By Ken Zurski
In 1848 a mansion went up in the scenic countryside of Connecticut that looked oddly out of place for its location. Not only was it very large, occupying 17 acres of land, but the building itself with its exotic Indian influenced architecture looked like something you might spot in far off Mumbai or New Dehli, not Fairfield, near Bridgeport, Connecticut’s largest city.
All this was the creation of one man who commissioned the building of the mansion as a “permanent residence” for his family. His name was Phineas Taylor Barnum, better known as P.T. Barnum.
Barnum called his new home the Iranistan.
Barnum’s inspiration for Iranistan was the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, England, a place he visited while doing a tour of Europe with his star attraction at the time, the 25-inch tall man known as Tom Thumb. Unlike others, Barnum was greatly pleased by what he saw. “It was the only specimen of oriental architecture in England, and had not been introduced into America,” he wrote.
Barnum hired a New York architect named Leopold Eidlitz to design it with the stipulation that he hold nothing back in terms of style and decorative elements. “The whole was finally completed to my satisfaction,” Barnum expressed, and on November 14, 1848, he held a house warming party for “a thousand guests.”
The invitees found a casual but garish palace to explore. Outside there was a circular carriage way , a fountain, urns and a decorative facade that was filled with symmetrically placed arched openings and numerous decks and porches. Topping the building were onion-shaped domes and minarets.
Inside, there was a circular divan under the dome, a large library adorned in Asian landscapes on its walls and elaborate stained glass windows that filled the rooms with colorful light. The grand ballroom sported a shiny wood floor with an inscription, “Love God and be Merry,” words Barnum used often.
“Elegant and appropriate furniture was made expressly for every room in the house,” Barnum would later write. “The stables, conservatories and out-buildings were perfect in their kind. There was a profusion of trees set out on the grounds. The whole was built and established literally ‘regardless of expense,’ for I had no desire even to ascertain the entire cost.”
In addition to the design, Barnum filled his home with animals of all kinds, as he did at his popular American Museum in New York City. Roaming the grounds of Iranistan were mandarin ducks, silver peasants, a cow named Bessie, and a pig named Prince Albert. The biggest attraction was Iranistan’s largest resident, an unnamed bull elephant. This, of course, was all by design. Barnum felt the addition of the animals, especially the elephant was good promotion for the museum. “When entertaining the public, it is best to have an elephant,” Barnum would later explain. It all started at his home.
But it wouldn’t last. Late on December 17, 1857, only nine years after it was built, the Iranistan was gone. Barnum, who was refurnishing the mansion at the time got the news the next morning by telegram while staying at the Astor House in New York. The building caught fire, he was told. It was a total loss.
The papers were consoling, but skeptical. Barnum’s good fortunes had recently taken a turn for the worse. It all started when Barnum sought to create a “perfect”town in Connecticut that he would call East Bridgeport. He convinced a large business, the Jerome Clock Company, to move their factory there in the hopes of bringing more people and jobs. The clock company agreed to relocate but first needed help to pay down a debt of $100,000 . Barnum loaned them the money, but was tricked into signing more cash notes. Soon he was responsible for a half million dollars in debt. Barnum was forced to go into bankruptcy and lost a fortune.
Many of his friends supported his plight with sympathy, loans and gifts, but others reveled in his misfortune. To his detractors, Barnum’s latest predicament – more like a humiliation – was subject to ridicule. “Here is a terrible illustration of where the practice of humbug will lead,” proclaimed the New York Herald.
The Chicago Tribune’s headline was even more biting.: “The deceiver is duped,” it read.
In the midst of all this turmoil, Barnum lost his beloved Iranistan.
Initially, no cause of the fire was given. “It is supposed to have been set on fire,” was one newspaper dispatch, not mincing words, but refusing to elaborate. Later, it was suspected a construction worker dropped a lighted pipe. Barnum had recently moved some of the more expense furniture out of the Iransitan during the renovation and claimed he would soon return. His insurance money was far less then the initial cost of $150,000. “My beautiful Iranistan is gone,” Barnum would write in his autobiography.
Barnum recovered financially after going on another successful tour of Europe with Tom Thumb. Upon his return he set out to build another home, again in Fairfield, called Lindencroft, that in its design was spacious, but far less extravagant than the Iranistan. “All the taste that money can could do was fairly lavished upon Lindencroft so that when all was finished it was not only a complete house in all respects, but a perfect home.” Barnum wrote his memoirs.
The biggest disappointment, however, was for the riders on a train line that would pass by the Iranistan grounds everyday. Not only was the impressive building gone, but they missed seeing the elephant, roaming the yard, helping plow the fields, and giving them all a thrill by raising its trunk and bobbing its head in a friendly gesture.
(Sources” The Great and Only Barnum by Candace Fleming; P.T. Barnum: The Legend and the Man by A.H. Saxon; various internet sites)
One day, quite a long time ago, a tiny baby was left on the doorstep of Burgermeister Mesiterburger, the fun-loathing mayor of Sombertown.
Now, this Burgermeister Meisterburger didn’t like babies. Not at all. In fact, the grumpy Burgerneister ordered his guards to take the baby away.
But something unexpected happened. While the guard was pulling the baby through the snowy forest on a sled, the rope broke. Down the mountainside the sled and baby went and straight into the home of the Kringle family.
Well, the Kringle’s were quite surprised by their new visitor. They took the baby in and called him “Kris.” This they explained was because the meaning of KRISTKINDL is the Christ Child.
They raised the boy as their own.
Meanwhile, Burgermeister Meisterburger continued to be a very irritable mayor. One day he tripped on a toy and hurt his leg. So, he outlawed toys! The children of Sombertown were very sad.
What would life be like with no toys?
Kris Kringle, now all grown up, sought to bring the joy back to the children. He decided to drop off toys that his family had made to the children of Sombertown. But to get to Sombertown, Kris had to pass through the Land of the Winter Warlock.
Talk about grumpy!
The Winter Warlock was a very mean and bitter man. But Kris knew there was good in the heart of all men. When he gave Winter a gift of a toy train it warmed the Warlock’s cold heart.
All this didn’t sit well with Burgermeister Meisterburger
He ordered Kris arrested for smuggling toys into Sombertown. The Winter Warlock was also arrested along with the other members of the Kringle family. Although all his powers might disappear, the Warlock uses his magic feed corn to make Kris’s reindeer fly.
Together, they all escape.
Finally, thinking his powers will disappear forever, on December 24, the Warlock uses one final bit of magic to create Christmas trees at the wedding of Kris and his girlfriend Jessica, the future Mr and Mrs Santa Claus.
Thanks to the spirit of giving, the Warlock’s powers have magically returned…along with a snowy, white Christmas.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from Unremembered!
By Ken Zurski
When “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was produced for television in 1965, Peanuts creator Charles Schulz had one specific, but important directive. That the program be about something. Namely, he insisted, it be about the true spirit of Christmas. Otherwise, he said, “Why bother?
Of course, as we know now, Schulz had his way. Mostly lighthearted and inspirational, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is punctuated by its infectious original music, a catchy song, and the now iconic symbol of recognition and hopefulness: a seemingly lifeless little tree.
The highlight of the special , however, is a moving scene in which the Linus character, blanket in hand, stands on a spotlighted stage and explains the true meaning of Christmas. It includes a biblical passage from the Book of Luke.
Specifically, Luke 2: 8-14.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this [shall be] a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
When he is finished with that last line, Linus turns and address someone directly: “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
Linus’s words, like the special itself, has been charming audiences ever since.
Charming, however, was not the word CBS executives used when they first viewed the completed special. They hated it -– or just didn’t get it. The pacing was off, they thought, and the music was different: classical in parts, jazzy in others.
They considered scraping it altogether, but were committed to the time slot and soft drink giant Coca-Cola, the sponsor of the program. “This is probably going to be the last [Peanuts special],” one executive chirped. “But we got it scheduled for next week, so we’ve got to air it.”
The producers of the special were deflated by the network’s initial reaction. “We thought we’d ruined Charlie Brown,” one exclaimed. Until then, the only controversy among the writers was whether or not to include the use of an actual biblical verse in an animated special. Behind the scenes, executives thought it might alienate viewers. Schulz again insisted. “If we don’t do it,” he said “who will.” Coca-Cola gave their blessing too. Today the scene is still considered, as one producer described it, as “the most magical two minutes in all of TV animation.”
Linus’s speech is also credited to the child actor who provided the voice. Before the special, Peanuts characters had only been heard in a Ford Commercial. The producers wanted them all to be voiced by children. Christopher Shea was only 8 years old at the time. He had the most innocent sounded voice and was tapped for the Linus character. His measured, straightforward reading is considered legendary. “It’s one of the most amazing moments ever in animation,” raved Peter Robbins, the original voice for Charlie Brown. Robbin’s voice was picked for Charlie Brown because it sounded “blah.”
Even though CBS thought it would only run for a year and be forgotten, once it was in the public consciousness, attitudes changed. Instantly, people began talking about it. The next year, the special won a Peabody award and an Emmy for Outstanding Christmas Programming. A lasting tribute to Charles Schulz original vision that it be about something – – something with a message.
By Ken Zurski
In November 1939 Philip Van Doren Stern, an American author, editor and Civil War historian wrote an original story titled “The Greatest Gift,” a heartwarming Christmas tale about a man named George Pratt who gets a dying wish granted by a guardian angel that literally changes his life.
Stern’s story begins at an iron bridge as a despondent George leans over the rail:
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” a quiet voice beside him
George turned resentfully to a little man he had never seen
before. He was stout, well past middle age, and his round
cheeks were pink in the winter air as though they had just been
shaved. “Wouldn’t do what?” George asked sullenly.
“What you were thinking of doing.”
“How do you know what I was thinking?”
“Oh, we make it our business to know a lot of things,” the
stranger said easily.
Stern desperately tried to get his little story published, but it never sold. So in 1943, he made it into a Christmas card book and mailed 200 copies to family and friends.
The card book and story somehow caught the attention of RKO Pictures producer David Hempstead who showed it to actor Cary Grant’s agent. In April 1944, RKO bought the rights but failed to create a satisfactory script. Grant went on to make “The Bishop’s Wife.”
However, another acclaimed Hollywood heavyweight, Frank Capra, who already had three Best Directing Oscars to his name, liked the idea. RKO was happy to unload the rights. “The story itself is slight, in the sense, it’s short,” Capri said referring to Stern’s book. “But not slight in content.”
Capra bought it and brought in a slew of writers to polish the story. They hired another a well-known actor James Stewart to play the main character renamed George Bailey and in December of 1946, “It’s a Wonderful Life” was released in theaters.
By Ken Zurski
In the book The General vs the President, author H.W. Brands examines the often tenuous but respectful relationship between General Douglas MacArthur and President Harry Truman.
Besides their differing personalities, in the public eye, the two men drew widely opposite impressions. Truman had unexpectedly assumed the presidency amidst doubts about his leadership and foreign policy experience while MacArthur was the beloved general of the Allied forces in the Pacific.
Preconceived notions, however, good or bad, don’t win wars.
After World War II ended and when North Korea threatened South Korea, both men had vastly different views on how America should proceed. Truman gave MacArthur leverage, but when China was drawn into the conflict and the two world powers were nearly brought to the brink of a nuclear war, Truman relieved the popular general of his duties. “With deep regret I have concluded that General of the Army Douglas MacArthur is unable to give his wholehearted support to the policies of the United States Government and of the United Nations in matters pertaining to his official duties,” Truman announced at a press conference. That explosive missive is the basis of Brand’s book.
But Truman, as important as he was to ending the war, was just a senator from Missouri when President Franklin Roosevelt crossed ways with MacArthur.
That relationship nearly reached the boiling point in 1941, shortly after Japan attacked Pear Harbor.
It’s worth a closer look.
MacArthur who is in the Philippines at the time Pearl Harbor was attacked feared the American bases on the island would be next. He was right. The next day, December 8, Japan hit hard. MacArthur asked Roosevelt to immediately strike back. Force Russia to attack Japan, he pressed, before Japan can do more damage in the Philippines. Roosevelt ignored MacArthur’s plea and set his sights on Germany instead.
MacArthur’s rebuttal was shocking. He supported a plan by Philippine President Manuel Quezon to broker a peace deal with Japan. It was the only way, MacArthur agreed, to avoid a “disastrous debacle.”
In retrospect, Brands assumes, MacArthur was abandoning the Philippines. But there were lives at stake. A defiant Roosevelt dismissed the peace deal. “American forces will continue to fly our flag in the Philippines,” the president commanded, “so long as there remains any possibility of resistance.”
Back home, MacArthur was being criticized for poor decision making.
Brands points out the there was a nine-hour window after the first dispatches were received that Japanese bombers were in the air. There was nothing anyone could do about the battleships in the Harbor; but in the Philippines, why didn’t MacArthur order the planes moved out of the way? MacArthur subsequently blamed his subordinates and miscommunication. Nevertheless, half of the MacArthur’s forces were decimated in the attack and the Philippine’s line of defense was greatly diminished.
It would get worse. The conquest of the Philippines by Japan is still considered one of the worst military defeats in U.S. history.
MacArthur endured attacks from Japan forces by hunkering down on the Bataan peninsula and Corregidor Island. “Help is on the way,” MacArthur told the men, although he knew it was a lie. “Thousands of troops and hundreds of planes are being dispatched ,” he continued, hoping to boost morale. None of it was even being considered.
The only order coming from Roosevelt was getting his four-star general out of the islands before all hell broke loose. MacArthur had no recourse. It was an order, not a choice. He took the next plane out and flew to Australia where he was to organize the counter offense against Japan and pave the way to his own interminable place in American history. Roosevelt would later praise his departure, but MacArthur felt like he was abandoning his post.
Before boarding he told the troops, “I shall return.”
When MacArthur did return three years later he was hailed as a hero. “Though not by American soldiers he left behind [in the Philippines],” Brands writes in the book.
By Ken Zurski
In the book Hero of the Empire, author Candice Millard explores the military service of a young Winston Churchill and the future Prime Minister of England’s exploits in the Boers War, a devastating conflict against the fiercely independent South African Republic of Transvall, or Boers, that’s as much a part of British history as the two subsequent World Wars.
In 1899, Churchill was in his twenties and officially not a soldier, but a correspondent for the Morning Post. However, he bravely and willingly fought alongside his fellow countrymen. When a British armored train was ambushed, Churchill fought back, was captured, imprisoned, managed to escape, and traversed hundreds of miles of enemy territory to freedom. He then returned and resumed his duties in the war. Millard’s expert narrative paints the young Churchill as a man of great strength, determination and steadfast loyalty.
The same attributes can also be applied to another famous figure in history who did not fight like Churchill, but bravely dodged the bullets of the Boers to do a thankless and daring task. His contribution is touched on briefly in the book, but is worth noting here as an example of a man whose legacy of peace and non-violence includes the brutal reality of warfare.
In stark contrast to Churchill’s call to arms, this figure refused to pick up a weapon or engage in hand to hand combat. His Hindu faith prevented that, but his desire for justice could not be suppressed. He was an Indian-born lawyer in a country under the flag of the British Empire who went to South Africa to defend his people from cruelty imposed by the Boers. When war broke out, he wanted to contribute, along with other persecuted Hindu followers.
So he asked the British government if he could put together a team of men to perform the incessant task of removing bodies, dead or wounded, from the heat of battle. The government approved the request, but made it clear that the men were under no obligation or safeguards from the British Army. The decision to risk their own lives in order to save others was theirs and theirs alone.
“Body snatchers,” was the term used by British troops to describe the men who retrieved “not just bodies from the battlefield, they hoped, but young men from the jaws of death,” Millard writes. The “body snatchers” wore wide brim hats and simple loose fitting khaki uniforms and were distinguished by “a white band with a red cross on it wrapped around their left arms.”
Their efforts were lauded by superiors and observers alike. “Anywhere among the shell fire, you could see them kneeling and performing little quick operations that required deftness and steadiness of hand,” wrote John Black Atkins a reporter for the Manchester Guardian.
By now you may discern that the person who assembled this unusual band of brave men is important to history. Millard doesn’t hold anyone in suspense.
The man was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, better known as Mahatma Gandhi or just simply Gandhi, whose place in history as the influential Indian civil rights leader was just beginning to emerge.
When war broke out, Gandhi, who was 31 at the time, wanted to disprove stereotypes that Hindus were unfit for battlefield service.
“Although his convictions would not allow him to fight,” Millard writes, “he had gathered together more than a thousand men to form a corps of stretcher bearers.”
Later in his autobiography, Gandhi would recall his non-violent role in the Boers War.
“Our humble work was at the moment much praised, and the Indians’ prestige was enhanced,” he wrote. “We had no hesitation.”
(Sources: Hero of the Empire by Candace Millard; The Story of My Life by M.K. Gandhi)
By Ken Zurski
Perry Como may be the most popular Christmas performer of all time. Thanks to his long-standing annual holiday television special and beloved Christmas album released in 1968, Como’s face and voice became synonymous with the sounds of the season.
That said he may have been the most misunderstood as well.
Como was a one of the “good guys” whose relaxed and laid-back demeanor came across as “lazy” to some, a misguided assessment, since Como was known to be a consummate professional who practiced his craft incessantly.
“No performer in our memory rehearses his music with more careful dedication than Como.” a music critic once enthused.
Como also made sure each concert met his own personal and strict moral standards.
In November 1970, Como hosted a concert in Las Vegas, a comeback of sorts for the Christmas crooner, who hadn’t played a Vegas night club for over three decades. For his grand return, Como was paid a whopping $125-thousand a week. Even Perry was surprised by the remuneration. “It’s more money than my father ever made in a lifetime,” he remarked.
But since it was Vegas and befitting the town’s perceived association with mobsters and legalized prostitution, Como’s reputation as a straight-laced performer was questioned.
Como quelled any concerns, however, when he chose a safe, clean and relatively unknown English comic named Billy Baxter to warm up the audience before the show. Advisers suggested he pick an act more familiar to Vegas audiences, but Como said no.
A typical “Vegas comedian,” as he put it, was simply too dirty.
Keeping up the family friendly atmosphere accentuated in his TV specials, Como would lovingly introduce his wife Roselle during the “live” shows. Roselle, who was usually standing backstage and acknowledged the appreciative crowds, was just as adamant as her husband that his clean-cut image went untarnished. After one performance, Roselle received a fan’s note that pleased her immensely. “Not one smutty part, not even a hint,” the note read describing Como’s act in Vegas. “You should be very proud.”
Como’s cool temperament was such a recognizable and enduring characteristic that many wondered how much of it was real. Does he ever get upset? was one curious inquiry. “Perry has a temper,” his orchestra leader Mitchell Ayers answered. “He loses his temper at normal things. When were’ driving, for instance, and somebody cuts him off he really lets the offender have it.” However, Ayers added, “Como is the most charming gentleman I’ve ever met.”
Como’s popular Christmas television specials ran for 46 consecutive years ending in 1994, seven years before his death in 2001 of complications from Alzheimer’s.
He was 88.
(Source: Spartanburg Herald-Journal Nov 21 1970)