Monday, August 31, 2015

Remembering Arthur Godfrey's Time

Like most Americans who were alive at 11:00 A.M. EST on December 30, 1947, I likely heard the radio program below. But you don't remember much when your under two years old. It was a Tuesday. My dad was probably at work, but my mother would have been home sitting at the kitchen table with her sister, Edith, enjoying a cup of coffee and listening to the big radio in the living room. The man on the radio was Arthur Godfrey. Indeed, it was a different time but you will recognize the studio band, the commercial plug, the humorous, conversation style; an opening monologue; the new song or singer; the banter with the crew; an interview; and more music. One could say that Godfrey set quite a trend in formatting for network entertainment. If you know late night television, you'll understand.

Godfrey was born in New York on this day in 1903. He broke into entertainment and civilian radio in Baltimore and Washington in the early 1930's. 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. Without question, he was television's first star who at the height of his fame attracted over 80,000,000 viewers/listeners a week - U.S. population at the time was 166,000,000 - at the peak of his popularity.

As folksy as he may have appeared, Godfrey was a quick-to-anger narcissist who demanded complete control of his program and absolute loyalty and submission on the part of his regular cast, an ensemble he referred to on air as his "Little Godfreys."  In late 1953 he exposed his darker side by firing singer, Julius LaRosa, on live radio. The event was the first of many firings and feuds that eventually led to a rapid decline in his popularity and industry perceptions of him as a laughingstock.

As if his role as a radio and television pioneer wasn't enough, Godfrey led a full and interesting life as a farmer, cattleman, equestrian, environmentalist, and achieved some fame as an aviator. For an assessment of his significance in entertainment history visit his page at the Museum of Broadcast Communication website. Wikipedia has a wider biography with several links.   

Godfrey at the CBS Radio microphone in 1948


Photo and Text:, Arthur Godfrey  

Itzhak Perlman At 70

Perlman with Ed Sullivan in Tel Aviv, Israel, in 1958

Itzhak Perlman, the virtuoso violinist who has entertained us for six decades, turns 70 today.He still maintains a full schedule of appearances around the world as well as teaching in New York and serving as the artistic director and principal conductor of the Westchester Philharmonic.

Here is Perlman, the artist:

And Perlman, the teacher:

Happy birthday, Maestro! May your smile and music be with us for many years to come.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

National Park Service: America's Best Idea Turns 99

National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.
                                                                                                        Wallace Stegner

The National Park Service celebrates its 99th birthday today. It's an important day in our household.  My wife and I devoted over 55 years of combined employment toward achieving its noble mission so vividly stated in the enabling legislation of 1916:

" conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

Seeking a working balance between preservation and use was often a serious challenge but overall the work was extraordinarily satisfying. Even after several years of retirement our blood still runs green with the memories of working in eight sites and one regional office in eight states.

The journey from an idea to a resource management agency charged with overseeing more than 400 sites has been complex.  Here is part of the chapter, "Early Growth and Administration," taken from a Department of the Interior publication, A Brief History of the National Park Service (1940). It describes the national park movement leading up to the formation of the NPS.

The United States had a system of national parks for many years before it had a National Park Service. Even before establishment of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 as "a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people," the Government had shown some interest in public ownership of lands valuable from a social use standpoint. An act of Congress in 1852 established the Hot Springs Reservation in Arkansas (which became a national park in 1921), although this area was set aside not for park purposes, but because of the medicinal qualities believed to be possessed by its waters. It was not until 1890 that action was taken to create more national parks. That year saw establishment of Yosemite, General Grant, and Sequoia National Parks in California, and nine years later Mount Rainier National Park was set aside in Washington.
Soon after the turn of the century the chain of national parks grew larger. Most important since the Yellowstone legislation was an act of Congress approved June 8, 1906, known as the Antiquities Act, which gave the President authority "to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States to be national monuments."
In these early days the growing system of national parks and monuments was administered under no particular organization. National parks were administered by the Secretary of the Interior, but patrolled by soldiers detailed by the Secretary of War much in the manner of forts and garrisons. This, of course, was quite necessary, in the early days, for the protection of areas situated in the "wild and woolly" West. it is a fact that in this era highwaymen held up coaches and robbed visitors to Yellowstone National Park, and poachers operated within the park boundaries. The national monuments were administered in various ways. Under the Act of 1906 monuments of military significance were turned over to the Secretary of War, those within or adjacent to national forests were placed under the Department of Agriculture, and the rest—and greater number—were under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior. Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park, established in 1890 as the first Federal area of its type, was administered by the War Department.
Under this disjointed method of operation, national parks and monuments continued to be added to the list until 1915 when its very deficiencies exposed the plan as unsatisfactory and inefficient. The various authorities in charge of the areas began to see the need for systematic administration which would provide for the adoption of definite policies and make possible proper and adequate planning, development, protection, and conservation in the public interest.

Within two years, Secretary of the Interior, Franklin Lane, had secured the help of the philanthropist, Stephen Tyng Mather, to develop a management system to propose to Congress. Mather did so promptly and by 1917 it had been established and officially organized.

For more information, NPS Historians, Barry Mackintosh and Janet McDonnell, have written an excellent brief history documenting the agency to 2005. Their work, The National Parks: Shaping the System, is available online here.

The former directors of the National Park Service have left us some candid, and in some cases historic, commentary on managing the preservation-use dichotomy referred to above. I highly recommend their books, along with a biography of Stephen Tyng Mather, if readers are so inclined:

Albright, Horace M. (as told to Robert Cahn). The Birth of the National Park Service. Salt Lake City: Howe Brothers, 1985.

Albright, Horace M, and Marian Albright Schenck. Creating the National Park Service: The Missing Years. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.

Hartzog, George B. Jr; Battling for the National Parks; Moyer Bell Limited; Mt. Kisco, New York; 1988

Ridenour, James M. The National Parks Compromised: Pork Barrel Politics and America's Treasures. Merrillville, IN: ICS Books, 1994.

Wirth, Conrad L. Parks, Politics, and the People. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980.

Shankland, Robert; Steve Mather of the National Parks; Alfred A. Knopf, New York; 1970

Here's wishing the National Park Service a happy birthday. So that friends of the NPS can join in the celebration entrance fees will be waived tomorrow at all 400+ sites. Go enjoy a park in your neighborhood!



Saturday, August 22, 2015

Leni Riefenstall: An Acclaimed And Controversial German Cinema Pioneer

Leni Riefenstall in 1933

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.

Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler greets Leni Riefenstahl, 1934

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 are some highlights from her films: the 1932 film, Das Blaue Licht (The Blue Light), an early sound film - she plays the lead as well as directs - illustrating her Expressionist training, and her appreciation of nature, culture, and sense of place;

From Triumph of the Will (1934), a propaganda masterpiece;

And from the prologue of Olympia (1938) her documentary of the famous Berlin games of 1936. Image and sound quality are marginal in this clip but the intent shines through. Viewer warning: this clip contains NEAR-NUDITY and BARE BREASTS.

For an interesting assessment of Riefenstall's impact on film making, here is D.L. Booth writing in the Bright Lights Journal about the "body beautiful," particularly in the James Bond film series beginning in 1962.


portrait, Невідомо [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
with Hitler, Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R99035 / CC-BY-SA [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (], via Wikimedia Commons

Text:, Leni Riefenstall, Leni Riefenstall

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Big Blowup Of 1910: A Forest Fire Like No Other

Wallace, Idaho, after the Big Blowup of 1910

The Northwestern U.S. is in the midst of an extreme fire season that has already claimed the lives of several firefighters. On this day in 1910 the fire season was equally bad if not worse. High winds merged almost two thousand small forest fires across Washington, Idaho and Montana into a massive area of fire that burned 3 million acres of timber. This fire, known as the Big Blowup, destroyed several towns, miles of transportation infastructure, and took the lives of 87 people, 78 of them firefighters. It still ranks as the largest forest fire in U.S. history.

Result of wildfire "hurricane" at St. Joe River, C'oeur d'Alene, Idaho 

At the time of the fire the U.S.Forest Service (USFS) was a new and struggling agency in the federal government. This fire not only enhanced the agency's purpose but also gave it focus on the strategy and tactics of forest fire fighting. It also produced the USFS's first legendary character, Ranger Ed Pulaski. An article by the Forest History Society tells the story:

Fighting a fire about ten miles southwest of Wallace, Idaho, Ranger Pulaski order his crew of forty-three men to follow him to a mineshaft to escape the inferno. They barely outran the fire. Pulaski ordered his men to lie down on the tunnel floor while he hung blankets over the entrance, threatening to shoot any man who tried to flee. He threw water onto the blankets until the smoke overwhelmed him. When the men awoke the next day, all but five had survived. Pulaski’s decisive actions and his courage in the face of death made for great copy. But it was his simple desire to get home to his wife and daughter in Wallace that struck a universal cord with the public and helped elevate him into Forest Service myth almost before the fires had stopped burning. It was not long before Pulaski became a hero—though he never comfortably wore that mantle—and his story legend. His legend was further cemented when he was credited with inventing the firefighting tool that bears his name. He received no compensation for either his wounds or his invention. The only compensation came in 1923 when he won $500 in an essay contest for the account of his actions in the Big Blowup.

Pulaski's eponymous invention, a combination grubbing hoe and ax

As you read this today, there's a good likelihood thousands of pulaskis are at work across the Northwest. Behind each one stands a firefighter risking life and limb to protect our resources and populations at almost any cost. Historic fires like the Big Blow led to policies that in the past gave them no options. In the last generation or so the USFS policy of total fire suppression has been questioned given our research in fire and forest ecology and our persistent settlement in what is called the wildland-urban interface. Essentially fire can be thought of as another tool under the right conditions. With new science and news tools, decision making for fire managers is certainly more complex today but it does make what will always be a dangerous job somewhat safer.

On this historic day, and every day we have men and women assigned to forest fires, we need to keep them in mind and more. It's a risky job whether you make the decisions, fly the aircraft or most certainly dig the fire lines, and we want every one of them to come home safe.



National Photo Company Collection (Library of Congress) REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C., Pulaski photo

Text:, The 1910 Fire, Great Fire of 1910, The 1910 Fires, Forest fire, the largest in U.S. History, left stories of awe, tragedy

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Yo Ho Ho And A Bottle Of Rum - Today!

Yes, you guessed it: today is National Rum Day. Americans should be very happy about this event for two reasons. First, rum as we know it is a New World drink. Its distillation first occurred in the Caribbean about 400 years ago. It became wildly popular in the American colonies by the 18th century because of its proximity to and abundance of the main ingredient. That brings us to our second reason: rum production was a massive recycling project. Rum is a by-product of the sugar industry. After all that sugar boiled off the cane juice, refiners were left with a gooey, black, and useless mess we know as molasses. Enterprising slaves discovered that fermented molasses, when distilled, produced an alcoholic beverage. Soon a new industry emerged out of a vast overabundance of the waste product from sugar production, the relatively brief fermentation period required, and a close-by market eager for cheap spirits. But there's more.

In his fascinating book, And A Bottle Of Rum: A History Of The New World In Ten Cocktails, Wayne Curtis says this about rum:

Rum is the history of America in a glass. It was invented by New World colonists for New World colonists. In the early colonies, it was a vital part of the economic and cultural life of the cities and villages alike, and it soon became an actor in the political life. 
Rum's genius has always been its keen ability to make something from nothing. Rum has persistently been among the cheapest of liquors and thus often associated with the gutter. But through the alchemy of cocktail culture, it has turned into gold in recent years. Rum is reinvented every generation or two by different clans, ranging from poor immigrants who flocked from England to the West Indies, to Victorians enamored of pirates, to prohibitionists and abolitionists, right down to our modern marketing gurus, who tailor it day by day to capture the fickle attentions of customers attracted to bright glimmerings of every passing fad.

My first serious encounter with rum didn't involve a bottle or a drink. It was 1966 and I was hiking across St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands with the intent of documenting the remains of its many sugar mills. Over the next forty years, my career returned me to St. Thomas and St. John many times where I became more familiar with the most famous byproduct of sugar production.

Though not really a staple in our household, we've come to enjoy rum occasionally. Today, we pour it in the summer to make classic mojitos when there's fresh mint in the garden. When it's time to entertain on the porch or patio, it's time to mix up a batch of Painkiller. Makes for a fine dessert all by itself and doesn't need to be powerful to be enjoyed.

St Croix [Virgin Islands] Sugar Mill                  Pre-20th century, artist unknown

What better way to celebrate National Rum Day than sinking into a comfortable lounger with drink in hand and a good book. Atlanta's high temperatures are expected to be quite seasonal -  highs in the upper 80's - these next two weeks. That's perfect  weather for an icy Mojito or Painkiller on the porch. Time to check the liquor cabinet and fridge!

Happy National Rum Day, y'all!



Wayne Curtis, And A Bottle Of Rum: A History Of The New World In Ten Cocktails, Broadway Books, 2007
David Wondrich, Imbibe!, revised edition, Penguin Group, 2015

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Woodstock 1969: An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days Of Peace & Music

No, I wasn't there but the music of a generation and more was and in many cases is still with us. So who graced the stage at the festival we have come to know as Woodstock? Here is the list according to the Woodstock wikipedia page:

The three-day festival opened on August 15 and attracted an audience estimated at 400,000 or twice what the promoters expected. In 1969, the rock critic Ellen Sander said this about the festival's significance:

No longer can the magical multicolored phenomenon of pop culture be overlooked or underrated. It’s happening everywhere, but now it has happened in one place at one time so hugely that it was indeed historic .... The audience was a much bigger story than the groups. It was major entertainment news that the line-up of talent was of such magnificence and magnitude (thirty-one acts, nineteen of which were colossal) .... These were, however, the least significant events of what happened over the Woodstock weekend. What happened was that the largest number of people ever assembled for any event other than a war lived together, intimately and meaningfully and with such natural good cheer that they turned on not only everyone surrounding them but the mass media, and, by extension, millions of others, young and old, particularly many elements hostile to the manifestations and ignorant of the substance of pop culture.

The Woodstock Preservation Alliance has this to say about the event's long-term significance to the American experience:

Woodstock was the culmination of a transformation in American popular music that had begun with [the] Monterey [Pop Festival]....Woodstock introduced the same wide diversity of talent, albeit on an expanded scale, to a truly mass audience....A subsequent documentary film...and several sound recordings helped establish what only two years before had been underground or avant-garde musical styles and ushered them into the mainstream.
Participating musicians, industry insiders, and rock critics and historians concur that Woodstock changed the way that popular music was programmed and marketed. Festival promoters noted the large numbers of fans who were willing to put up with often inadequate facilities....Promoters saw opportunities to improve their profit margin by more efficiently organizing festivals....They also understood that increased ticket prices would need to be moving the festivals from pastoral settings into sports arenas and convention centers and limiting the shows to a single-day or evening.... [Such changes] altered the festival-going experience... and thereby diminished the sense of community that many commentators considered the sine qua non of the Woodstock experience.
The development of "arena rock" marked the end of the rock "vaudeville circuit," and led to the demise of the smaller concert hall venues....The arenas also gave the upper hand to the style of music called heavy metal, represented by loudly amplified guitar based and blues-inflected bands composed almost entirely of white male musicians, whose aggressive style of playing was ideally suited for filling the audible space in arena settings.
After Woodstock, musicians apprehended the seemingly insatiable demand for their music and began commanding higher fees. It thus soon proved to be no longer economically feasible to book several major bands on the same bill....This in turn led to the segmentation of the fan base....In the years fol1owing Woodstock, however, fans were channeled into attending concerts that featured fewer acts, typically representing one or two musical styles.
Part of the Woodstock Festival's enduring legacy is the continuing efforts to counteract this trend by replicating the multi-performer/genre concert experience. Over the past three decades various parties have staged or attempted to stage successors to Woodstock, either by that name at different sites or else on or near the original site under a different name. [These efforts have had mixed success over the decades.]

Some impact I'd say.

Joni Mitchell didn't appear as scheduled but she penned a perfect description of the event, one that Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young would bring alive as a #1 hit that stills captures an audience.

Well I came upon a child of God, he was walking along the road
And I asked him tell where are you going, this he told me:
Said, I'm going down to Yasgur's farm, going to join in a rock and roll band.
Got to get back to the land, set my soul free.
We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.

Well, then can I walk beside you? I have come to lose the smog.
And I feel like I'm a cog in something turning.
And maybe it's the time of year, yes, and maybe it's the time of man.
And I don't know who I am but life is for learning.
We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.

By the time we got to Woodstock, we were half a million strong,
And everywhere was song and a celebration.
And I dreamed I saw the bombers jet planes riding shotgun in the sky,
Turning into butterflies above our nation.

We are stardust, we are golden, we are caught in the devil's bargain,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.



All quotations:

Friday, August 14, 2015

David Crosby at 74

The American singer, songwriter and musician, David Crosby,  turns 74 years old today. He may be a social and political bad boy in the eyes of many, but he remains an iconic figure in the performance and evolution of popular music beginning in the 1960s. His talents, notably his beautiful high harmony, helped propel The Byrds, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young to the top of the charts. Crosby is still on the circuit adding his signature sound --and rather strong it remains--after all these years. Considering the toll from years of unhealthy life choices both emotional and physical, we're fortunate to have him around for another generation of admirers. For me, Crosby ranks among the best of the singer songwriters.

Crosby is currently in the midst of his first solo career tour in thirty years. From all of the reviews, he's loving it and so are his audiences. Here is a sample of the poet's work performed in its golden age, first with Graham Nash, and second, with Nash, Stephen Stills, and Neil Young:

Deja Vu

If I had ever been here before
I would probably know just what to do
Don't you?

If I had ever been here before
On another time around the wheel
I would probably know just how to deal
With all of you

And I feel like I've been here before
I feel like I've been here before
And you know it makes me wonder
What's going on under the ground

Do you know? Don't you wonder
What's going on down under you?

I rarely post links to long videos but here is an exception, a one hour interview with Crosby recorded earlier this year at the Aspen Institute. If you have an interest in pop music history this will be an hour well-spent with an amazingly talented and entertaining man who lived that history most of us can only talk about.

Happy birthday, David! Sail on.


Photo:, photo by Django Crosby


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

William Blake: Living In Eternity's Sunrise

To see a world in a grain of sand
And heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour

from Auguries of Innocence, William Blake, 1803

The English engraver, illustrator, and poet, William Blake, died a pauper on August 12, 1827. He was an English engraver and illustrator caught between the decline of the guilds and the rise of factory-based industry. It was a time when men saw the value of their labors swept away from the cottage and into the factory under the watchful eye of the manager. For workers, the loss of autonomy, the shift in control and production, and the helplessness in the face of change led to a revolt against the Age of Reason and a rage against technologies it spawned.  To say that he was a radical would be an understatement. In fact his behavior as a nonconformist and mystic was so bizarre, and his interpretations of Christianity so original, that most of his contemporaries thought he was insane. Today, we have a more appreciative view of Blake as one whose vision, imagination and sensitivity were unmatched in the age of Romanticism, if not the western world.

William Blake                                     Thomas Phillips, 1807

There is one certainty about Blake's writing and that is its complexity. He is by far one of the most interesting visionaries to come out of the West and its traditions. I hope you will take time to examine him and his extraordinary contributions to our experience. To explore his work appropriately is beyond the intent of this blog and capability of its author. For readers  who want to learn more about Blake, to me there's no finer work available than Jacob Bronowski's A Man Without A Mask, published in 1944, and it's updated version, William Blake and the Age of Revolution, published in 1972.

Newton                                                                          William Blake, 1795-1805

Blake was far from the only revolutionary artist to die in 1827. Ludwig van Beethoven passed away in March leaving behind this remarkable piece of music from the very edge of the Romantic movement. It could have been written yesterday but it is almost two centuries old and I believe is a perfect capture of Blake as he lived and of the message he left for all of us.  In tribute:

He who binds himself to a joy
Doth the winged life destroy
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in Eternity's sunrise

Eternity, William Blake1803


Blake portrait, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.
Newton, Tate Gallery, London, U.K.

Text:, Blake entry
Jacob Bronowski, A Man Without A Mask, Seeker and Warburg, London, 1944

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Head's Up! The Early Perseid Meteors Have Arrived

Scene capture of Perseid meteor shower                                     

They're back. Time for the Perseids, the most reliable meteor shower of the year. The shower reaches its peak Wednesday and Thursday  August 12 and 13. The best news is the waxing moon. It will not interfere significantly with viewing. There's more good news: Earth passes through some significant debris trails this year and sky watchers could see as many as 100 to 200 meteors per hour between 10:00 PM and 5:00 AM each night. You don't have to wait until mid-week to see some potentially amazing meteors. New research has concluded that the Perseid event produces more fireballs - meteors brighter than the planets, Jupiter and Venus - than any other shower. And since fireballs are random meteors, you don't have to watch the skies after midnight to see them. Anytime after sunset works. One of the most spectacular fireballs I ever saw cut across at least 120 degrees of steel blue sky about half an hour after sunset.

Head's up for the Perseids!
Here's how to enjoy the Perseids. If the night is clear, find a dark location, take a lounge chair or blanket and bug spray outside between midnight and dawn and look into the northeast sky. In that sky, you'll see a lopsided "W" known as the constellation Cassiopeia, an easy marker for its neighbor, Perseus. The shower radiates from this point as it rotates across the sky, but it's important to note that meteors may occur anywhere in the sky dome. Furthermore, you will likely see some random meteors that will not fit the pattern. 

Don't bother with a telescope, but you may enjoy binoculars for exploring deeper into space when the meteor watch gets a tad boring. Also, if your weather doesn't cooperate at the shower's maximum,  keep in mind that it will be gradually declining through the evening of August 18 so you still have a good chance of seeing a piece of the show.

For the latest news about this year's shower visit


Photos:, Perseus Holding the Head of Medusa, ca. 1800, Antonio Canova. Vatican City, Museo Pio-Clementino, Octagon Hall, Canova Cabinet


American Graffiti

In 1973 the following movie industry names were virtually unknown: George Lucas,  Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat, Charles Martin Smith, Mackenzie Phillips, Bo Hopkins, Cindy Williams, Harrison Ford, Candy Clark, Kathleen Quinlan, and Susan Somers. Lucas was a 28 year-old aspiring director with one mediocre film - THX-1138 - on his resume. He had been thinking for some time about a coming-of-age film based on his personal experience growing up in Modesto, California around 1960. The film, American Graffiti, featuring the actors in the list above reached American theaters on this day in 1973. Aside from its themes the only recognizable aspects of the film were its soundtrack filled with 41 hit songs and Wolfman Jack, a legendary deejay who had previously been known to his vast audience almost exclusively through his unforgettable radio persona.

Production struggled from the start and the studio that  thought so little of the final product recommended it as a television movie. Only the enthusiastic conversations of studio employees overheard by the execs saved the film from the mediocrity of television. Perhaps the product was a poor fit for management but it was a blockbuster hit with audiences. To date the film and its associated products have earned over half a billion 2015 dollars for its owners.

Earning were only a part of the story. All of the unknowns on our earlier list became household names in the entertainment industry. The film also launched a huge wave of interest in nostalgia for the "good old days" of the 1950's. Ron Howard in particular rode that wave through its full cycle to directorial success and beyond.

Matt Singer writing at helps us understand American Graffiti's appeal:

[What] is the secret to American Graffiti’s success, the reason it resonated so strongly with viewers in 1973 and every generation since: It isn’t simply a nostalgic movie, it’s a nostalgic movie about nostalgia. Lucas could have set the film in 1959, when Steve, Curt, and John were still in high school and still cruising night after endless night. Instead,Graffiti begins right as the fun is about to end, and gives its characters just enough self-awareness to recognize that this is last call at the party. George Lucas isn’t the only one mourning for this magical lost era; the characters onscreen mourn right along with him. 
1962 was a fortuitous year for a young American like Lucas to lose his innocence. Soon, the entire country faced similar disillusionment. A year after Lucas’ (and American Graffiti’s) accident, President Kennedy was shot in Dallas. The Vietnam War quickly escalated, claiming tens of thousands of American lives. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated in 1968. By the timeAmerican Graffiti was released in August 1973, the Watergate scandal was in full, ignominious swing. Like Lucas’ Star Wars, a futuristic movie anachronistically set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,”American Graffiti is a chronicle of a simpler time that has since vanished from the universe as if it never existed. And like Star Wars, it follows a teen as he contemplates leaving behind his provincial hometown for an exciting destiny elsewhere.

American Graffiti ranks #62 on the American Film Institute's list of greatest films. In a decade I would not be surprised to see it move into the top 50. It's not quite a masterpiece but it is an innovative and beautifully executed piece of art that foreshadowed the genius of its creator and impacted much of the nation's popular culture for a generation and beyond.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Remembering Marti, Marx, Movies, Music, And Mayhem

Still from Alexander Nevsky, a 1926 film directed by Sergei Eisenstein

It's odd how a series of completely unrelated events can coalesce into vivid memories of one's past. That happened to me earlier in the week when the Kennedy Center's quarterly publication on its upcoming events arrived in our mail. Normally, my son and daughter-in-law would be reading it at their home in Arlington, but they have moved on to Europe for a three-year assignment and their domestic mail now comes to us. After spending an hour or so reading the quarterly, it was time to check the Internet for news and mail. One item demanded some surfing that led to a Japanese orchestra and choir performing music that brought to mind some vivid memories of the Kennedy Center and my days in Washington over forty years ago.

The year was 1970 when my world was filled with the throes of grad school and revolution. And Marti. She was a most beautiful Marxist, brilliant, kind, funny, a history lover, and one who enjoyed film and fine music. At our university film club she introduced me to the magic of the amazing work of Sergei Eisenstein and his collaboration with the composer, Sergei Prokofiev. As much as we enjoyed sound on film, our appreciation of music took us beyond the silver screen. In the two years we were together we enjoyed many concerts at the Kennedy Center.  In fact, we went so often, the young concertmaster - Miran Kojian, now 83 and teaching violin in California - began talking with us when the orchestra was seated. Maybe it was the rebel uniforms - blue jeans,  camp shirts, sandals and hippie chic - seated in Orchestra Center, Row Three. In spite of the statement nearby concertgoers were totally unmoved by our appearance. Smiles and conversation were a common occurrence.

After all, the contradictions were not confined to the concert hall. They were everywhere in the tumultuous American experience of that period. From our "city on a hill" we watched the skies glow red from fires set by rioters in Washington in 1968. For months I passed through rows of peacekeeping National Guardsmen on my way to class. More than once, a professor called class when the teargas got too intense only to find we were locked in the building for our own safety while a full-scale riot went on outside. So much for learning. Indeed it was a time for rebellion and doubts about the center holding in one piece. I'd venture something similar to this from Alexander Nevsky (1938):


Thanks to God, my dad's patriotism, and common sense that comes from age and experience, I survived the folly of Marxism.  Eisenstein and Prokofiev, among many others in film and music, stayed with me.  Alas, Marti did not. Eventually she transferred to UNC Chapel Hill and rekindled a relationship with a professor there. We parted on the best of terms, but it was tough to say good-bye. Our phone calls and letters over the months gradually changed to warm and happy memories. Today I imagine she remains as beautiful a woman as ever, and one who still enjoys concerts and films. On the other hand, I would hope that her political philosophy eventually mellowed toward sanity as did that of the perplexed student who loved her so many years ago.

Yes, my wife approved this message.

N.B For readers who would like to hear the Battle on the Ice in context with Prokofiev's score for the film, here is his 38 minute cantata derived from the complete score. A superb performance, too:

No libretto available, but Russian music is so expressive you can surely enjoy it with the section titles and a brief description of each. The description below is by Herbert Glass and taken from the Music and Musicians Database at the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra site, (see "Sources" for address):

The cantata is divided into seven sections. The first, "Russia under the Mongol Yoke," accompanied the opening credits of the film. In No. 2, "Song about Alexander Nevsky," the chorus exhorts the young prince to don armor again, to expel the invading Teutonic Knights. Part 3, "The Crusaders in Pskov," depicts the havoc wrought on the city by the pillaging, plundering invaders (the choral text is in Latin, the accompanying strains a caricature of church music). "Arise, ye Russian People," No. 4, is a heroic hymn, a bright, noble contrast to the dark ponderousness with which the Germans are characterized in the preceding movement.
No. 5, "The Battle on the Ice," is a virtuoso evocation (visually and musically) of a battle between the forces of darkness and light -- the invaders, riding richly caparisoned horses, appear dimly through the morning mist, and then Prokofiev creates aural magic: as the armies approach each other from different sides of the musical spectrum, with the Teutonic Knights’ strains dark, growling, earthbound, with special emphasis on the low brass, the Russians’, brightly animated, with chattering upper strings and woodwinds. At the climax of the battle, the ice begins to crack; the Teutonic Knights are unable to flee as the weight of their armor on the already heavily burdened horses causes the ice to crack. Horses and riders sink beneath the water.
The ensuing "Field of the Dead" is the score’s single vocal solo, a profoundly affecting lament for the Russian heroes fallen in the battle. The finale, No. 7, depicts "Alexander’s Entry into Pskov," the chorus exulting in his victory, with the sternest of warnings to potential invaders that any and all will meet the same fate as befell the hapless Teutonic Knights.




Thursday, August 6, 2015

Hiroshima: Seventy Years Ago Today At 8:15 A.M., JLT

Forty-three seconds after releasing the bomb nicknamed "Little Boy," the Enola Gay pilot, Col. Paul Tibbets, was alerted to the blast by radioactivity tingling in his teeth and the metallic taste from electrolysis on his tongue. Ten and a half miles away, tens of thousands had already vanished. A massive firestorm would grip the city within minutes and kills thousands more. This photo taken minutes after the blast at a distance of six miles was found in a suburban Hiroshima grade school in 2013:

As the first use of an atomic weapon against an enemy, the decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima - and Nagasaki three days later - was controversial. The decision assuredly brought a very quick end to the war with Japan and in the eyes of most historians and military experts saved the lives of millions of combatants and civilians.  For more on this historic event and its aftermath readers should visit a fascinating Harry S. Truman Library and Museum archive of primary sources relating to the story. 

U.S. Army poster preparing Americans for the Japanese campaign 

For a three minute assessment of the event by Col. Paul Tibbets, commander of the Enola Gay, visit this link.


Ground photo,
Poster, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
Hiroshima aftermath, U.S. Navy Public Affairs Website,


Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Conrad Aiken: Georgia's Literary Mariner

Conrad Aiken in the 1950's
Conrad Potter Aiken was born on this day in Savannah in 1889. From the time he was eight or nine he wanted to be a poet. Soon he found himself captured by the works of Edgar Allan Poe and happily sharing the terror with his brother and sisters. He was surrounded by wealth, privilege, and pedigree, and seemed destined for happiness; however, it would elude him for much of his life after 1901. In January of that year - he was eleven - Aiken heard gunshots in his home. He ran upstairs to find his mother shot to death, his father dead by suicide. He never fully recover from the tragedy.

Aiken was separated from his brothers and sisters and sent to live with relatives in New England. He was a successful student both in private schools and at Harvard where he studied under the guidance of philosopher and writer, George Santayana. At Harvard he also struck up a life-long friendship with fellow student, T. S. Eliot.

Aiken wrote lyrical poetry, weighted with symbolism and psychological exploration so deep that, in his own words, "Freud was in everything after 1912." By 1920, he moved predominantly to prose expressing his "faith in consciousness" and an endless search for knowledge as the means to quell his
personal chaos and bring order and structure to the larger consciousness of the world. In all, he wrote or edited fifty books, including his poetry, short stories, five novels, and one autobiography.

For all of his output, Conrad Aiken never achieved the level of fame of his good friend, T. S. Eliot. He was deeply introverted to the point of being clinically shy and rarely appeared at public recitals. Furthermore, he was a very candid critic whose commentaries and reviews often made him unpopular with other writers. Perhaps the most significant reason for his limited early recognition was his inability to settle on one continent. He was a resident of both the United States and Europe and moved frequently without establishing himself in the salons, networks and writer's communities that were essential to success. By 1960, readers and critics "rediscovered" him after he had been resident in the U.S for some years. Two years later, he returned part-time to the elegance of Savannah where he spent the winters living next to his boyhood home. He soon became the focus of social and academic circles and sought out by admirers until his death in 1973.

If you wander toward the eastern bluff in Savannah's magnificent Bonaventure Cemetery you arrive at Aiken Way. There, with the vast salt marshes of the Wilmington River spreading out to the distant treeline, you find a simple granite bench. Conrad Aiken installed it as his memorial headstone before his death. His parents rest next to the memorial. Their headstone bears identical death dates, an eerie reminder of the chaos we all face in our lives.

How fitting it is that he found his epitaph quite by accident while perusing the Savannah newspapers. It appeared in the daily list of port activity and read simply: "Cosmos Mariner - Destination Unknown." On August 17, 1973, as he lived much of his life, he cast off without a port of call, destination unknown. He left behind, engraved on the bench the wish, "Give my love to the world." It is a rather confident wish coming from a restless sailor. We can pray that every man should find safe harbor, all the while knowing that we are not the final judge of such navigation. We are left merely to explore the products of a shy and troubled man who could appreciate a bawdy pun and have his say in singing words and lilting prose.

Ruinous blisses, joyous pains, 
Life the destroyer, life the breaker, 
And death, the everlasting maker....

If you want to learn more about Aiken and his world, I strongly recommend reading this interview published in The Paris Review in 1963.

The casting depicts the Hindu god, Shiva Nataraja, the King of the Cosmic Dance.
The lines of poetry are from Aiken's 1916 poem, The Dance of Life.



1950's portrait,


The New Georgia Encyclopedia, Conrad Aiken entry by Ted R. Spivey, Conrad Aiken: Progidy Unitarian Poet, Richard A. Kelloway

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Louis Armstrong: "Satchmo" At The Top Of 20th Century Jazz

It's safe to say that Armstrong indeed helped make a wonderful world during his near six decades in jazz and popular music. He was a phenomenal jazz trumpeter, performer, writer, stage personality and all around good will ambassador who was born on this day in New Orleans in 1901. He was nicknamed, "Satchmo," short for "satchelmouth," as a child because of his prominent mouth. The moniker stayed with him as he blazed a trail of unforgettable music throughout his life. Although he passed away in 1971 his imprint remains large in popular music and jazz in particular.

Louis Armstrong                                        Adi Holzer, 2002

Here is a link to the Armstrong page at NPR's Jazz Profiles where you can listen to the master himself and to others as they describe his broad cultural legacy. Readers can learn more at the Louis Armstrong House Museum site.

And here are two pieces of the master at his trade performing Now You Has Jazz at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival, and his signature song, What A Wonderful World:

In 1956 Armstrong joined with Ella Fitzgerald and the Oscar Peterson Quartet to make an album that to this day consistently appears in lists of the top ten jazz albums of all time. Here is a sample from this masterpiece:

It's safe to say that Armstrong indeed helped make a wonderful world during his near six decades in jazz and popular music. May his smile, his sound, and his goodness stay with us for a long, long time.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Happy Birthday To Tony Bennett - No Signs Of Stopping At 89

Tony Bennett is an interesting blend of vocal talent and showmanship, a well-tempered entertainer with a not so perfect voice. You have to learn how to appreciate the value of a permanent vocal strain and a sound out of vaudeville. For me, it was a long learning process, but I've come to appreciate and enjoy the total Bennett experience. He's had two careers, a fifteen-year affair with the Greatest Generation, and a now thirty-year reinvention with new artists, music, and audiences following a lull during the rock and roll era. Bennett has also been in the forefront of introducing current generations to the Great American Songbook. Back in 2011 he made an album entitled Duets II. It featured the jazz master singing in tandem with a host of well-known voices from a wide range of musical genres. The album was an instant hit even with the critics and it topped the charts on its debut. By their very nature albums of this type heighten creativity and versatility. And old-timers like Bennett can feel the chemistry at work as well as see the potentials and opportunities emerging from the unexpected. He turns 89 today. After more than sixty years on stage, he still draws huge audiences to his full concert schedule of tunes from jazz, to Broadway, to the Great American Songbook. So best wishes to the man for a happy birthday and many years to come in the spotlight.

As he sings at just about every opportunity, the best is yet to come, and indeed it has in his latest release in September 2014, Cheek to Cheek, a collection of old standards with none other than Lady Gaga. She does have an exceptional voice and some would say a hint of jazz in her music, but to me neither element comes center stage through all the industrial artpop electroganza and its pure sensory overload. Bennett had the skill and experience to see beyond the noise. In fact, he thinks she has one of the finest jazz voices on today's music scene. Jazz critics and fans agree as they have awarded the album high acclaim and record sales.  The reception was so good that Bennett and Gaga announced earlier this year they are working on a second album this time devoted to the music of Cole Porter. 

For a taste of what's causing the excitement among vocal jazz fans, here is a cut from Cheek to Cheek:

If you like what you hear, buy the music and help keep jazz, swing, and the Great American Songbook, each American musical invention, alive and well.




Saturday, August 1, 2015

MTV At 34

Screen capture from the MTV premiere broadcast in 1981

Yes, indeed. MTV made its debut 34 years ago today. This is how it started:

And this is the first music video to appear on the premiere show: had this to say about MTV on the occasion of its thirtieth anniversary:

Bucks Fizz had exploded after winning the Eurovision Song Contest, Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” hogged the radio airwaves and the popularity of Adam Ant and the other New Romantics meant men were parading around in their girlfriends’ make-up. Then on 1 August, just after midnight, a new television channel aimed at teens and 20-somethings launched with the words: “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll.” It was called MTV.
Set up with the intention of playing music videos 24 hours a day, seven days a week, MTV quickly catapulted them into the mainstream. Not only did the channel encourage videos to be viewed as an art form, they also became a marketing tool for record companies. Artists were forced to embrace the medium or risk retirement. Madonna and Duran Duran were just some of the stars that benefited in the early years. Of course, it had its detractors and many thought the channel was devaluing the industry by placing the entire emphasis on the visual aesthetic rather than the music.
MTV’s viewers, a generation desperate to disassociate themselves from their baby-boomer parents, had no unifying identity: the civil-rights movement and Vietnam were their parents’ struggles. These cynical and dissatisfied youths came together, however, by tuning into this eclectic new channel. The MTV Generation was born.

But Buggles was right in the long run. Just as video killed the radio star, so the Internet killed the MTV format in just a few years. The channel resorted to some of the earliest versions of "reality programming," almost always low-rent and often provocative, but it sold the soap and brought in young audiences. The channel survives today as "entertainment" for teens. One could say MTV is Nickelodeon's tatted, pierced, and "recovering" sibling who occasionally has flashbacks about its glory days in the music industry.