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Although the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere has been marked and celebrated across cultures since pre-historic times, it is today celebrated mostly—understandably—in the most northern climes.  A day on or near the Solstice is still a widely celebrated public holiday—Midsummer’s Day—in most of Scandinavia, the Baltic nations and in Quebec.  It is a widely observed unofficial celebration in Ireland and northern England and in several other countries.

 

 

Of course in the southern hemisphere it is the Winter Solstice and celebrated with many of the traditions imported by Europeans.

 

 

In the United States the event goes largely uncelebrated except by the growing communities of Wiccans, other neo-pagans, and ecological supporters of earth centered religion, including many Unitarian Universalists.  This is especially true in contrast to the Winter Solstice, which co-insides with the Christmas/Yuletide holidays and a raft of other Festivals of Light from many cultures.  This is undoubtedly due to the yearning for the re-birth of light in the depths of a cold and dark time of year, historically associated with want and hunger as supplies from the last harvest and fall hunts wane.

 

By contrast, the Summer Solstice comes and goes at a time of warm, if not hot weather in which long days have been enjoyed for weeks and will continue to be.  It is in the middle of the agricultural season, not spring planting or fall harvest so it has less of the aspect of a fertility celebration on one hand and a thanksgiving on the other.

 

In ancient times—perhaps even in the recently discovered “oldest temple in the world” found in eastern Turkey which pre-dates the agricultural revolution—the longest day of the year was such an important event that it was fixed by massive temples and monuments like those found in Egypt, Meso-America, and at Stonehenge where the dawning light of the solstice falls on a sacred altar or stone.  This was so widespread that there must have been a powerful, primeval urge.  It is clearly closely related to the wide-spread worship of the Sun or Sun gods.

 

Summer Solstice celebrations were among those targeted for eradication or appropriation by the early Church as its dominion spread over pagan realms.  An attempt was made to absorb the celebrations into St. John’s Day as Yule had been by Christmas, the Vernal Equinox by Easter, and the fall harvest festivals by All Souls and All Saints Day.  But except in certain localities, St. John’s Day never caught on as a major festival.  Still, celebrations of Midsummer waned in most places, although they survived as folk festival in Celtic and Nordic areas.

 

If those celebrations were imported to the New World, the Puritan divines who had such a struggle wiping out vestiges of pagan celebrations like May Day, Halloween, and Christmas did not easily find them.  Perhaps it was because gatherings on that day did not have the tell-tale, Poll Dances, evocations and/or sacrifices to the dead, or evergreens and holly or other well defined traditions.

 

In this country the day is publicly celebrated in areas of heavy Swedish and Finnish immigration and is usually marked with a bonfire and picnic.  Various Neo-pagan groups celebrate in different ways and some of them are becoming more public about it.  New Age religious and spiritual groups also adapt or adopt some of the traditional and Neo-pagan celebrations.

 

At any rate, the longest day of the year deserves some commemoration.   If you are celebrating today in any way, count me with you in spirit.




 

Orson Wells and his Todd School classmates outside of Grace Hall.  Wells is the tall youth in the light jacked near the center of the picture, his head directly in front of the window at left.

 

Woodstock, Illinois is a county seat town built around a charming Square about 50 miles northwest of Chicago.  That is in the orbit of the great metropolis, but far enough away not to be just another suburb.  Like a lot of places, maybe your home town, it has a unique history.  Today, I’d like to tell you the intertwining tales of two historic buildings.

 

 

The Todd School for Boys had been founded by a Methodist minister in 1848 as a “seminary” for the sons of the local gentry dissatisfied with the instruction available at local one-room school houses.  By the dawn of the 20th Century, it was a thriving academy with a liberal and artistic bent serving the sons of the wealthy from around the nation. 

 

 

In 1919-20 Grace Hall was built at the center of the campus as a combination dormitory and office building.  The 2 ½ story red brick structure was built in the Prairie Style promulgated by Frank Lloyd Wright with sweeping horizontal lines and broad eaves. 

 

The school closed in 1954.  Grace Hall stood until recently, the sole remaining building of the old  campus, surrounded by the buildings of a retirement home.

 

 

The most famous resident of Grace Hall was Orson Wells, who attended Todd School from 1926 to 1931.  It was there that the flamboyant young genius first performed in elaborate productions that ranged from Shakespeare to original musical reviews. It was there that he wrote his first scripts, directed his first plays, and even shot his first film — His second would be Citizen Kane.

 

 

Wells, who had a turbulent, unconventional childhood, considered Todd School and Woodstock to be his home.  After graduation he often returned to town to visit his mentor, Headmaster Roger Hill.  He drew on his experiences at the school and in staging productions at the old City Hall auditorium in his later work, notably the 1946 film The Stranger.

 

 

 

Which brings us to our second historic building.  The cream and red stone building with its Italianate bell tower dominates Woodstock Square.  It was built in 1890 as a combination City Hall, police station and fire house and included a small second floor theater.  In its early years the theater hosted touring theatrical companies, mostly featuring popular melodramas and comedy staples like Peck’s Bad Boy.  An opera or two, or at least some operettas were certainly also performed. 

 

City hall eventually was relocated to the old high school building, the police department moved out of the basement and the fire department built a new station a block away.  But the theater remained in use.  After World War II enterprising graduates of Chicago’s Goodman School of Drama established the Woodstock Players, a repertory company which staged ambitious and sophisticated productions on the stage through the early 1950’s.  Among the performers who cut their theatrical teeth there were Shelly Berman, Tom Bosley, Paul Newman, Geraldine Page, and Lois Nettleton.

 

But the old building was deteriorating.  Local residents made a heroic effort to raise funds and refurbished it in 1977.  Re-christened as the Woodstock Opera House, the building is now the lively cultural center of the community.  It is home to two resident community theater companies—including one of the oldest continuously operating companies in the nation—and a summer youth theater.  It also houses a week-long Mozart Festival every August, and hosts a variety of special concerts, lectures, and other programs.  Together the Opera House and the Square are gems that draw visitors and tourists from around the country.

 

 

Unfortunately Grace Hall has not fared as well.  Its owner, Woodstock Christian Life Services, wanted to tear it down to develop a new multi-building campus for senior assisted living.  Local preservationists rallied to the building’s defense. 

 

 

Everyone agreed that the proposed new development is desirable and filled a need.  Moreover, Woodstock Christian Life Services itself has deep roots in the community, tracing its history back to an orphanage operated by the Free Methodist Church.  They claimed that Grace Hall is totally incompatible with their plans and could not be adapted for use as senior housing even though the building was sound and in excellent condition.  They offered to sell the building for $1 to anyone who would move it. 

 

Concerned local citizens persuaded the Historic Preservation Council to declare the building a landmark.  But no proposed new use was found and necessary fundraising for preservation or conversion to other uses ran smack into the realities of a ravaged economy.  .

 

When the City Council took up the matter, without a viable alternative plan, and under pressure to get major building project under way, they felt compelled to grant the owners a demolition permit.

 

After several months, Grace Hall was razed over the winter.

 

Call it a war of the good with the good.  What can, or should, a town do?  How to reconcile a treasured past with a promising future?  I’m not sure I know the answers.  I hear the advice of a hymn we sing at my church that suggests we cherish a faith “that respects the past, but trust the dawning future more.”  But I would love to have saved that fine old building.

 

This entry was edited from a letter I created in a series on Woodstock for my employer, Oaktree Capital Corp.  I was moved to resurrect it by the news that some local folks including my friend Kathleen Spaltro are beginning to plan some sort of event or commemoration of Orson Welles’s Woodstock connection. 



 

An Italian comic imagines the scene at the Villa Diodati as Mary Shelley begins to unwind her tale of horror.

 

On June 16, 1816 Lord Byron entertained a few friends at the Swiss home he was renting near the shores of Lake Geneva.  He called the house the Villa Diodati after the family that owned it.  Locals called it by an older name—the Villa Belle Rive.

 

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron was just twenty-eight years old that year.  The handsome young nobleman, characterized by a friend as “half mad and dangerous to know” had arrived in Switzerland after fleeing England and the end of his disastrous marriage to Anne Isabella Milbanke.  He abandoned his wife and daughter Ada amid numerous sexual scandals and heavily in debt.  He was traveling with his friend and physician John William Polidori, the latest in a series of male lovers taken by the omni-sexual Byron.

 

While residing in the Villa, Bryon met up with another literary minded young man, Percy Bysshe Shelley then twenty-one years old.  Byron might have been sexually attracted to Shelley, to his fiancé Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin—or both.  Shelley, like Byron, had abandoned his first wife and daughter and had taken up residence in Switzerland with the daughter of pioneering feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft and the political philosopher and London book dealer William Godwin.  In the company of the young couple was Mary's stepsister, Claire Clairmont, who coincidentally was one of Byron’s former lovers and was pregnant with his child.

 

Byron invited the trio to join him and Polidori in the spacious accommodations of the Villa Diodati.  Despite the scenic, almost idyllic setting they could hardly enjoy the usual pleasures of an Alpine summer.  1816 was the Year Without Summer which capped off Europe’s last Little Ice Age.  A combination of abnormally low solar activity and the earth-girdling ash from several volcanoes, including the mammoth eruption of Mount Tambora in what is now Indonesia created an abnormally cold summer in the Northern Hemisphere marked by summer snow and frosts and crop failures from New England across Europe.

 

The circle of friends found themselves confined to the house by almost continuous cold, dreary rain.  They entertained themselves with drinking, endless conversation—and perhaps various interesting to speculate upon combinations of sexual dalliance.  Among the topics of conversation was the recent work of English philosopher and poet Erasmus Darwin who was rumored to have conducted experiments which “re-animated” dead tissue and galvanism—the use of electricity to illicit muscle spasms or movement.

 

 

On the especially dismal evening of June 16 the party gathered around a roaring hearth fire. Byron enthralled the group with readings from Fantasmagoriana, a French edition of classic German ghost stories.  Bryon then dared the company to come up with equally chilling tales of their own. The next day they reunited.  Byron told a fragment of a tale, and others contributed theirs.  But Mary returned with a more fleshed out tale of a scientist who inadvertently creates a monster from parts assembled from the dead.

 

Eighteen year old Mary Shelly would rework her tale into a novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus first published anonymously two years later in London, where it created a sensation.  Considered both a Gothic novel and one of the first science fiction works, the book became the cornerstone of whole genre encompassing literature, the theater, the graphic arts, and eventually films and television.

 

 

Mary’s book may be the best remembered product of the evening, but it was not the only one.  Byron’s contribution was an incomplete tale which became known as Fragment of a Novel in which he incorporated the vampire of Central European folk lore.  Byron’s story fragment was eventually published as a postscript to Mazeppa.

 

 

 

Polidori was inspired by Byron’s tale to create his own story.  The Vampyre was a short story published in a London magazine in 1819.  The vampire in Polidori’s story is an English nobleman, Lord Ruthven obviously modeled on Byron himself.  This story is credited as being the first of its kind to bring together all of the elements of what became the popular vampire genre—an aristocratic monster abd heavy sexual subtext,

 

 

Not long after the memorable party, the participants drifted apart.  Byron was off to Venice and Rome and more scandalous sexual escapades while working on his epic Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.  Claire Clairmont gave birth to Byron’s daughter, Clara Allegra after which he had no more interest in her.  He did adore his daughter—but at a distance.  He provided for her care and left her a substantial bequest to receive several thousand Pounds at the age of 21 on condition that she not marry an Englishman.  The child, however, died at the age of 5. 

 

 

Byron would achieve literary fame to accompany personal infamy as a libertine.  He would avoid England and live mainly in Italy.  He remained close to the Shelley’s and even co-founded a short-lived newspaper The Liberal with his fellow poet. 

 

Byron flirted with various causes, including support of the Armenians against the Ottoman Turks.  In 1823 he threw his lot in with another nation struggling for independence from ConstantinopleGreece.  With more than £4000 of his own money, he outfitted a Greek fleet and planned to help lead an assault on the Turkish fortress of Lepanto, at the mouth of the Gulf of Corinth.  But he fell ill and died of an infection in Messolonghi on April 19, 1824.  He was celebrated as a national hero of the Greeks and in his heroic death was at last fully embraced in England as well.

 

 

By that time Percy Bysshe Shelley was already dead.  He had become a famous poet in his own right, but he and Mary suffered the loss of two children in their restless travels through Italy.  Shelly drowned while sailing in the Mediterranean off the coast on July 8, 1822.

 

 

Mary went on to a much longer life and a career as a novelist and travel writer.  She also worked tirelessly to see all of her husband’s unpublished work see the light of day.  She returned to England with her surviving son Percy Florence Shelley where she struggled to support herself as a writer and on the meager stipend Shelley’s father reluctantly granted his grandson.  She died in London on February 1, 1851 of a brain tumor following extended ill health.  She was 53 years old. 

 

 

Polidori also met an early death.  He was dismissed as Byron’s companion and physician later in the summer of 1816 and returned to England.  The publication of The Vampyre three years latter became an issue of controversy when the publisher attempted to attribute it to Byron.  Despite the attempts of both men, the confusion persisted and interfered with Polidori’s own dreams of literary glory.  He published a long allegorical poem The Fall of the Angels anonymously in 1821. Despite being heavily influenced by Byron’s style, the poem was not a success.  Shortly after its publication in a deep depression and hounded by creditors, Polidori ingested Prussic acidcyanide—and died on August 21, 1821.  He was not quite twenty-six years old.

 

Of all of the participants of the party Claire Clairmont had the longest life, if an unhappy one.  Shortly after giving birth to daughter Allegra, she surrendered custody to Byron and seldom saw the child again.  A few years later, while both Shelley and his wife mourned the loss of their children, Claire either resumed an earlier sexual relationship with Shelley or commenced one after a long flirtation.  The result might have been the birth of the child that Shelley registered as his daughter by a “Marina Padurin.” The child, Elena Adelaide was adopted at birth by both Shelley’s, but soon left in the care of others.  The child died in foster care in 1821 at about 18 months of age.  Mary Shelley denied rumors that the child was Claire’s daughter.

 

Claire supported herself in Europe as a governess, companion and secretary in Russia and Dresden, Germany before returning to England in 1836 where she earned a modest living as a music teacher.  After her mother’s death in 1841 she returned to Europe living first in Paris and later in her beloved Italy.  In 1844 she finally received a £12,000 bequest from Shelley after a contentious correspondence with Mary.  The money allowed her to live comfortably, if modestly, for the rest of her life.  She moved to Florence where she became a figure in the English expatriate community.  She amassed and treasured a collection of Shelley memorabilia and clearly regarded the poet as the great love of her life.  She died in the Italian city on March 10, 1871 at the age of eighty.

 

 

Local Weasel Tries a Little Intimidation.




The message and front side of a bit of postcard intimidation.  Note the addressee.  I’ll give the mope this much—he didn’t actually use crayon.

 

After a long day at work yesterday, I got of the bus.  On the way in the house I gathered the mail and put it on the kitchen table to sort.  But first I had to fill the bird feeders for our hungry feathered guests, gather up dirty dishes around the kitchen, fill the sink to soak them, and crush pop cans for re-cycling.  After a while I returned to sorting the mail. I almost missed a postcard.  It was addressed to me and hand lettered.  It read:

 

Dear patrick

 

We know what you think about God.  Now here’s what God thins about you.

Eccl 10:2

          A wise man’s heart inclines him to the right.

but a FOOLS heart to the left.

Since we know you, we throw in DOLT!

 

                             C.C.C.

 

All things considered a pretty sophomoric bit of drivel.  The address side contained the return address Concerned Citizens Committee, McHenry, IL.  I am 99% sure that there is to such organization.  The whole thing would be totally laughable if not for one thing.  It was not the religious message that counted, it was the non-to-subtle announcement that “we know where you live.”  In other words it was meant as intimidation, an implied threat.

 

I don’t quake with fear from the antics of an anonymous alleged Christian.  He may want me to know they know where I am, but he sure don’t want me to know who he is.  The words that spring to mind are yellow, lily-livered weasel.

 

As far as I can tell, this missive must have been the result of a blog post about a week ago exposing the folly of a letter writer in the Northwest Herald for trying to justify America as a “Christian nation” by using quotes from Thomas Paine  of all people.  You can check out the post here.

 

I never replied to the original letter in the paper because I had expended my once in thirty day’s eligibility a few weeks earlier.  Not did I engage in the online comments, a veritable cesspool of ignorance, bile, and hatred.

 

Still, I have a pretty good idea where the post card came from, if not the exact identity of genius behind it. 

 

On May 20, I did reply to a Letter to the Editor accusing Democrats of being Communists.  I also posted the original letter with my reply on my blog here.  After my reply was printed in the paper a few days later, the predictable furor erupted in the on-line comments posted to the Northwest Herald’s web page.  One particularly persistent commentator was identified as being from McHenry.  In a series of comments he made clear that he knew what I looked like—big, fat and old as apparent by photos found either on my blog or on Facebook.  He mentioned my employer’s business by name with note that potential clients not do business with him for employing a communist.  And then he mentioned my daughter Maureen by name and took care to insult her.  I don’t give a rat’s ass about being insulted or called names by these slugs, but I did take exception to the slur on my daughter.

 

I replied that he knew who I was, but that he remained cowardly cloaked in anonymity.  I invited him, if he had the courage, to contact me personally to arrange a meeting. And I may have done my best Harry Truman imitation and inferred that I might rearrange his face for attacking my daughter.  His reply was that she was “fair game” along with my employment and any one associating with me.

 

I am pretty certain this is the same prick as the post card writer.  But since he has already dragged my family into it, I have to assume that the implied threat to me is a threat to them as well.

 

Since the chucklehead apparently looks for my stuff on line, I’m going to guess that the pond scum will read this.  Sir, I reiterate my invitation for you to crawl out from under your rock and face me.  If not, I don’t think I would have to search very long and hard to find out exactly which cretin you are.  And I have absolutely no fear of facing you.

 

 



 

Connecticut Planned Parenthood Executive Director Estelle Griswold (left) celebrates with a supporter as she reads the news of her vindication before the Supreme Court.

 

 

 

Although by 1965 many states had acted individually to end restrictions on the use and sale of birth control devices and The Pill, others continued to criminalize distribution, if not private use.   Among them was Connecticut, a New England state still in the after math of long domination by culturally very conservative Congregational clergy in the Puritan tradition.  When authorities arrested the Executive Director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut and a respected Yale University Professor of Medicine they were convicted of the crime of distributing birth control.  Each was fined $100.  At each stage of appeal, the convictions were upheld—until the case reached the United States Supreme Court.

 

 

On June 7, 1965 the Court stunned the country by voting 7 to 2 to overturn the convictions of Estelle Griswold of Planed Parenthood and Yale’s Dr. C. Lee Buxton in the landmark caseIn his majority opinion Justice William O. Douglas wrote that the Connecticut law violated the rights of married couples to privacy and that although privacy was not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution it could be found in the "penumbras" and "emanations" of other constitutional protections.

 

Opinions on the court, however, were divided, even among supporters of the overturn.  Justice Arthur Goldberg supported by Justice William Brennan argued in a supporting decision that the right to privacy derived from the Ninth Amendment which reserves to citizens the rights not explicitly enumerated in the Constitution.  Justices John Marshal Harlan and Byron White each wrote separate concurring opinions citing equal protection and due possess under the law guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.  Harlan’s arguments have most frequently been cited by the court in other “privacy” cases including Roe V. Wade.

 

Two Justices, Hugo Black and Potter Stewart filed dissents.  Black argued, in a dissent that would later be widely quoted by opponents of “judicial activism” that he could find no basis for a right of privacy in the Constitution.  Stewart, a personal supporter of access to contraceptives, called Connecticut’s law “uncommonly silly” but none the less constitutional.

 

Despite all of the handwringing by conservatives, at the time, the decision caught the zeitgeist of the times.  All measures of public opinion showed approval for access to birth control by a wide margin, even in socially conservative states.  The introduction of the Pill just a few years earlier and the early rise of a new wave of feminism had already dramatically changed attitudes.  States soon fell into line with the decision and the sky did not fall.  On the contrary, public pressure rose to include the same protection to women’s access to birth control outside of marriage as well.  The Sexual Revolution not only was on, but the forces of orthodoxy had lost.

 

 

In 1972 the Court ruled in the case of Eisenstadt v. Baird to extend the right to contraceptives to women outside of marriage as well, relying heavily on the equal protection argument.  A year later the Court overturned abortion restriction in Roe v. Wade based on a woman’s right to privacy.

 

For years the issue of birth control seemed settled, despite some sniping around the “Morning After Pill” which anti-contraceptive and Pro-Life forces routinely lost either in state legislatures or the courts.

 

But suddenly with the GOP ascendency in Congress and in many states in the 2010 elections, gains once thought unassailable are under attack.  Planned Parenthood has been vilified, even been called a “criminal enterprise” by Representative Michelle Bachman.  Although efforts to strip funding failed in the Senate, many states under GOP control are trying to strip local funding.  Contraceptive services, along with abortion, are slated for exclusion from insurance purchased with state vouchers under many proposals.  And some bar states from doing business with companies who provide the coverage to companies and individuals who purchase coverage without any government assistance.  Texas and other states are trying to re-define life from the moment of penetration of the egg by sperm in such a way that most non-prophylactic birth control illegal.  All this despite continued wide spread popular support for contraceptive services.

 

Even veteran women’s organizations have been stunned by the wholesale assault, but are now gathering forces to meet this new challenge.  And not a moment too soon.

 

 

Remembering James Arness and Gunsmoke


James Arness passed away today with his boots off, in his own bed in Los Angeles.  He was 88 years old and had been in frail health for sometime.  With him passed a treasured part of my childhood and teen years.

 

You see watching Gunsmoke on Sunday nights was a ritual at our house.  Most of all, it was a bonding time with Dad.  Mom’s roasted chicken Sunday dinner was over by 4 pm at the latest.  We all found something to do until 6 pm—we were on Mountain Time in Cheyenne.  By then Dad was out of his Sunday knock-around clothes and into striped ski pajamas, a faded blue plaid bathrobe, and well worn brown leather slippers.  He made himself a huge bowl of ice cream smothered in Hershey’s Syrup and sprinkled with salted Spanish peanuts and was settled into his big maroon arm chair, feet up on the footstool when Marshal Dillon set foot on the dusty streets of Dodge City, Kansas to face a desperado as the opening credits rolled.

 

And my brother Tim and I would be right beside him in our own ski pajama, sitting in our own miniature arm chairs, gobbling down our own ice cream.  We made a night of it—first Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, and after a few years Bonanza.  But Gunsmoke, grittier and more realistic than all of them, with a flawed hero who could—and did—often lose his man or a gunfight, was Dad’s favorite, and ours too.  I am certain that more wisdom was transferred from father to sons in those hours than any other time we spent with our often reticent father.

 

 

Arness came to the CBS Television version of and established radio hit when the voice of Matt Dillon, William Conrad was deemed to portly for a TV hero.  John Wayne, who had worked with Arness in films, most notably Big Jim McLain, an anti-communist pot boiler set in Hawaii, the western Hondo. Island in the Sky about transport pilots trying to survive after a crash in icy Labrador, and Sea Chase, recommended his 6 foot 7 inch tall buddy for the part.  Arness played the part for twenty years in the TV series, and in a five made for TV movies from 1987 to 1993.  Although he had a few other rolls, and a short lived series How the West Was Won, James Arness, for all practical purposes was Marshal Dillon.

 

Born as James Aurness on May 26, 1923 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the future actor’s father was second generation Norwegian and his mother of German decent.  It was a solidly middle class family, but one which endured the struggles of the Depression.  James helped support his family with part time jobs as a jewelry salesman, loading and unloading box cars, and even lumberjacking in Idaho one summer.  He graduated from high school with indifferent grades and was drafted into the Army in 1943.

 

 

He landed at Anzio, Italy as a rifleman in the 3rd Infantry Division in January 1944.  He was severely wounded in the operation, but won a Bronze Star for bravery under fire.  He underwent several leg surgeries before being discharged in early 1945.  His war wounds bothered him the rest of his life and made it painful for him to mount and dismount a horse. 

 

 

After the war Aurness attended Beloit College on the GI Bill.  He soon found work as a radio announce in Minnesota.  His interest in performing piqued, He headed for Hollywood in 1947.  He caught on with RKO.  The studio promptly dropped the “u” from his name.  As James Arness his first roll was as Loretta Young’s brother in the 1947 classic The Farmer’s Daughter.  He worked steadily in small rolls until teaming with Wayne for four films.  He also starred in two B-movie science fiction films, The Thing from Another World and the cult classic Them!  His younger brother followed him to Hollywood and got rolls in other sci-fi films under the name Peter Graves.

 

 

But Gunsmoke made him a star in 1955.  He portrayed Marshal Matt Dillon through all 633 episodes—the longest running live action drama on Television and the longest time an actor played the same lead role in a series.

 

When Gunsmoke came on the air, there was nothing like on TV.  In the movies the popular western genre had grown up in the post war years with gritty films, adult themes, political allegory, and even psychological depth.  Films like The Ox Bow Incident, John Ford’s cavalry trilogy, Red River, Winchester 73, The Gunfighter, and High Noon were serious works of art for serious film goers.  But TV was still awash in the juvenile oaters in the vein of the old two-reelers—shows like Roy Rogers, Wild Bill Hickok, Annie Oakley, the  Cicsco Kid, The Lone Ranger, and Hopalong Cassidy which was actually recycled from the old Saturday matinee flicks.

 

 Gunsmoke creators hated all of that.  They wanted a show as gown up as the new breed of western movies, one which would expose “the chaos and brutal violence” of the real frontier and be populated with characters with complex lives and motivations.  There might be the occasional archetypical villain, but many of the criminal Marshall Dillon pursued were caught up in circumstances beyond their control.  Nor, at least at first, was Dillon a flawless, self-sacrificing hero.  He was often indecisive and torn with doubts.  He made mistakes—including shooting the wrong men.  He sometimes failed to get his man or stop the crime.  He lost almost as many fights and gun battles as he won.

 

 

The show took off on the strength of a core cast that became classic. Veteran character actor Milburn Stone played Doc Adams, a sympathetic and philosophical man with hints of a haunted past who spent too many hours nursing beers at the Long Branch Saloon.  Lanky Dennis Weaver played the gimpy deputy Chester Goode, earnest but sometimes ineffectual.  Ironically he was given his unexplained limp so that viewers would always see him as subordinate to Marshal Dillon, played by a man with a genuine and serious leg injury. 

 

Amanda Blake as Miss Kitty rounded out the cast ensemble.  On the radio show and in the early seasons it was clear that Kitty was not just a “dance hall girl” but also a prostitute.  Although it was never explicitly mentioned she could occasionally be seen descending the stairs with the Marshall, who obviously enjoyed her services.  Other girls could be seen climbing the stairs with customers.  But as the series gained in popularity, Miss Kitty needed to be cleaned up for TV.  Her dresses grew less revealing, her make-up less garish, and she morphed into a kind or respectable business woman as the proprietor of the Long Branch.  She had plenty of time to sit with the Marshall and Doc Adams to discuss the affairs of the town over endless steins of half finished beer.  And she pined away with unrequited love for her law man who remained seemingly oblivious.

 

 

This ensemble lasted through the initial run of six seasons in a half hour format.  In the fall of 1961 the show was expanded to an hour.  Weaver left soon in 1964 to pursue a wider career.  There were a string of helpers/side kicks/deputies thereafter, most notably Burt Reynolds as the “half breed” blacksmith  Quint Asper from 1962-65 and Ken Curtis, recently the lead tenor of the Sons of the Pioneers as the illiterate saddle tramp and small time criminal turned good-guy Festus Haggan.

 

 

In 1966 as rating for the long running show began to lag a little, the introduction of color caused them to bounce bat into the top 10.  The show was never out of the top 20 for the rest of its run until its last year after Amanda Blake and Milburn Stone had both left the cast.  In 1974-75 season it still ran a respectable number 28.

 

The program has survived in perpetual syndication and on cable.  The half hour programs were repackaged as Marshall Dillon.  They still hold up as some of the best scripted series television of all time. 


The Age of Reason; Being an Investigation of True and Fabulous Theology got the one-time hero of the American Revolution in plenty of hot water with the theocrats of his day.


The Letters to the Editor column in the local McHenry County daily newspaper the Northwest Herald are always a laugh riot, particularly when members of a reliable stable of right wingers rotate taking their allowed once-a-month soap box.

Yesterday, the aptly named Erik Christian of Algonquin waded in with this jaw dropper.

A perilous condition

To the Editor:

 

Thomas Paine wrote in his essay, Common Sense: “Society is produced by our wants and government by our wickedness.

 

“Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one.”

 

The framers of our Constitution knew a free and prosperous representative republic could exist only if its people were moral and religious.

 

Washington stated: “Religion and morality are two indispensable pillars” if we are to survive. Within a short span of 60 years, the nation has abandoned the God of the Bible, replacing him with materialism, avarice and lust.

 

Jesus and the prophets warned us of the coming woes to those who forget God.

 

Woe to our schools – they will collapse. Woe to our monetary system that is crumbling.

 

Woe unto the people in our capital, as they lack wisdom and understanding and enact bad laws.

 

Woe unto the American people who lack wisdom from God and place corrupt leaders back into office.

 

Woe unto parents who do not teach their children Godly virtues.

 

Woe unto the pulpits that teach false or watered down doctrine and scatter the sheep.

 

Woes are judgments, to an unrepentant nation. 2 Chronicles 7:14

 

 

Erik Christian

Algonquin


As I said after another wild letter recently, I don’t often answer these.  Even if I could, I answered the last one and have to wait out the balance of a month before I can again grace the Editorial Page.  And I don’t want to wade into the cesspool of the on-line comments, where even crazier guys bay at the moon and call anyone who disagrees with them names.

Luckily, I have a blog where I can get it off my chest.  Here is what I would like to say about this.

Erik, Erik, Erik!  Anyone who uses the writings of that notorious Deist and freethinker Thomas Pain to bolster arguments that the United States is, or should be, a Christian nation is either: a)  completely ignorant of both history and theology or b) a committed prevaricator.

I know that last one is a big word, Erik.  Go ahead and look it up.  It will be good for you.  And then, pray tell, which is it, Erik—fool or liar?

 

.



 

On May 31, 1678 the first Godiva Processional was held in the streets of Coventry commemorating the legendary ride of an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman through the streets of the town some time shortly before 1057.  The parade, featuring a scantily clad, but never actually nude local woman, was a continuing tradition into the 1960’s.  Local authorities hoped to down play Godiva as a symbol of Coventry.  But the lady proved to be far too popular, and the tradition has been re-established as part of an even larger Godiva Festival.

The reality behind the legend is murky.  But there was a real noble woman born before 1040 according to the Doomsday Book completed in 1086 shortly after the woman’s death and the charters to various churches and monasteries to which the Lady and her husband were benefactors.  Godiva is a Latinized version of the Old English name Godgifu or Godgyfu, a then popular moniker meaning “Gift of God.”

Leofric, Earl of Mercia, reputedly one of the wealthiest land owners in England, took Godiva, a very young widow, as his wife.  Together they became patrons of several monasteries  and made generous gifts of gold jewelry and silver plate to several churches, including St. Paul’s Cathedral in London—the third building of that name which burned in 1088.  It was said that this generosity was at the behest of the very pious Lady.

Of course such larges was expensive.  In order to sustain it, and a lavish lifestyle  expected of a leading noble, Leofric raised the rents and taxes on his vast holdings, which included the still new city of Coventry.  Evidently taxes became so extreme that they reduced the residents of the city to want and hunger.

According to the earliest version of the story given in Flores Historiarum by Roger of Wendover about 1230, almost two centuries after the fact,  after receiving appeals from the people, Godiva repeatedly begged her husband for relief.  He steadfastly refused.  Finally in exasperation he supposedly told Godiva that he would grant her wish if she would ride the city naked.  Given his wife’s famous piety, he must have considered this a good bet.

But pluck Godiva held him at his word.  In the original tale she rode through the streets still thronging with citizens accompanied by two knights.  The author quoted earlier writings, which, however, have never been found.

Like all good tales, this one gained something in the re-telling.  By the 17th Century the tale has Godiva ordering that all of the citizens of the town remain indoors as she made her ride alone, her long hair partially covering her nakedness.  Still later the story of Tom was added to the tale.  Tom, reportedly a tailor by trade bored a hole in his shutters to espy the Lady as she passed.  But for his shamelessness, he was supposedly struck blind and Godiva’s modesty preserved. 

In all versions of the story the repentant Leofric rescinds the hated taxes and Godiva is celebrated as the heroine of the town.

Whether or not any of this actually happened is anybody’s guess.  Kill joy scholars will provide lots of arguments why the tale is spurious, but have no more proof that it is a lie than there is proof that Godiva actually rode.

We do know that Leiofric died in 1057 and Godiva inherited his estates.  She survived the Norman Conquest of 1066 and more remarkably was one of the few Anglo-Saxon nobles—and even fewer women—who retained her lands.  But she died sometime before the records in the Doomsday Book, at which time her lands were in other hands.  She either left no heirs or the rapacious Normans found away to seize the lands.

The story of Lady Godiva has inspired numerous painting, poems, songs, plays  a line of expensive chocolates, and a Technicolor  film starring Maureen O’Hara who, alas, is never shown in all of her glory.

In 2012 as parts of arts celebrations held in conjunction with the London Olympics Imagineers Productions has received a grant to build a giant, animated Godiva and horse powered by 50 bicycles which will make the trip from Coventry to London.  Now that will be something to  see.

Taps


Observing Memorial Day was always a solemn obligation.  I learned that from my Dad.  He made sure that we attended the ceremonies of his American Legion Post in Cheyenne, Wyoming.  He would patiently explain the significance of each part of the ritual.  We were carefully instructed when to stand at attention with our hands or hats over our hearts and not to flinch when the color guard fired.

And I repeated the process for my children and grandchildren.  For many years I took them to the parade and memorial service in Crystal Lake.  When Maureen was little, we piled her in a Radio Flyer wagon and Kathy and I would walk with the big girls—and sometimes various cousins—the mile or so from our  house down Woodstock Street to Union Cemetery next to the Fire Station.  We would wait along the street for the Parade to arrive and turn into the Cemetery.  I would often buy the girls small American flags with instruction not to let them touch the ground.

The parades themselves were never much as parades go.  No floats  or people tossing candy to the kids.  Led by wailing sirens of Police motor cycles, the lead Color Guard was usually from the military—most often from near-by Great Lakes Navy Base, followed closely by the Legion and VFW.  For some years the local chapter of VietNow had a smart drill team with flags.  Of course there were the high school marching bands, a little uncertain and unsteady with the loss of their seniors days earlier to graduation.  On hot days, they shed their wool uniforms and shakos for t-shirts.  There were open cars with local politicians and dignitaries—the last local survivor of World War I got a great round of applause, as did that years Little Miss Poppy.  The rest of the parade featured Boy Scout Troops, Cub Scout Dens, Girl Scouts and Brownies, Camp Fire Girls, the 4-H, and all of the local T-ball and Little League teams.  Over the years the kids, and then the grand kids all got to march at least once.  The whole parade never took much longer than 15 minutes to pass us with the Fire Department trucks brining up the rear with more blasts of air horns and sirens.

The parade would swing into the broad drive of the Cemetery leading to the tall Civil War Monument.  The Color Guards, Bands, and marching groups would array themselves in an arch around the statue with us members of the public spread out among the grave stones.

An elderly Legion or VFW member would step to a microphone and try to get the attention of the crowd over a popping and inadequate PA system.  A Chaplain would intone a prayer.  The Bands would play the Star Spangled Banner and a Color Guard would raise the flag and the lower it to half staff.  Someone would read General Logan’s order to the Grand Army of the Republic establishing an annual day to decorate the graves of the fallen.  The bands would play a patriotic selection and a local dignitary would deliver a droning address no one could quite hear.  Wreaths would be presented to the Monument by the Legion, VFW, VietNow, the Auxiliaries and the Poppy Princess.

Then the Color Guard and the Firing Squad would return.  The Flag was slowly raised back to the top of the mast and the Squad fired three ragged volleys, frightening many of the children. A lot of years some of the old soldier could not get their rifles to fire and the men fumbled with the bolt actions to try to clear them.

Then a bugler would strike up Taps.  As he finished a second bugler far back in the cemetery would strike the mournful echo.  However clumsy the rest of the ceremony might have been, this was the moment when my throat caught and my eyes always watered.

****

The bugle call Taps hat its origins, like Memorial Day itself, on the battlefields of the Civil War.  Union Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield, who commanded the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Division in the V Corps of the Army of the Potomac while at Harrison’s Landing, Virginia in July 1862.  The general was unhappy with a French bugle call then  used by the Army.  He tinkered with another call known as Scott’s Tattoo, named for long time Army Commanding General Winfield Scott.  Butterfield’s arrangement was first played by his bugler, Oliver W. Norton, of Erie, Pennsylvania to signify the end of the day at his brigade camp.

The new tune was so popular that it was soon replacing the regulation “lights out” call among both U.S. and Confederate troops.

It is unclear when it began being used at funerals, but the association of death and going to sleep was a natural one.  When the Army finally officially adopted the call for its bugler in 1874 it was approved for both uses.

By the way, the Army takes a dim view of “Echo Taps” and specifically bans the use of a second bugle as “an inappropriate use of bugle” in military funerals and ceremonies.  It is popularly used, however, as in Crystal Lake, by civilian musicians.

The massive die off of World War II and Korean War veterans now running to dozens every day has put a strain on the capacity of the armed services to provide buglers for all services.  Many now are conducted with recorded renditions of Taps

Compared to the famous World’s Columbian Exposition—The White City in 1893 or the New York World’s Fair of 1938, Chicago’s Century of Progress is not well remembered outside of its home town.  But the city thought so much of it that they made it the fourth and final red star on the city flag, the others representing the Ft. Dearborn Massacre, the Great Chicago Fire, and the a fore mentioned 1893 shindig.

The fair opened on May 27, 1933, the depths of the Depression.  It had been a long time coming.

The idea germinated among civic boosters in the mid 1920’s eager to find a way to showcase the city in a way that would erase it already established image as a gangster riddled, corrupt city wracked by recurring labor violence.  Harkening to the success of the Columbian Exposition, still vivid in civic memory, they decided to stage another big fair and invite the world.

In 1927 Rufus C. Dawes, an oil magnate, was elected Chairman of an organizing committee and he brought his brother, Charles H. Dawes, the sitting Vice President of the United States, on as chief finance officer and fundraiser.  With their clout, they rounded up big donations from the city’s business elite.  They pressed forward even after the stock market crash of 1920.  Led by Sears and Roebucks President $12 million dollars in gold notes was raised to seed construction of the fair.  Additional money was raised by selling shares to the public that included passes to the fair when it opened.  Major corporations built pavilions or participated in other exhibitions.  And, of course, admission tickets brought in revenue once the fair was opened. 

Beyond infrastructure and making land fill along Lake Michigan south of the Loop, relatively little public money went into the fair.  But the lakefront site was worth a fortune stretching south from the Museum of Science and Industry and including Northerly Island, separating the grounds by a lagoon.  McCormick Place stands on the lake shore portion of the ground and for years after the fair Meigs Field occupied Northerly Island until it was plowed under by Mayor Richard M. Daley and converted to a park.

Construction for the Fair was put in the hands of operations manager Lenox R. Lohr, a former military engineer and destined to become President of NBC.

Originally the theme of the Fair was to be a celebration of Chicago history since the city’s incorporation in 1833, hence the name Century of Progress.  But as it grew nearer Dawes agreed to turn the fair into an “exposition of science and industrial development.”  At the urging of scientist Dawes also agreed to erect a Hall of Science as one of the signature exhibits at the fair.  But the science being celebrated was not head-in-the-clouds basic research.  It was science in service to industry.  The Hall of Science motto said it all, “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms.”

More than two dozen major corporations jumped on the bandwagon with pavilions of their own including General Motors with its working assembly line, Chrysler, Firestone, Havoline Motor Oil—a 21 story sky scraper adorned by a giant working thermometer—and Sears and Roebucks among others. The Travel and Transport Building featured a railroad exhibition that featured the stainless steel clad streamline train the Santa Fe Zephyr, which became a big hit with the public.  There were several model homes including a House of the Future that predicted automatic dishwashers and air conditioning would become standard in American homes.

A committee of leading architects and designers was selected to plan and execute the various exhibit and entertainment areas.  In keeping with the theme of scientific advancement, architecturl styles were modern, streamlined and influence by the Art Deco movement.  Instead of the gleaming white of the Columbian Exposition, buildings embraced a bold color palette.  Innovation in styles, construction, and materials was encouraged.

Unemployment was rampant and the Depression in full swing when construction on the mammoth project got underway employing thousands.  When the fair opened thousands more got work on site or in the burgeoning tourist boom it brought to the city.  The work was welcome, but union labor was excluded where ever possible and wages kept low.

The corporate dominated exposition was a symphony to a brighter consumer future.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt was impressed enough by the fairs power to stimulate spending on consumer durable goods, and complement the federal government's efforts to jump-start the economy, that he urged Fair organizers, dominated by Republicans openly hostile to the New Deal to reopen the fair for a second season in 1934.  Largely in order recoup the large private investment in the fair, organizers were glad to do so.

Corporate domination, of course, filtered much of what the Fair presented.  Unlike the Columbian Exposition, which included many liberals and progressives among its organizers, the Century of Progress ignored minorities, women, and the contributions of labor.  There was not “Women’s Progress Pavilion” as in 1893.  Women were excluded from planning functions and participation.  They were depicted mostly as idealized homemakers eager for the labor saving gadgets of the future or as entertainers.  

Blacks fared even worse.  Virtually their only presence was in a Darkest Africa exhibit where some were displayed as ignorant savages.  They were excluded from almost all Fair jobs except for the most menial cleaning work.  And to top it off, many of the exhibitors, food vendors, and entertainment venues openly refused them admission.  It took a concerted effort by Chicago Black legislators who threatened to bolt and join anti-Chicago downstate representatives in blocking the necessary re-issuance of a state charter to reopen in 1934, to include a ban on racial discrimination on the fair grounds in the legislation.

One high profile visitor to the fair never set foot on the grounds but stirred controversy.  The German dirigible Graf Zeppelin, newly festooned with the Swastika symbol of the Nazi regime that had come to power a year earlier, circled overhead one day drawing huge crowds.  But the powerful local German community was deeply split over the new government and erupted into a war of words and recrimination in competing left and right wing publications.

Despite these problems, visitors swarmed to the exposition. In its two years, the fair attracted 48,769,227 visitors including 39,052,236 paid admissions. In addition to the spectacular commercial exhibits, they were drawn by the signature Skyride, with rocket cars carrying visitors 219 feet above the fairgrounds, the answer to 1893’s Ferris Wheel.  There were also the Enchanted Isle for children, the Odditorium freak show, and ethnic villages with food from around the world.  Several venues provided entertainment. The first Major League Baseball All Star Game was held in conjunction with the Fair in Soldier Field.

But the most successful of all was the Streets of Paris which offered Sally Rand and her proactive Fan Dance.  The exotic dancer became as much a symbol of the fair as Little Egypt was at the Columbian Exposition.

When the fair finally closed on October 31, 1934, it had actually turned a small profit—something virtually no other international exposition or world’s fair has ever done.

Despite complaints about traffic and noise, Chicago was sorry to see the Century of Progress go.  Thousands were back among the unemployed at a time when jobs were scarce.  Hotels, restaurants, shops, and transportation companies felt the pinch of lost revenue.  And a sparkle of gaudy gaiety in bleak times was gone.


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