Category Archives: History

Luster of Pearls

The Luster of Pearls: Alabama Writers Hall of Fame inducts twelve

By Edward Reynolds
July 15, 2015

I would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than alone in the light.
—Helen Keller


On the evening of July 8, 2015, a dozen literary notables with ties to Alabama received long overdue official recognition when the first class of the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame was inducted. Major sponsors of the Hall of Fame include the Alabama Center for the Book, the University of Alabama Library Leadership Board, and the Alabama Writers’ Forum, a partnership program of the Alabama State Council on the Arts. The Gala was held in the Bryant Conference Center at the University of Alabama, with close to 300 in attendance.

Table Setting From Writers Hall of Fame Dinner

Table Setting From Writers Hall of Fame Dinner. Photo by Elizabeth Limbaugh

Julie Friedman is a Hall of Fame Committee member, vice-president of the Alabama Writers’ Forum, a member of the Alabama State Council on the Arts, and currently on the Library Leadership Board at the University of Alabama. Friedman said the notion of establishing an Alabama Writers Hall of Fame began in conversations with Alabama Writers’ Forum Executive Director Jeanie Thompson “dreaming about something that we could do to honor writers who either have been born in the state or have done most of their work in Alabama.”

Friedman elaborated, “We have a vehicle in place to honor living writers either through the Harper Lee Award or through the State Arts Council and through the Governor’s Arts Awards. But we didn’t have anything in place that would recognize writers who were deceased in addition to living writers.” Friedman added that a second class will be inducted around the fall of 2016.

Regarding the criteria for choosing the inaugural class, she explained, “A lot of what we looked at were awards—had they won a Pulitzer Prize—or do they have a national reputation. Did their work have an impact on literature? Johnson Jones Hooper was a tremendous influence on Mark Twain, and Twain even borrowed characters from Johnson Jones Hooper. Augusta Jane Evans Wilson was one of the first published authors from the state of Alabama. When she wrote in the 1850s and 1860s, she sold thousands of books at a time when the Internet didn’t exist and there were no public relations campaigns.

Virtually unknown today, Augusta Evans Wilson was one of the most well-known writers of the 19th century and certainly the most successful Alabama writer of her time. Wilson’s great popularity is evidenced by the number of towns and young girls named for her characters.
The Green Room

In the media “green room,” poet, playwright, and Hall of Fame inductee Sonia Sanchez was absolutely charming. Sanchez, a distinguished member of the Black Arts Movement, addresses everyone as “my sister” or “my brother.” Her warm personality, gray dreadlocks, and sparkling black jacket were mesmerizing. Sanchez, a Birmingham native, moved out of state at age six.
Continue reading

Rocket Stalker

Rocket Stalker

Many hours and miles chasing thundering, fireball- spewing space shuttles finally come to an end.


July 21, 2011

All my life I’ve had a fascination of sorts with NASA. Some 20 years ago I decided that I wanted to see a space shuttle launch in person, preferably as a member of the press. Reporters get to stand next to the huge countdown clock in a big field next to a large lagoon inside the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) complex when viewing launches from a surprisingly intimate three-mile distance. They also get to feel the ground shake at blast-off. It’s the reason I decided to become a writer: so I could attend launches at KSC. Needless to say, it was a thrill and privilege to be among a media throng estimated at 1,500 inside America’s spaceport on July 8 to witness the final space shuttle launch ever. Outside the facility, at least a million spectators lined the beaches and highways along what has been dubbed Florida’s “Space Coast.”

My interest in outer space began in 1961 when teachers wheeled televisions into classrooms at Edgewood Elementary in Selma so we could watch Alan Shepard, John Glenn, and a guy with the strange name “Gus Grissom” ride rockets into space. As a first grader, I concluded that there must be something special about astronauts and rockets since they had the power to make teachers bring TV sets to school. My favorite part of launch day was the countdown—a dramatic buildup that my classmates and I loudly recited in unison with the television broadcaster.

Photos courtesy of NASA/Bill Ingalls. (click for larger version)



I grew a little bored with NASA when TV sets no longer showed up at school. But on Christmas Eve, 1968, I stared in awe at a black and white television in our family den as we listened to the Apollo 8 astronauts—the first people to fly around the Moon—read from the book of Genesis while in lunar orbit 240,000 miles away: “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth . . .” Less than a year later, I was even more mesmerized when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon on live television. My interest in NASA gradually diminished until one morning in 1986 when space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch. A routine ride into space was suddenly no longer routine. The seven astronauts killed that day were the first NASA crew to die in flight.

My First Trip
Twenty years after first coveting a front-row seat at a shuttle launch, my wish finally came true when I obtained a media badge for the July 2005 launch of Discovery, the first shuttle to fly since Columbia had blown apart over Texas on its return home in February 2003. NASA officially anointed the STS-114 [Space Transportation System] mission of Discovery as “Return to Flight.” I was extremely excited driving all night to KSC. Arriving at the press center, I was astounded by the wonderland before me: Television monitors showed NASA TV telecasts; miniature models of the shuttle and space station were on display, as were spacecraft designs of the future; pleasant NASA public relations employees usually smiled when explaining the mission or shuttle equipment to inquiring reporters; stacks of information detailing everything from space shuttle history to explanations of safety criteria that must be met before clearing a shuttle for launch were readily available.

That evening, several buses took the media contingent to the launch pad for photo opportunities but we were forced to stay on the buses for two hours as launch pad personnel addressed a structure that had fallen off the shuttle and damaged one of the heat shield tiles that protects the spacecraft as it re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere. Once that was resolved, we had to wait another hour after several busloads of astronaut families and assorted VIPs pulled up next to the press buses so that they could take pictures first.. Our NASA media escort warned, in no uncertain terms, that anyone who pointed a camera in the direction of the newly-arrived visitors would have their media badge taken away, then be tossed out of the KSC compound and banned forever. At midnight, we were finally freed from the buses to take pictures and gawk, a mere 100 yards from space shuttle Discovery, majestically illuminated by spotlights. After half an hour, our NASA escort ordered us to return to the buses, warning that lingering reporters who missed the ride back would not only have their media badges revoked, they would also be shot on sight. We all wondered if he was kidding.

Back at the KSC Media Center at sunrise, I walked outside to stare at Discovery bathed in spotlights on the launch pad three miles away as an orange glow creeped onto the horizon. Suddenly, a sexy female voice oozed from the outdoor audio system as NASA TV began its broadcast day: “At 4:45 this morning, space shuttle crew and managers met and gave a ‘go’ to proceed with the tanking operations for the launch attempt this afternoon for the STS-114 Return to Flight mission,” she purred with authority. She sounded like the woman announcing flight schedules on the circular space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Two hours before launch that afternoon, a faulty fuel sensor delayed the Discovery mission for a couple of weeks. I dejectedly drove straight back to Birmingham, though there was one bright spot: That morning I spent 10 minutes interviewing Apollo 13 flight director Gene Kranz face to face in a tiny room. His crew cut and enthusiasm were charming as hell. By the time I arrived in Birmingham, I had been awake for 46 hours.

Blast Off at Last
On July 4th, 2006, I saw my first shuttle launch. Once again, it was spaceship Discovery on the launch pad. The STS-121 crew included robotic arm specialist Lisa Nowak. Less than a year following this mission, Nowak would be arrested in Orlando after reportedly driving all night and day from Houston to Florida while wearing a diaper to avoid bathroom stops in an alleged attempt to kidnap the fiancée of an astronaut with whom Nowak was having an affair. The diaper tale was eventually determined to be a myth. She was fired by NASA a month later. The pilot of STS-121 was Mark Kelly, husband of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot three months before her husband’s May 2011 mission as commander of Endeavor’s farewell flight.

On that Independence Day five years ago, a half-dozen veteran reporters sat around the NASA press-briefing room killing time, swapping “Buzz Aldrin was an asshole” stories about personal encounters with the grumpiest man to ever walk on the Moon. Several minutes later, the large monitors that telecast NASA TV showed the Discovery crew walking out to the vehicle that would take them to the launch pad for that afternoon’s blast-off. It was quite nerve-racking watching the countdown clock tick away. Discovery did not disappoint. The launch was the most memorable spectacle I’ve ever seen. Just like on television, it appeared to be moving in slow motion the first several seconds after launch. The oddest thing was that I was watching a silent rocket blast off without a roar. Within 12 seconds, however, the noise slowly swept over me, growing louder as the ground began to tremble.

(click for larger version)



In April 2011—the day after the most devastating rash of tornadoes in American history passed through Alabama—I set off for Kennedy Space Center once again to watch the final launch of space shuttle Endeavor. I left Birmingham at sunset the day before launch, arriving at sunrise to secure my media badge for the afternoon lift-off. By noon, NASA had scrubbed the launch due to technical problems. Weather cancellations can be turned around the next day, but technical issues can take weeks. I immediately left KSC and, after negotiating the hellacious traffic that packs highways on launch days, drove straight back home to save money on a motel room. I arrived in Birmingham 32 hours after I had left.

This Will Be the Last Time
Black & White publisher Chuck Geiss and I secured media credentials for STS-135, the final flight of space shuttle Atlantis, the last mission before retirement of the three-vehicle fleet permanently. I warned Chuck that due to technical and weather issues, a trip for a launch is about as reliable as throwing dice in a casino.

An hour before lift-off, NASA announced that weather conditions were favorable for launch, though there were concerns about rain showers at the flight runway that shuttles use to return in the event of an emergency. European Space Agency astronaut Hans Schlegel, a 60-year-old NASA veteran who had performed a spacewalk during a 1993 Columbia mission, and who was also on an Atlantis flight in 2008, chatted with me briefly. “I remember it was 80 percent ‘no go’ for Columbia,” Schlegel said in a thick German accent, recalling his first launch that flew without delay. When asked what will become of the astronaut corps with the retirement of the shuttle fleet, as the United States will be forced to pay the Russians $60 million per astronaut to go to the space station, he replied, “The change in astronaut corps is already going on. A lot of pilots have already left, a lot of other pilots decided they wanted to be long-duration crew members. The skill of pilots is still needed and will be even more needed when we develop new systems. It’s a milestone but it’s continuously developing and I hope we have many, many opportunities which we don’t think of yet.” As for his personal future, Schlegel said, “Next for me is I’m shortly before pension. I am passing on my experience, my knowledge, for use to make new European astronauts coming to Johnson Spaceflight Center in Houston preparing for their missions. I help them, I advise them, and mentor them. I’m kind of the senior league for them.”

After waiting in line at the merchandise trailer to purchase souvenirs, Chuck and I roamed the field where media congregate to watch the launch. Across the lagoon, Atlantis stood in the distance as clouds continued to shuffle. My anxiety turned to excitement as the crowd began counting down loudly in unison at 10 seconds. Suddenly, vapor clouds quickly blasted up to surround the bottom of the launch pad as Atlantis rose from the ground in slow motion, the blinding flame of the two SRBs [solid rocket boosters] forcing me to put my sunglasses back on. As the spacecraft began to pick up speed, a plume of smoke and vapor was left in the shuttle’s wake, appearing to connect Atlantis to Earth. Then the rumble I had been waiting for five years to hear again began. Creeping up slowly from the distance, invading ears with loud crackles and shaking the ground, the noise rattled my bones. There’s no feeling quite like it. Forty two seconds after blast off, Atlantis disappeared into the overhead clouds.

The press crammed into the small auditorium at the KSC media center for a post-launch press conference 90 minutes after launch. The briefing began with a video message (more or less a pep talk) from NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. I was amazed that the top dog at NASA did not attend the post-launch press gathering, considering that this was the final shuttle launch. But four NASA officials were there, where they revealed that after discussing weather concerns, NASA’s mission management team waived some of the criteria for launch, something it had avoided doing in the wake of the Columbia tragedy to the point of being perhaps overly cautious.

“It got a little dicey there a couple of times but we found our way through it,” said Bob Cabana, Kennedy Space Center Director. With regards to the loss of jobs as the shuttle program ends, Cabana commented, “Change is difficult, but you can’t do something else—you can’t do something better—unless you go through change. And all this talk about ‘NASA is adrift, we don’t have a plan’—we do have a plan. We’re enabling commercial space. We have the commercial crew program here at Kennedy supported by the Johnson Space Center in Houston. We have four folks under contract trying to build a vehicle that will take Americans to space supporting our International Space Station— that’s still up there until at least 2020 with Americans onboard—a human spaceflight program.”

“I choke up at every launch. This one, I choked up before launch,” confessed Mike Moses, who oversees the Mission Management Team. “As an engineer, as whatever, I can’t see how anybody who comes down here and sees a shuttle launch doesn’t choke up and just swell with pride at seeing that thing go. It does it to you every time.” He’s right; when that countdown commences, no one is immune. &

The Alabama Gang in a Fine Art Museum?

The Alabama Gang in a Fine Art Museum?

Donnie, Eddie, and Bobby Allison, c. 1960. (Photo: Collection of Bobby Allison Museum, Hueytown.) (click for larger version)



May 26, 2011

Currently on exhibit at the Huntsville Museum of Art is a collection of photographs, trophies, and other racing memorabilia celebrating the careers of three of the finest drivers in auto-racing history. After moving from Miami to Hueytown, Alabama, in 1960, Bobby Allison, his little brother Donnie Allison, and Red Farmer became a feared trio that ruled racing circuits throughout the South. They quickly earned the nickname The Alabama Gang. Among their stomping grounds is the recently renovated Huntsville Speedway, a tiny quarter-mile racetrack at the foot of Green Mountain that featured drivers who would go on to high-octane glory, including Richard Petty, who won the 1962 Rocket City 200 on his way to the NASCAR Grand National Championship that year.

The collection, on display through July 24, includes the number 312 Legends Car, a 3/4-scale replica of Bobby Allison’s 1937 Chevrolet coupe that he drove in the early 1960s. Allison’s induction this year into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina, prompted the exhibit, titled Fast, Loose, and Out of Control: Bobby Allison and The Alabama Gang. On Father’s Day, June 19, the three racing legends will sign autographs from 1 to 3 p.m. at the museum’s Great Hall.

(Photo: Huntsville Museum of Art.) (click for larger version)

Also on display through July 24 is Future Retro: Drawings from the Great Age of American Automobiles. The exhibit features more than 100 works showcasing American automotive design during the decades following World War II, a landmark period in car styling. Works range from preliminary sketches to fully rendered drawings, providing a rare glimpse into the creative process.

Tickets to the autograph signing are $20 adults ages 12+, $10 children 6–11. Huntsville Museum of Art, 300 Church Street SW, Huntsville;; (256) 535-4350, ext. 201. &

To read more about the Alabama Gang, visit:


Dead Folks 2010: Innovators, Sportsmen, and Politics

Dead Folks 2010: Innovators, Sportsmen, and Politics


January 20, 2011

Inventors and Innovators

Fran Lee (99)
A fiery consumer advocate responsible for New York City’s adoption of pooper-scooper laws in 1978, Fran Lee initially opposed the ordinance, believing it to be too lenient as she denounced notions of dogs being allowed to desecrate the city. Though dog waste may be her claim to fame, Lee appeared on local and national radio and TV programming from the 1940s through the 1990s, playing characters such as Mrs. Fix-It, Mrs. Consumer, and Granny Fanny as she doled out consumer tips. She once appeared on “The Steve Allen Show,” and she taught Allen how to make a bikini from a tattered sweater. She acted in off-Broadway plays and had a small role as a Macy’s customer in Miracle on 34th Street.

After immersing herself in public health and safety issues, she went all out. Her son told the New York Times: “She had the elevator man in each of her buildings bring her all the medical journals that were being thrown out by the doctors in the building. So she had files on spider bites, ticks, all sorts of diseases.” He added that he could overhear his mother—a staunch atheist—talking to herself in her final years, when she would mutter, “God, when I get to see you, am I going to tell you a thing or two.”—ER

Fred Morrison (90)
Visit the beach in Santa Monica, California, on any given afternoon, and more than likely you will see Frisbees being tossed. That’s fitting, because the flying disc’s inventor was selling “Flyin’ Cake Pans” there before eventually creating a plastic version known as “Flyin-Saucer” with investor Warren Franscioni in the late 1940s. A former World War II fighter pilot, Morrison was determined to improve the disc’s aerodynamic qualities, which he did after parting ways with Franscioni. Specifically noted in Morrison’s U.S. patent is the outer third of the disc, known as the “Morrison Slope.” By the mid-1950s Morrison’s new and improved version, “The Pluto Platter,” caught the attention of entrepreneurs at Wham-O, the toy company responsible for the Hula Hoop, the Super Ball, and other iconic toys. Ed Headrick, (later owner of the Disc Golf Association), further improved the design by adding stabilizing concentric rings at the disc’s edge (known as the “Rings of Headrick”). The new name was coined when Wham-O reps learned that college kids in New England referred to the Pluto Platters as “Frisbies” after the Frisbie Pie Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut. That company’s cake pans were already being used as makeshift toys. The Wham-O legal counsel naturally insisted on altering the spelling to “Frisbee.”

The whole process, instigated by Morrison’s idea to capitalize on the era’s flying saucer craze, made him a millionaire. He wasn’t the only one who got rich. Before selling the name and design for Frisbee to Mattell, Wham-O sold approximately 100 million discs.—DP

Elizabeth Post (click for larger version)




Elizabeth Post (89)
Is it proper to talk about the deceased while comforting a bereaved survivor? Are floral patterns appropriate to wear at a funeral? Is it okay to bring a date? You’ve missed your chance to ask Elizabeth Post, who succeeded her grandmother-in-law Emily Post as America’s leading expert on manners. She enjoyed a long career that included frequently revising the book Emily Post’s Etiquette. Elizabeth also kept a column under her own name that ran in Good Housekeeping for 25 years. Known as “Libby” to her pals, she had a notably relaxed notion about the etiquette industry. She mostly believed in respect and consideration as a way to bring people closer together. She was on the front lines of dealing with things like wedding showers for unwed mothers—so it’s pretty impressive she lived as long as she did.—JRT

Glenn Walters (85)
Many people can curse Glenn Walters as the inventor of cubicles. At the very least, he was a major figure behind the workplace innovation. Back in 1966, his vision was more about the concept of movable walls. Still, it was inevitable that his big idea would be turned into little boxes for office employees. Cubicles made a success of Walters, who started out as a salesman for the Herman Miller furniture company. He retired as the company’s president in 1982.

Walters might not have even noticed how his dehumanizing eight foot by eight foot enclosures (if you’re lucky) became a touchstone of Generation X revolt a decade later—and soon had hip corporations embracing an open office workplace as a fashionable option. You can still thank him for absurdist humor ranging from the “Dilbert” comic strip to the cult film Office Space. He should also get credit for that cute picture of a cubicle dolled up like a gingerbread house that someone emailed you last week.

This is also a good time to salute UAB employee David Gunnells, who was the winner of Wired magazine’s 2007 competition for America’s Saddest Cubicle. Revenge is yours, sir.—JRT

Morrie Yohai (click for larger version)

Morrie Yohai (89)
You might think of them as a trashy Southern tradition, but Cheez Doodles—marketed under the Wise Foods banner in the mid-1960s—originated in the Bronx under the eye of Morrie Yohai. His company was later absorbed by Borden, who promptly moved the product to their affiliate’s potato chip division. The cheese-flavored corn snack was a Cheetos knock-off, but the Cheez Doodles brand has continued to prosper. Yohai did pretty well for himself, going on to work with Borden’s snack food division on (the predominantly East Coast–preferred) Drake’s Cakes and (the universally beloved) Cracker Jack. Yohai always insisted that the invention of Cheez Doodles was a group effort, but he conceded that he invented the name. He certainly embraced his proud heritage—passing away in the New York home that his wife of over 50 years described as “the house that Cheez Doodles bought.”—JRT


Alexander Haig (85)
A veteran of the the Korean and Vietnam Wars, former U.S. Army General Alexander Haig was perhaps best known for wrongly declaring himself to be in charge of the country in the immediate aftermath of the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan. It was the first of several controversial episodes that prompted Reagan to fire him after Haig was appointed Secretary of State. (He pronounced himself “the vicar of foreign policy” after accepting the post.) He took over H. R. Haldeman’s position as President Richard Nixon’s Chief of Staff as Watergate began to unravel and is widely credited with keeping the government functioning during Nixon’s final days.

Alexander Haig (click for larger version)

Noted for his staunch anticommunist posture, Haig readily admitted to feeling that way at a young age in a 2000 interview with Fox’s James Rosen: “I started out as a Cold Warrior, even my last years in grade school. I used to read everything I could get on communism. In fact, the first paper I wrote as a plebe at West Point caused a major upheaval in the faculty, because I predicted that our next enemy was the Soviet Union. . . . It was during the war [World War II], when we were allies. . . . I was viewed with some suspicion by the social sciences department.” Later in the interview, he knocked his old boss Reagan: “There ain’t anybody else in America that I know that has quit three presidents—but I have. And I quit Ronald Reagan for exactly that reason. He’s sitting there, not knowing what the hell was going on, and he had [Deputy Chief of Staff Mike] Deaver and [Chief of Staff James] Baker and Mrs. Reagan running the government!”—ER

James Kilpatrick (89)
Like many Southerners before him, political writer and pundit James Kilpatrick finally realized that the racial discrimination he once championed was simply wrong. As the editor of the Richmond News Leader in the 1950s and ’60s, Kilpatrick was a fervent segregationist who in editorials espoused states’ rights and separation of the races. In 1963, he submitted an article to the Saturday Evening Post titled “The Hell He Is Equal,” writing that the “Negro race, as a race, is in fact an inferior race.” The Post pulled the article out of sensitivity to the deaths of four young black girls in the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. By the late ’60s, Kilpatrick began to repent.

James Kilpatrick (click for larger version)

Kilpatrick became a conservative political TV star for his in-your-face debating prowess on the CBS “60 Minutes” segment “Point-Counterpoint.” He verbally jousted with liberal opponents, the most memorable instances being snide exchanges between him and liberal Shana Alexander. Kilpatrick and his colleagues called their debates “a political form of professional wrestling.” The pair was parodied by Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd on “Saturday Night Live” during Weekend Update sketches.

Former Democratic presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy was a neighbor and friend of Kilpatrick’s. “The man is not locked into a mold. He’s not just the curmudgeon you see on TV,” McCarthy told The Washington Post in 1973, adding that Kilpatrick had “kind of a country manor style.”

My favorite things that Kilpatrick wrote were his weekly syndicated columns on grammar and word usage in the Birmingham News each Sunday. He mercilessly scolded, scoffed at, and corrected writers who committed grammatical sins in print. I was once inspired to send him an email praising him after he relentlessly shamed a writer for misusing the word “shimmy” when the scribe wrote of someone who “shimmied up a pole.” Kilpatrick admonished, correcting the mistake with the pointed barbs and verbal skill of a master swordsman when he informed that “shinny” is the correct verb to represent such an action. “Shimmy” is more correctly used to define the intense shaking in the front end of an automobile. I shared with Kilpatrick that I first heard the word “shimmy” used by my father to describe the intense vibrations from the engine of our 1967 Chevelle. The next morning, Kilpatrick had already responded, writing:

Dear Mr. Reynolds,

Many thanks for your note. We have a good deal in common. I’m 84. I learned to drive under my father’s tutelage in a Studebaker sedan, and thus learned all about shimmy. This was in 1934 or thereabouts. Great car, but—

You could do me a favor if sometime, when you’re thinking about my column, you could drop a note to the News editor saying you enjoy my pearls of wisdom. Nothing helps a columnist quite so much as a few letters from readers, writ by hand.

James J. Kilpatrick

I remain forever amused that a writer of Kilpatrick’s prominence asked me to dash off a note to the editor of a newspaper that ran his column to tell them what a great job Kilpatrick was doing.—ER


Don Meredith (click for larger version)

“Dandy Don” Meredith (72)
For nine seasons “Dandy Don” Meredith was quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, later making a name for himself as part of the original Monday Night Football broadcasting team. Meredith was commentator Howard Cosell’s comic foil for 12 years. His ever-present smile, effervescent personality, and down-home humor made him popular with viewers. One of his favorite quips was the night he was working a game in Denver. “Welcome to Mile High Stadium—and I really am,” he said.—Ed Reynolds

George Steinbrenner (80)
Noted for his demanding, outspoken demeanor, New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner was the first professional sports franchise owner to pay outrageously large salaries to players. Building a baseball dynasty second to none, Steinbrenner was renowned for firing and rehiring managers, with hothead Billy Martin taking five turns managing the team. The revolving door of personnel changes earned the Yankees the nickname “the Bronx Zoo.” During his college years, Steinbrenner flirted with coaching football and was an assistant coach to Woody Hayes at Ohio State the year the Buckeyes were the undefeated national champions. Before acquiring the Yankees in 1973, he dabbled in producing Broadway plays.—ER

Bobby Thomson (86)
Born in Scotland, Bobby Thomson moved to the United States at age two. His game-winning home run—known as “the shot heard ’round the world”—lifted the New York Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers in a 1951 playoff game to secure the National League pennant. It was later confirmed that the 1951 Giants employed telescopes to steal the pitching signals that opposing catchers gave to pitchers.—ER

John Wooden (click for larger version)

John Wooden (99)
Known as the “Wizard of Westwood,” John Wooden is considered the greatest basketball coach in college history; his UCLA Bruins won 10 national championships in 12 years, including 7 in a row. No collegiate team dominated a sport the way UCLA did basketball with Wooden at the helm, spawning two of the greatest names to play the game: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton. His teams were noted for their merciless full-court press on defense. Wooden always described his job as teacher, not coach. Abdul-Jabbar wrote in the New York Times in 2000, “He broke basketball down to its basic elements. . . . He always told us basketball was a simple game, but his ability to make the game simple was part of his genius.”—ER

Eudora and Zelda

Eudora and Zelda

Visual works by Eudora Welty and Zelda Fitzgerald in Montgomery.

September 16, 2010

Eudora Welty is best known for her short stories and novels depicting life in the South. But before her literary work was first published in 1936, she was hired as a publicist by the Works Progress Administration, a job that took her throughout rural Mississippi during the Great Depression. She brought along a camera to document her travels, and in 1971 her photographs were published in the book One Time, One Place. The Museum of Mobile has organized her photos into a traveling exhibit called Eudora Welty, Exposures and Reflections, developed with the Southern Literary Trail and funded through the Alabama Humanities Foundation. The exhibit opened in Mobile in September and runs through October 31. It will move to the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery on November 11, where it can be viewed until January 7, 2011.

Photos courtesy of Eudora Welty LLC and Miss. Dept. of Archives & History (click for larger version)

“All of Eudora Welty’s original negatives are archived in Jackson at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History,” says Birmingham attorney William Gantt, director of the Southern Literary Trail Project, which “celebrates writers of classic Southern literature” who hail from Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. The Trail connects literary house museums and landmarks.

“For obvious reasons, [the Mississippi Department of Archives] is very picky about what negatives will be made into prints and what will not. Some of the negatives are too fragile to be put through the development process again.” The curator at the Museum of Mobile, Jacob Laurence, went to Jackson and worked with the Department of Archives and a local developer on the particular photos he wanted, learning what could be developed and what couldn’t. “We were really stunned at the quality of the images. They are just absolutely pristine, to come from 1930s-era Depression negatives,” Gantt says. The exhibit includes 40 photographs, which will eventually travel to Atlanta; Decatur, Alabama; and Columbus, Mississippi.

“Eudora Welty was a junior publicity agent for the WPA, but nobody can tell me what that job description entailed,” Gantt says, laughing. “Based on my own readings and conclusions, I think, basically, she went around Mississippi with what we would call a bookmobile. She really wanted to be a photographer, even before she wanted to be a writer. My understanding is that to be a photographer at that time, you had to be in the good ol’ boys club. So, as a woman, they didn’t take her seriously. So she took these photographs as she went around Mississippi.”

(click for larger version)



Coinciding with the exhibit of Welty’s photos, the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts will display a collection of Zelda Fitzgerald’s artwork, primarily watercolors and paper dolls. “The Zelda stuff is real rare and fragile, it cannot travel,” explains Gantt. “Zelda was a painter and made paper dolls for her daughter. It’s remarkable artwork, but they don’t show it often.” The Fitzgerald exhibit will be on display from October 28 until January 9, 2011, at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, whose permanent collection includes 30 works by Fitzgerald, a Montgomery native married to novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald. She suffered from mental illness and died in a fire at the North Carolina hospital where she lived out her life.

The dual exhibits in Montgomery are best summed up by Welty, who wrote in the foreword to One Place, One Time: “If exposure is essential, still more so is the reflection.” &

For dates, details, ticket prices and more, visit,, or

(click for larger version)



(click for larger version)



(click for larger version)



Believe It or Not

Believe It or Not

Christopher Hitchens. (Photo courtesy of the Fixed Point Foundation.) (click for larger version)
September 02, 2010

Acclaimed writer and noted atheist Christopher Hitchens, whose books include God Is Not Great, will debate renowned Paris mathemetician Dr. David Berlinski, author of The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions, on September 7 at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Birmingham. Presented by the Fixed Point Foundation—an organization dedicated “to publicly defending Christianity through education, events, and the development of innovative resources that empower Christians and challenge skeptics”—the event includes a luncheon and reception in addition to the debate, which is titled “How Atheism Poisons Everything.”

Dr. Berlinski is a self-described “secular Jew and an agnostic” who is perhaps best known for his appearance in Ben Stein’s film Expelled, produced by Stein to defend belief in a Supreme Being. Hitchens and Berlinski will explore the question, “What are the implications of a purely secular society?”

As if any further drama is needed, Hitchens was recently diagnosed with esophageal cancer. The hard-living, chain-smoking author has commented on his illness in recent weeks. When asked by interviewer Charlie Rose if he would live the same lifestyle knowing that cancer would be the result, Hitchens responded, “Yes, I think I would. I’ve had to reflect on this, of course, a lot recently, and trying to imagine doing my life differently and not ending up mortally sick. But it’s impossible for me to imagine having my life without going to those parties, without having those late nights . . . without that second bottle.”

The disease was diagnosed on the heels of Hitchens’ just-published memoirs, Hitch-22. The September issue of Vanity Fair features a chilling, amusing, and brutally honest assessment of his current health status, as penned by Hitchens himself. The writer sums up his fate in his classic style: “The word ‘metastasized’ was the one in the report that first caught my eye, and ear. The alien had colonized a bit of my lung as well as quite a bit of my lymph node. And its original base of operations was located—had been located for quite some time—in my esophagus. My father had died, and very swiftly, too, of cancer of the esophagus. He was 79. I am 61. In whatever kind of a ‘race’ life may be, I have very abruptly become a finalist.” &

“How Atheism Poisons Everything,” 7 p.m. Tuesday, September 7. Sheraton Birmingham, 2101 Richard Arrington Jr. Blvd. North. Tickets: $25, with additional cost for luncheon and reception. Details:

Dead Folks: Film, Part 2

Dead Folks: Film, Part 2

Remembrances of notable individuals who passed away in 2009.

January 21, 2010

Patrick McGoohan
Though born in New York City, Patrick McGoohan was raised in Ireland, where his acting career established him as one of the new crop of Angry Young Men storming the stage during the 1950s. Any plans to become the next Richard Burton changed when McGoohan became a TV star on the long-running UK series “Danger Man” (repackaged as “Secret Agent” for the American audience). McGoohan then turned that simple career move into high art. After three seasons of “Danger Man,” McGoohan essentially took his spy character and placed him in the ambitious sci-fi setting of “The Prisoner.”

Patrick McGoohan (click for larger version)

McGoohan produced, wrote, directed, and starred in what became one of the 1960s most subversive TV shows. The title character of “The Prisoner” was only known as Number Six. Each episode presented him clashing with a new Number Two, whose job would be to psychologically break Number Six among the trappings of the luxury resort that served as his prison. Before it was over, “The Prisoner” became a brilliant mix of libertarian politics torn between Cold War paranoia and hippie hysteria.

McGoohan worked infrequently after that success. He gave up on television after a frustrating stint as a diagnostic physician in 1977′s “Rafferty.” He fared better on the big screen, with great villainous turns in 1976′s The Silver Streak and against Clint Eastwood in Escape from Alcatraz. He also appeared in David Cronenberg’s Scanners and Mel Gibson’s Braveheart.

McGoohan also stayed busy working on the “Columbo” TV movies. He played four murderers and directed other episodes. Unfortunately, McGoohan matched only Sean Connery when it came to bad decisions later in his career. His big-screen genre return was a 1996 cameo in The Phantom, based on the popular comic strip. He turned down roles in The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter films. McGoohan’s last big appearance was returning as Number Six in an episode of “The Simpsons.” The AMC cable channel aired a remake of “The Prisoner” this year. Some wondered if McGoohan dropped dead because he saw how badly the network screwed up the concept. (80, natural causes)

—J.R. Taylor

Jack Wrangler
In the midst of 1970s porn chic, only one gay porn star was able to go legit. Jack Wrangler—born John Stillman—came from a showbiz family in Beverly Hills, and started out as a child actor. He took roles in gay-themed stage productions as a young man, before moving to New York. He ended up working on the stages of Manhattan’s gay bars as a go-go dancer. That’s when he became Jack Wrangler. He was soon discovered by gay porn filmmakers and made his X-rated debut in 1970′s Eyes of a Stranger. The proudly out star became a regular in fashionable Manhattan hot spots. Wrangler later moved on to heterosexual porn in the late 1970s—his most notorious role remains his turn as Satan in 1982′s The Devil in Miss Jones 2. By then, he had scored a legitimate off-Broadway hit with his role in the popular play “T-Shirts.”

Jack Wrangler (click for larger version)




He was a heavy smoker, but a lot of people were surprised that Wrangler was outlived by his wife. Actually, a lot of people were surprised that he had a wife. He had first met Margaret Whiting in 1976. That was several decades after her heyday as a popular singer.

Wrangler went on to promote Whiting’s career and ended up as a busy producer on the cabaret circuit. The couple married in 1994, and raised eyebrows one last time in 1998 when they sued the city of New York for $3 million after Whiting (then 74 years old) broke her hip after tripping on broken pavement. The lawsuit included a $1 million claim over the loss of conjugal relations. (62, emphysema) —J.R.T.

Ray Dennis Steckler
One of Hollywood’s worst directors had a promising start. Ray Dennis Steckler made his directorial debut with 1962′s Wild Guitar, which is actually a stylish—and inept—tale of the rise and fall of a young rockabilly star. The nebbishy Steckler then wrote a role for himself (starring under the name of Cash Flagg) as Mort “Mad Dog” Click in 1964′s The Thrill Killers. Steckler also used his pseudonym to direct himself in that same year’s The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? The title alone made it an instant cult classic. The film became notorious as a touring show that featured real monsters running through the theater and abducting girls from the audience.

Ray Dennis Stecker’s most famous film. (click for larger version)

Steckler never got a chance at a decent script, though, and his reputation went downhill while making notoriously cheap films like the “Batman” parody Rat Pfink a Boo Boo and directing porn in the 1970s.

He made X-rated films up to 1983, and then began to enjoy some notoriety as his earlier films were discovered on VHS. The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher (1979) plays more like a nihilistic wallow on the level of Abel Ferrara’s Driller Killer. Steckler had moved to Vegas by the end of the ’70s, which makes The Hollywood Strangler equally impressive as a travelogue of that city’s sleaziest ’70s settings.

Steckler was happy to be rediscovered and had a pretty good attitude about his career. He was still right to be angry when one of his movies showed up as fodder for an episode of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Nothing really came of his attempted comeback with 1986′s Las Vegas Serial Killer, but he seemed happy to concentrate on his own Las Vegas chain of video stores.

John Quade

Sadly, the director never pursued his idea of reuniting with cast members from his old films to make Steckler’s 11. He did, however, reportedly finish shooting The Incredibly Strange Creatures: One More Time before his death—and for one-tenth of the original film’s $38,000 budget. (70, cardiac arrest) —J.R.T.

John Quade
From the 1960s until just recently, Quade’s mere physical presence made him a first choice for the role of a heavy in any TV series or motion picture requiring an ill-tempered troll. A thick, balding head (sans neck), slits for eyes, and the torso of a young bull combined to suggest an inevitable encounter with menace and mayhem. Yet in dozens of westerns or crime thrillers, something about Quade’s demeanor hinted that he fell squarely into two bad-guy categories: mean and stupid. While one easily imagines him ambling out of a saloon and crossing the street so he can pummel some victim into dust, one just as easily suspects that Quade will forget why he bothered to cross that street once he reaches the other side. Therefore he represented, in most of his roles as a corrupt lawman, renegade biker, or frontier bully, a kind of dangerous nuisance as opposed to a deadly threat. That’s Quade in High Plains Drifter, Any Which Way You Can, and similar fare attempting to open a can of whoop-ass, but ultimately making Clint Eastwood’s day. (71, natural causes) —D.P.

David Carradine

David Carradine
The star of the 1970s drama “Kung Fu” enjoyed a few legitimate screen roles, including Ingmar Bergman’s The Serpent’s Egg and an Oscar-nominated turn as Woody Guthrie in 1976′s Bound for Glory. There were also plenty of classic drive-in epics, from Boxcar Bertha to Death Race 2000. He was always one of Hollywood’s wildest eccentrics, constantly going barefoot and eager to discuss eating the placenta of the child he had with Barbara Hershey in 1972. (That was back when his Boxcar Bertha co-star called herself Barbara Seagull after hitting a seagull with her car.)

His brother Keith went on to the classier acting career, while Robert Carradine got the Revenge of the Nerds franchise. Carradine spent the 1980s and ’90s making tons of direct-to-video schlock with the occasional classy role—including the classic monster movie Q and working with his brothers in The Long Riders. He also spent 10 years working as the writer, director, and star of Americana. That one is a real lost gem worthy of directors like Monte Hellman and David Lynch.

Carradine also kept the Kung Fu franchise going by playing his own ancestor in a long-running syndicated series. He made a true comeback replacing Warren Beatty in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies. That didn’t stop Carradine from going right back to making schlock—including the Bangkok-set actioner he was filming when found dead in the closet of his hotel room.

The initial reports of suicide were later clarified as autoerotic asphyxiation. That was certainly in keeping with Carradine’s kinky reputation. The indulgent actor left Los Angeles with something to remember. A few months before his death, Carradine participated in a panel discussion after a screening of Bound for Glory. He complained about the evils off labor unions, threw a microphone at a woman in the audience, and berated cinematographer Haskell Wexler for ruining the movie. Wexler won his second Oscar for his work on Bound for Glory. (72, autoerotic asphyxiation) —J.R.T.

Gene Barry
A handsome leading man in some very minor films and two popular TV series, Barry might have been a bigger star if not for an accident of birth. He did have a starring role in one “A” picture. Playing Dr. Clayton Forrester in the 1953 science-fiction epic The War of the Worlds, Barry sported tortoise-shell horn-rim glasses and a debonair swagger. Forrester provided nerds and science geeks everywhere with the best possible pick-up line: when his fetching female co-star mentions the glasses, he removes them, moves into her space, and intones, “When I want look at something up close, I take them off.”

Gale Storm (click for larger version)

By the time he took a starring role in the TV western “Bat Masterson,” Barry was older—and looking older—than most of his peers who were holding positions as ladies’ men. The detective series “Burke’s Law” had him gadding about Los Angeles in a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce, solving crimes and turning away eager dames. The show’s bevy of willing babes and surprisingly frank sexual content were intended to maximize Barry’s potential as a major swankster. But in 1965, he looked like the much older brother of Hollywood’s most dashing lads. (90, natural causes) —D.P.

Gale Storm
The filmography of Gale Storm ends like you would expect from an aging star of the 1950s. Her final credits were “The Love Boat” and “Murder, She Wrote.” Storm was no typical starlet, though. The former Josephine Cottle spent the 1940s making lots of banal films for RKO Pictures. Things suddenly turned around with the unexpected success of the TV show “My Little Margie.” She was 30 years old when the summer replacement for “I Love Lucy” became a hit in 1952. That was ancient by Hollywood standards, but Storm launched a new career as a hit singer and nightclub act—and followed up “My Little Margie” with “The Gale Storm Show,” which kept her on the air until 1960. (87, natural causes) —J.R.T.

Charles Schneer
Serving in the U.S. Army Photographic Unit during WWII alongside John Ford and John Huston, Schneer got a big case of the movie bug and headed to Hollywood after the war. In the mid-1950s, he joined Columbia Pictures and hooked up with Ray Harryhausen, who had learned a few things about stop-motion animation from the experts who had made King Kong. This was especially appealing for Schneer, who was obsessed with the kind of science-fiction and adventure stories known in the movie industry at that time as “creature features.” Harryhausen was already figuring out how to make those creatures come to life, and Schneer knew how to manage a production unit. It was the beginning of a long and beautiful friendship.

Shooting scale-model monsters on miniature sets (one frame at a time) requires an intimidating amount of time and money, and Columbia Pictures was rarely the studio for big budgets. It was Schneer’s particular genius to find the means to make those pictures anyway. For the duo’s first feature film, It Came from Beneath the Sea, Schneer determined that a giant octopus with only six tentacles would take less time for Harryhausen to pose and shoot than would an anatomically correct cephalopod. He correctly gambled that audiences stunned by the sight of a sea creature tearing out portions of the Golden Gate Bridge wouldn’t take time to count tentacles.

A genre was spawned, aided by Schneer’s youthful fascination with H-bomb tests, UFOs, and any story in the newspapers covering a strange new phenomenon. His collection of clippings was the impetus for low-budget, high-impact wonders such as Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and 20 Million Miles to Earth. Nontheless, it occurred rather quickly to both Schneer and Harryhausen that alien invaders and radiation-enhanced creatures were tired subjects by the end of that decade. Maybe they could bring a little class to the joint by making pictures about the original gods and monsters of Roman and Greek mythology.

The idea resulted in a second genre of pictures, coinciding with—and borrowing from—the sword-and-sandal epics being made in Europe. Using Mediterranean locations, Bernard Herrmann’s rousing, brassy scores, and Harryhausen’s visual effects system “Dynamation,” Schneer provided three generations of moviegoers with a series of indelible images. Jason and the Argonauts, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Clash of the Titans, and others each offer at least one unforgettable moment. The sword battle with that skeleton army from Jason and the Argonauts might be the Schneer/Harryhausen masterwork. (89) —D.P.

Maurice Jarre
A list of the most recognizable motion picture scores would probably include Elmer Bernstein’s The Magnificent Seven, Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho, John Williams’ scores for Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Ennio Morricone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and Nino Rota’s The Godfather. Henry Mancini’s theme from The Pink Panther and John Barry’s score for Goldfinger also make the cut. In all likelihood, Maurice Jarre’s compositions for Dr. Zhivago

(specifically “Lara’s Theme”) will appear in any survey of the most recognizable soundtracks in motion picture history; Dr. Zhivago might even belong in the top five.

Jarre himself might belong on another list: the top 10 hardest working composers in show business. He was meeting impossible challenges early in his career and simply never let up. When producer Sam Spiegel called on Jarre to provide incidental music for David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, the plan was to have heavyweights Benjamin Britten and Aram Khachaturian handle all the theme music. The studio then settled on yet another major composer, Richard Rodgers, but the notoriously picky Lean was not satisfied with anything he heard. The entire score was left up to Jarre, who had less than 40 days to compose themes, arrange the score, rehearse with an orchestra, and then conduct that orchestra to synchronize all music tracks with the film. That score, which employed Arabian music for certain motifs, earned Jarre his first of three Oscars. Lean insisted that Jarre work on his next film, Dr. Zhivago, but again the composer was left with the daunting task of crafting a theme and an entire score within a limited schedule. And again, he earned an Academy Award.

His body of work isn’t all lush symphonic music and chart-busting themes. There is often restraint and ingenuity in the orchestration, especially when he is conveying human emotions or signifying key charactters. Witness the off-kilter strains used to suggest madness in Night of the Generals, The Collector, or most ingeniously in George Franju’s horror cult classic Les Yeux Sans Visage. Indeed, there are numerous instances in his career where Jarre’s music outclasses—and out-entertains—the picture itself, certainly in the case of some forgettable westerns. His early scores for Franju, along with those for several French films made before Jarre came to the United States, are essential listening. Highly recommended is a very rare boxed set of Jarre’s early work, “Anthologie-80ème Anniversaire,” released by the French label Play Time in 2005. (84, cancer) —D.P.

Brittany Murphy
A lot of people were shocked when Brittany Murphy died young. Those people hadn’t been following her film career. The former child actress broke big in her late teens, starting with her role as a girl in need of a makeover in 1995′s Clueless. Her next film was the bizarre indie classic Freeway, and Murphy closed out the 1990s with Girl, Interrupted and Drop Dead Gorgeous. The latter was an underseen comedy that still catapulted Murphy into lead roles. She made some bad romantic comedies in the next decade, but Murphy did fine work in 8 Mile and Sin City. She also kept her day job as the voice of trashy Texan girl Luanne Platter on the FOX animated series “King of the Hill.”

By the mid-2000s, though, Murphy was in trouble. Lindsay Lohan made the headlines, but Murphy was going through a similar celebrity meltdown. Her erratic behavior soon had her reduced to crappy direct-to-video productions. Murphy hit rock bottom with 2009′s MegaFault. The disaster movie debuted on the SyFy Channel in a slot usually reserved for films starring Judd Nelson and Coolio.

The biggest project Murphy had going was the upcoming action film The Expendables. She doesn’t star in the Sylvester Stallone vehicle, though. She is part of a kitschy cast featuring faded stars like Eric Roberts and Dolph Lundgren. Sadly, Murphy didn’t leave much to be rediscovered at the end of her career. She had ruined her looks with plastic surgery, and her eyes were as dead as any veteran porn star’s. Plenty of pills were found in her home. Murphy’s husband and her mother, however, insist that their meal ticket didn’t do drugs. They say she died of a heart murmur. “It was hard for anyone to imagine that somebody was so high on life,” explained Mom. She got that right. (32, cardiac arrest, officially) —J.R.T.

Dead Folks: Television

Dead Folks: Television

Remembrances of notable individuals who passed away in 2009.


January 21, 2010

Henry Gibson
Philadelphia-born Henry Gibson moved to New York City after finishing his studies at the Royal Academy of London. The starving actor had trouble sleeping in the Hell’s Kitchen bathtub that served as his bed, so he stayed up all night writing poetry in the voice of a naïve Southern boy from Fairhope, Alabama. He began to perform the poems live—originally with classmate Jon Voight, and then solo after Voight decided to pursue more serious roles.

Henry Gibson (click for larger version)

Gibson was born James Bateman, but chose his stage name because it sounded like “Henrik Ibsen” with a Southern accent. His big break came with a chance to read his poems on the “PM East/PM West” TV show hosted by Mike Wallace. Gibson knew he would never be allowed on the show if the producers knew he was an actor. He recalled his audition in an interview from 1997:

I visited the studio, and they brought in Mike Wallace. He practically exhausted me with questions about my background. I had to create an entire biography, depicting this idealized version of a town I had never even seen. Then Wallace asked me, ‘Henry, can you make up a poem on the spot?’

I nearly died. My entire repertoire had seven poems, maybe eight. The dumber the poems sounded, the more time it had taken to create them. The intricacy and complexity of them wasn’t something that just happened. So I foolishly said, ‘Yes,’ and came up with a poem about sunshine:

There’s sunshine in the mountains
There’s sunshine in the trees
There’s sunshine right here in the office
But, most of all, it’s in me

Well, that did it. He put me on the show the next day. Sad to say—or happy to say—Henry Gibson, the poet, was launched.

That appearance turned Little Henry from Fairhope, Alabama, into a star. He was a regular on the national talk shows of the early 1960s, and Gibson frequently took phone calls from Alabama newspapers wanting to chronicle the exploits of a favorite son. Little Henry became a regular on “The Joey Bishop Show,” and fans like Jerry Lewis and Phyllis Diller encouraged his bizarre stand-up comedy act.

Gibson had moved on to legitimate theater by the time he began reciting his poems on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.” The hit show made Gibson a countercultural icon. His most controversial messages involved peace and environmental causes.

By the end of the 1970s, Gibson had enough clout to publish a poem in the editorial pages of the Washington Post. (“I was especially pleased to learn that President Carter found it offensive.”) Gibson also remained busy as a character actor, picking up new fans with an appearance in 1980′s The Blues Brothers. He could also be found in films such as Magnolia and Nashville. Gibson worked constantly (and Twittered) right up to his death. He never did get to visit Fairhope. (73, cancer) —J.R. Taylor

Edward Woodward (click for larger version)

Edward Woodward
Few Americans know the full career history of this versatile English actor. Blessed with good looks (a blend of Peter O’Toole and Christopher Plummer) and a gentle tenor, Woodward found his way onto the English stage—and for a short time, Broadway—where he rubbed elbows with Noël Coward, Laurence Olivier, and sundry leading lights of the National Theatre. Thanks to numerous BBC radio programs and TV roles, Woodward was a household name in England by the 1960s. During the early 1970s, the long-running spy series “Callan” established him as the go-to guy for international man-of-intrigue roles whenever Michael Caine was unavailable.

Woodward was adept at playing humorless authority figures, which made him an excellent choice as Sergeant Howie, the pious police investigator who encounters a pagan cult on the remote Scottish isle in The Wicker Man. The ne plus ultra of British horror/fantasy films, that picture enjoyed cult status practically from the moment of its release in 1973, by which Woodward became a kind of international cult star. A decade later, several American TV shows offered variations on Woodward’s man-of-intrigue background, the most notable of which was “The Equalizer.” (79, pneumonia.) —David Pelfrey

Soupy Sales
One of New York City’s biggest local stars started out as a Southern boy. Soupy Sales was born as Milton Supman in North Carolina and was one of many comics who got their start entertaining their fellow enlisted men during World War II. Sales worked his way around America as a local TV show host in Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Detroit—where he established his weird mix of a daytime talk show that entertained both kiddies and adults with puppets and pie fights.

Soupy Sales (click for larger version)

A (quickly canceled) local show in Los Angeles made a fan out of Frank Sinatra, who signed Sales to his Reprise record label. Sales didn’t hit the pop charts until 1965, though, after finding success with his show in New York City. “The Mouse” became a huge novelty single, and word began to go beyond the East Coast about Sales and his cast of characters—and White Fang (“The Meanest Dog in the USA”) became a true breakout character.

Sales broke through nationally after a live New Year’s Day broadcast in 1965. He instructed his kiddie audience to sneak into the bedroom where their parents were presumably still asleep after the previous night’s parties. Sales told the kids to mail him the “funny green pieces of paper” in their parents’ pants and purses. Enough money came in that the concerned network suspended Sales for two weeks.

He became a popular talk show guest, as well as appearing on (and hosting) several game shows. A lot of his young fans in New York City grew up to work in Hollywood, and Sales could always find employment. He became part of the pop firmament, with his survivors include the legendary Sons of Soupy—that being the ace rhythm section of Tony and Hunt Sales, who have worked with David Bowie’s Tin Machine and Iggy Pop. Sales also lived long enough to see his name become one of the many pop-culture references in the script to Juno. He died in the Bronx, which only endeared him more to his New York audience. (83, natural causes) —J.R.T.

Beatrice “Bea” Arthur
Bea Arthur had a seven-decade career in theatre and TV, but was best known as the tall, rapier-witted “Golden Girl” and “Maude,” both of TV fame. Arthur was a successful stage actress and singer prior to her career in TV. In “Maude,” Arthur broke ground playing a 40-year-old, four-time-married liberal with a tough sense of humor. In the show’s first season, Maude dealt with the realities of pregnancy and abortion later in life (at age 47). The controversial episode aired two months before Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court case making abortion legal, was decided. Two CBS affiliates refused to air the episode, and Arthur received a shower of hate mail for it.

Bea Arthur (click for larger version)

“Maude” came about when Arthur’s friend, Norman Lear, convinced her to do a guest spot on “All in the Family.” Lear created a role for her in Maude Findlay, a cousin of Archie Bunker’s wife Edith. Maude’s spunk and sparring with Archie was a hit with viewers, and CBS demanded a new series from Lear, with Maude as the main character.

Arthur’s subsequent role, as Dorothy on the long-running sitcom, “The Golden Girls” (1985-92) was similarly edgy in that its lead characters—three ladies in their “golden years” living together and all actively dating—dealt with touchy contemporary topics such as gay rights and gun control. (86, cancer) —Christina Crowe

Wendy Richard
“Are You Being Served?” was a corny British sitcom that ran on the BBC from 1972 to 1985—and then became a beloved favorite of the PBS audience in America. The beleaguered sales staff at the Grace Brothers department store certainly built a following in Birmingham. Many viewers were admirers of Wendy Richard as the sexy (and oblivious) sales clerk Miss Shirley Brahms. Richard moved on to the long-running “EastEnders” soap opera, where she starred as proud local matriarch Pauline Fowler. She appeared in more than 1,400 episodes between 1985 and 2006. She had become one of Britain’s most familiar faces, and her battle against cancer became a public affair that sadly culminated in February of last year. “Are You Being Served?” fans will be further saddened to learn that Wendy was followed in death by 86-year-old Mollie Sugden, who had played senior saleswoman Mrs. Slocombe. (65, breast cancer) —J.R.T.

Val Avery (click for larger version)


Wendy Richard (click for larger version)


Val Avery
As a longtime friend and drinking buddy of Peter Falk and John Cassavetes, Avery was for all practical purposes a “made guy” in acting circles. The owl-faced, glaring character player usually portrayed some variation of mob enforcer or wise guy, and he was a staple of TV westerns and crime dramas. He appeared at least once (and often several times) in “The Untouchables,” “The Fugitive,” “The F.B.I.,” “Dragnet,” “N.Y. P.D.,” “Ironside,” “McCloud,” “Mannix,” “Police Story,” “Kojak,” “Baretta,” “Columbo,” and “Starsky & Hutch,” among some 140 other shows. From the fall of 1955 to the summer of 2001, Avery portrayed either extremely intimidating mobsters, fairly unpleasant tough guys, or untrustworthy losers getting deeper into some kind of trouble with the authorities—or bringing to some unfortunate soul his own special brand of problem. He also had roles in more than 100 motion pictures, chief among them The Pope of Greenwich Village, Donnie Brasco, The Wanderers, Gloria, and Papillon. Considering his more than 400 TV or movie roles, Avery was an excellent choice for a round of “Hey, it’s that guy!” (85) —D.P.

Gidget the Chihuahua became an advertising icon in the late 1990s by proclaiming, “áYo quiero Taco Bell!” She wowed audiences until she was put out of a job by Hispanic advocacy groups claiming that she perpetuated stereotypes. The protestors actually did Taco Bell a favor. The commercials were popular, but didn’t do anything for restaurant sales. Gidget actually killed creative commercials for a while. Dull clients loved to remind ambitious ad agencies that being clever didn’t do anything for Taco Bell.

Gidget also harmed the reputation of TBWA Chiat/Day. The ad agency gladly took credit for coming up with the idea of the spokesdog, but Taco Bell was later successfully sued for stealing the idea from a small ad agency in Michigan. Oblivious to it all, Gidget remained an untarnished icon. (16, stroke) —J.R.T.

Ken Ober
Before there was reality TV, cable TV offered a different kind of weird new fame. Former stand-up comic Ken Ober was a perfect example as the host of MTV’s “Remote Control” game show from 1987 to 1989. Ober later found success writing and producing TV shows such as “The New Adventures of Old Christine.” (52, natural causes) —J.R.T.

Out of This World

Out of This World

/editorial/2010-04-29/S1_ROCKWELL_Grissom_CTR.jpg shadow
“Grissom and Young” (1965), by Norman Rockwell. (click for larger version)




April 29, 2010

NASA | ART: 50 Years of Exploration
By James Dean and Bertram Ulrich
Abrams, 176 pages, $40.

Few spectacles are more spine-tingling than a rocket illuminated by floodlights at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) the night before a launch. The drama is gloriously captured in “T-Minus 3 Hours 30 Minutes and Counting,” Jamie Wyeth’s magnificent watercolor rendering of a Saturn V rocket bathed in searchlight beams hours before blasting the Apollo 11 astronauts to the Moon. Wyeth began his sketch of the 363-foot-tall Saturn V just before dawn, finishing the painting less than an hour before liftoff. The image is among more than 150 paintings, drawings, and an occasional odd sculpture in NASA | ART: 50 Years of Exploration.

In 1962, NASA administrator James Webb thought it wise to document the space agency’s history through a wider spectrum of art than simple portraits. Webb appointed NASA employee and artist James Dean to take charge of the project. A year later, the agency asked the National Gallery of Art to recruit eight artists to commemorate the final Mercury mission. Seven artists were assigned to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral; another was waiting on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean to depict the recovery of astronaut Gordon Cooper. Initially, the artists were confined to designated locations, but NASA soon allowed them unfettered access to the KSC grounds. Artists were given no guidelines; they were allowed to focus on any person or object. The only requirement was that every drawing sketched on site, regardless of how insignificant, be added to the NASA archive. NASA reasoned that “on-the-spot sketches often have an impact and immediacy which finished works of art lack.”

Norman Rockwell contributed the stirring “Behind Apollo 11,” which captured the Apollo 11 crew, the astronauts’ wives, Wernher von Braun, and other NASA personnel staring into the distance, their faces illuminated by what is presumably the Moon. James Dean captured a field of blossoms with a space shuttle on the launch pad in the distance. Others focused on the fiery explosions of liftoff. Depictions of space shuttles launched in daylight and at night offer fascinating contrast. The local tourism boom is reflected in sketches of the Satellite Motel and the Moon Hut Diner, where patrons chowed on Moon Burgers. (A replica of Earth in front of the motel features a pair of UFOs orbiting the planet.) William Wegman posed his famous Weimaraners in spacesuits. In Andy Warhol’s depiction of the first moon landing, Buzz Aldrin is wearing a neon pink spacesuit.

NASA | ART includes a brief history of America’s role in space exploration, including a foreword written by Apollo 11 pilot Michael Collins. Text accompanying each work often tells the story behind its creation. It is fitting that science fiction writer Ray Bradbury closes the book with a handful of thoughts pondering the universe: “Without us human beings, without NASA, the Universe would be unseen, unknown, untouched. A mindless abyss of stars ask to be discovered.”

Through June 27, a corresponding exhibition at The Lauren Rogers Museum of Art in Laurel, Mississippi, features 72 works from “NASA | ART: 50 Years of Exploration” as part of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. The museum is located at 565 North 5th Avenue, Laurel, Mississippi. Details: (606) 649-6374;


“Gemini Launch Pad” (1964), by James Wyeth (click for larger version)










“Sunrise Suit-up” (1988), by Martin Hoffman (click for larger version)









“Titan” (2006), by Daniel Zeller (click for larger version)

Let Freedom Ride, and Ring

Let Freedom Ride, and Ring

A Freedom Ride passenger, still overcome by shock and smoke, remains near the burning bus near Anniston. (Photograph by Joseph Postiglione, courtesy Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.) (click for larger version)



April 28, 2011

In May of 1961, the Congress of Racial Equality, a civil rights organization, sponsored buses carrying interracial passengers on journeys into the South to determine if Southern states were complying with federal interstate transportation laws (earlier Supreme Court decisions ordered the desegregation of interstate travel facilities). Dubbed the Freedom Riders, the trips met with opposition in South Carolina and Georgia, but it was Alabama where the resistance turned particularly violent, with passengers beaten by segregationists in both Birmingham and Anniston. The images of brutality propelled our state into notoriety as a primary battleground where black Americans sought equal rights.

More than 400 black and white Americans suffered violent threats and beatings on their forays into the Deep South during a six-month stretch of southbound journeys. Award-winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson (Wounded Knee; Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple; The Murder of Emmett Till) has filmed a documentary called Freedom Riders, which includes interviews with the brave riders as well as comments from government officials and reporters from that era. Nelson’s documentary is based on Raymond Arsenault’s book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice. The documentary will premier nationally on PBS as part of the “American Experience” series on Monday, May 16. For more information, visit:

Other events occurring in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Riders include an exhibit of photographs taken by Anniston Star reporter Joseph Postiglione of the beatings that took place in Anniston. That exhibit will run through May 22 at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (520 16th Street North) in the Odessa Woolfolk Gallery. Details: 328-9696; In addition, 40 students from 33 states, China, and Tajikistan will participate in the 2011 Student Freedom Ride—a re-creation of the Freedom Riders’ expeditions. &