Hollywood, Indianapolis, Pop Culture

The Emperor Jones.

Emperor Jones poster

Original publish date:  September 9, 2011            Reissued: July 5, 2018

It was Wednesday night March 16, 1921, St. Patrick’s Day Eve, and Indianapolis was stretching the boundaries of the cultural heartland. That is, with the help of recent Pulitzer Prize winning playwrite Eugene O’Neill. The state and nation were in flux; World War II was still fresh in the hearts and minds of Americans (the United States officially declared peace with Germany in August of that year), newly minted President Warren G. Harding had been in office less than two weeks, and the Indiana Ku Klux Klan was officially chartered by the state. Worldwide, Adolph Hitler assumes leadership of the Nazi party, Albert Einstein wins the Nobel Prize in Physics, and 5 million people die in the Russian Famine brought on by the Russian Civil War.

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Original membership card from 1915-16 to The Little Theatre in Indianapolis.

Out of this atmosphere and into the footlights of the Little Theatre in Indianapolis stepped “The Emperor Jones”, an expressionist play by Eugene O’Neill featuring a controversial unlikable black protagonist in the lead role. The play tells the story of Brutus Jones, an African-American train porter who kills a man, is sentenced to prison, escapes to a Caribbean island, and cons his way to the Emperor’s throne. The story is told from the prospective of Jones himself in a series of eight acts that are written in flashback style and scripted in the vernacular of Jim Crow America in a decidedly unflattering colloquial tongue. So dominant is the lead character, that scenes two thru seven feature only Rufus Jones himself speaking in a rambling retrospective of his two year sojourn to the top.
The play had premiered off Broadway in 1920 and was so well received that it eventually had to be moved to a larger theatre on Broadway to accommodate demand. It was Eugene O’Neill’s first critical and financial success and is credited with launching the future Nobel Prize winner’s career. While there can be no doubt that Eugene O’Neill took daring chances with his plays that would ultimately change the face of American theatre, we must also tip our cap to the “Little Theatre” of Indianapolis for the risks assumed by staging this one-time performance.
“The Little Theatre Society” was founded in the Fall of 1915 to showcase productions by American and European authors / playwrites heretofore unable to garner recognition by mainstream producers. The Society was unique in that it had no theatre of its own. During the earliest years, plays were performed in the sculpture court of the John Herron Art Institute. Although beautiful, the acoustics were poor and the venue could only seat 200 guests. Soon, performances were soon moved to the Masonic Temple. The Temple was beautiful and could seat 1,000 guests, but the stage was shallow and there were no dressing rooms. Each member of the society paid a $ 5 annual membership fee which entitled them to 12 tickets for every performance. Members could use the tickets themselves or sell them to the public at an average cost of between twenty-five and fifty cents each.
According to the Society’s literature, their purpose is to: “encourage the production of new plays, plays which cannot be produced by commercial stage, either because of their content or lack of commercial possibility-in short, to encourage all community endeavor of an original character in the field of the theatre.” The Little Theatre Society was among the first to shine a spotlight on Hoosiers Theodore Dreiser and W.O. Bates. Other productions included George Bernard Shaw, Booth Tarkington, Jack London, Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats, George Ade, Meredith Nicholson, and James Whitcomb Riley. And that was just in the Theatre’s first two years.
z 6b90f7f2801f80121cede26010e5597dWith the choice of O’Neill’s work, “The Emperor Jones”, the Society was taking an enormous risk if only for the fact that it required an elaborate stage for a one night performance. And then there was the Klan. The KKK was growing by leaps and bounds despite the fact that it had just been formally recognized in the state that same year. Soon, one third of the native male white born citizenry of the state would belong to the Klan. This was a play solely centered around a strong, murderous black man in a position of absolute authority in production in the principally white governed center of the WASP-ish Midwestern cornbelt.
On the contrary, in defiance of its cornbelt stereotype, the Little Theatre Society was chartered for just such bold experimentation and modeled after such avant-garde venues as the Moscow Art Theatre, the Abbey Theatre of Dublin, the Manchester Players in England and Théâtre Libre in Paris. Local critics, like Walter D. Hickman of the Indianapolis Times, applauded the company’s brave undertaking immediately: “Last night at the Masonic Temple, an Indianapolis audience witnessed for the first time a local presentation of The Emperor Jones. No legitimate theatre in Indianapolis would ever think of presenting this play…the title role was played by a local negro educator, Mr. Arthur T. Long…Mr. Long dominated every scene last night and gave to the role the great beauty of expressive inflection which the part demands. I forgot that a local man was playing the role and I surrendered myself to the grim tragedy which was unfolded on the Masonic stage. A grim tragedy told in a volcanic way.”
300px-Poster-The-Emperor-Jones-Marionettes-1937W. F. McDermott, drama editor of the Indianapolis News, wrote this about Long: “a colored actor, played the role of the emperor with several moments of great naturalness. He was able to portray the negro fear of “ha’nts” with unusual power.” But McDermott was less kind to the playwrite, “O’Neill writes darkly of brooding, inscrutable fate; of black and stormbound heights, of man, stripped savage and terrified; of man tragically at odds with his environment and foredoomed.”
However, it was the local black owned press that was perhaps hardest on the production, routinely denouncing O’Neill’s work for its stereotypes in the form of the backwards (certainly by today’s standard) dialog. Although groundbreaking when viewed within the context of the time, today, O’Neill’s so called “Negro plays” are seldom performed nowadays because of their perceived negative stereotypes. Much the same as Mark Twain’s historic works have been routinely revised and censured by modern day pundits. In truth, racial issues were never O’Neill’s focus. His aim was the human soul in its tragic destiny. His ultimate goal was to provide opportunities in mainstream theatre for talented black actors. Eugene O’Neill was the son of James O’Neill, an actor whose “Romeo” character was described as the best ever, making him one of the countries first matinee idols. O’Neill was determined to revolutionize what he called the “hateful theater of my father, in whose atmosphere I had been brought up.”
z the-emperor-jones-b2skuw13.znxPerhaps the most unusual feature of the Indianapolis production was the choice of the lead actor chosen to portray Brutus Jones. Arthur Theodore Long was born on December 31, 1884, the son of Henry and Nattie (Buckner) Long in Morrillton, Arkansas. According to the 6th edition of “Who’s Who in Colored America (1941-1944)”, Long graduated from Sumner High School in St. Louis, Missouri in 1904. He entered the University of Illinois at age twenty and earned a BA degree in 1908. Arthur then went on to further his education at both Indiana and Butler universities. He then studied at the University of Chicago, presumably in pursuit of his master’s degree. Long earned teaching credentials in history, civics, English, music and mathematics.
In 1909 Long was hired to teach at I.P.S. 26 (one of the “colored schools”) in Indianapolis. There he served as assistant principal (1910 to 1915) and as principal (1915 to 1923). Long served as principal at a high school in Crawfordsville and later as a supervisor for principals in Indiana. Long then took a similar position at Lincoln School in Trenton, New Jersey, where he served for a decade. Wherever he went, Arthur T. Long promoted the arts (dance, music, and drama) and was described by people who knew him as a “tall, light skinned serious minded disciplinarian who liked to play the piano for the students in the mornings.” In good weather, he often lit up the school playground at night to stage impromptu school productions featuring black heroes like Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washington and Benjamin Banneker. Long left his position in Trenton in November of 1933, just two months before his fiftieth birthday and was never heard from again.

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Playwrite Eugene O’Neill

What became of O’Neill’s social masterpiece, “The Emperor Jones?” Although it struck the theatre world like an electric shock nearly a century ago, it is relatively forgotten today. Personally, I believe it to be as socially relevant today as it was when it made its debut back in 1920, regardless of color. The story could easily serve as a parable for many of the problems facing every facet of today’s society. O’Neill’s Brutus Jones is a desperate man facing a hopeless situation who is thrust into an opportunity he sees as his only chance at survival. He arrives on an isolated island and is immediately elevated to a position of authority and power by the island’s uninformed, superstitious inhabitants. In time, he abuses his position, becomes careless and is punished (in this case killed) by his “subjects” who have caught on to his game.
Is this not unlike today’s ninety-day wonders: rookie corner drug dealers who operate freely and undetected for brief periods of time with more money than they can spend and more friends than they can count before law enforcement catches up to them? Or perhaps a modern day investment banker or securities trader spending the money of trusted friends and clients for his own whims before he is discovered and prosecuted? Both of these examples speak their own language and justify their own actions in the same coarse way as Eugene O’Neill’s Brutus Jones did all those years ago. Although you can easily look up “The Emperor Jones” on the web and decide for yourself, its unlikely that you’ll be seeing it on Broadway anytime soon. But, like me, you can take pride in the fact that nearly a century ago, a brave little theatre troupe in Indianapolis had the guts to stage the saga on St. Patty’s Day eve when other, allegedly more “Cosmopolitan” cities wouldn’t touch it.

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

The first Irvington Halloween Festival and the law.

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Original 1946 Irvington Halloween Festival Ticket.

Original publish date:  October 16 2011

Next week, once again, Irvington will celebrate “All Hallows Eve” better than anyplace else in the Hoosier state by hosting the 65th annual Halloween Festival. Trick-or-treating, window painting, house decorating, and a costume parade down the middle of Washington Street are all cherished traditions eagerly anticipated by the participants involved. But what about that first Halloween festival back in 1946? What was that like? And most importantly, were Irvingtonians breaking the law by hosting it?
Disney Trick or treatWe’ve all heard the stories, legends and rumors surrounding that now legendary first event. It was sponsored by the Walt Disney company featuring costumed characters with a Disney based theme. The Disney folks gave away potentially priceless hand painted film production cels right here on the streets of old Irvington town. Walt Disney himself was seen walking down Audubon with Mickey Mouse at his side. It’s hard to separate fact from fiction nowadays.
However, a good place to start would be the history books. What was going on in the world back in October of 1946? Mensa was founded in Great Britain and the United Nations held its first meeting on Long Island. World War II ended a year before, yet the Nuremberg War trials concluded with the execution of ten German war criminals just two weeks before the festival. Among the adolescent ghosts and goblins wandering the streets of Irvington 65 years ago was a spectral leftover from the second world war looming menacingly over the costumed treat seekers. The specter of Sugar rationing. Really? Sugar rationing on Halloween?
When the empire of Japan conquered the Philippine Islands in the early months of 1942 the United States lost a major source of it’s national sugar imports. Sugar shipments from Hawaii had already been curtailed by fifty percent when cargo vessels typically used for transporting sugar from the islands to the mainland were diverted for use by the military. Seemingly overnight, U.S. sugar supply fell by more than one-third. To ensure adequate supplies for manufacturers, the military, and civilians, sugar became the first food item to be rationed during the war. Manufacturers’ supplies were reduced to 80 percent of pre-war levels and that percentage was further reduced over time.
On April 27, 1942, Irvington families registered for ration books at the local elementary schools. One book was issued for each family member. To prove they were serious about wartime rationing, the US Government required that these books were to be surrendered upon death of the recipient. In a drastic move that harkens back to FDR’s closure of the banks and financial institutions during the Great Depression, the sale of sugar was halted for one week to prepare for the program. During that sugarless week, to discourage hoarding, each family was required to report how much sugar they had on hand and a corresponding number of stamps were removed from the ration book.
z WWII OPA Rationing BookletA week later on May 5, 1942, every United States citizen received their much anticipated “War Ration Book Number One”, good for a 56-week supply of sugar. Initially, each stamp was good for one pound of sugar and could be redeemed over a specified two-week period. Later on, as other items such as coffee and shoes were rationed, each stamp became good for two pounds of sugar over a four-week period. The ration book bore the recipient’s name and could only be used by household members. Stamps had to be torn off in the presence of the grocer. If the book was lost, stolen, or destroyed, an application had to be submitted to the Ration Board for a new copy. If the ration book holder entered the hospital for greater than a 10-day stay, the ration book had to be brought along with them. Talk about your red tape!

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World War II War Sugar Ration Stamp.

Housewives learned to be creative, using saccharine, corn syrup, and even packets of Jell-O as sugar substitutes. Sugar beets became a staple of nearly every American dinner table. Women’s magazines featured recipes with reduced sugar or creative ingredient substitutes. “Victory Gardens” sprung up all over the cities and home canning was strongly encouraged during the war. However, canning requires sugar and to provide for this patriotic need, each person could apply for a one time only 25-pound allotment of lower grade canning sugar each year. Each local war ration board determined the quantity and season of availability based on the local harvest. A special canning sugar stamp was issued and included in the ration book. This special “spare canning sugar stamp 37” had to be attached to the government application. Problem was, that they looked exactly like the household sugar stamp and confusion reigned as many people mistakenly used the regular sugar stamp 37 in it’s place, invalidating it for normal household purchases. Did I mention the red tape?
z photo-1127-2013-conserve-sugar-posterTo make matters worse, just because you had a sugar stamp didn’t mean sugar was available for purchase. Shortages occurred often throughout the war, and in early 1945 sugar became nearly impossible to find in any quantity. As Europe was liberated from the grip of Nazi Germany, the United States took on the main responsibility for providing food to those war ravaged countries. On May 1, 1945, the sugar ration for American families was slashed to 15 pounds per year for household use and 15 pounds per year for canning – roughly eight ounces per week per household. Sugar supplies remained scarce and, just as sugar had the distinction of being the first product rationed at the start of the war, sugar was the last product to be rationed after the war. Sugar rationing continued until June of 1947, over six months after the first Irvington Halloween festival in October of 1946.
So, knowing this, can it be said that every sugary sweet handed out to euphoric trick-or-treaters in Irvington during that first festival was a violation of Federal law? Technically yes, but in reality, it might best be compared to ripping the tag off of your mattress today. Never fear, Irvington is not Australia and you are not descended from a colony of law breakers and felons. By the time of that first Irvington Halloween Festival, war time rationing was on the wane and most Americans were eager to celebrate after a long, hard fought war, too enraptured with the outcome, and their personal survival, to care much about wartime shortages. As evidence, one need look no further than the baby boomer generation, a direct bi-product of that euphoria.
z Halloween Festival (2)An argument can be made that it was events like the First Irvington Halloween Festival that kicked off the tradition of trick-or-treating as we know it today. Although the Halloween holiday was certainly well known in America before that first Irvington celebration, it was predominantly a holiday for adult costume parties and a chance to cut loose with friends playing party games while consuming hard cider. Early national attention to trick-or-treating in popular culture really began a year later in October of 1947. That’s when the custom of passing out the playful “candy bribes” began to appear in issues of children’s magazines like Jack and Jill and Children’s Activities, and in Halloween episodes of network radio programs like The Baby Snooks Show, The Jack Benny Show and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Trick-or-treating was first depicted in a Peanuts comic strip in 1951, perhaps the image most identified with the children’s holiday in the hearts and minds of baby boomers today. The custom had become firmly established in popular culture by 1952, when Walt Disney debuted his Donald Duck movie “Trick or Treat”, and again when Ozzie and Harriet were besieged by trick-or-treaters on an episode of their popular television show. In 1953, less than a decade after that first festival in Irvington, the tradition of Halloween as a children’s holiday was fully accepted when UNICEF conducted it’s first national children’s charity fund raising campaign centered around trick-or-treaters.
z s-l640Most of this column’s readers are aware that part of my passion for history revolves around collecting, cataloging, displaying and observing antiques and collectibles. There exists in the collecting world a strong group of enthusiasts devoted to the pursuit and preservation of Halloween memorabilia of all types. Costumes, decorations, photographs, publications and postcards in particular. The origins of Halloween as we now know it might best be traced in the postcards issued to celebrate the tradition. The thousands of Halloween postcards produced between the turn of the 20th century and the 1920s commonly show costumed children, but do not depict trick-or-treating. It is believed that the pranks associated with early Halloween were perpetrated by unattended children left to their own devices while their parents caroused and partied without them. Some have characterized Halloween trick-or-treating as an adult invention to curtail vandalism previously associated with the holiday. Halloween was not widely accepted and many adults, as reported in newspapers from the 1930s and 1940s, typically saw it as a form of extortion, with reactions ranging from bemused indulgence to anger. Sometimes, even the children protested. As late as Halloween of 1948, members of the Madison Square Boys Club in New York City carried a parade banner that read “American Boys Don’t Beg.” Times have certainly changed since that first Halloween festival 65 years ago.
z 58bdce96102ac.imageA 2005 study by the National Confectioners Association reported that 80 percent of American households gave out candy to trick-or-treaters, and that 93 percent of children, teenagers, and young adults planned to either venture out trick-or-treating or to participate in other Halloween associated activities. In 2008, Halloween candy, costumes and other related products accounted for $5.77 billion in revenue. An estimated $2 billion worth of candy will be passed out during this Halloween season and one study claims that “an average Jack-O-Lantern bucket carries about 250 pieces of candy amounting to about 9,000 calories and containing three pounds of sugar.” Yes, 65-years ago, Halloween looked quite different than it does today. Next week, doorbells all over Irvington will ring, doors will be opened and wide-eyed gaggles of eager children will unanimously cry out “Trick-or-Treat” from Oak Avenue to Pleasant Run Parkway.
z halloween festivalCostumed kids will be rewarded for their efforts with all sorts of tribute in the form of coins, nuts, popcorn balls, fruit, cookies, cakes, and toys. As a casual observer born long after that first Irvington Halloween Festival and an active participant in the festivities that will begin next week, I’m glad that our Irvington forefathers skirted government regulations all those years ago. In fact, as a fan of all things Irvington, I’d go so far as to say that this community has played a big part in the Halloween holiday as we know it today. Because, grammar notwithstanding, nobody does Halloween like Irvington do.

 

Pop Culture

Electricity on the honor system.

Calendar

Original publish date:  April 9, 2012

An interesting item caught my eye while strolling through an antique show a couple of weekends ago. When I first saw it, I thought it was a school notebook, not unlike we all used back in the day. It is a colorful Red-White & Blue item with an image of a couple of men, one dressed in overalls, carrying an American G.I. soldier proudly on their shoulders. It has a large “V for Victory” symbol done in a stars & stripes pattern and is called a “1944 Victory Meter Reading Calendar” with the patriotic slogan “There’s a Great Day Coming. We must speed it up!! Let’s pull together and save manpower.” on front. Needless to say, I was intrigued. As I flipped through the calendar pages inside, I noticed that at the bottom of each monthly page, there was a stamped postcard attached to the bottom of each page. Each postcard is pre-addressed to the “Utilities District of Western Indiana Rural Electric Membership Corporation” of Bloomfield, Indiana and each is titled “Meter reading Post Card”.

z map_of_bloomfield_greene_inMy first thought, where the heck is Bloomfield, Indiana? Well, if you didn’t know, it is a small town of some 2,400 people located in Greene County not far from, and currently considered a part of, Bloomington. Its best known for having one of the most well preserved covered bridges in the state and for its long association with the Native American Indian tribes including the Miami, Kickapoo, Piankeshaw, and Wesa tribes. That settled, I was on to the next question. What is this thing? I’m guessing some of you already know the answer, but it was unknown to me. It is a book, distributed by the electric company to their wartime, homefront customers to read their own meters and pay the fees associated with usage based on the honor system. That’s right, the honor system. With the electric company. An Oxymoron if you ever heard one right?

z original-vintage-honor-system-lock_1_9600e42eb8c4cb9c026a128a1030ab61The customer would record the electricity their household used, pay the bill, and the electric company trusted them. Seriously? The electric company…trust you? Could that be possible? Can you imagine such a system? I gotta tell ya, when I see things like this I’m convinced that I was born in the wrong era. I must admit, I’m one of those people that believes that the World War II Generation was truly our greatest. Life was simpler, people were nicer, and businesses were staffed by friends and neighbors who were really rooting for our success. Whenever I see things like this I realize that back then, everyone pulled together to do their part. All for one and one for all. Corny, but true. I didn’t realize that this little booklet was a first generation relic of the rural electrification movement that began in 1935 as part of an effort to bring electricity, telephone and indoor plumbing to the rural communities all over the state. Something we take for granted today.

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Willie Wiredhand.

Sure, I’d seen the signs for the Rural Electric Movement, or REMC, in small rural communities all my life. These colorful signs stuck out in my mind probably because of the cartoon mascot they used called Willie Wiredhand. Remember him?  I always looked at Willie as the country cousin of that city-slicker Reddy Kilowatt. Willie had a light socket head, push button nose, and on old fashioned electrical plug as his lower torso. (In Latin America they call him “Electro Pepe.” ain’t that fun?) Turns out he was “born” on Halloween of 1950, created by Drew McLay, an entomologist turned artist who worked for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) a program of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Depression Era New Deal. Turns out, I was right about that “highfalutin” Reddy Kilowatt lightning bolt guy (created in 1926). His creator, Ashton B. Collins, felt that these FDR programs, in particular co-ops, were socialistic in nature because they borrowed money from the federal government, so he refused to let the NRECA use his “Reddy” character.

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Reddy Kilowatt

Go figure. Reddy’s creators actually sued Willie’s creators for copyright infringement but lost. That explains a lot. Turns out that rural electricity co-ops were owned by the customers who paid the bills, which surely peeved off the larger electric companies to no end. Surely Reddy’s cronies would NEVER allow their customers to use the honor system to pay their bills, war or no war. The Victory calendar pages are full of helpful tips for their rural farmer customers on every page with slogans like: “Use your electric chick brooders for Victory… Keep your milking machine clean and in top-notch working order… Be Wise-Be Patriotic-Make your electric equipment last for the duration” with talk about “Victory Gardens” and “Collecting Eggs for Victory.”  Oh, by the way, electricity was two cents an hour back then.  Yes, I was enraptured with this 1944 homefront relic, imagining the honesty and trust that must have proliferated the Era. Then I noticed, May, June, July and August’s coupon postcards were still intact and had never sent in. Surely, that was because they didn’t have air conditioning back then…right? Yeah, that had to be the reason.

Indianapolis, Pop Culture

Sky Dancers Betty and Benny Fox.

Betty & Benny Fox
Sky Dancers Betty and Benny Fox. in Indianapolis.

Original publish date:   July 23, 2012

Recently, I was sorting through an old box of paper purchased at an antique show in Indianapolis some time ago. I ran across an interesting little leaflet from the 1940s World War II Era that piqued my interest. The flyer pictured a pretty young blonde haired woman in the foreground surrounded by 3 images of a dapper looking man. It reads, “Help win the War. Buy War Bonds and Stamps. The Sky Dancers Betty and Benny Fox. Best wishes to our dear friends. Betty and Benny.”
I have an abiding affection for wartime homefront items and often find myself lamenting that I was born too late. As I looked closer at the brochure, I noticed that there seemed to be an image of the duo standing atop the Indiana Soldiers and Sailors Monument “ghosted” into the background. Naturally, my curiosity shifted into overdrive and I had to know what this all meant.

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Nik Wallenda over Niagara Falls.

As I pondered the significance of this little piece of paper, a news report fluttered across my TV screen about a dispute between the City of Niagara Falls, N.Y. and tightrope walker Nik Wallenda. It seems that Nik Wallenda promised the city that his recent tightrope walk across Niagara Falls would bring much needed publicity and generate untold millions to this struggling community in upstate New York. Wallenda’s June 15 crossing went off without a hitch physically, but the city is now looking to the daredevil to pay about $25,000 in unpaid overtime bills for police officers and firefighters.
As I looked away from the television to the flyer in my hands, it suddenly hit me like the cold light of dawn, Betty and Benny Fox were barnstorming daredevils! This flyer must have been created for a visit to Indianapolis and a planned stunt involving our cities most identifiable landmark. I did a quick internet search but could find no record of the duo ever coming to Indianapolis. However my suspicions were confirmed when it was revealed that Betty and Benny were in fact high wire aerial artists.
Sky Dancers Betty and Benny Fox.

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Sky Dancers Betty and Benny Fox.

Benny and Betty Fox, the famous death defying sky dancers pictured on the flyer, were billed as a brother and sister act but they were not related. And Betty was not always the same person nor was she actually named Betty. Benny chose the name for his partner because he liked the sound of it. (That explains why Betty is pictured only once and Benny is pictured three times.) Whoever she was, she was willing to put her life in Benny’s hands while they danced on an 18-inch wide disc affixed to the top of a pole extending 100 feet up in the air.
Contemporary newspaper articles claimed that Benny had been born into a circus family, known as the “Flying Foxes”, near Berlin, Germany. Another article from the 1950s stated that Benny was part of an international circus family, either of Lithuanian or Polish, and lived with his family in Flushing, N.Y. According to that article, “For a time it was feared, because of Benny’s small stature, that he would not be able to carry on for the “Flying Foxes,” but Benny’s father, who was old school, said “I will build him in body, mind and strength.” And that he did.

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Benny and Benny Fox pose for a photo, October 6, 1937.

A little research reveals that the Betty from the brochure was the very first one; Nano Clifford, Benny’s wife, who quit the act in 1945 to raise their children. No wonder, she must have been exhausted after a 22-month tour in World War II performing for troops at 187 hospitals in Europe. The next Betty’s real name was Clara, who worked with Benny for a few years until she gained weight, (Benny claimed anything over 120 pounds was too heavy for skydancing), she was replaced by yet another Betty, whose real name was Alice. Undoubtedly, there were many other Betty’s because Benny performed well into the 1970s. But those “Betty’s” are lost to history.
The duo’s most documented performance took place 3 hours to the west of our city in Springfield, Illinois. On October 6, 1937, they did six performances throughout the day from the roof of a building at 313 S. Sixth Street. The last performance at 8 p.m. was lit by four powerful floodlights. It seems that the couple were hired by the Illinois State Journal newspaper and the perch upon which they performed was atop the Journal building itself. The stunt was arranged and staged by the paper in hopes of boosting lagging circulation numbers. The act proved so successful that the daredevil duo was asked back to the land of Lincoln in 1946.
The newspaper reported that the streets below the Journal building were packed shoulder-to-shoulder with anxious spectators watching the duo as they danced, whirled, stood on their hands, and performed acrobatics that evening. “Streets, windows, roofs and fire escapes all through the downtown area were jammed for the night show.” The Journal estimated the crowd at 100,000, but that figure seems improbable at best.
The crowd stared in disbelief when the aerial artists pulled off their “death whirl,” which had Betty face down with her legs clasped around Benny’s waist while he swirled her “around and around” on the small disc. The crowd cheered with approval as the couple danced the Charleston & the Lindy Hop atop their beach ball sized disc 100 feet off the ground with no fear. According to the Journal, “the blindfolded waltz, fast fox trots and Charlestons at the afternoon shows drew a great round of applause, but that became a mere whisper in comparison to the ovation which greeted them at the conclusion of the death whirl.”

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Sky Dancers Betty and Benny Fox.

Benny’s loudest cheers came when he stood upside down on his hands for 30 seconds. The couple’s most daring stunt involved Betty, supported by Benny, bending over the edge of the platform backwards to pick up a handkerchief 3 feet below the 18-inch disc. The act concluded with Benny calling down to the crowd that Betty had fainted. The drama built at a frenzied pace until Betty was revived and waved to the anxious crowds below.
During pre-publicity for the event, the newspaper ramped up the drama by explaining that a physician and two nurses would be on the roof of the building during all performances should the couple miss a step in their dangerous setup. “An ambulance will wait at the curb to rush them to the hospital if Death fails to take his expected holiday.”
Apparently, although I had never heard of them before picking up this flyer, Betty and Benny Fox were the bomb back in the day. They toured Europe pretty extensively during the War and the other cities besides Lincoln’s hometown that I could find reports of their shows include: the Westin Hotel in Detroit, the Morning Call Newspaper building in Allentown, Pa., the Sheraton Hotel in Chicago and The Mint Hotel in Las Vegas. However, despite the flyer, I can’t find a record of the daredevil duo ever passing through our fair city.
It seems that, as the Great Depression dragged on, Betty and Benny Fox were just one of many traveling sideshow acts whose outlandish feats of stamina, spectacular stunts and bizarre competitions were popular entertainment. As dance marathons and flagpole sitting became passé, slowly fading from the headlines, and as the Roaring Twenties came to a crashing end, Betty and Benny skipped from town-to-town to entertain the saddened masses, starved for free entertainment.

Nik Wallenda
Nik Wallenda waves to tourists in Niagara Falls, N.Y., May 2, 2012. 

Which brings us back to Mr. Wallenda, a seventh-generation circus performer, and the claim that he owes money to the city that he promised his high-wire act would help revitalize. City officials say Mr. Wallenda’s team took advantage of their hospitality. Mr. Wallenda says he was stabbed in the back. Mr. Wallenda’s 1,800-foot crossing transfixed a national television audience and generated a wave of publicity that the falls had not experienced in decades. It seemed like a particular coup for the economically depressed American side of the falls, creating an instant hero and a point of pride for a city that has lost more than half its population in the last half century. Now the City of Niagara Falls is not so sure. Mr. Wallenda, for his part, said he had been hoping to open a Wallenda-themed exhibition (perhaps someday a full-scale museum) in Niagara Falls, N.Y. But he suggested he might have to rethink the location. I wonder what Betty and Benny Fox would think?

Homosexuality, Pop Culture, Television

Harlow Hickenlooper: The end of an era in Indianapolis kid’s television history.

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Harlow Hickenlooper-Curley Myers & Cap’n Star promotional cards given away at public appearances by Indianapolis Channel 6 station back in the 1960s.

Original publish date:  May 9, 2017

Last week, it happened. Hal Fryar died. Hal, better known to generations of Hoosiers as Harlow Hickenlooper, made it to his 90th birthday on June 8th but died peacefully in his sleep a couple weeks later on June 25th. I would like to thank all of you who sent birthday cards to Hal down in Florida. His son Gary informs me that they were the highlight of the party and Hal appreciated each and every one of them. WISH-TV Channel 8 reporter Dick Wolfsie contacted me about filming a tribute to Hal for his July 1st show and I was honored to do it for Hal.
Wolfsie had a long history with Hal and his interview segment filmed back in 2008 remains a classic. Hal’s alter ego Harlow was known as an affable schlemiel whose just compensation was always a pie in the face. Not only did Dick share space with Hal in the TV broadcasting fraternity, Mr. Wolfsie also shares membership with Hal in the pie-in-the-face fraternity. (Okay, there is no such thing but there should be.) Dick Wolfsie was once “pie’d in the face” by non other then the king of the genre, Soupy Sales himself back in 1998.

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Dick Wolfsie and Alan E. Hunter at WISH-TV Channel 8.

Dick felt a proper way to honor his pal Hal was to take a pie in the face himself. That show, which you can find on the WISH-TV website under the Dick Wolfsie / Hal Fryar segment name, went off without a hitch and was a suitable tribute to Hal Fryar. I had the honor of “Pie-ing” Dick in the face just as Hal Fryar himself had showed me at the Irving Theatre so many years ago. As for Mr. Wolfsie, he was such a trooper that he actually took TWO pies in the face. Now that is dedication.

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Dick Wolfsie of WISH-TV Channel 8.

As fate would have it, a few days before appearing on Dick Wolfsie’s segments I attended an antique show and ran across a photo of Hal and his co-stars Curley Myers and Cap’n Star (Jerry Vance, a.k.a. Larry Vincent). These photos, which were actually giveaways from WFBM TV Channel 6 back in the early 1960s, brought back memories. Having grown up in Indy around that time, I clearly remember getting things like this whenever and wherever the TV stars would show up for promos. Store, bank and restaurant openings, live shows and taped segments; the stars would hand these out to their young fans as souvenirs. I found the timing of the card’s discovery ironic because they came into my world just after Hal’s 90th birthday and the day before I had found out he had passed. Life is funny that way.

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Hal Fryar aka Harlow Hickenlooper 1960s Channel 6 TV fan club card.

I realized that I had written several article on Hal Fryar but had never touched on the lives of his cohorts. By now, you know that Hal rose to prominence as Harlow Hickenlooper, the host of The Three Stooges Show on Channel 6 in Indianapolis from 1960 to 1972. Together, Hal, Curley and Cap’n Star sang songs and performed skits for a live studio audience of children. Fryar also hosted several other children’s shows over 43 years in local television. In 1965, Fryar was cast in the Three Stooges movie, The Outlaws Is Coming, playing the part of Johnny Ringo. On October 2, 2008, Fryar was inducted into the Indiana Broadcast Pioneers Hall of Fame. But what became of his costars?

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Curley Myers & Harlow Hickenlooper 1960s Channel 6 TV fan club card,

Gerald L. “Curley” Myers, known by fans as “your ole buckaroo buddy”, was born April 1, 1920 twelve miles east of Lebanon, Indiana. Curley grew up on a farm in Clinton County and attended grade school in Forest and Frankfort, Indiana. From the age of eight he was in love with music and played his bass violin in the school orchestra, at church and fiddled at neighborhood hoedowns on the weekends. He graduated from Frankfort High School in 1938. Somewhere along the way, Curley took up the banjo and guitar, which opened the door to a successful career in show business.
Curley’s list of bands reads like a page out of country music history: Woodside Harmonica Band (19334-36), The Hoosier Ramblers (1936-38)s, the Semi Solid Ramblers (1938-39), Cap’n Stubby and the Buccaneers (1939-45) and the Shady Acres Ranch Cowboys (1949-57). Curley’s Cap’n Stubby years were spent at WLW in Cincinnati performing on the same slate as Doris Day, The Williams Brothers with Andy Williams, Merle Travis, The Girls of the Golden West, Lulu Belle and Scotty, Bradley Kincaid and the Delmore Brothers to name a few.
IMG_6503Early in 1955 WFBM channel 6 began airing the Indiana Hoedown, starring entertainers who had been on WLW in Cincinnati. In addition to working the Hoedown, Curley had Curley’s Cowboy Theater for seven or eight years, then did a Saturday morning kids show with Cap’n Star and Harlow Hickenlooper. Altogether, Curley spent over 15 years there as the “Saturday Morning Cowboy”. In May, 1972 the TV station was sold and the new owners planned a change of programming formats and personalities.
This led to a kind of semi-retirement from the music business for Curley Myers. He went to work for the Culligan Water Conditioning company but continued entertaining on nights and weekends at state fairs, parties and a long standing gig performing Wednesday through Saturday nights at the Best Western. Curley spent well over 60 years pickin’, singin’ and grinnin’ all ovr the midwest. Curley and Hal remained close until Curley’s death on May 19, 2013 at a Retirement home in Mulberry, Indiana.

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Harlow Hickenlooper-Curley Myers & Cap’n Star promotional card given away at public appearances by Indianapolis Channel 6 station back in the 1960s.

Larry Vincent (aka Larry Vance) was born Larry Francis Fitzgerald Vincent on June 14, 1924 in Boston, Massachusetts. Not much is known about Vincent’s early life. He first surfaces in the 1940s as an understudy to Kirk Douglas in the Broadway play “Alice in Arms.” The play ran for only 5 performances at the National Theatre in New York City, but is notable for being Kirk Douglas’ Broadway debut. Vincent teamed up with Don McArt to form a stand-up comedy act that performed in nightclubs all over New York City. Anderson Indiana native Donald Craig McArt had previously appeared in the Walt Disney films “Son of Flubber” and the “Absent Minded Professor.”

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Larry Vincent aka Cap’n Star promotional card given away at public appearances by Indianapolis Channel 6 station back in the 1960s.

Vincent landed in the Circle City in the early 1960s where he created his “Cap’n Star” character for WFBM in Indianapolis. Cap’n Star appeared alongside Harlow and Curley for children’s programming which showcased old Three Stooges shorts. Along with his pet monkey “Davy Jones”, Cap’n Star sang songs and performed skits on the show. Vincent lived in a house at 41st and Graham Avenue on the east side. Local children remember Vincent as a kind neighbor who always had time for kids, often letting them wear his sailor’s cap from the show and play with the show’s mascot monkey Davy Jones.
In 1968 he left Indianapolis to become staff director for KHJ-TV in Los Angeles. From 1969 to 1974 Vincent was the host for a Sammy Terry style Friday night horror show program known as “Fright Night” on KHJ-TV and later Seymour’s Monster Rally on KTLA TV. Vincent’s Seymour horror host presented—and heckled—low-budget horror and science fiction movies on both local Los Angeles stations. He is remembered for his style of criticizing the movies he presented in an offbeat and funny manner, usually appearing in a small window which would pop up in the corner, tossing a quip, then vanishing again. Sometimes he would, using blue-screen, appear in the middle of the movie, apparently interacting with the characters in the movie.

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Larry Vincent aka Cap’n Star promotional card given away at public appearances by Indianapolis Channel 6 station back in the 1960s.

Along with appearing in several episodes of The New Three Stooges during his Indianapolis years, Vincent also had small roles on Get Smart, Mission: Impossible, Mannix, The Flying Nun, and I Dream of Jeannie. Larry Vincent served as Knott’s Berry Farm’s inaugural “Ghost Host,” in 1973 at Knott’s Scary Farm Halloween Haunt. Vincent aka Seymour’s last show came in 1974. Traditionally, Seymour ended the show by saying, “I’d like to thank you… I’d like to, but it’s not my style! Bad Evening!” But on his final telecast, Seymour eschewed his familiar goodbye and said nothing. He merely waved as the stagehands disassembled the set behind him. Mr. Vincent quickly succumbed to stomach cancer and died less than a year later on March 9, 1975. Several years later, Elvira took over Larry’s place as horror-film hostess on Fright Night, which later morphed into her own series, “Elvira’s Movie Macabre.” And the rest, as they say, is history.
Although these men and their genre has left the local TV scene, their legacy is recalled fondly by baby-boomers all over the country. They don’t make men like Harlow, Curley and Cap’n Star anymore. Like Janie Hodge and Bob Glaze (Cowboy Bob) these people were integral parts of Indianapolis schoolkids. They entertained and informed us all by filling the hours after school until our parents came home. Corny, yes, old fashioned, sure but they were our TV friends, We could always count on them to make us feel like they were all talking directly to us, Hal Fryar was really the first of his kind and his reach was a long one. He will be missed.

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Hal Fryar aka Harlow Hickenlooper promotional card given away at public appearances by Indianapolis Channel 6 station back in the 1960s.
Music, Pop Culture

Help me Rhonda. The real story.

Help me Rhonda

Original publish date:  February 20, 2015

This week marks the 50th anniversary of a song that is considered by many to be a rock ‘n roll classic, by others as an an ear-worm impossible to forget and to me an anthem to my lovely wife. On February 24, 1965, the Beach Boys recorded “Help Me, Rhonda”. The song, written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love, peaked at number one on May 29, 1965, knocking the Beatles “Ticket to Ride” from the top spot before being displaced by the Supremes “Back in my arms again” two weeks later. It was the band’s second # 1 single after “I Get Around” in 1964. The song became part of the “Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!)” album in June 1965.
It tells the story of how a boy fell for a girl who dropped him for another guy and the boy begs his friend Rhonda to help him forget about her. Got it? Brian Wilson has always stated that Rhonda was not based on anyone in real life. Simple, right? Not so much. There is a long and twisted back story to the song, the recording session and the Wilson family dynamic that goes a long way towards explaining why Brian Wilson eventually became such a tortured soul. Oh, by the way, the song features Glen Campbell on guitar and Leon Russell on piano. And you thought “Help me Rhonda” was just a cute and catchy little tune, didn’t you?
The first version was recorded in two sessions at United Western Recorders Studio in Hollywood on January 8 and 19, 1965. The song was originally titled “Help me Ronda” and it was the first single to feature Al Jardine (the band’s only non-Wilson) on lead vocals. Curiously enough, it begins with a brief ukelele intro. This first version became legendary for what happened in the studio rather than what happened on the track itself.

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Murry Wilson and the Beach Boys.

Well into that first session, a drunken Murry Wilson (Brian, Carl and Dennis’ Dad and Mike Love’s Uncle) arrives and proceeds to take over the session with an odd, but very caustic mix of psychodrama, scat singing and abusive melodrama. Murry’s drunken rants and criticisms drove the normally placid Brian to the breaking point. The recording reel continued to run, capturing the legendary confrontation in its entirety. Today the alcohol fueled spat circulates among fans as a classic bootleg recording.
In the studio, Brian screamed expletives, removed his headphones, and confronted his father. On the tape, Murry wanted to stop the recording but Brian insisted on keeping the tape rolling. For Beach Boys fans, it’s a good thing that Brian won out, because this audio verifies many of the Murry Wilson horror stories and portrays Brian in a very sympathetic light. Perhaps contrary to the image attached to Brian over the past 25 years, in these 1965 tapes, 22-year-old Brian Wilson sounds mature, patient and sane compared to his alcoholic, abusive stage father.
The entire 39-minute tape can be found on many sites on the net. It is well worth googling for both historical and entertainment value. I say entertainment because Murry Wilson, father of three of the most talented musician brothers this country has ever produced, comes across as a caricature. The first several minutes of this session are spent trying to get the correct vocal balance on the microphones. Brian is in control of the crowded studio, including a gaggle of onlookers and hangers-on, mostly friends of the band, but it must be remembered that Charles Manson and his family were once included among this entourage.
z 135580_209736452491521_934836408_oThe banter among the bandmates and “Wrecking Crew” studio musicians is typical witty chatter with hints of the Era in which the recording was made scattered thourhgout. Mike Love saying “I got Vietnam-itus in here.” Al Jardine replying with a giggle: “I was just thinking of that, you know that?” Mike: “What?” Al: “Vietnam…for some reason, I don’t know why…” and Brian yelling from the booth: “Get in the front of the mic, Carl!”
Mike and Al shift their conversation from Vietnam to the Cold War, namely Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles…Mike: “their ICBMs…all aimed at the Capitol (Records)Tower…” Carl (reading the manufacturer’s emblem on the Telefunken microphone): “Made in Western Germany…” Al: “Oh, my God!” Dennis (to his brother Carl): “You got the biggest butt in the world….” Carl: “Well, it’s big, but…” Brian says “Here we go!” Shortly, afterwards, Murry stumbles into the studio and attempts to take control of the song.
Murry chastises Brian repeatedly for not singing from the heart and repeatedly tells “the boys” to “sync-o-pate, sync-op-ate, sync-o-pate.” Brian bristles at the instructions and asks his father several times to leave. On the tape, Brian briefly berates Murry by reminding him that he is deaf in one ear as a result of one of Murry’s blows to his head (allegedly with a 2×4). When Murry continues to berate the young men for letting fame go to their heads while drunkenly professing his love for all of them, Brian begins to respond by repeating the phrase, “Times are changing.” Towards the end of the argument, Murry utters the line that summed up his entire relationship with the band when he slurred at his son, “Brian, I’m a Genius, Too” at the 30:55 mark of the recording.
z 9403721_origAt this point, Murry departs with the boy’s mother Audree in tow and the Beach Boys continued on with the session. Emotionally devastated by the evening’s drama, the Boys called it a night, returning the next day to redo the vocals. Brian would have the last laugh in this battle by sneaking the song “I’m Bugged At My Ol’ Man” onto the album at the last minute. It would be another three years before Murry again attended a Beach Boys recording session. Legend claims that from that point on, the band purchased a fake audio console for their sessions, so Murry could twiddle knobs on the fake mixing board to his heart’s delight without destroying anything.
Murry so destroyed this recording session that The Beach Boys re-recorded the entire song at Universal and Radio Recorders studios in Hollywood on February 24, 1965. They also changed the song’s name from Ronda to Rhonda, perhaps to erase all connection to that nightmare session six weeks previous. It is this second version that became the hit single we are all so familiar with. After reaching # 1 in the U.S., the song became a staple of the band’s live set. In what must have been a surreal footnote in American music history, The Beach Boys performed the song with the Grateful Dead on April 27, 1971 at the Fillmore East in New York City. The Beach Boys sang vocals while Jerry Garcia backed them. It was a one-time collaboration and the Fillmore East closed exactly two months later. The song has been covered by Roy Orbison, Johnny Rivers, Jan & Dean and Ricky Martin.
z 899a1dd6a86a20899f682ee1e40719b1In 1964, Murry Wilson’s wife Audree left him and they separated. The marriage ended in divorce in 1966. In a letter written on May 8, 1965, just a few months before Brian recorded what is arguably the band’s masterpiece, “Pet Sounds”, Murry gives a glimpse into the complicated, psychologically messed up relationship with his son.
“It has become very apparent to me that our family can no longer exist under the worrisome and trying conditions that have been going on for the last five or six years, and I think the time has come for us all to face facts…I guess the major factor which caused a loss of feeling in the family from sons to their father was that my wife could only remember how kind her mother was…Audree was trying to raise you boys almost like girls…although from time to time she took a coat hanger to you boys or bawled you out when you did something she felt was wrong, none of her correction really meant a lot or was too effective because you could only compare the more strict punishment I could render as a stronger human being, such as spanks on the bottom and, on occasion, more violent punishment and severe tongue lashings…I could no longer reach you, and your natural resentment against me which had been building up…you acted like you hated me on many occasions. I cannot believe that such a beautiful young boy, who was kind, loving, received good grades in school and had so many versatile talents, could become so obsessed to prove that he was better than his father.
z the-beach-boys-help-me-rhonda-1965-13I am over the big hurt of losing my three sons as a manager for their benefit and good fortune, but I am not over the fact that I have lost my three sons’ love, and I mean real love, because you are all in a distorted world of screams, cheers and financial success. The money will not mean a damn thing to any of my sons if they are not happy when the job is done and it is a sad thing for three young beautiful sons to place their life’s success on the success of a record album or a 45 RPM disc or to how successful they are in the eyes of the music world from how many seats they sell in a live concert. I hope to God that you and your brothers review your thinking now before it is too late, because only more damage can arise from this temporary, fleeting image of success known as The Beach Boys.
Brian, your mother and I are growing further apart and a beautiful thing is becoming destroyed…she is weak in her way because she loves you all so much and cannot bring herself, after all these years of siding with her babies, to do the right thing and really lay down the law to you fellows on the honesty and character bit. I want you all to know that I loved you as my sons and still do, but I am absolutely crushed to think that it would all turn out the way it did and I do not say that it is all your fault – I know I failed my sons many, many times and couldn’t spend time with them in their earlier stages of life when I wanted to…Please try to understand that all I tried to do was make you all honest men, and instead of hating me for it, I ask that you all try to search your own hearts once in a while and try to be better.”
z 2947226Although a marginally successful songwriter and musician, the self-aggrandizing and ostensibly talented Murry Wilson’s primary claim to fame was as the patriarch of the Beach Boys. Once the Beach Boys established themselves, Murry managed to finagle a solo album deal for himself in 1967; “The Many Moods of Murry Wilson.” It was not commercially successful. Murry Wilson died on June 4, 1973 after suffering a heart attack at the age of 55.
z brianBrian Wilson spent the bulk of the two years after his father’s death hiding in the chauffeur’s quarters of his home; sleeping, abusing alcohol, taking drugs (including heroin), overeating, and exhibiting self-destructive behavior. He attempted to drive his vehicle off a cliff, and at another time, demanded that he be pushed and buried into a grave he had dug in his backyard. Although reclusive during the day, Wilson spent his nights fraternizing with Hollywood colleagues known as the “Vampires” including Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, Harry Nilsson, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, and Keith Moon. The Monkees Micky Dolenz recalls dropping LSD with Wilson, Lennon, and Nilsson, while Wilson “played just one note on a piano over and over again.” During this period, his voice deteriorated significantly as a result of his mass consumption of cocaine and incessant chain smoking.
Today, Wilson suffers from auditory hallucinations, and has been formally diagnosed as “mildly manic-depressive with schizoaffective disorder that presents itself in the form of disembodied voices.” According to Brian, he only began having hallucinations in 1965 shortly after experimenting with psychedelic drugs.
z photo-of-beach-boysOn December 28, 1983, three weeks after his 39th birthday, Dennis Wilson drowned at Marina Del Rey in Los Angeles. After drinking all day, he dove into the Marina searching for items he had thrown overboard from his yacht three years before. He never resurfaced. Carl Wilson died of cancer in Los Angeles on February 6, 1998, just two months after the death of his mother, Audree.
In a 2004 newspaper interview, Brian Wilson said this about his father: “He was the one who got us going. He didn’t make us better artists or musicians, but he gave us ambition. I’m pleased he pushed us, because it was such a relief to know there was someone as strong as my dad to keep things going. He used to spank us, and it hurt too, but I loved him because he was a great musician.”
z beach-boys-help-me-rhonda“Help Me, Rhonda” came at a time of amazing creativity and overwhelming psychological turmoil for Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. Wilson was trying to come up with enough material to fill three albums and four singles per year, material good enough to compete with the Beatles, all while undertaking grueling tours with the band. In December 1964, Wilson suffered a nervous breakdown and stopped touring with the Beach Boys, but the relentless schedule of record releases did not let up. Just two months later, the “Help Me Rhonda” sessions took place. Who knew such turmoil and drama could surround such a catchy little tune?

food, Indianapolis, Music, Pop Culture

Merrill’s Hi-Decker in Indianapolis.

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WIBC radio booth atop Merrill’s Hi-Decker.

Original publish date:  August 6, 2015

Summertime is closing fast and the Indiana State Fair has come and gone for another year. So I figured I’d break out one last gasp of summertime from 38th and Fall Creek that might jog a memory or two for you. Back when Elvis was blonde, the Tee Pee stood tall and Ike was in charge there was a place called Merrill’s Hi- Decker restaurant located right across the street from the Fairgrounds (officially 1155 East 38th Street). The Hi- Decker took over a restaurant known as “The Parkmoor” in 1956 as a curbside drive-in hamburger stand restaurant whose most famous whose most famous “deckhand” never sold as much as one burger or milkshake.

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WIBC Disc Jockey Dick Summer.

His name was Dick Summer and he manned the coolest DJ booth in Indianapolis in the late 1950s. His glass booth sat on the roof of Merrill’s High Decker. The restaurant was shaped like a stack of records anyway, so the addition of the rectangular booth with the circular roof made the High Decker one of the city’s hottest spots when Summer was in session. The booth was brightly lit with neon lights featuring the “WIBC 1070 On Your Dial” marque sign ablaze like a Rock-N-Roll sun. Indianapolis radio station WIBC was the No. 1 station among teens.
All the “flattop cats” and “dungaree dolls” spent their weekends buzzing Merrill’s and other drive-ins like Laughners at Irvington Plaza on Washington Street, Jack ‘n Jill’s on North Shadeland, Knobby’s at Shadeland & 38th Street and the Blue Ribbon on 10th Street. The Northside Tepee across the street from Merrill’s was Shortridge and Broad Ripple territory and the southside Tepee was for Sacred Heart and Southport. Spencer’s North Pole at Lafayette Road and 16th was for Washington and Ben Davis high schools. And who can forget Al Green’s at Washington and Shadeland and their freebie drive-in movies for restaurant patrons (The joke was that the service was so slow, they had to do something to keep people from leaving). But none of them had Dick Summer.

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WIBC Disc Jockey Dick Summer.

Summer, a wildly handsome young Disc Jockey from Brooklyn New York, had a perfectly quaffed pompadour and an act to matched. He had a show called “Summertime, live from the Skyline Studio”. Summer would play the newest rock-and-roll hits from his WIBC radio booth on high. His show included a nightly segment after the 10 PM News he called “make it or break it.” He would spin new “Hot Wax” 45 rpm releases, many from local bands, and ask the cheeseburger chompin’ patrons parked in their cars below to vote on them. Patrons would vote by sounding their car horns. The results would decide whether the record would be played on future shows or if he should break it. Car horns could be clearly heard over the air. If the “No’s” won, Summer would break the record over his microphone. If more people honked for “Make It” that record was played every hour for the next week.
Every Saturday night Summer did a live broadcast featuring a different local band which set up right out on the parking lot. Any time recording artists and bands came to town, Summer interviewed them out in the Merrill’s parking lot. Part of these interviews included an opportunity for the people eating at the restaurant to walk over and ask questions of their own. One of the things fans remember best was the midnight story feature. Every midnight Summer read a short story, most often something by Edgar Allan Poe.
Summer, now retired, recalled a funny story from those years, “The manager of the restaurant was a young guy who was very much into guns. One night as I was doing “Make It Or Break It” he decided that he REALLY didn’t like the record I was playing, so he pulled out his hand gun and shot me. Seriously. I watched him, standing probably 20 feet away, reach into his belt, pull his gun, aim, and squeeze the trigger. The blast was huge, and I thought I was dead. It was a blank. He hit the ground laughing. So the next night I wedged a pound of Limburger cheese right on the engine block of his car. He got the first laugh, but mine lasted longer.”
z merrill'sAnother Summer gimmick was to slowly bite into a juicy hamburger before he kicked off every commercial during his show. Doesn’t sound like much now, but apparently back in the day it drove customers crazy. Not to mention it sold a lot of hamburgers. The only way into the glass booth studio was up a fire escape ladder leading up to the roof, and then into the tiny studio via a trap door in the floor. Legend claims that George Lucas used Summer’s “Skyline Studio” as the inspiration for Wolfman Jack’s studio in his movie American Graffiti. You’d have to rent the movie and see for yourself because Merrill’s Hi-Decker and the radio booth are long gone now.
Even though Summer’s gig kept the Hi-Decker in the black in the Ike Era up into the John F. Kennedy Camelot Era. But Summer eventually left WIBC and went to WIL-AM, in St. Louis. WIBC kept rolling along nicely, but the Indy radio scene really took the blow hard. The British Invasion pretty much sealed the fate of local radio hijinx. And Merrills was in big trouble. Within a short time after Summer’s departure, the Hi-Decker had to make a deal with an auto dealer up the street to park his used cars in the drive-in parking lot on the weekends to look like it was still doing a bang-up business. It was a far cry from the days of two block long traffic jams of tail-fin and fuzzy dice cars waiting to cruise the Hi-Decker.
Recently Summer waxed poetic about his time in Indy and parts elsewhere as a young DJ: “It is truly hard being an aging young person. Hide and seek, ringalevio, kick the can, double dutch, punch ball, stick ball, box ball, stoop ball, doctor-lawyer-indian chief thoughts keep popping up in my head while I’m trying to be serious doing my day job. Pay checks are poor substitutes for wax lips, candy drops on rolls of paper and chocolate cigarettes. Kid-hood had stresses like “are you going to be the LAST guy picked to play on the stickball team?” (Guys will understand.) Adult-hood has stresses that involve having to override your body’s basic desire to choke the living crap out of some idiot who desperately deserves it…and would probably never even be the last person ever picked for any stickball team. The most wonderful part of the kind of radio I did was as long as I was on the air, it was never too late to have a happy childhood. I don’t ever want to get too old or too angry to do goofy stuff. That’s why I always listen carefully to what my Rice Krispies tell me when I pour milk over them at breakfast…Radio seems awfully grown up now. Talk shows are angry, computers spit out carefully researched music lists, and there’s no time to broadcast local kid bands live from a drive-in while the guy on the air munches his juicy hamburger.”