I googled her image, her 1922 high school Sophomore yearbook photo popped up. Right then, I knew I was writing an article. (See the photo above) One look at that photo, and you KNOW what the letter confirms: this was one interesting lady!
Mary Louise Brooks was born in Cherryvale, Kansas on November 14, 1906. Her life would prove to be as conflicted as the region of her birth. Despite its bucolic name, Cherryvale rests not far from the Oklahoma border. Bonnie & Clyde, Jesse James, Pretty Boy Floyd, the Dalton Gang and Belle Starr are but a few of the region’s exports. However, the area is also home to Little House on the Prairie, Vivian Vance of I Love Lucy fame and Harry S Truman. She would carry that enigmatic regional reputation around with her for the rest of her life.
f990f1a9af1b79b84d5bf7ec26439b77Beginning in 1925, she starred in seventeen silent films and eight ‘talkies’ before retiring in 1938. She would forever be remembered as the iconic symbol of the flapper, and for popularizing the short ‘Bob’ haircut. Google Louise Brooks’ images and you will see why. In short, she was gorgeous at a time when classic Hollywood photographers were at their peak.
Born to an absent, disinterested lawyer father and an artistic mother who declared that any “squalling brats she produced could take care of themselves”, she was pretty much left to her own devices from the start. When she was 9 years old, a neighborhood predator sexually abused Louise, which influenced her life and career. Years later, she cited the incident as making her incapable of real love by stating that it “had a great deal to do with forming my attitude toward sexual pleasure….For me, nice, soft, easy men were never enough – there had to be an element of domination”. Years later, when the incident was revealed to her parents, her mother suggested that it was Louise’s fault for “leading him on”.
8153079034_502c9a9e0d_bBrooks began her career in 1922 as a dancer, joining the legendary Denishawn modern dance company in L.A., whose members included founders Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, as well as a young Martha Graham. Her perceived closeness to Shawn (husband of Ruth St. Denis) got her booted from the troupe. Thanks to her friend Barbara Bennett (sister of Constance and Joan), Brooks almost immediately found employment as a chorus girl in George White’s Scandals and as a featured dancer in the Ziegfeld Follies. From there, her career caught fire.
Paramount Pictures signed her to a five-year contract in 1925. There she caught the eye of Charlie Chaplin and the two had an affair that lasted all summer. Soon, she was playing the female lead in silent comedies alongside luminaries like Adolphe Menjou and W. C. Fields. She made the transition to “talkies” with ease and the roles kept coming. By then, she was a Hollywood A-lister and a regular guest of William Randolph Hearst and his mistress, Marion Davies, at San Simeon.
More importantly, her distinctive bob “pageboy” haircut, worn by Brooks since childhood, helped start a trend that lasts to this day. She refused to play the Hollywood Studio game and after her 5-year contract with Paramount ran out, she left after being denied a promised raise. Choosing instead to leave for Europe to make films. Her rebellious stand against the studio system placed her on an unofficial Tinseltown blacklist for the next 30 years. She would make only 6 more films, mostly ignored by critics and audiences, over the next 7 years. Job offers slowed to a crawl.
Ever the rebel, Brooks turned down the female lead alongside James Cagney in the 1931 film The Public Enemy. The part went to Jean Harlow, which launched her career to stardom and Hollywood immortality. Turning down Public Enemy marked the end of Louise Brooks’s film career. Brooks declared bankruptcy in 1932 and began dancing in nightclubs to earn a living. She attempted a comeback in 1936 with bit parts in B-westerns. Her last hurrah came as the lead opposite John Wayne in the 1938 film Overland Stage Raiders. Her long hairstyle in that film made her all but unrecognizable from her flapper days.
Brooks then briefly returned to her middle America roots, but didn’t stay long. “That turned out to be another kind of hell,” she said. “The citizens either resented me having been a success or despised me for being a failure. And I wasn’t exactly enchanted with them. I must confess to a lifelong curse: My own failure as a social creature.”

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After briefly trying her hand at operating a dance studio, she returned East and found work as a radio actor, a gossip columnist, and even worked as a salesgirl at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City for a few years. Ultimately, she turned to a life as a courtesan with a few select wealthy men as clients. She claimed, “I found that the only well-paying career open to me, as an unsuccessful actress of thirty-six, was that of a call girl … and (I) began to flirt with the fancies related to little bottles filled with yellow sleeping pills.”
Brooks, a heavy drinker since age 14, sobered up and began a reasonably successful second career writing about film. Her first project, an autobiographical novel called Naked on My Goat (a title taken from Goethe’s Faust) began her trek on a path that would supply tons of juicy material and outrageous insights for future generations to devour. She was notoriously cheap for most of her life, although kind and generous (almost to a fault) with her friends. Those qualities shine through in the letter we found in the hills of Kentucky on the 127; a place I’m sure Ms. Brooks never could have dreamed it would land.
louise-brooks-110Despite French film historians proclaiming Brooks skill surpassing Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo as a film icon, she lived in relative obscurity for years in New York City and Rochester, N.Y. Despite her two marriages, she never had children, referring to herself as “Barren Brooks”. Her many lovers once included a young William S. Paley, the founder of CBS along with a veritable who’s who of Hollywood leading men and women.
Lulu-in-Berlin--550x412By her own admission, Brooks was a sexually liberated woman, not afraid to experiment, even posing fully nude for art photography in her golden years. Brooks enjoyed fostering speculation about her sexuality, cultivating friendships with lesbian and bisexual women. She admitted to some lesbian dalliances, including a one-night stand with Greta Garbo. She later described Garbo as masculine but a “charming and tender lover”.
Louise Brooks identified herself as neither lesbian nor bisexual. Shortly before her death, she opined : “All my life it has been fun for me. … When I am dead, I believe that film writers will fasten on the story that I am a lesbian… I have done lots to make it believable […] All my women friends have been lesbians…There is no such thing as bisexuality. Ordinary people, although they may accommodate themselves, for reasons (like) marriage, are one-sexed. Out of curiosity, I had two affairs with girls – they did nothing for me.” Brooks published her memoir, Lulu in Hollywood, in 1982; three years later (August 8, 1985) she died of a heart attack at the age of 78. She had been suffering from arthritis and emphysema for many years. She was buried in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Rochester, New York. What a life! It just goes to show that you never know what you’re going to find in the hills and valleys of the Highway 127 yard sale.

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

Hollywood

Bill “Bojangles’ Robinson & Me. Part II

Bill Robinson Part II

Original publish date: November 13, 2014

Republished: November 22, 2018

Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was the most famous of all African American tap dancers of the twentieth century. No wait, he was, race notwithstanding, the most famous tap-dancer of all time. Robinson used his popularity to challenge and overcome numerous racial barriers, becoming one of the first minstrel and vaudeville performers to appear without the use of blackface makeup (Yes, African American performers were required to perform in Blackface up until World War I). One of the earliest African American performers to go solo.The first African American to appear in a Hollywood film in an interracial dance team (with Temple in The Little Colonel) and the first African American to headline a mixed-race Broadway production.
Offstage Robinson was the first Hollywood Civil Rights activist by using his fame to persuade the Dallas police department to hire its first African American policemen. He staged the first integrated public event in Miami, a fundraiser which, with the permission of the mayor, was attended by both black and white city residents. He also used his star power to lobby President Franklin D. Roosevelt for more equitable treatment of African American soldiers during World War II. Orphaned at a young age and raised by a grandmother who was a former slave, Bill Robinson was born to make a difference.
485154.TIFIn the early 1920s, Robinson took his career on the road as a solo vaudeville act, touring throughout the country. He frequently visited Indianapolis, where he performed multiple shows per night, often on two different stages, at the B.F.Keith theatre. Robinson worked 51 weeks per year, taking a week off every season for the World Series. Bojangles was an avid baseball fan and co-founder of the New York Black Yankees of the old Negro National League in 1936.
Toward the end of the vaudeville era, Robinson joined other black performers on Broadway in “Blackbirds of 1928”, an all- black revue for white audiences. After 1930, black revues waned in popularity, but Robinson remained popular with white audiences for more than a decade starring in fourteen motion pictures produced by such companies as RKO, 20th Century Fox, and Paramount Pictures. Most of them had musical settings, in which he played old-fashioned roles in nostalgic romances. Robinson appeared opposite Will Rogers in In Old Kentucky (1935), the last movie Rogers made prior to his death in an airplane crash. Robinson and Rogers were good friends, and after Rogers’ death, Robinson refused to fly, instead travelling by train to Hollywood for his film work.
He was cast as a specialty performer in a standalone scene. This practice, customary at the time, permitted Southern theaters to remove scenes containing black performers from their showings of the film. Times being what they were, his most frequent role was that of an antebellum butler or servant opposite reigning #1 box office moppet Shirley Temple in films: The Little Colonel (1935), The Littlest Rebel (1935), Just Around the Corner (1938) and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938). In addition, he assisted in the choreography on one of her other films, Dimples (1936). Robinson and Temple became the first interracial dance partners in Hollywood history and lifelong friends. The dance scenes, controversial for their time, were cut out in the south along with all other scenes showing Temple and Robinson making physical contact. By 1937 Robinson was earning $6,600 a week for his films, a strikingly high sum for a black entertainer in Hollywood at the time.
z ASTAIRE-1-popupAt the 1939 New York World’s Fair, he returned to the stage in “The Hot Mikado”, a jazz version of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta which quickly became one of the greatest hits of the fair. Consequently, August 25, 1939 was named ‘’Bill Robinson Day’’ at the World’s Fair. By the 1940s, although he continued to perform, Robinson was past his prime and showing symptoms of heart disease. Robinson’s final film appearance is considered by critics as his best when he starred in the 1943 Fox musical Stormy Weather alongside Lena Horne.
From 1936 until his death in 1949, Robinson made numerous radio and occasional television appearances. It was during these appearances that Robinson introduced and popularized a word of his own invention, copacetic, meaning tip-top, which he had used for years in his vaudeville shows. It was added to Webster’s Dictionary dictionary in 1934. During the 1930-40s, Robinson was appointed as the honorary Mayor of Harlem, a lifetime member of countless policemen’s associations and fraternal orders, and a mascot of the New York Giants major league baseball team.
Onstage, Robinson’s open face, twinkling eyes and infectious smile were irresistible and his tapping was delicate and clear. Robinson had no doubts that he was the best at what he did, a self-confidence that some mistook for arrogance. Bojangles felt that he had more than paid his dues and sometimes brooded that, because he was black, he had to wait until he was in sixties before he could enjoy the fame and fortune given to less talented white dancers. Rivals and wags pointed to Robinson’s lack of education as the reason for his nasty demeanor and pegged Bill as confrontational, quarrelsome, and as a heavy drinker and gambler. But they could not deny that his dancing was extraordinary.
On March 21, 1908, as a result of a dispute with a tailor over a suit, Robinson was arrested in New York City for armed robbery. After being released on bail, Robinson failed to take the charges and impending trial seriously. He paid little attention to mounting a defense. On September 30, Bojangles was shocked when he was convicted and sentenced to 11–15 years hard labor in New York’s Sing Sing prison. Robinson’s influential friends hired a new attorney who produced evidence that Robinson had been falsely accused. Though he was exonerated at his second trial and his accusers indicted for perjury, the trial and time spent in the Tombs (Manhattan’s prison complex) affected Robinson deeply. After he was released, he never again traveled unarmed and made a point of registering his pistol at the local police station of each town where he performed. Robinson’s wife, Fanny, always sent a letter of introduction with complimentary tickets and other gifts to the local police chief’s wife in each town ahead of her husband’s engagements.z robinson2-800x0-c-default
Robinson loved to play pool and insisted on silence when he attempted certain shots. At these times when the game was on the line, he would pull out his pistol, lay it on the edge of the pool table and take his shot, as the stunned patrons fell silent. African-American newspapers often derided Robinson as the quintessential Uncle Tom because of his cheerful and shameless subservience to whites on film. But in real life Robinson was the sort of man who, when refused service at all-white restaurants, would lay his gold-plated pearl-handled revolver on the counter and demand to be served.
Despite these adverse incidents that appear to reveal more about the times than the man, in fact, Robinson was a remarkably generous man. His participation in benefits is legendary and it is estimated that he gave away well over one million dollars in loans and charities during his lifetime. Despite his massive workload, he never refused to appear at a benefit for those artists who were less successful or ailing. It has been estimated that in one year he appeared in a staggering 400 benefits. Often on two different stages in the same city on the same night. Despite earning and spending a fortune, his memories of surviving the streets as a child never left him, prompting many acts of generosity.
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson held the world record for running backward. He learned this skill while a young vaudevillian and used the trick to generate publicity in cities where he wasn’t the headliner. He called them “freak sprinting” races and would challenge all comers, including Olympic Champion Jesse Owens. He never lost in his lifetime. Later, the duo became such good friends that Owens made a gift to Robinson of one of his four Olympic gold medals. In 1922, Robinson set the world record for running backward (100 yards in 13.5 seconds). The record stood until 1977, when it was beaten by two-tenths of a second.
After a series of heart attacks, doctors advised him to quit performing in 1948. Robinson maintained that though he had trouble walking, talking, sleeping and breathing, when he danced he felt wonderful. Robinson’s final public appearance was as a surprise guest on Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour TV show. He died a few weeks later on November 25, 1949. Despite earning more than $ 3 million during his lifetime, Robinson died penniless at the age of 71 from heart failure at Columbia Presbyterian Center in New York City . His funeral was arranged and paid for by longtime friend and television host Ed Sullivan.
z bill-bojangles-robinson-s-funeral_u-l-p43gkr0Robinson’s casket lay in state in Harlem, where an estimated 32,000 people filed past to pay their last respects. The schools in Harlem were closed for a half-day so that children could attend or listen to the funeral, which was broadcast over the radio. Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. conducted the service at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, and New York Mayor William O’Dwyer gave the eulogy. Newspapers estimated that one hundred thousand people turned out to witness the passing of his funeral procession. Robinson is buried in the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn. In 1989, a joint U.S. Senate/House resolution declared “National Tap Dance Day” to be May 25, the anniversary of Bill Robinson’s birth.
Bill Robinson was successful despite the obstacle of racism. My favorite Robinson story finds Bojangles seated in a restaurant as a rude customer loudly object to his presence. When the manager suggested that it might be better if Robinson left, Bill smiled and asked, “Have you got a ten dollar bill?” As the manager lays his bill on the counter, Robinson removes six $10 bills from his own wallet and adds them to the manager’s banknote. After mixing all of the bills together, Robinson says, “Here, let’s see you pick out the colored one”. The restaurant manager served Robinson without further delay.
So there you have it, a 2-part story of a true American hero. Now you know why I was so happy to find that suitcase of Big Band memorabilia containing items associated with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. I’ve already told you about most of the contents in that suitcase. But there is one item that shines above all others. Well, to me at least.
It is a page out of an old fashioned scrapbook. On that page is a small photo of Deke Moffitt with his friend Bojangles. Moffitt is holding his son up and the trio are clowning with a toy pop-gun. The typewritten caption under the photo reads: “I think this was the last snap-shot ever taken of Bill Robinson. It was taken on July 13, 1949.” Of course, there is no real way to prove that claim, but it is certainly intriguing. Under the photo, also attached to the page is a small hand drawn self caricature titled “Bill” with an autograph above it reading “Best Wishes Bill Robinson”. The sketch was drawn by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson himself and it speaks to the innocence and purity of the image Mr. Robinson projected on screen all those years ago.z bj st 2

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.

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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.

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”.