Thursday, September 30, 2010

Farewell, Josephine

Last November I reviewed "The Making of Some Like It Hot" by Tony Curtis. That book chronicled the making of a movie that broke box office records and set the stage for a new and more liberal type of comedy. This still shot, taken from the movie, shows Mr. Curtis, in character as Josephine, aka Joe, with Jack Lemmon, sans wig, as Daphne, aka Jerry, in one of the hotel room scenes.

Yesterday evening at 9:25 PM, Mr. Curtis passed away at his home in Las Vegas, Nevada. He was 85 years old and his film career spanned 6 decades. During this time he played a slave in "Spartacus", a fugitive chained to fellow escapee Sidney Poitier in "The Defiant Ones", and a spineless gofer opposite Burt Lancaster in "The Sweet Smell of Success." The entire index of his films would be too long to list here.

Married at one time to Janet Leigh, he was also the proud father of actress Jamie Lee Curtis. You might say that acting ran in the family.

There is not much that I can cover here which you will not read in today's papers, or hear on the news. So I thought I would re-run a review of Mr. Curtis' hilarious and insightful book about the fiming of the classic "Some Like It Hot", which I reviewed here last November. Mr. Curtis is one more of the "old" Hollywood crowd that seems to grow thinner with each passing year. Thanks, Mr. Curtis for some wonderful movies, and for this very entertaining book about a landmark film.

This is a delightful book. "Some Like It Hot" has long been a favorite of mine and to get a glimpse behind the scenes through the eyes of one of the principal actors is a treat!

Mr. Curtis spares nothing in his recollections of the filming of one of Hollywood's best loved masterpieces. There is a little bit of "kiss and tell" here, but not too much. The book is more a narrative of what it was like working with the creative genius of Billy Wilder.

The book is filled with anecdotes and tidbits of information about not only the movie but Hollywood itself. The rift between George Raft, who plays one of the gangsters, and Edward G. Robinson is explored. This goes back to the filming of "Manpower" with Robinson and Raft as Linesmen in love with the same woman, Marlene Dietrich. In reality they were both smitten with her and came to blows on the set. There was a Life photographer there who got it on film. Due to this , Robinson turned down the part to play opposite Raft in "Some Like It Hot."

The parts of the book that are the most entertaining involve Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon learning how to dress and act like women. The big surprise for Mr. Curtis was how well Jack Lemmon adapted to the role. He revelled in it!

The creative process is explored extensively. Billy Wilder never made a film with a complete script. He would film what he had and then rewrite or revise as necessary. This gives his films the spontaneity they are known for.

Filled with photographs from the studio and some of the authors own collection this book is a great read for holiday travel. The color photos are a real treat as the movie was shot in black and white.

The freindship between Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis is beautifully expressed. This will be of interest to all Monroe fans. He has a unique ability to let you peek inside without being sleezy. He obviously recognizes Marilyn Monroes faults but also gives her credit for the complex and sensitive person she was.

Originally I picked this off the shelf as a quick selfish read. It turned out to be so much more than that. I'm glad I took the time to look behind the magic of the movie and see how it was accomplished.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


On September 29th, 1976 I left my house looking something like this.

10 weeks later I returned, looking like this.

And 4 weeks after that I left Brooklyn looking like this.

On my way to this.

USS Neosho AO-143

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

"Harry Brown" with Michael Caine

Being a Michael Caine fan carries with it many risks. The main one is that he makes any movie offered to him. He once remarked that, "I am an actor, and that's what I do. I don't write the stuff." But I am always willing to take a chance on one of his films, hoping that it will be another gem, such as "The Man Who Would Be King", or the beautifully scripted "Cider House Rules", or "Secondhand Lions." While "Harry Brown" may not rise to those levels of perfection, it is worth the time to watch. This is the British version of "Gran Torino", the American film starring Clint Eastwood as an angry old man, fed up and ready to strike back.

While the theme of this movie is clearly akin to "Gran Torino", which was made one year before, this film offers you the opportunity to see that the breakdown in social order is not confined to the United States alone. This film takes place in Great Britain.

Harry, played by Michael Caine, is a "pensioner", that is he is on what we call Social Security and lives in the housing project known as the "Estate." It is a typical high rise, high crime type of development which we, here in America, refer to as the "projects." His life consists mainly of going to the local pub with his friend, another aging "pensioner."

His friend has taken to carrying a bayonet, a souvenir from Harry and his days as a Royal Marine. He carries it for protection against the drug dealers and thugs who inhabit the underground pedestrian walkway that leads into the "estate." Harry walks the extra half a mile to avoid the tunnel, but his friend is insistent upon his right to use it.

The old man has been to the Police several times seeking protection, to no avail. When he is finally beaten to death Harry decides that he must act on his own to avenge the murder. This is where the film takes a much different turn than "Gran Torino."

Harry goes on a killing spree, and although he kills only the ones involved in his friends death, he never looks beyond his own anger and rage. In "Gran Torino", Clint Eastwood's character actually learns something about himself, as well as the problems of those around him. Using this knowledge he is able to help change some of the problems that plague the neighborhood in which he lives.

Not so in "Harry Brown." When about to kill one of the men who murdered his friend , he is shown a film of the actual murder, taken on one of the thugs cellphones. What he sees shocks him; his friend, insisting upon using the tunnel, actually can be seen brandishing the weapon and striking the first blow. He is then savagely beaten to death, and though his death is unwarranted, you are made to understand that it was his actions which inadvertently caused it.

This is a bitter pill for Harry Brown to swallow. And for the viewer as well. Very realistic filming and credible acting make this a film worth watching, even if just as a comparison to "Gran Torino." It is interesting to see how the two films take the same theme and come to completely different conclusions concerning the same problems.

Monday, September 27, 2010

"The Best Lawyer in a One Lawyer Town" by Dale Bumpers

This may turn out to be the best autobiography, or memoir, that I will read this year. I picked the book by the cover, something I have been reproached for many times, but still haven't learned not to do. The image of the young man on the cover, with a picture of whom I believed to be his wife, or girlfriend, in the background, reminded me of my parents generation, so I was immediately interested in reading the book. I had no idea who Dale Bumpers is. I do now!

I read a lot of books, being retired early has given me the time that I always wanted to just sit and read. There is so much to be learned in everything that is written. And when you come across something as well written as this book is, you just keep on turning the pages.

Like most good books, this one can be read on several levels. As a memoir, it is extraordinary in the author's accomplishments, both as a busisnessman and lawyer; and later on, as a politician. His rise from the relatively humble beginnings of small town Charleston, Arkansas during the Depression years, to Attorney, then Governor, and later United States Senator, make for a wonderful story about the promise inherent with being born an American.

His exploits with his brother and the bond with his family are the stuff that William Saroyan wrote about in "The Human Comedy." This is a story about America when she was still perceived as strong and good. The grief of the author concerning his parents death in 1949 is palpable to the reader. His sister's struggle with health issues that almost killed her highlight the compassionate leanings of the future Senator fron Arkansas. He came from the people he represented, never forgetting the deprivations of his own youth.

On another level the book is a history of the times in which it takes place. There were times of great social upheaval during the years leading up to, and even after, the Second World War. These were times in which our system of government was sorely tested. And Dale Bumpers had a front line seat to all of it, working first as a paper boy, then in his father's hardware store, and also as a Marine during the closing days of the war. Through all of these adventures, somehow Mr. Bumpers never loses his humility, something which he inherited from his father, an educated and compassionate man, to say the least.

Upon his return to Arkansas after the war the author goes to school in Chicago on the GI Bill, becomes a lawyer and returns to Charleston to run his fathers hardware store. He also begins his law practice in the rear of the store, conjuring up shades of Abe Lincoln in Springfield.

There is one story in this book that truly gives the measure of Mr. Bumpers and his extraordinary life. That is the episode of the alarm clock. There was a man in Charleston named Keith Robinson. He was borderline in his mental capacity and his job was to sweep the streets. He was an object of ridicule to many of the town's school age children. Mr. Bumpers was not one of these tormentors. But several years later he sold Mr. Robinson an alarm clock on credit, knowing pretty well that he would never be able to collect for it. Mr. Bumpers then recounts that although he was appalled at the treatment of Mr. Robinson by others, he never once did anything about it.

His recollection of the shame he felt, and still feels, concerning the one time he did ask Mr. Robinson when he was going to pay for the alarm clock, which only caused Mr. Robinson extreme embarrasment, is very telling. That the author includes this story, highlighting his own shortcoming in the tale, serves to show him in an honest light. Something this poignant and introspective has not been expressed since Benjamin Franklin wrote of his own failures of morality in his celebrated Autobiography over two hundred years ago.

The book is very well written and chronicles Arkansas political history in a way that lends new understanding to the politics of our time. Along the way the author regales the reader with story after story from his days as an attorney. The Civil Rights years and the Central High School intergration episode in Little Rock are extremely interesting chapters that shed further light on the town of Charleston and the way in which this volatile issue was handled there.

His political leanings were on hold during the years that he was struggling with the hardware store and juggling his work as an attorney. Eventually, in 1962, he ran for state office and lost. Licking his wounds he went on to try again, and by 1970 he ran against, and defeated, Governor Winthrop Rockefeller in his bid for a second term.

The book kicks into high gear when the Governor goes on to the United States Senate where he served for 24 years. Upon retiring from Government service he becme an attorney, associated with the Washington law firm Arent Fox. In January of 1999 he delivered the closing address in the Impeachment Hearings of President Clinton, which resulted in the charges being dismissed.

This is an insightful and highly readable book. It tells the story of America, and one man, during decades of struggle and change for America. That struggle continues today.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Items of Interest

There are so many "items of interest" in my home. Note that I don't use the term "value", although there are some. But the things that draw the most attention and comment are often the simplest of the many items that are strewn about, cluttering my desk, the end tables and even the chairs. And some defy an explanation as to how they arrived on scene. Take, for instance, this 1958 four cent Postcard; where did I get it? Why was it tucked into my Bar Mitzvah Bible? I have no idea.

The thing is, I have a roomful of stuff like this. I have old Texaco and Esso (Exxon) maps which I obtained while riding my bicycle up and down Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn. My brother and I hit every gas station between Avenue W and Avenue H for maps of the East Coast, Southeast Coast, etc. It's how I really learned geography, and also why I can still name all the coastal states in order.

I have old coins, soda bottles, a seltzer bottle that I "liberated" from a soda truck in 1969, various letters and objects of art, small statues and some guitars; which I do play, though not as well as I'd like.

And then there's the issue of the stamps. I have them, both foreign and domestic, crammed into every available small wooden box, and some, like these two, actually stay tucked into picture frames that depict events applicable to the times in which they were used. The Project Mercury stamp was actually purchased by me after John Glenn made his historic 3 orbits around the Earth in 1962 and stays tucked in the frame of a John Glenn Commemorative Plaque. The World War Two "Victory" stamp probably belonged to Mom, and is likewise tucked into the frame of a photo of her taken around that time.

I just wonder from time to time how these things survived the years I was away from them; years when they were tucked away in a trunk, sitting in some rented garage in my old neighborhood of Brooklyn, while I wandered about the rest of the world.

I don't always have an explanation for where I acquired certain things, like the Baltimore Fire Department jacket button, the silver jacketed .38 calibre bullet, or the green iron vise that sits on the floor in my bonus room. But I like all these things, they add color and flavor to my days and speak to who I am. Just one more " item of interest."

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Heart Nebula

Explanation: Cosmic clouds seem to form fantastic shapes in the central regions of emission nebula IC 1805. Of course, the clouds are sculpted by stellar winds and radiation from massive hot stars in the nebula's newborn star cluster, Melotte 15.

About 1.5 million years young, the cluster stars are near the center in this colorful skyscape, along with dark dust clouds silhouetted against glowing atomic gas. A composite of narrow and broad band telescopic images, the view spans about 40 light-years and includes emission from hydrogen in green, sulfur in red, and oxygen in blue hues.
Wider field images reveal that IC 1805's simpler, overall outline suggests its popular name - The Heart Nebula. IC 1805 is located about 7,500 light years away toward the constellation Cassiopeia.

I saw this photo on a web site about Nebulas. Reading the paragraphs above, I am left with more questions than answers. You can fit all that I know concerning Nebulas inside a small thimble and still have plenty of room to spare. But I do know that we are all very small in comparison to the "larger picture." And I find this knowledge to be very humbling.

There is nothing that I could post here today which would compare with this insight. But, maybe tomorrow....

Friday, September 24, 2010

Salt In the Wound

Where can I get some of these state of the art Wind Turbines? England, of course! While BP was busy drilling off our shores, and might I add, screwing it up, they were building a Wind Farm!

While we handed out billions in incentives to lure foreign companies to drill off shore here in the United States, the English and the Dutch have been quietly embracing the future, while taking some of our cash.

These wind driven turbines are at the mouth of the Thames River in England. There are 100 units which went into operation yesterday, and can supply electricity for 200,000 homes. That's 2,000 homes per unit. They are set 7 miles offshore and occupy an area of 22 square miles. The total cost to build the Wind Farm was $1.4 billion. It will take more than 20 times that amount to clean up the mess that British Petroleum created while drilling 1 mile deep in the Gulf of Mexico. By comparison, the Wind Farm pictured here is anchored in waters that are about 80 feet in depth.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, with most mysteries revealed. But while we are looking backward, it would seem prudent to ask why the British, and the Dutch, have been looking forward without us? Was it the lack of regulation on our part? Or was it the desire to take advantage of the loopholes that we ourselves left in the regulations concerning the drilling? I don't have the answers, but I do have to wonder - with friends like these, who needs enemies? And while it would be easiest to lay the blame at their feet, I have to remember Pogo and his assertation that, "We have met the enemy - and he is us!"

Thursday, September 23, 2010

"Judgment at Nuremberg" with Spencer Tracy, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich and Judy Garland

This landmark film, made in 1961, the same year in which Israel was trying Adolf Eichmann for Mass Murder, is a stirring production concerned with the responsibility we all hold toward one another as human beings.

The Chief Judge, played by Spencer Tracy, (William Shatner plays his Aide) has never been in the war, and is shocked by the devastation and destruction that he sees when he arrives in Nuremberg, which had been the seat of the Nazi Party. He is tasked with judging the defendants, all of whom were judges in Germany prior to, and throughout, the war. They were responsible for implementing the laws enacted by the Nazi Party. These laws included forced sterilization, denial of race mixing and other social programs that were all part of Germany's plans to exterminite Jews, Gyspy's and any others who did not measure up to the standards set forth by law.

The War Crime Tribunal is of the opinion that these judges should have stood against these laws, even if it meant the ends of their careers, and possibly their lives. From the perspective of the Defendants this would only have resulted in other, more pro-Nazi judges being appointed, with no question as to how they would have acted in implementing these laws.

Burt Lancaster is the German judge who finally comes to realize the damage done by the collective silence of his fellow judges. Montgomery Clift is brilliant as a victim of forced sterilization. Marlene Dietrich plays the widow of a German officer who has been executed for his crimes in a previous trial. Her home is now the residence of the American judge played by Spencer Tracy. From one another they learn just what a person will do, and how far they will go, in order to protect what is theirs. Sometimes it is not an easy call to make.

As Tracy struggles to understand just how the German people allowed the Holocaust to happen, he is confronted by the spectre of our own shortcomings as "victors" in the war. The German Counsel for the Defense, played by Maximilian Schell, is very adept at bringing to light our own nation's sins against our fellow man. Quoting from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes and the American Constitution's "Seperate but Equal" clause, and invoking the horror of our own experiments with "Eugenics" in the late 1930's, usually against blacks and people with low IQ's, he brings stunning reality to bear on the questions of who is right and what is wrong. Does morality change with time and circumstance? Is there ever a real reason to commit Genocide?

This film is timeless in it's subject matter. When Richard Widmark gives his impassioned speech about the brutality of the Nazi's and the futility of Appeasment, one cannot help think about the current debate concerning Islamic Fundamentalism. When does tolerance become foolish? What lengths are acceptable to employ in wiping out evil? And mostly, what are our responsibilities as individuals in standing up to the things that would destroy us all.

The tension of the courtroom scenes, and the sharp direction of a tightly written script, along with superb acting and a timeless question of morality all combine to make this a "must see" film.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

"Me, the Mob, and the Music" by Tommy James

This book is about a garage band from Michigan, that scored a hit in Pittsburgh, went on to create a new genre of music, and gets ripped off for most of the money by Morris Levy, the infamous New York promoter who signed everyone but never paid a dime in royalties. There was an old joke in New York that went like this; "Why does Manhattan have 2 rivers? Because one isn't big enough to hold all the bodies Morris Levy puts there."

Mr. Levy was the head of Roulette Records, and several other music publishing companies, who preyed on naive song writers and artists like Frankie Lymon, and of course, Tommy James. The story of how Tommy James finally hired someone who was able to break the mystery of the missing $40 million in royalties is, by itself, worth the read.

But this book is more than just a kiss and tell tale of the dirty workings behind Rock and Roll music. It is also a look at the life of Thomas Gregory Jackson, later Tommy James, and his life in music. His first band was the proverbial garage band. Tommy was 12 years old at the time. Before he finished high school he would have a Number One record with "Hanky Panky", a song the group kind of "rewrote" after hearing another group called The Spinners do it one Sunday afternoon. They didn't even have a name for their band, let alone the lead singer at the time! Tommy James came about on a whim in the New York offices of Morris Levy. This is a photo of that moment.

The image of this kid playing concerts on the weekend and then going back to school Monday through Friday is almost amusing, but his determination to "make it" is admirable. Through 3 marriages and his problems with "uppers" and amphetimines, this book is as honest as it is brief. At a little over 200 pages, I hadn't expected so much depth from the guy who did "Mony, Mony", which was inspired by the flashing sign in Manhattan for Mutual of Omaha New York. I was also surprised that the author of such psychedelic classics as "Crimson and Clover", "Crystal Blue Persuasion", and "Sweet Cherry Wine" never did LSD or any of the other psychedelic drugs.

This is a very honest and revealing book which offers a look at what it's like to be an innocent caught up in the music scene. It is also the story of one man's struggle against the odds, bad promoters, dishonest agents and his own weaknesses. And in the end, it is the story of the man who emerges, fulfilled with what he has done and where he has landed.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"Cry Hard, Cry Fast" by John D. MacDonald

It would be an easy argument to state that John D. MacDonald is one of the most prolific authors of late 20th century fiction. With over 70 books under his belt, it would seem hard to beat him, although Howard Fast does come to mind. Mr. Mac Donald's Travis McGee series alone would earn him a notable place in American popular fiction.

But before there was a Travis McGee, and a formula for sucess in his writing, Mr. MacDonald was one of the most imaginative writers on the scene. This 1955 novel deals with an everyday tragedy, a car accident. What makes it such a landmark novel is the authors approach to the actual event. He traces the movements of each of the persons involved in the wreck during the days and weeks preceeding the event. This look into the lives of the victims of this multiple tragedy allows the reader to really step inside the shoes of each one of the victims and feel their pain, from their individual points of view, which range from guilt to grief.

Guilt and grief can go hand in hand. One is as much a prison as the other. The hard part is seeking out the balance in between which will allow you to go on living. A superb read by one of America's premier authors.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Happy Birthday, Sue!

Happy Birthday to my wife, Sue. We are both the same age. Beyond that you will get no information concerning the actual number of years involved. I want it to be a Happy Birthday. But if you look in on this space in the next 3 weeks, you will discover my age, and therefore know her age.

This picture was taken in 1959 at the Pensinger Family Picnic. That's Sue in the middle with the short hair on her head and a smile on her face.

Sue hasn't changed that much over the years, still smiling. I always say that if it were raining shit, she would find a use for it, while I would be busy cursing the Gods. She has a way of dealing with everything in a normal manner, an art which I have not yet mastered.

So, this is my very public Happy Birthday to Sue, my wife and lover, as well as my friend...

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Vance Hotel - Statesville, N.C.

The Vance Hotel is closed. The six story, 85 room hotel, completed in 1922 quickly became the place to go during the heady days of the 1920's and Statesville was in it's boom.

Located in the heart of downtown Statesville, which is the county seat of Iredell County, the hotel has closed after almost 90 years as the town's principal place of lodging. It was often said that "there are a lot of rooms in Statesville, but only one Hotel."

With a restaurant and a bar on the ground floor, as well as a swimming pool, this building was the height of luxury during the 1920's through the 1970's. Statesville was largely an agricultural place back then, surrounded by the many farms that raised cotton to supply the mills which were still in operation during those years before NAFTA closed them down.

As the character of the town changed, so did the need for a luxury hotel. But the building itself is still a monument to the times in which it thrived. Go a few blocks east, or west, and you will find all of the "cookie cutter" type motels that dot the land from coast to coast. Looking at them, you can see why people wanted to stay here.

Now, the best part of any old building is the legend that may go along with it. This building comes complete with a legend all it's own. The girl pictured in this lithograph, which hung in the Vance Hotel restaurant for many years, is said to have drowned in the swimming pool years ago.

During the 1970's, and on through the filming of "Leatherheads", (thanks L!) with George Clooney a few years ago, there have been numerous accounts of a young girl, who in appearance resembles the girl in the picture, standing in the hallways, dripping water. Shades of the two twins in "The Shining."

Whether you believe in ghosts or not, it's a great story. And the starting bid for the picture, at $800, is well worth owning a piece of that story.

The film, "Leathernecks", lent a new perspective to the building. The hotel, which had been closed for some time before the film began shooting, came back to life while the film crew was there. The electricity and water were turned back on, and the swimming pool was filled again. The building is still structurally sound and there are tentative plans to refurbish it and recreate the old elegance which once inhabited the Vance.

And no self respecting hotel would be complete without the tales of the rich and mighty people who have stayed there over the years. The Vance is no exception, and has had it's share of luminaries as guests. Over the years many well known politicians and actors have frequented the place.

Ronald Reagan stayed there during his swing through North Carolina in the 1980 elections. Sue bought this vase, which was a fixture in the room where the future President lodged while visiting the town. It was in the largest room in the hotel, which was often referred to as the "rich folks" room by the hotel staff.

No matter what fate befalls this elegant little building, I am glad to have known it in it's final years. Sitting across from the Statesville Permit Office, as well as the County Planning Board, gave me many an opportunity to observe the place. It's declining years notwithstanding, the simplicity of the building is precisely what gives the Vance it's unique beauty. And no matter what happens, Sue and I will always have the vase.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Reynolda House and Museum

The Reynolda House and Museum, located just outside of Winston-Salem, was built just after the turn of the century. The one in 1900. It was home to R.J. Reynolds, the tobacco king. He didn't live there long though, he expired only six months after he moved in with his wife Katherine in 1917. Together they had a daughter, Mary, who inherited the estate after Mrs. Reynolds death in 1924.

Mary Reynolds Babcock, and her husband Charles, had grand visions to exceed her mother's goal in making the place a veritable Oasis. And she did just that. With acres of gardens and a staff of a dozen, she transformed the place into a wonderworld all of it's own, complete with a private bowling alley, indoor shooting range, glassed in pool, game room and everything you can possibly imagine. And along with this beautifully appointed home, which Mrs. Babcock referred to as her "cottage", she added a world class art collection which rivals many museums.

This is Mrs. Reynolds study. The furnishings are understated elegance from a bygone era. You can actually feel comfortable in this room. The beauty of the home is that there was very little that was roped off, and most things seemed so accessible. This added to the charm of the visit. There were guards, but they were more like guides. I was mildly rebuked for using my camera on the Frederic Church painting "The Andes of Ecuador", but in such a friendly way that I found myself in a 10 minute discussion of Thomas Cole with the guard, who was very well acquainted with all aspects of the house, as well as art in general.

In many of these carefully decorated rooms the visitor will find treasured artworks by Winslow Homer, Thomas Cole (one of my favorites) and his student Frederic Church, along with other notables such as Albert Bierstadt. These artists were the cream of the Hudson River School of landscape artists. There are also statues and busts that you might expect to find in the national Museum in Washington, D.C.
Here is Mrs. Reynolds bedroom. Again the understated elegance lends a comforting feeling to the room. The whole house is really divided into three sections. There is the main house, which is fashioned like a large bungalow, with 2 wings added, one on each side.

In the middle of the home is a Grand Reception Hall. The most amazing thing about this area is that it appears subdued and dark, old world classy, yet at the same time captures all of the bright daylight form the Lake Porch in the front and the Sun porch in the rear.

There is also a second floor with bedrooms and baths, as well as an attic that is organized along the lines of a museum. There are collections of vintage clothing, toys and even furniture. The gleaming white tiled bathrooms with their pedestal sinks are a wonderful look back in time.

Beneath the home is a private entertainment world which houses the bowling alley, shooting range and a swimming pool that exits out into the beautiful gardens. There is also a wonderful greenhouse for the aspiring gardener that lurks within us all.

The Gardens are now part of Wake Forest University, the first 400 acres were given to the school in the late 1940's. Over the years the estate has donated more land to the college, which has kept the Reynolda Gardens in bloom for all to enjoy.

Located about an hour and a half from Charlotte, this was a wonderful visit to a home that has stood the test of time. It has all the amenities necessary to get away from the daily grind. And there wasn't a TV set anywhere! Now that's gracious living.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Yom Kippur - 5771

My Uncle Irving used to spend the evening of Yom Kippur at our house. He lived in a hotel in Manhattan and our apartment in Brooklyn was the only place where he really felt comfortable lighting a Yahrzeit (Memorial Candle). He would wear a Yarmulke for this occasion each year, which always underscored the solemnity of the day.

Like most Jews in New York at the time, Uncle I was largely secular. He was not a regular attendee of shul on Fridays, those evenings were spent with me. But Yom Kippur was a big deal. The only thing he did do that violated the sacredness of of that holiday was in his making the return trip to Manhattan after sundown, so that he would be present for morning services. For this purpose he would travel by subway.

The streets were always deserted on the High Holy Days, like Rosh Hashanah, but the effect was even more magnified on Yom Kippur. Even Christians stayed home! There was no place that was open for them to go.

It was to be years until I began lighting my own Yahrzeit, for my Mom, and even longer before I ventured into the prayer portion. I won't be found in Synagogue, electing to have my own time, here at home, alone with my thoughts. And, being so thin, I don't fast. But I do light the candle, just as Uncle I did, and I say the prayer in memory of my Mom, just as he did for his Mom and Dad.

The only difference is that now I say the Prayer for my Mom and my Uncle Irving and his Mom and Dad. I think it makes them feel good. And someday, my daughter will add my name to that list. It's kind of like a chain that keeps on growing. And that, makes me feel good, too.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

"The Ultimate Bee Gees"

I was never much of a Bee Gees fan, beyond their early hits such as "I've Gotta Get A Message to You", "New York Mining Disaster 1941" and the other early pop hits recorded between 1967 and 1972. Of course they scored a super crossover with "To Love Somebody", a great song by the Bee Gees, but a real blues experience in the hands of Janis Joplin, who had the ability to take any song and make it her own. Witness her recording of Kris Kristofferon's "Me and Bobby McGee." People still think she wrote that one.

The Bee Gees became the soundtrack of the 1970's cocaine, Florida based sound of Disco music and Huck-a Poo shirts. This 2 CD compilation is a great testament to the contribution that the Bee Gees made to music. That they survived for 4 decades in an industry that thrives on change says some very strong things about the group, and ourselves. Did this group change over time, or with time? Did they steer, or were they steered by, the times they were in?

There was a time when I wouldn't have been caught dead listening to something like "Jive Talkin' ", yet yesterday I found myself in the car, windows down, breeze blowing, singing along to it! And as the album played on, I began to realize just how much of the background music to my life has been by the Bee Gees. I danced to them in every major city of the world when I was traveling during the 70's and 80's. I listened to them as background music in movies and even in elevators and at malls. And they have been a staple at every Bar Mitzvah or Wedding that I have attended for the past 30 years.

Checking out the playlist of 40 songs there is not one that doesn't evoke some sort of memory or event from their 3 decades at the top of the charts. The pictures of the group over the years also show a remarkable transformation of the brothers from Pop Stars to Disco Kings.

Every once in awhile I surprise myself by reading, or listening to, something that I didn't think I really cared for. This was one of those times. As to the relevancy the Bee Gees still exert on our current music scene, both in sound and style - just check out the hat that last night's "America's Got Talent" winner was wearing and then look back at the cover of this album. Oh, and in between there has been another guy with a hat just like it. His name was Michael Jackson.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

"Rickles' Book" by Don Rickles

This is a very unusual autobiography, written by a very unusual man. Don Rickles is known the world over for his short and snappy comments, wait, make that insults. He has regaled audiences from The Elegante, on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn (I had my Bar Mitzvah there) to Las Vegas, Hollywood, London and all points in between.

To be honest, when I saw this book on the shelf, I was expecting a serious tome about Mr. Rickles humble beginnings. Instead I got a book that is quickly read, highly informing and very entertaining. He writes like he delivers his jokes, the longest chapter is about 3 or 4 pages. And he dishes out some great stories about the exploits of his friends, including such luminaries as Johnny Carson, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Queen Elizabeth, Larry King; there are simply too many to name them all here.

In an amazing compilation of these short chapters, Mr. Rickles manages to give a coherent and chronological account of his life. His chapter about being in the Navy during World War Two is hilarious. He wanted to be in Special Services, entertaining the troops. His account of where he did wind up, and how he felt about it is laudable.

Tracing his life through the post war years and his fledgling show business career, he introduces the reader to the world of show business in the 1950's and 1960's. The contracts, the bookings, all the travel arrangments required before the age of computers, are all laid bare. And through all of the problems there is one constant, Mr. Rickles sense of humor.

His 40 year friendship with Bob Newhart is one of my favorite chapters. I have never been a big Bob Newhart fan, but how these two totally opposite of men became such close friends is a remarkable tale all of it's own. It is also a tribute to their wives and the power that women generally hold over their men.

Filled with many fun stories, for instance, did you know that Mr. Rickles sent a tape to the Moon with Gene Cernan aboard Apollo 17? Or, that he took a bullet in the leg during the filming of "Kelly's Heroes?" And if you liked the film "Casino", there is a chapter here for you as well. Mr. Rickles has appeared in every entertainment medium since TV. He has acted in films with Clark Gable, and has had guest appearances on every TV sitcom that you can name. I still remember him as the inept street salesman on the Andy Griffith Show. So does Andy Griffith.

A short book (237 pages) written by a man who is motivated by his friendships and a love of show business, this book is the perfect vehicle to relax with. It will inspire the reader to have a better day.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

William Beanes and Francis Scott Key

I have always been the type that stops to read the historical markers on the side of the road. When I was an estimator, working in and around Wahington, D.C., I frequently went to the Prince Georges County Courthouse to obtain Building Permits and Deed information. Across the street from the courthouse was an old, and sometimes unkempt, grave which always intriqued me. One day, when I had some time to spare, I walked over to see it more closely and was surprised to find that this man, one Dr. William Beanes, was connected to, no make that, responsible for, the chain of events that culminated in Francis Scott Key writing "The Star Bangled Banner" some 196 years ago today. Let me tell you the story;

Dr. Beanes was born in Upper Marlboro, Prince Georges County in Maryland in the year 1749. He was the son of a prominent planter. Educated in Scotland at the University of Edinburgh, he became a Doctor and returned home to Maryland.

Still living at the time of the War of 1812, he resided in Upper Marlboro, around which some of the preliminary battles to seize Washington, D.C. were being fought in September of 1814. And this is where Dr. Beanes begins his intersection with history.

The British were foraging for food and supplies when they arrived at Dr. Beanes home. He identified himself as a Federalist, the Ameican political party which was vehemently opposed to the war with Britain. He even went so far as to let them take whatever they needed, and was so cooperative, that he was paid full market value for everything that the British took from him.

They then proceeded on their journey, leaving 4 men behind. 2 of these were "stragglers", who had become seperated from their units. The other 2 were deserters, and had they been caught by the British, would be hung.

The following day found Dr. Beanes strolling across his fields with American General Bowie when they noticed 2 men lurking nearby. These were the "stragglers." A short time later the deserters were captured as well and all 4 were held in Upper Marlboro. The news spread quickly and soon the British had sent a squad back to the town to collect the prisoners. They gave the town until noon the next day to produce them or else the entire town would be burned.

The next day the town gave them the "stragglers", who were after all, still enemies, but refused to give up the deserters. By this time they had been removed to Queen Anne County for safe keeping. When the British began to make preparations to burn the town, Dr. Beanes quickly offered himself in exchange. This was a remarkable man, who, at one moment is dealing with the enemy for provisions in a war to which he is opposed, the next moment finds him capturing the enemy and then aiding in hiding 2 of them before finally offering himself up in an effort to spare his town!

When the British left Upper Marlboro, a Mr. Weems and Dr. Hill rode to Georgetown, where Richard West, a friend of Dr. Beanes, contacted his brother-in-law, Francis Scott Key, a prominent attorney and also brother in law to Richard Taney. The trio were able to contact President Madison and he dispatched Mr. Key, along with the Presidents emissary for Prisoner exchanges, John Skinner, aboard the USS Minden to seek out the British Fleet and arrange for the release of Dr. Beanes.

Starting downriver from Baltimore the Minden located the British at the mouth of the Potomac, just as they were about to turn and head towards Fort McHenry and Baltimore. They had already burned Washington, D.C., and the capture of Baltimore would be another "feather in their caps."

The British were, at first, reluctant to release Dr. Beanes, and both Mr. Skinner and Mr. Key were apalled at the condition of Dr. Beanes, who was being held in solitary confinement and on reduced rations. But as affidavit after affidavit poured in from the British commanders in the field, attesting to Dr. Beanes fair treatment of the British, both General Ross and Admiral Cochrane agreed to his release. However, as Skinner and Key had been aboard too long, and heard too much about the British plans, all three would be held until the following day, when the battle for Baltimore would, presumably, be over.

That night the British sailed up river to Fort McHenry and the bombardment began. Throughout the night both Key and Skinner struggled in vain to see if the flag had been "struck", or lowered, indicating a surrender on the part of the Americans. But as the dawn broke, and the smoke cleared, Key could see "by the dawn's early light, what so proudly we hailed, at twilights last gleaming..." The flag was still flying when the British turned around.

The British may have managed to burn the White House and drive the government out of town, but they would not go on to win a victory in Baltimore, and they would lose the war. Although the Treaty of Ghent was signed on December 24th, 1814, word of the treaty would not reach America until February of 1815. By that time the British had lost The Battle of New Orleans, fought in January of 1815, which resulted in their unconditional surrender, and almost 150 years later inspire another, but quite different song, concerning the events there. But that's another story, and another blog....

Monday, September 13, 2010

The DMV and Me

I had to go the the DMV for an application to get Handicapped Plates the other day. It was quite an experience, for both the DMV and me. First, let me tell you that I have been putting this off for some time now, doubtless due to a vague sense of pride on my part. When I arrived there, I noticed a Police Officer sitting by the door. We nodded to one another and I entered the small, cramped office.

I was in line for about 20 minutes, back burning, waiting for a form. I have very bad osteoporosis and as there were were no chairs, I asked one of the clerks if I could just get a form. To do this I had to step to the front of the line, drawing an instant rebuke from the clerk, who angrily snapped, "Everyone is waiting for something. You'll have to get back in line." I muttered something about not being able to stand long, but took my place back in the line.

She must have pressed a buzzer, or clicked her Nextel, because the door instantly opened and the Officer entered, looking at the Clerks, who , with a nod, indicated me. The Officer approached, leaned in towards me and snarled,"Sir, do you have a problem?" I replied, "No Officer, I'm just here for a Handicapped Application and was hoping to get one without waiting another 20 minutes in line." He answered, loudly, and with a design to draw support from the crowd, that "everyone is waiting for something. Do you want to leave?"

I sized the situation up in a nanosecond, and turning to the other patrons queried, "How many people waiting for a Handicap App?" No answers. The officer persisted in his rant, suggesting that I "tone myself down or leave the premises." I followed up with, "You know, while I've been standing here in pain, waiting for a form, you have been sitting the entire time, in the only available chair. How about I go outside and sit in your chair while you wait for my form?" I then walked out the door and sat down in his chair.

About 5 minutes passed and the officer cracked open the door. There I was, sitting in his chair, arms folded across my chest, with a look on my face that said, "What are you gonna do about it? Beat me?" I mean I had already announced to the entire room that I was in need of a Handicapped Application! I had also been unflaggingly polite, but firm, with the Officer during the entire confrontation. With a sheepish look he quietly closed the door and went back inside, to the Land of No Chairs.

About 3 minutes later he came out, with me thinking, "Oh boy, here it comes...." But to my surprise he handed me my form. And in return, I gave him back his chair.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

No Post Today

No post today. Taking a day off from thinking to enjoy some music instead. Here's a video from Paolo Nutini, one of my favorite performers. This song was originally a slow, sad song about wanting to go back, you know, getting a second chance. But somehow, when they showed up at Borders Books, for a live performance to promote an album, the song took on a whole new tempo, sound and direction. Luckily, someone was there to record it!


Friday, September 10, 2010

Aunt Marguerite's Flower

This is a flower from the funeral spray of Sue's Aunt Marguerite Pensinger Rachilla. Aunt Marguerite passed away on August 29th. She had just turned 89 on August 18th.

Born in Marion, Pennsylvania in 1921, she saw many changes to the world in which she lived. She grew up on a farm, married, had children, and otherwise lead a "normal" life. But what she did with her time in the researching and documentation of the Pensinger Family history, is a remarkable bit of work.

Before there were computers and data bases, along with search tools such as and the like, Aunt Marguerite combed the actual paper records in local courthouses and libraries, amassing all that she could find about her family's history. She compiled a volume of work which validated her entry into the Daughters of the American Revolution. This tireless, and at times mundane task, has now become the basis for all the future members of the Pensinger family to embrace their history.

I only met this remarkable woman a few times, the last times were in the Assisted Care Facility in which she spent her final years. The Pensinger family held their last two re-unions at the Facility where she lived. This seemed only proper, she was, after all, the Family Matriarch. This photo was taken in Scotland, Pennsylvania sometime around 1941. The family farmhouse is in the background. She is wearing a white cotton Carmen Miranda style blouse that sets off her red hair and smiling eyes.

The flower pictured above reminds me of Psalm 90; "Lord, what is man that thou takest knowledge of him?...Man is like a breath, his days but a passing shadow. In the morning he flourishes and springs up afresh; in the evening he is mowed down and withers. So teach us to number our days , that we may attain a heart of wisdom." I believe that Aunt Marguerite did just that.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

"The Hilliker Curse - A Memoir" by James Ellroy

If I were to tell you that James Ellroy, the celebrated and widely read mystery writer, used to be a Peeping Tom, a drunk, and a fantasy stalker of women you might label me crazy. And until I read this remarkable memoir by Mr. Ellroy, if you had told me these things I would have thought the same of you. But it’s all here, in black and white, written by the master of mystery himself.

James Ellroy, like so many of us, has lived a secret life for the past 50 years. We all carry demons. His parents divorced when he was very young, and at first he lived with his mother. His father was a “man about town” type who had numerous girlfriends. This is one of the things that lead to Mr. Ellroy’s parents becoming divorced.

As bad as his father may have been, his mother was no angel either. She drank to excess and gave herself to different men. All of this would affect the author deeply as he struggled through his earliest, and most impressionable, years. He is at once repulsed by, and attracted to, his mother.

As the result of an argument one night when he was about 10, he expressed his wish to go and live with his father. His mother struck him for this slight, and that set the author to wishing his mother were dead. Three months later she was murdered. Mr. Ellroy then goes to live with his father. But the effects of the divorce and murder, along with the guilt brought about by wishing his mother dead would go on to haunt, and shape Mr. Ellroy for years to come. Her name was Jean Hilliker.

Deftly taking the reader through the world of Los Angeles during the early 60’s and then on to New York and the whole country, Mr. Ellroy traces his career through the fantasies he entertained while struggling to find his niche. At one point he even breaks into houses just to touch and feel the belongings of the women he sees, but feels that he can never possess.

How he comes to terms with all of these demons and emerges as one of the most beloved of mystery writers is a story that only the author can tell. The things that lurk inside, and that drive us all, are unique to the individual. The struggle is not. This is a very courageous and honest book which explores the darkest parts of Mr. Ellroy’s life. I cannot imagine the courage it took to write it. On the other hand I cannot imagine the pain that he carried secretly for so long.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Robert Todd Lincoln - Too Close to History

This is President William McKinley. It was this week in 1901 when Robert Todd Lincoln, son of the slain President, rushed from the train station in Buffalo to greet President McKinley at the Temple of Music. He did so in his capacity as President of the Pullman Cars Association to lend a hand in the political opportunites afforded by the Pan American Exposition which was being held in Buffalo that year. Robert Todd Lincoln was always late.

Just as he arrived Leon Czolgosz approached the President, his hand in a sling which concealed a revolver. He used this weapon to shoot the President within yards of the ever tardy Mr. Lincoln. The President was shot on the 6th and died of his wounds on the 14th of September. After this event, Mr. Lincoln would make no more public political appearances for the rest of his life. Some say this was a self imposed idea. Others say he fell out of favor as a guest for a very understandable, but unusual, reason.

You see, Robert Todd had a history of being late at the very times when Presidents were shot. He was late in 1881 when he was serving under President James Garfield, pictured here, as the Secretary of War. On this occasion he arrived, as he later did with McKinley, at the precise moment the fatal shots were fired by Charles Guiteau. Just as later, with McKinley, Robert Todd was only yards away. It has been written that both Garfield, and later McKinley, were having dreams portending their own deaths at the hands of an assassin. So much had been written about President Lincoln's premonitions, that both subsequent Presidents were eager to discuss this with his son Robert.

This is Robert Todd Lincoln as he appeared in the 1880's. The history of his presence at the assassinations began, of course, with the murder of his father, Abraham Lincoln, which occured on the very night that Captain Lincoln arrived back in Washington after having served as an aide to General Grant. He was too tired to attend the theater that night, electing to stay in the White House instead. But he was summoned about 11 PM that night after news of his fathers assassination had spread throughout the city like wildfire. Rushing to the President's side he was present when President Lincoln passed away at about 7:30 AM the following morning.

I have often thought about the burden that Robert Todd Lincoln carried with him for the rest of his life. He did write briefly about it, posing such questions as "What if I had been there?" and "Might it have gone differently?" No one will ever know. But every year when the anniversary of President McKinley's assassination rolls around, I think about poor Robert Todd Lincoln and the burden that he carried for over 6 decades until he passed away in 1926.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

"America at Night" by Larry J. Kolb

This is a very interesting, and disturbing book. It confirms all that most of us already know about our government. It is way out of control. It has been reduced to a series of organizations that do nothing but fight over their allotted share of tax dollars, and then in turn, these same organizations, after stealing from you and I, go on to lie, cheat and steal from one another to accumulate even more power for themselves. They then suck in even more money from private, business and banking sources, thus cementing their own interests in place.

If Larry Kolb is to be believed, and I see no reason to doubt his story, then your tax money was used as "seed" to institute a vast scheme to cheat John Kerry of victory in the 2004 Presidential Election. This scheme was organized by the same team that brought you the "October Surprise" in 1980,the result of which was that the hostages at our Embassy in Tehran were held for an extra 4 months, on the eve of their diplomatically arranged release. This ensured that Presidential Nominee Ronald Reagan would defeat President Carter in that year's election, and underscores my point that our government is way out of control, and has been for some time. For their co-operation Iran received millions in arms and military hardware to fight the Iraqi's. This was the spark that would later cause Saadam Hussein to invade Kuwait.

Back to the election of 2004 and John Kerry;

With very detailed notes and a skillful sense of writing, Mr. Kolb takes us through the paces concerning one Robert Sensi and his partner Robert Mitchell. Along the way we encounter Muhammad Ali, the Bush family, and a slew of International business men with far reaching and vastly different connections who all have one thing in common, the desire to see Predident Bush re-elected. Together they concoct a scheme to smear Senator John Kerry. The fact that this scheme was unnecessary, and that Kerry lost of his own accord, makes the whole thing seem even more ridiculous. It smacks of the same thinking that went into the Watergate Burglary at the DNC in Washington. A crime was committed and the real motives were obscured. There never was a need to burglarize the DNC for information, Nixon was a sure thing that year.

Mr. Kolb, a former CIA operative, who blew his own cover with his last book, "Overworld", tells, in this carefully written narrative, of his first realization that something was not quite right concerning an individual named Robert Sensi, former Chairman of a now defunct business organization. With his first book just completed the last thing he wants to do is to become involved in another CIA project. But as he lays out the files and pieces it all together he unravels one of the most far reaching, and ultimately useless plans ever devised to sway an election.

The plan was simple enough on it's face; just link Kerry to contributions from an organization that has business ties with Iran and Afghanistan. But when Mr. Kolb recognizes that certain names and individual corporations are involved in a scheme to throw the election, he acts to thwart that plan.

This is a very engaging book and a good read, maybe too good. What I mean by that is, once you start to see conspiracies in one place, you start to see them everywhere. So my question would be this; while this story was going on, what was happening that really mattered?

Monday, September 6, 2010

The MDA Telethon - A Childhood Memory

I remember when the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon was a local, one station affair broadcast from the Americana Hotel in New York City. This year is being touted as the 45th Annual Telethon, but I can tell you that this is incorrect.

The telethon began in 1956, with Jerry Lewis and his partner, Dean Martin, hosting a show on WNEW-TV in New York. They raised $600,000 to benefit the newly found Muscular Dystrophy Association of America. Again in 1957 and 1959, Jerry did two more shows, which he began calling “telethons.” These were the days when TV actually went off the air at about 1 or 2 in the morning, so the telethon was a huge event. I remember getting up in the middle of the night to see if it was really still on! And upon waking in the morning it was the first thing I checked.

Another aspect of those early telethons, which I found fascinating, was that at night pledges came in from far away places such as Connecticut and even Philadelphia! The TV signal during the daylight hours was very short range, but at night I could pick up Channel 3 in Philadelphia. I suppose they had discovered the same thing about signals from New York.

When I was 10, and this would be in either 1964 or 1965, my parents, along with my brother and I, collected for MDA and then went to the Americana to join in the long line waiting to dump their donations in the big carts that were set up inside the hotel hallway on the ground floor. I believe it was just outside the doors to the space that was being used for the Telethon. The 1966 Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon was the first to be held on Labor Day weekend and the first to raise more than $1 million.

The Telethon has grown larger over the years. I believe the 1966 date for today's so-called 45th Telethon represents the date of the first broadcast from New York that was linked to other cities, like Philadelphia. Eventually the Telethon left WNEW in New York for WOR-TV and then finally moved to Las Vegas. But nothing will ever compare to the close knit feeling of those first few years when one little station in New York gave birth to this annual event.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

People In Masks

People who wear masks while advocating a political point of view have always baffled me. I know that they believe in the causes they claim to support- but I have to question the wisdom of the masks. Here is a photo from today's news showing the Basque Seperatists declaring a truce. I never thought of a truce as something to be ashamed of. What is so shameful about advocating for Peace?

Regarding masks in general, it would seem to me that if the cause were a just one, I would want my face to be associated with my point of view. I would take pride in my position. On the other hand, I do recognize that in some countries the mask may be necessary, especially if your views are not in synch with the repressive government with which you may be in contrast. But the mask does seem to take away from the perceived legitimacy of the argument. I cannot imagine George Washington or Thomas Jefferson wearing masks to obscure their identities. Because I have been raised in a free society it is hard for me to imagine the necessity of taking such measures. As a child I quickly understood that only the bad guys wore masks, with the possible exception of Zorro.

Once mask wearing begins, it doesn't stop. It snowballs into a mindset of deliberate obscurity, in which no one takes a personal stand for what they believe in. Even the Police and Military, when they don masks, detract from the honor of what they do to protect us. But given the danger of what they are up against, namely other people in masks, well, I understand that this may be necessary, although it does make me somewhat uneasy. Where does the responsibility lie when justice is obscurred behind a mask?

Halloween is an appropriate use of masks, as is Mardi Gras. Here is a group of revelers in the Big Easy last year during Fat Tuesday. The masks are rather gruesome, but they are about fun, and not clandestine in nature. In my opinion, Political Views and Law Enforcement, should be conducted in an atmosphere of transparency. It is only through a spirit of openess and honor that we will ever be able to face one another, and ourselves. And wouldn't that be something...?

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Dean Martin - The Capitol Years

I have always been a fan of Dean Martin. I love the arrangements and of course, the singing. Dean Martin is one of the "whiskey throated" smooth voiced singers of the 1940's through the 1960's. Along with Nat King Cole, Mr. Martin was largely influenced by the sound of Bing Crosby in his phrasing of the lyrics, as compared to the earlier stylings of singers such as Rudy Valee. That difference in styling marked the change from "crooning" to what we now consider real singing.

This double CD has it all, including Nat King Cole and Dean Martin's rousing duet of "Open Up the Dog House" to Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis singing "Every Street's a Boulevard", from the 1954 soundtrack of "Living It Up." The pop hits with orchestral backings are a refreshing change from the Top 40 sounds that comes over today's radio. They don't write songs like "I'd Cry Like A Baby" anymore. I'd wager, that if that recording were ever released as a single today, it would top the charts. Laugh if you will, but remember, this is the voice that knocked The Beatles off of the Top Ten in the summer of 1964 with "You're Nobody Til Someday Loves You." Who'd have thought?

Some of my favorite tracks, as usual, are the "previously unreleased" stuff, which gives you a chance to see where the hits came from. It's a glimpse into the creative process that lends an extra attraction to the listening experience. It's the stuff I prefer to hear in my car, where it all seems so personal.

The disc covers every genre of Mr. Martin's unique talent during the years 1949 - 1957. It includes such hits as "Sleepy Old New England Town" and "Solitaire", with their sweet sentimentality, to the rollicking renditions of "Beau James" and "Good Morning Life." And with 40 selections to chose from this collection still manages to keep you in the mood for more.

Friday, September 3, 2010

"The Big Clock" with Charles laughton, Ray Milland and Maureen O'Sullivan

This is one of the later movies classified as "film noir." Released in 1948 it represents a wonderful vehicle for Charles Laughton as the micro-managing editor of a major newspaper. In the lobby of the news building is a system of clocks that tell the time all over the world. It is representative of the value of time, as perceived by the newspapers editor Mr. Janoth (played by Charles Laughton). His star reporter, George Stroud (played by Ray Milland) has, on account of Mr. Janoth's work ethic, not been on vacation for several years. He is always pursuing some story, or even the hint of one, at the suggestion of his boss, Mr. Janoth. This is beginning to wear thin at home with Mrs. Stroud, who has thrown down the gauntlet. The train leaves at 6:30 sharp. She is going to go on vacation, with him, or without.

When Mr. Janoth assigns Mr. Stroud a lead on a very important news story, one that could lead to his being promoted, Stroud is almost sucked back in, risking his happiness at home. At the last moment he decides to quit. On the way to the station, and his wife, he decides to have a drink to celebrate his "freedom." At the bar he meets a woman who happens to be the mistress (played by Rita Johnson) of his former boss and has a grudge against him. After a few drinks Stroud has forgotten all about the time and is uproariously drunk. After carousing about town and being seen everywhere, she takes Stroud, who is now too inebriated to navigate on his own, home with her to "sleep it off" on her sofa. There is no romantic involvement, just circumstances.

When Mr. Janoth's mistress finds that the editor is on his way up to her apartment, she rouses the hapless Stroud from his slumber just in time for him to leave. But he has left behind the one thing that can potentially identify him; a sundial with a green ribbon that the two took from a bar.

Mr. Janoth arrives and proceeds to have a fierce argument with his mistress. Words are said, and in a moment of rage Mr. Janoth uses the sundial to bludgeon his mistress to death. He then flees, leaving the murder weapon behind.

Aided by his most loyal minion, Steve Hagen,(played by George Macready) the race is on to find a fictious killer, and at the same time use the story as a vehicle to boost the paper's sales. In the meantime, our hapless reporter, Mr. Stroud, has re-united with his wife and child, and beginning his long overdue vacation. Then the phone rings.

Mr. Janoth, who is desperate to pin his crime on someone else, cajoles his star reporter into returning from vacation, to solve the mystery and boost the paper's sales. Although Stroud does not wish to leave his wife he realizes the necessity of micro-managing the investigation. The irony here is that he is now doing exactly what he despises about his boss, manipulating people for his own purposes.

With an outstanding appearance by Elsa Lanchester as a witness,(she also happened to be married to Mr. Laughton in real life and appeared in several films with him) she plays a struggling artist who has seen the alledged killer in an antique store on the night of the murder and in the company of Mr. Janoth's mistress.

As the clocks in the lobby tick the time away, the noose tightens, threatening to ensnare Stroud in a trap not of his own making. With a tightly written script and the wonderful Direction of John Farrow, this movie will keep the viewer riveted until the final conclusions are drawn.

A landmark film, set in the New York of the late 1940's, this film was remade as "No Way Out" in 1989 with Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman. They play a military officer (Costner) who is having an affair with a Senator's (Hackman) mistress. Both films are well made, but for my money I'll take Ray Milland and Charles Laughton in this exciting piece of film noir.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Hawking, Einstein and Spinoza

Stephen Hawking (pictured here on the left, next to his sister Mary in 1948) wrote, in "A Brief History of Time", that "If we discover a complete theory, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason, for then we should know the mind of God." I read that book, and although I do not profess to understand everything in it, I could follow his logic in relation to physics, as it encompassed the philospohies of Spinoza, which were later embraced by Albert Einstein.

Mr. Hawking, arguably the most intelligent person on the planet, and who is greatly admired by myself, as well as countless other millions of persons, has now stated that there is no God. He has written, in his new book,"The Grand Design," that the big bang was the event which created "something out of nothing." (I have not read the book yet - this is a quote from the news on my web page) and that "a new series of theories made a creator of the universe redundant."

"Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist."

"It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going."

Now, I am in no position to argue the finer points with Mr. Hawking, being humble enough to know my own limitations. But to me it seems to be a disconnect in reason not to see that the belief in something created "out of nothing" is flawed.

A basic principle of physics, and nature, and as argued by Mr. Hawking himself in the opening quote to this article, is that everything is connected in some fashion.In essence he states that to find the truth is to know the mind of God. It's all a big circle, with a beginning and perhaps, even more importantly, an ending.

In explaining his latest, and perhaps ultimate, triumph, Mr. Hawking should look to himself for the proof of the forgoing conjecture on my part. The saddest thing is to find what you have been looking for all the while, and then upon discovering it, losing sight of what it really is.

I believe in the science of Mr. Hawking's latest claim. It was an inevitable conclusion, borne of physics. But I also believe that he has missed the point of his own studies. Einstein, with his belief in Spinoza and the theory of Causal Determinism, set the stage for Mr. Hawking. It is also one of my beliefs, based upon my own life experiences. Change one thing and you change many other things, all of which are connected.

It is sad to see Mr. Hawking's departure from this course, which clearly shows, by his own earlier writings, an ordered universe, with a beginning other than "something created from nothing." I just cannot accept that.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

"Charlie Chan" by Yunte Huang

Until I ran across this book in the Library I thought that Charlie Chan was merely a fictional character in old movies and novels. Boy, was I wrong. Charlie Chan, that most honorable of Detectives, is based on the real life of Detective Chang Apana of the Honolulu Police Department.

The author, Yunte Huang, begins the book with a short, but fascinating history of the Hawaiian Islands. Horses were first introduced there, along with beef cattle, in the early 1800's. Are you wondering how this fits in with Charlie Chan? So was I.

Chang Apana was born in Hawaii in either 1869 or 1871, the record is sketchy on that. His given name was Ah Pung. At the age of three his family, which had emigrated from China a few years earlier, decided to move back home. The move to Canton opened Chang's eyes to a different world from that to which he was accustomed. At three years old he was expected to contribute something to the household, even picking up sticks for firewood was a helpful chore. Canton was a squalid village in the 1870's, with not much opportunity for advancement. It wasn't long before the family was broke and Chang's parents sent him and an Uncle back to Hawaii as laborers. Chang was 9 years old at the time.

Arriving in Honolulu was not the romantic affair depicted in the movies. Rather than a Lei, upon arrival young Chang is given a metal tag to wear which identifies the plantation he belongs to. He is basically a serf, a part of the Chinese "coolie" labor system which was in practice then.

Hawaii had a large cattle industry by this time, as well as sugarcane fields. Young Chang would come to know them both well. But his expertise began to show itself when dealing with cattle, and he bacame one of Hawaii's best known "paniolos", or cowboys. His experience with a whip would later earn him a reputation as a fierce "no-nonsense" law officer.

But his big break into the "white" world came via Helen Wilder, the daughter of a wealthy American businessman. Ms. Wilder longed to establish a Hawaiian branch of the Society For the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The initial effort failed, but Ms. Wilder was determined to make it work, so in 1898 she was able to re-establish the effort as The Humane Society. Her first choice for an officer was Chang, who had been working for her father and had demonstrated his ability to work with animals, as well as care for them. He was a very busy man. Along the waterfront alone, there were hundreds of cases per month of people not feeding their horses, or beating them until they dropped. Chang fashioned his own whip and began to issue fines, as well as beatings, to those who did not think he was serious.

The author, Mr. Huang, takes every opportunity in this book to tie the history of the island in with the story of Chang and his rise to top Detective. For instance, he explores the complex nature of being Chinese in an American "possession" like Hawaii. He explains the meaning of the Chinese queue, or "pigtail." In China the queue was mandatory, cutting it off would get you beheaded. Many Chinese, even after leaving China, could not bring themselves to cut their queues off. Chang had no such reservations. This cultural dilemma also extended itself to the actions of Chang as an Officer with the Humane Society. As a Chinese, Chang would have believed in re-incarnation. This means that whenever he saw an animal being mistreated he looked upon it as someone torturing the soul of someone who had done some evil in life, thus being relegated to the body of a lesser being after death. As a stableman and cowboy, he would have had great affection for the animals he saw being mistreated on a daily basis.

In 1898 Hawaii was annexed as a territory of the United States. The new Police Force was set up by a man named Arthur Morgan Brown, who was the son of a sea captain. Mr. Brown, like Chang, was born in Honolulu. And they were both friends with Ms. Helen Wilder. And so Chang became one of the first policeman in Honolulu after the annexation by the United States.

By 1904 Changs reputation as a tough, but fair and honest cop, was cemented in the islands history. He once rounded up 40 of Hawaii's most notorious gangsters and gamblers in a single sweep. He disguised himself as a street person and gained entrance to the gambling hall. He then produced his fearsome whip, cracked it loudly once, and marched all 40 of the gangsters to the jail. Not one of the criminals dared to go for their weapons, as Changs skill with a whip was beyond legendary.

Earl Derr Biggers was an author in search of a new novel when he arrived in Hawaii in 1920. He was a very successful author of fiction, as well as a contibutor of short stories to the Saturday Evening post and Ladies Home Journal. His arrival in Honolulu coincided with the opium epidemic that was sweeping the island at the time. Mr. Biggers was fascinated with the daily paper and the stories of the opium dens and police corruption. He was already writing a novel about it all, "The House Without a Key", in his head, when he met Chang Apana. This would become the first novel he wrote in which the fictional Charlie Chan appears, although the first Charlie Chan book would not make it's appearance until 1926 with the release of "The Chinese Parrot."

Taken by the polyglot nature of Chang and his philosphies, the author began to write a sketch of a fictional Detective, who embodied all of the things he saw in Chang. A mixture of wisdom, cunning and daring, this character was the mirror image of the real life Chang. By 1926 "The Chinese Parrot" was released, beginning a run of 6 books featuring the fictional Charlie Chan. In the 1930's these books became the basis for all of the Charlie Chan films to come later.

This book is broad in it's scope, combining both the history and the legends, to illustrate the creative process that gave birth to one of literature's most endurable fictional characters. Somehow, the author has managed to present all of this information in a wholly readable fashion. Chang Apana passed away in Honolulu in 1933. In writing this book the author draws on the famous Detectives interviews from 1932, as well as newspaper articles of the time, to capture the essence of this legendary man.

But no account of either the fictional Charlie Chan, or the real life Chang Apana, would be complete without quoting from one of his many philosophical observations. "Truth like football - receive many kicks before reaching goal."