Dead Folks 2006 (Part 7)
A look back at the notable names and personalities who called it quits last year.
What was the difference between the McCarthy hearings and the Salem witch trials? There weren’t any witches in Salem. Ignore that, though, and maybe you can find some meaning in “The Crucible” and the other writings of Arthur Miller. He hadn’t written a successful play since 1968, but Miller’s passing was still celebrated as an important event. This wasn’t because he was an important playwright. It’s because all of today’s good leftist playwrights have to celebrate Miller for bringing his absurd politics into high schools all over America. Fellow playwright Harold Pinter even tried to pretend that Miller was some kind of blacklisted figure.
Miller’s own leftist contemporaries, unsurprisingly, never considered him to be of much importance. “Death of a Salesman” wasn’t bad, but it still can’t compete with anything by Rod Serling or Paddy Chayefsky. At least Miller could proudly claim to have married Marilyn Monroe—but that achievement was pretty much ruined in the wake of “After the Fall,” a stage chronicling the marriage that was a pioneering masterpiece in midlife self-absorption. It helps to bear in mind that Bebe Buell once attributed her lust for Elvis Costello to “Arthur Miller Syndrome.” His final play would be yet another rehashing of having sex with Marilyn, so at least Miller had an understanding of his ultimate place in pop culture. –J.R. Taylor
Plenty of parents and former children became very nostalgic when Stan Berenstain passed away. His wife Jan had been his partner in almost 40 years of Berenstain Bears books, as the clan’s illustrated adventures showed kids how to clean around the house and get ready for trips to the dentist—along with weirder stuff, as the Berenstains began to address issues such as drug abuse over the decades. The Berenstain Bears also made the inevitable transition to animated adventures and a bigger world of merchandising. However, all of this was pretty baffling to kids who’d first stumbled across the Berenstains’ hilarious early work as chroniclers of suburban angst. Racy paperback collections such as Baby Makes Four suggest that they could have been Erma Bombeck for those parents who’d just missed living by the Playboy Philosophy. —J.R.T.
Fans of detective novels and mysteries are familiar with the 50-odd novels in Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series. Fans of Hill Street Blues, Law & Order, Homicide, Police Story, and dozens of other television detective series are indirectly acquainted with McBain; his novels were the blueprints for a now well-established genre—the ensemble detective story. Ed McBain is a pseudonym, among others, for Evan Hunter, an amazingly successful mystery writer whose first novel was the controversial Blackboard Jungle. Based on Hunter’s experiences teaching at a vocational school in a rough urban environment, the book was adapted for a sensational motion picture starring Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier. His screenplays for the “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” television series led to Hunter’s screenplay for Hitchcock’s The Birds. —David Pelfrey
Frank Kelly Freas
Anyone who so much as passed by a bookstore or newsstand in the last 50 years has seen an illustration by Kelly Freas. That’s his work on the covers of countless Ballantine, Avon, Signet, or DAW publications. From 1957 to 1962 Freas drew many of those hilarious, but amazingly realistic, fake ads for MAD Magazine, and provided Alfred E. Neumann’s moronic visage for their covers. Freas’ regular gig was creating otherworldly illustrations for works by such science-fiction legends as Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke. The insanely prolific Freas earned 10 Hugo Awards for his work in the science fiction and fantasy field. He did real science, too; his illustrations for NASA missions hang in the Smithsonian. The cover illustration for the October, 1953, issue of Astounding Science Fiction (for whom Freas worked for 50 years) depicts a very troubled and puzzled giant robot holding a mortally wounded human in his hand. This legendary image became the album cover art for Queen’s News of the World. –D.P.
In the 1950s, pharmaceutical prospects for relieving anxiety were few: Barbiturates were highly addictive and easily overdosed on; “major tranquilizers” such as Thorazine had emptied mental hospitals but were instruments too blunt for everyday anxiety; and the only “minor tranquilizer,” Miltown, was weak in regular doses and toxic in high ones. What was needed was a drug that relieved anxiety safely and without overt sedation.
Austrian-born Jewish chemist Leo Sternbach, working with a couple of other chemists at Hoffman-La Roche Labs, serendipitously concocted just such a substance in the compound chlordiazepoxide, marketed under the name Librium in 1960. Librium was the first benzodiazepine, but its more potent successor, Valium, would change the face of American culture. It ultimately proved to be addictive, but Valium’s ability to take the edge off of daily stresses with surgical precision, plus its relative safety (you’d have a hard time killing yourself with Valium alone) made it the most-prescribed drug from 1969 to 1982. It was even immortalized in The Rolling Stones’ hit “Mother’s Little Helper.” Such a level of popularity can probably be explained in part by the fact that, for some, it was a readily concealable alternative to alcohol abuse. Sternbach also invented the drugs Dalmane, Mogadon, and Klonopin. –Paul Brantley
Robert Kearns invented intermittent windshield wipers, which allowed pauses between swipes during light rain. Ford and Chrysler implemented Kearns’ idea, and Kearns, often acting as his own attorney, successfully sued the automobile corporations in 1978 and 1982, respectively, for nearly $20 million. He had previously shopped the idea to automakers but could never reach a licensing deal. Lawsuits against General Motors and foreign automakers were dismissed. Kearns died of cancer at 77. —Ed Reynolds
Half a century ago, baseball players were real men who didn’t bother with helmets when batting. In 1952, a Pittsburgh Pirates executive named Charlie Muse forced his team to wear batting helmets despite taunts from opponents that the Pirates were “sissy.” Slowly, opposing teams began to adapt, and in 1954 the Braves’ Joe Adcock credited the helmet with saving his life after being knocked unconscious while batting against the Brooklyn Dodgers. The next day, the Dodgers began wearing helmets. —E.R.
The first “big man” to dominate the game of basketball, the 6-foot, 10-inch Mikan would simply stand beneath the basketball goal of opponents and swat their shots out of the rim. Mikan’s advantage forced the sport to outlaw “goaltending,” where a ball is deflected away once it begins its downward trajectory to the basketball goal. —E.R.
In 1962 John Ebstein created the first airbrushed rendering of Studebaker’s ridiculous-looking Avanti, the ugliest sports car ever. With its extended underbite front end, the Avanti appeared to have lost the futuristic design war that the Corvette Sting Ray had easily won. Hideous though it may have appeared, the Avanti nevertheless turned heads just as the DeLorean once did. Ebstein also designed the Lucky Strike cigarette package and Greyhound buses. —E.R.
A former Hollywood stuntman and occasional actor, George Atkinson didn’t need Grauman’s Chinese Theater to leave his imprint on the film history. Atkinson pioneered the home video rental industry. In 1979 he turned a 600-square-foot store into a goldmine called Video Station by charging $50 for a membership card and a $10-per-day rental fee for any of 50 available titles. Scoffing at earlier entrepreneurial notions that people would buy movies, Atkinson summed up his business philosophy: “You listen to Beethoven or The Beatles over and over again. You don’t watch Burt Reynolds over and over.” Currently there are more than 24,000 video stores around the nation. Atkinson died at 69 of emphysema. —E.R.
Weight-conscious beer drinkers can thank Joseph L. Owades for inventing the first low-calorie beer. Miller Brewing Co. acquired the rights to the process Owades invented and launched Miller Lite in 1975, spawning the phrase “you might as well drink horse piss,” which was almost as popular a slogan as “tastes great, less filling.” —E.R.