Sunday, August 31, 2014

Arthur Godfrey: A Celebrity Face In The Crowd

Godfrey at CBS Radio, 1948
Arthur Godfrey was born in New York on this day in 1903. Few people under forty years old probably recognize the name "Arthur Godfrey" or have any idea of his celebrity during the middle decades of the last century. He was a star of stars on radio from coast to coast, an ambitious man with a folksy broadcast persona who in real life turned hubris into a tyranny that eventually destroyed his career. Despite his shortfalls, he remains one of the most influential shapers of radio and television entertainment in the U.S. Although I never met the man, we shared common interests including flying, aviation history, the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Northern Virginia, his appreciation of Washington, D.C., and breakfast. You'll understand more about those interests by reading this revised post on Godfrey that first appeared in 2009.

Godfrey was introduced to radio during his Navy and Coast Guard careers. He broke into entertainment and civilian radio in Baltimore and Washington in the early 1930s. He also earned his pilot's license in 1931, an achievement that would lead to a distinguished role in military and civilian aviation. His Arthur Godfrey Time breakfast show was heard on radio coast-to-coast shortly after World War II. By 1952, it had joined his other program, Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, on television. Godfrey developed a wonderful easy going, friendly on-air style that captured American radio audiences. That style, coupled with his big smile and his signature red hair made him a natural for television, and for print advertising. 

Godfrey with pilot George Cooper and former Ames Aeronautical Laboratory director Smith DeFrance at Moffett Field, California, 1948 
Without question, he was television's first star, rising quickly, then falling almost as fast, a victim of the darker elements of fame and ego. By 1960, he disappeared from regularly scheduled television and began a brief career in film. By 1972, the radio programs ended and his television appearances dwindled as the decade closed. He died in New York in 1983.

Godfrey was a local to this mill town kid. As a regional radio and television celebrity, Godfrey made his start in the big cities a hundred miles east of my home town. My parents had listened to him almost from the beginning of his career. In addition, fame bought Godfrey his 800 acre farm known as Beacon Hill, located on Route 9 just west of Leesburg, Virginia. He loved the place and spent most of his weekends there after four weekdays in New York. My family made many trips to the Washington area  when I was a child and we always passed the farm. My dad always pointed it out so we could look for the horses, another of Godfrey's passions. I came to look forward to seeing the place, maybe not so much for the horses as much as for the apples we'd buy at Senator Harry Byrd's orchard nearby if it happened to be Fall.

Another connection we shared was a passion for airplanes. Godfrey owned several planes that he flew either from the farm or from Leesburg's airport. I spent many long vacations and weekends at a lodge in Burlington, West Virginia, about 55 air miles from Leesburg. For about twenty years following the end of World War II, Burlington was home to an active airfield and I knew the owners, Georgia and David Baker, very well. The flying stories were endless and I was a willing listener.

Though he wasn't a frequent visitor, Godfrey made occasional fly-ins at Baker's Air Park. In the '50s, it was quite an honor to have "your" airfield graced by television's most famous celebrity. It reminds me of visiting small town museums where the treasured display shows an aging photograph of President Truman waving from his campaign train in 1948. Sometimes history comes at a slow pace. Nevertheless, Godfrey's visits were the talk of the town for Burlington folks. Late one afternoon, the little airfield may have saved his life. He and a passenger made a critical emergency landing at the airfield. With its mechanical issues resolved the plane continued on its final leg to Leesburg later in the week. I'll never understand how they got a twin engine aircraft out of that little dogleg of grass. They probably stripped it, released the brake, went balls to the wall, and sampled the tops of the wall of old sycamores at the end of the field.  Fifty or so years is a long time to remember, but it wouldn't surprise me if he didn't send the passenger home by car. For a pilot who at one time flew everything in the U.S. Air Force arsenal, "wheels up" at Burlington probably wasn't much of a challenge. It did, however, require a tempered ego to reduce the risk. 

We know for certain he had both a temper and an ego, not an unusual combination for super successful people. And Godfrey was surely super and successful. He knew how to transcend the airwaves and come into your house for breakfast, make you laugh, maybe even sell you something you didn't need. It was television in it's first real decade in the U.S. And Godfrey transitioned his leading radio talk show into the leading television talk show almost overnight. It was the equivalent of going from silent film to talkies twenty years earlier. He made it look easy. He put the mill town boy, his mom and dad, and millions of other listeners at ease, made good conversation, strummed the ukulele, sang a bit, made us laugh, then sent us off for the day. We had a good time. That's really because it was Arthur Godfrey's time.

Hard to believe this was a big national hit for the Old Redhead  in 1947. 

For a comprehensive biography, visit the Arthur Godfrey page on Wikipedia, especially if you're interested in the nasty details of his fall from television grace beginning in the mid '50s. For an equally comprehensive bio with additional information visit his enshrinee page at the National Aviation Hall of Fame. For more information on his impact in broadcast media see his page at the Museum of Broadcast Communication.

N.B. Godfrey's fall from grace was a hard one. He is often considered the inspiration for the character, Lonesome Rhodes, a "drunken drifter" in the landmark film, A Face in the Crowd (1957). Rhodes smooth talking, friendly style brings him fame and fortune through national radio and television exposure only to have it destroyed when his true character emerges. This great film brought Andy Griffith to stardom in a very powerful and unexpected role. If you like outstanding writing and editing on film, add this one to your list.

Source: Wikipedia entry, Arthur Godfrey

Photo Credits:

CBS photo, the Harris & Ewing Photo Collection, Library of Congress
Moffett Field photo, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Kennewick Man Revisited: He's The Most Important Human Skeleton Ever Found In North America

Five years ago, I began a blog post on this subject with these remarks:

For fifty years, I have walked a rather wide vocational path incorporating history, geography and anthropology and their expressions on the physical landscape. I find the study of human origins, dispersals, and the waves of settlement over time and across the planet simply fascinating. When there's a new bump in what has become the expected order brought on by political correctness, I have always enjoyed watching the jostling for position and reassurance. One of the latest and best examples was the discovery of the 9300 year old Kennewick Man on a bank of the Columbia River in the state of Washington in 1996. Official Native Americans claimed him under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, but there was a problem. Kennewick Man looked very Caucasian. It took nearly eight years to get a federal court ruling keeping the remains out of the hands of the official local tribe and the obscurity that would have followed. When the law says you're "first," there's no place for an interloper with DNA that could ruin your status. After more months of negotiation, a DNA test determined that the remains were most closely identified with the Ainu people of Japan. The results have reopened the debate on the origins of early Americans.
There were more remarks in a followup post in 2011:

[I have] never had much use for superlatives including the terms "first people" and "Native American." [I] was trained by the first generation of students of Carl Sauer and the Berkeley School of cultural geography where the study of origins, diffusion, and landscape reigned. There was nothing static about places studied under such a lens. Waves of settlement, often over thousands of years, modified landscapes. The people, objects, structures and sites in each wave left rich resources for study by anthropologists and archaeologists. The Sauer School took information from these and other fields to define places throughout the world. Also, by studying the diffusion of cultural items, geographers traced peoples and cultures to their supposed points of origin.

In this day and age of political correctness, being declared the "first culture" has its advantages, often dispensed in the form of privilege, property and money. When the declaration is by law, the limitations of such thinking becomes very evident. The best example in the United States is the term, "Native American." It is purely a legal term. If your tribe is recognized by the federal government, you are a "Native American." If your tribe does not meet the criteria for recognition, you will be forced to settle for the term, American Indian. All Native Americans are Indians, but not all Indians are Native Americans. The "natives" get the privilege, property, and money. The Indians may have the genes, but they don't get the recognition. So confusing. And what happens when those waves of settlement produce something that doesn't fit the legal model? [I think] the same question emerges when cultural geographers run out of evidence. Is this really the original? Could there be earlier waves lost to catastrophe?

Now the truth has come to light and Kennewick Man's story may very well rewrite the story of human settlement in North America.  It's an exciting time for anthropology and cultural geography, but there is opposition both from the federal government and Native American tribes. In the name of science and the search for truth, I hope the research continues.

Source: Instapundit, 8-27-2014

Instant Climate Change, Krakatoa Style

The Scream (of Nature)       Edvard Munch, 1893
Imagine waking up on this fine Wednesday morning to hear that a gigantic magnetic storm will disrupt much of the planet's electronics and communication networks on Friday. This event simply isn't going to break up your digital reception of Saturday's big game. It's going to require months of reconstruction - software and hardware - on power grids, communication systems and circuit boards on land, sea, air, and in space. I raise this issue not to alarm but to use coronal mass ejection (CME) and similar electromagnetic pulse (EMP) events as modern-day examples of climate issues that need to compete with the longer term phenomenon of global climate change. Furthermore, I am not about to deny or denigrate the existence and significance of global warming and cooling. It happens and I have no issue with mitigation and preparation for the consequences. On the other hand, sometimes our priorities don't seem to match the serious short-term and potentially catastrophic threats we face. Scientists and engineers already know of an event in 1859 that, had it occurred this morning in our high tech electronic world, would have caused widespread threats to social, political, and economic systems worldwide. There is a 12% chance of a similar event happening between now and 2022 [see citation in"1859" link].

Why raise the issue today? This day marks the 131st anniversary of the massive volcanic explosion of the Indonesian island known as Krokatoa. The event killed over 36,000 people, sent a measurable shock wave around the world seven times and produced the loudest noise
heard in recorded history, a noise heard in Perth, Australia, more than 2800 miles from the island. Geophysical impacts included a decline of over 2 degrees in the planet's average global temperatures and more than a decade of memorable atmospheric events including, vivid sunsets, lavender suns, and noctilucent clouds.

This was an astounding event in earth history and a modern-day lesson in the fragile nature of the planet and its inhabitants. As I've said before, nature in all her beauty can be a cruel mother. In light of the recent events like Mount St. Helens, record setting earthquakes, earth-grazing fireballs, and meteors, it's also a lesson that radical global climate change could occur tomorrow as well as a century from now. Granted, the sciences in question are little more than 150 years old but we have come a long way in understanding, yet we know there are some events beyond knowledge and control. 

Do keep the faith, my friends. There's a really good probability for sunrise tomorrow. The chances for more tomorrows are equally high because some of our finest earth and space scientists study and stand watch for these threats, short-term and long-term. I can't imagine a more exciting career than one exploring the far reaches of the planet and its journey in the universe.

N.B. Edvard Munch painted four versions of The Scream of Nature over a seventeen year period beginning in 1893. Some experts believe his depiction of the vivid orange-red sky came from his observations of similar sunsets caused by the explosion of Krakatoa a decade earlier.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Doing Less With Less At CNN, HLN, And TBS

For nineteen years working adjacent the Five Points MARTA station in downtown Atlanta, if I looked out my office window the CNN Center filled the view. Many journalists thought it was folly for Ted Turner to think a cable news network had any chance of survival in the world of television news. Ted proved them wrong beginning in 1980. By the time he moved on CNN was an international sensation. For a decade it had the most comprehensive - best designed as well -  news web page on the Internet. Fox News didn't appear until the mid-80's and CNN went essentially unchallenged until it began to openly embrace a more liberal political posture. By the late-90's their superb web page was reduced to a rather colorless, bland layout and by 2002, both CNN and HLN had lost the ratings battle to Fox News. Turner's brilliant "vision" has never recovered. 

Today's news about 550 buyouts and additional layoffs, mostly for CNN and HLN personnel, saddens me. At the same time, I did have something to say in this blog about the situation at TBS as early as 2009:

...First, either the Associated Press writer, David Bauder, apparently doesn't watch news broadcasts on Fox News or he can't recognize news from opinion. And second, CNN U.S. president Jon Klein is deluding himself if he thinks CNN is the "real news network." There was a time, years ago, when CNN did "read the news," but those days are long gone. CNN has been a bastion of liberal journalism for years now, and that's fine as long as people, including management, acknowledge it. On the other hand, Fox News seems perfectly comfortable with their center right news and conservative opinion. If CNN's management wants to operate under a delusion, then they're suffering from Sulzberger [myopia], the illness that is sinking The New York Times.
I feel for CNN. Fifteen years ago, they had the most comprehensive, useful, and timely news page on the Internet. Today, that page is a shell of its former self. Their cable news is struggling. Maybe it's time for that madman maverick, Ted Turner, to rescue his baby. At least he'd bring humor along with his delusions. Best of all, he wouldn't mind admitting he's a far lefty.

I doubt if Ted will come to the rescue in this age of niche journalism. He's likely having too much fun whatever he's up to these days. That leaves us and the stockholders looking to current management and its ability to adjust to the pendulum shifts in opinions and beliefs taking place in a rapidly changing national political environment. 


Monday, August 25, 2014

Three Songs For Summer

It was so clear and beautiful in Atlanta today one could almost touch the sky. The warm, dry air, endless breeze and golden light all reminded me more of late September. Summer is my season and I always regret its end. Here is some music that reminds more than a few of us of summers past...

Warm, beautiful work.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

August 24, 1814: An American Bicentennial Day That No One Remembers

The big anniversary in American history these days is the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. About this time 150 years ago in Georgia, General Sherman was in the midst of taking Atlanta and "marching" to the sea at Savannah. It's still a delicate issue among many old-line families here and one that likely keeps them from realizing we are also in the midst of a bicentennial commemoration of another American war, the War of 1812. In fact, if we've had any commemorations of this event, they've been quiet. Still, I think it's important to keep the history alive, especially when it's exceptionally written. That happened yesterday in the Washington Post  in a fine article about an event no one remembers in a war no one remembers. It's about the day that the city of Washington burned at the hands of an invading British force of nearly 5000 "hardened fresh fighters from the Napoleonic wars." It's also a concise lesson about the War of 1812, a conflict many historians define as the Second American Revolution, a revolt that settled many dangling issues left over from the first one. Do enjoy.

N.B. I never pass on an opportunity to praise the Washington Post, a newspaper caught up in the decline of print media, but one that has retained a fine editorial page. Every now and then, the paper outdoes itself by producing the quality journalism it had at the hands of Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee thirty years ago. Yesterday's article on the War of 1812 was on of those occasions. 

There was a time when I loved to get my hands on this paper and would drive miles to buy the Sunday edition. Perhaps those days will return with the new management.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Leni Riefenstahl: Film Pioneer And Quintessential Propagandist

Adolph Hitler greets Leni Riefenstahl  in 1934
Today marks the birthday in 1902 of the German film maker, Leni Riefenstahl (1902-2003). If you were in school during the third quarter of the 20th century there's a likely chance you are familiar with her landmark 1935 film, Triumph of the Will. This legendary propaganda piece was the product of her fascination with Adolph Hitler, the National Socialist movement and his desire to document the party rally in Nuremberg in 1934. It was the second film she produced for Hitler and its success, as well as their ongoing friendship, resulted in other notable projects but nothing approached the success of Triumph of the Will. At the same time, her association with the party, its principals, and her use of the enforced labor of talented Jews brought her a brief prison term at the end of World War II. She was also shunned for three decades by the world-wide film industry. 

In the last quarter of her life of 102 years she focused on still photography of nature and culture in Africa. At age 72, she developed an interested in underwater photography, became a certified diver, and went on to produce two books and one film featuring marine life. 

Riefenstahl reached the heights of creativity and controversy in her lifetime. I don't expect interpretations of her legacy will change. To admire her amazing technical innovation in documentary film making one has to ignore her association with evil. It is an association she denied but the evidence in her life and work cause us to suspect otherwise.  At this point we are left only with the hard evidence that she was a genius behind the motion picture camera.

Here is the evidence... of the rallies from Triumph of the Will (1934)...

...the opening sequence from Olympia (1936) documenting the famous Berlin Games.

...and highlights from Das Blaue Licht (The Blue Light)(1926), an early sound film illustrating her Expressionist training, and  her appreciation of nature, culture, and sense of place.

Photo Credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R99035 / CC-BY-SA