Benjamin Franklin and the Turkey
By Ken Zurski
It’s hard to imagine anything other than the majestic bald eagle as the symbol of the United States of America. But back in the late 18th century, when good and honorable men were deciding such things, there were several considerations, mostly other animals, vying for a symbol which best represented the new country.
Was the turkey one of them?
Perhaps, but it wasn’t Benjamin Franklin who nominated the turkey, as some history lessons would later suggest. Franklin’s choice for America’s national symbol was much different than both the bald eagle and the turkey.
He did however admire the turkey.
Here’s the backstory:
In 1783, a year-and-half after Congress adopted the bald eagle as the symbol of America, Franklin saw the image of the bird on the badge of the Society of the Cincinnati of America, a military fraternity of revolutionary war officers. He thought the drawing of the bald eagle on the badge looked more like a turkey, a fair and reasonable complaint considering the image looked like, well, a turkey.
But it was the use of the bald eagle as the symbol of America that most infuriated Franklin. “[The bald eagle] is a bird of bad moral character,” he wrote to his daughter. “He does not get his Living honestly.”
It was a a matter of principal for Franklin. The bald eagle was a notorious thief, he implied. He had a point. Considered a good glider and observer, the bald eagle often watches other birds, like the more agile Osprey (appropriately called a fish hawk) dive into water to seize its prey. The bald eagle then assaults the Osprey and forces it to release the catch, grabs the prey in mid-air, and returns to its nest with the stolen goods. “With all this injustice,” Franklin wrote as only he could, “[The bald eagle] is a rank coward.”
Franklin then expounded on the turkey comparison: “For the truth, the turkey is a much more respectable bird…a true original Native of America who would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his farmyard with a red coat on.”
Franklin’s suggestion of the turkey as the nation’s symbol, however, is a myth. He never suggested such a thing. He only compared the bald eagle to a turkey because the drawing reminded him of a turkey. Franklin’s argument was in the choice of the bald eagle and not in support of the turkey, an idea he called “vain and silly.”
Some even claim his comments and comparisons were slyly referring to members of the Society, of whom he thought was an elitist group comprised of “brave and honest” men but on a chivalric order, similar to the ruling country to which they helped defeat. This might explain why Franklin’s assessment of the bald eagle in the letter is based solely on human behavior, not a bird’s.
Perhaps when Franklin made the disparaging comments against the bald eagle he was also harboring a nearly decade old grudge.
In 1775, a year before America’s independence, Franklin wrote the Pennsylvania Journal and suggested an animal be used as a symbol of a new country, one that had the “temper and conduct of America,” he explained. He had something in mind. “She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders;” he wrote. “She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage”
Eventually the image Franklin suggested did appear on a $20 bill issued in 1778, adopted for use as the official seal of the War Office, and may have been the inspiration for the Gadsden flag with the inscription, “Don’t Tread On Me.”
But it never officially became the preferred symbol of the new country.
That belongs to the bald eagle.
Franklin’s choice: the rattlesnake.
Gold Ring: The Original ‘Black Friday’ Goes Back 150 Years
By Ken Zurski
Before Americans began rushing to stores the day after Thanksgiving and calling the shopping frenzy, “Black Friday,” the term itself was used to describe a dark and devious part of our nation’s history.
Here’s the story:
The original “Black Friday” begins with a man named Jay Gould.
A leather maker turned New York railroad owner, Gould was the youngest of six children, the only boy, and a scrawny one at that; growing up to be barely five feet tall. What he lacked in size, however, he made up for in ambition.
A financial whiz even as a young man, Gould started surveying and plotting maps for land in rural New York, where he grew up. It was tough work, but not much pay, at least not enough for Gould. In 1856 he met a successful tanner – good work at the time – who taught Gould how to make leather from animal skins and tree bark. Gould found making money just as easy as fashioning belts and bridles. He found a few rich backers, hired a few men and started his own tanning company by literally building a town from scratch in the middle of a vacant but abundant woodland. When the money started to flow, the backers balked, accusing Gould of deception. Their suspicions led to a takeover. The workers, who all lived quite comfortably in the new town they built and named Gouldsborough, rallied around Gould and took the plant back by force, in a shootout no less, although no one was seriously hurt.
Gould won the day, but the business was ruined. By sheer luck, another promising venture opened up. A friend and fellow leather partner had some stock in a small upstate New York railroad line. The line was dying and the stock price plummeted. So Gould bought up the stock, all of it in fact, with what little earnings he had left, and began improving the line. Eventually the rusty trail hooked up with a larger line and Gould was back in business. He now owned the quite lucrative Erie Railroad.
Ten years later, in 1869, Gould got greedy and turned his attentions to gold.
Gold was being used exclusively by European markets to pay American farmers for exports since the U.S currency, greenbacks, were not legal tender overseas. Since it would take weeks, sometime months for a transaction to occur, the price would fluctuate with the unstable gold/greenback exchange rate. If gold went down or the greenback price went up, merchants would be liable -often at a substantial loss – to cover the cost of the fluctuations. To protect merchants against risk, the New York Stock Exchange was created so gold could be borrowed at current rates and merchants could pay suppliers immediately and make the gold payment when it came due. Since it was gold for gold – exchange rates were irrelevant.
Gould watched the markets closely always looking for a way to trade up. He reasoned that if traders, like himself, bought gold then lent it using cash as collateral, large collections could be acquired without using much cash at all. And if gold bought more greenback, then products shipped overseas would look cheaper and buyers would spend more. He had a plan but needed a partner.
He found that person in “Gentleman Jim Fisk.”
Jim Fisk was a larger than life figure in New York both physically and socially. A farm boy from New England, Fisk worked as a laborer in a circus troupe before becoming a two-bit peddler selling worthless trinkets and tools door to door to struggling farmers. The townsfolk were duped into calling him “Santa Claus” not only for his physical traits but his apparent generosity as well. When the Civil War came, Fisk made a fortune smuggling cotton from southern plantations to northern mills.
So by the time he reached New York, Fisk was a wealthy man. He also spent money as fast as he could make it; openly cavorted with pretty young girls; and lavished those he admired with expensive gifts and nights on the town. Fisk never hid behind his actions even if they were corrupt. He would chortle at his own genius and openly embarrass those he was cheating. He earned the dubious nickname “Gentleman” for being polite and loyal to his friends.
Fisk and Gould were already in the business of slippery finance. Besides manipulating railroad stock (Fisk was on the board of the Erie Railroad), they dabbled in livestock and bought up cattle futures when prices dropped to a penny a head. Convinced they could outsmart, out con and outlast anyone, it was time to go after a bigger prize: gold. There was only $20 million in gold available in New York City and nationally $100 million in reserves. The market was ripe for the taking and both men beamed at the prospects.
But the government stood in the way. President Grant was trying to figure out a way to unravel the gold mess, increase shipments overseas and pay off war debts. If gold prices suddenly skyrocketed, as Gould and Fisk had intended, Grant might consider a proposed plan for the government to sell its gold reserves and stabilize the markets; a plan that would leave the two clever traders in a quandary.
Through acquaintances, including Grant’s own brother-in-law, Gould and Fisk met with the president. In June of 1869, they pitched their idea posing as two concerned (a lie) but wealthy (true) citizens who could save the gold markets and raise exports, thus doing the country a favor. They insisted the president let the markets stand and keep the government at bay. Fisk even treated the president to an evening at the opera – in Gould’s private box. The wily general may have been impressed by the opera, but he was also a practical man. He told the two estimable gentlemen that he had no plans to intervene, at least not initially. But Grant really had no idea what the two shysters were up to.
A few months later, when Fisk sent a letter to Grant to confirm the president’s steadfast support, a message erroneously arrived back that Grant had received the letter and there would be no reply. The lack of a response was as good as a “yes” for Fisk. Grant was clearly on board, he thought.
He was wrong.
On September 20th, a Monday, Fisk’s broker started to buy and the markets subsequently panicked. Gold held steady at first at $130 for every $100 in greenback, but the next day Fisk worked his magic. He showed up in person and went on the offensive. Using threats and lies, including where he thought the president stood on the matter, Fisk spooked the floor.
The Bulls slaughtered the Bears.
Gold was bought, borrowed and sold. And Fisk and Gould, through various brokers, did all the buying. On Wednesday, gold closed slightly over 141, the highest price ever. In his typical showy style, Fisk couldn’t help but rub it in. He brazenly offered bets of 50-thousand dollars that the number would reach 145 by the end of the week. If someone took that sucker proposition, they lost. By Thursday, gold prices hit an astounding 150. The next day it would reach 160.
Then the bottom fell out.
At the White House, Grant was tipped off and furious. On September 24, a Friday, he put the government gold reserve up for sale and Gould and Fisk were effectively out of business. Thanks to the government sell off, almost immediately, gold prices plummeted back to the 130’s. Many investors lost a bundle, but the two schemers got out mostly unscathed.
The whole affair became famously known as “Black Friday.”
In 1975, Steely Dan, the rock group consisting of multi-instrumentalist Walter Becker and singer Donald Fagen, wrote a song titled ‘Black Friday” and released it that same year as the first single off their album “Katy Lied.” The song reached #37 on the Billboard charts.
When Black Friday comes
I stand down by the door
And catch the grey men when they
Dive from the fourteenth floor
The band confirmed that the song is about the 1869 Gould/Fisk takeover but that it also has odd references that have nothing to do with the original story. For instance, an Australian town named Muswellbrooke (“Fly down to Muswellbrook”) is mentioned…and then there is the line about kangaroos (“Nothing to do but feed all the kangaroos”).
Fagen later confirmed in an interview the town name was added by chance: “I think we had a map and put our finger down at the place that we thought would be the furthest away from New York or wherever we were at the time. That was it.”
Today the term “Black Friday” is referenced in relation to the Friday after Thanksgiving and traditionally the busiest shopping season of the year. The day retailers go “in the black,” so to speak.
Steely Dan had none of that in mind when they wrote the song.
George Washington Ferris and the Fate of the Original Wheel
By Ken Zurski
In June of 1893, when the 264-foot high Ferris Wheel opened at the Chicago World’s Fair, the man who created it, George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., said that it would work flawlessly on every spin. But there were doubters. That’s because when the Fair officially opened on May 1, 1893, the wheel did not. A delay in construction keep the ride closed at least initially. Ferris’ waited as patiently as everyone else.
A month later when the wheel finally took it’s inaugural spin, Ferris was right. It worked flawlessly every time. Ferris was there to blow the “golden whistle.” and watch it go. “A modest young man in a gray suit with a drooping mustache covering his determined mouth,” the Tribune described. Ferris dedicated the wheel to the profession of modern engineering.
Born in Galesburg, Illinois, the Ferris family moved to Carson City, Nevada when George was five. In 1876, he came east, began his schooling, and graduated from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York with a Civil Engineering degree.
In 1891, Ferris moved to Chicago and took up the challenge as did others to come up with a structural design that would make the Fair stand out, like the Eiffel Tower did for Paris, France in 1889 . Although initially rejected due to safety concerns the wheel was eventually chosen and construction began just four and half months before the Fair open. “The design was a novelty and so absolute and original that the powers of the fair hesitated to so much as give it recognition,” newspaper dispatches would later report. But Ferris’ persistence paid off. He also offered to raise the money needed to build it.
The Fair itself was considered an overall success and so was the Ferris Wheel, but it all ended tragically for the city. Just days before the closing ceremonies on October 28, 1893, Chicago Mayor Carter Henry Harrison was gunned down by a disgruntled office seeker. Then a fire destroyed several fair buildings.
Three years later, in 1896, after a quick bout of typhoid fever, Ferris was dead at the age of 37. By this time, Ferris was already a broken man. His 10-year marriage had recently ended and attempts to gain financial rewards from his popular attraction were failing. Ferris was busy fighting legal battles when he developed symptoms of the deadly fever on a Friday and died several days later on Sunday November 22. “The attending physicians say his system was greatly run down by overwork,” the papers announced. Ferris and his estranged wife Margaret had no children.
Defeated and alone and so sudden was his death that some speculated Ferris had committed suicide instead.
Ferris certainly had his share of disappointments. After the Fair, he dismantled the wheel, moved it to a park on the north side of the city, and sued exhibitors hoping to win back profits based on the wheel’s attendance. “There must be a million people down there,” Ferris once said about the line of spectators waiting to board. But the dispute was effectively over after Ferris’ untimely death.
The wheel however was another matter. The 400-ton steel structure was too large and costly to keep dismantling and transporting to different locations. Eventually it ended up in St. Louis where the novelty wore off. So on May 11, 1906, thanks to 100 pounds of strategically placed dynamite, the original Ferris Wheel collapsed into a twisted mass of scrap steel. “Utter uselessness,” the Chicago Tribune opined, unjustly implying that Ferris had kept the wheel around too long.
In truth, the company which bought the wheel went out of business.
By that time, Ferris was gone and didn’t personally feel the sting of criticism. His name however would carry on. Two years after the Fair in 1895, London built a mammoth 308-foot tall Great Wheel modeled after Ferris’ original design. And soon after that, similar but smaller versions of the Ferris Wheel began popping up in parks and carnivals throughout the world.
Then in 1995, a Ferris Wheel returned to Chicago’s lakefront on the newly renovated Navy Pier. In 2006, it was replaced by a more technically advanced and larger wheel (196-foot tall) with 42 climate controlled gondolas. It was dubbed “The Centennial Wheel” and remains one of Chicago’s most popular tourist attractions.
It is currently the sixth-tallest wheel in the United States.
“One of Chicago’s most prevalent but overlooked cultural contributions is not a building,” a Chicago architecture website explains, “it’s the Ferris wheel.”
Squirrel Pie Was Once ‘What’s For Dinner?’
By Ken Zurski
From the end of the American Revolution and into the early 19th century when brave men began exploring the land between New England and the Mississippi River in areas that covered parts of Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Illinois, the food source came from what was available – either seeded or caught.
For hunters, this meant meat. Wild turkey, white-tailed deer and elk were in high supply, but as many historians point out from this time period, there was another critter which grazed the land in large numbers and soon caught the fancy of the early explorers and their families who took root in these areas.
“So plentiful were squirrels,” wrote David McCullough in his book The Pioneers, “that hardly a day passed without a few hundred being killed.”
And so squirrel became a meal and it showed up frequently in a recipe that is still cited today, although likely not as often partaken: squirrel pie.
It’s almost farcical that modern day historians like McCullough mention “squirrel pie” without an explanation: “ …at a dinner given by Captain William McCurdy featuring squirrel pie, he found Mrs. McCurdy ‘very agreeable.’”
But why should they.
Certainly having squirrel on the menu would raise a few eyebrows, but in the late 18th century, of which McCullough was referencing, “squirrel pie” was a staple, like an apple pie or pumpkin pie would be today. Only this pie was no dessert. It’s ingredients were more savory than sweet.
It was a meat pie, plain and simple. A form of pastry filled with minced meat and vegetables. Today in Britain, meat pies are famously sold at London football matches like hot dogs are in America. Only the British meat pie’s don’t have any squirrel in it – or so we think.
Nevertheless, a recipe for an old “Poacher’s Squirrel Pie” can be found on the internet on a website which rightfully claims to be a “field to fork foodie adventure.” To add some flavor, a “root mash” is added on top so the whole caboodle looks more like a casserole than a pie.
That’s not the case for most recipes of squirrel pie which usually resemble a traditional round pie in a pan, either large or small (like a pot pie), or a hand held type pastry with pinched edges. Some recipes for squirrel even leave out the pie distinction and offer up just “fried squirrel.”
But why digress.
When it comes to squirrel pie, there’s one main ingredient: one squirrel, once skinned.
The author of the article about the “Poacher’s Squirrel Pie” points out that a “well fed” winter male squirrel can yield 110 grams of cooked meat. “Cook it slow” the recipe states for squirrel meat is very lean and it must be cooked for an extended period of time to tenderize. If cooked “low and slow” for 4 hours or more, the “meat was falling off the bone.” The result: although the meat is “quite fiddly” (a British term for being complicated or awkward), the taste is “surprisingly good,” rates the website.
Certainly when foraging for food like the early settlers did, one didn’t have the time or resource to be fussy. Squirrel was available in large numbers and easy to trap or shoot. So they caught it, ate it and likely enjoyed it.
But that was 200 years ago.
You would think by the early part of the 20th century, the taste for squirrel, especially in the Midwest, would have come to an end. But not so fast. In October of 1938, an Akron, Ohio newspaper named the Beacon Journal announced the winning recipe for a daily pie contest that went to a Mrs. Elizabeth Hindman for her “squirrel pie recipe.”
This was no novelty concoction. In fact, squirrel pot pies were “the favored recipe for the late hunting season,” the paper noted.
As for that day’s winner, Hindman, at the age of 82, was “one of our oldest readers,” the Beacon reported. “We know that when she learned to make squirrel pie there were no restrictions as to when these animals could be killed.”
Hindman even offered some tasty advice. “The squirrel may be removed from the bones,” she points out, “but some men prefer to have the meat left on bones. You may fix the meat to suit your family.”
For her efforts, Hindman reaped a cash reward of one dollar. She explained that if a squirrel was out of season or “you do not get any squirrel,” save the recipe and use a rabbit instead. “Most of the recipes sent to us for squirrel pie,” the paper cited, “could also be used for rabbit or chicken.”
“Judging by the number we saw,” the Beacon continued, “there should be enough rabbits for every hunter.”
They likely tasted better too.
Unfortunately here in the 21st century, the once revered squirrel, especially when it comes to eating, are referenced mostly as a joke.
(Sources: David McCullough “The Pioneers;” various internet sites)
As Luck Would Have It, We Know The First Lottery Winner
By Ken Zurski
The winner of the first lottery designed to help the colonists of the New World is a man named Thomas Sharplisse, a tailor from London.
We know this rather trivial historical fact thanks in part to a another man named John Stow who decided to chronicle English life in in the 16th century. His book Survey of London was released in 1598, a life’s work indeed, since he was dead just seven years later at the age of 80.
At the start of the 17th century, however, other diarists picked up the slack, commissioned by King James I, and continued to record anecdotes and life experiences of fellow Londoners. The Stow’s Chronicles is the result.
And because of it, we know the name: Thomas Sharplisse.
Sharplisse had nothing to do with America except, as other Londoners did at the time, a passing interest in what was going on in the New World. It was after all 1612. The stock holding Virginia Company of London, had funded the first English colony in North America, the struggling James Towne, or more commonly known as Jamestown, named of course in honor of his majesty.
The newly established settlement (actually it was the second incarnation, the first was James Fort) was reeling from sickness, starvation and occasional attacks by hostile Indians. They were in desperate need for more supplies, but the Virginia Company was broke. So the King approved a lottery, a game of chance really, but also an opportunity for fellow countryman to invest at a time when charitable contributions didn’t exist.
Marketing for the lottery was in the guise of a song:
To London, worthy Gentlelmen,
goe venture there your chaunce:
good lucke standes now in readinesse,
your fortunes to advance
In June of 1612, Sharplisse was among the crowd that gathered in a specially constructed “Lotterie house” near St. Paul’s Church in London to watch tickets drawn in the first Great Standing Lottery or the Jamestown Lottery as it is more referred to today.
Little else is known about Sharplisse except that he spent two-shillings-and-sixpence on the chance. And according to Stow’s Chronicles, Shaprlisse’s ticket was the Grand Prize winner – four thousand crowns in “fayre plate, which was sent to his house in a very stately manner.” It was a fortune at the time.
Two Anglican churches took home smaller winnings
After the Virginia Company paid for the prizes, salesman, managers, and other expenses, the remaining revenue covered the cost of shipping people and supplies to Jamestown. It was such a vital resource that Captain John Smith referred to the lottery as “the real and substantial food.” Disappointing, however, was the turn out. Nearly 60-thousand lottery tickets went unsold. Eventually, the crown banned lotteries that benefited Jamestown because of complaints that they were robbing England of money.
More than a century later, the First Continental Congress tried a lottery to help pay for the Revolutionary War.
(Some text was reprinted from The Lottery Wars: Long Odds, Fast Money, and the Battle Over an American Institution; Source: Colonial America Lottery by Steve Swain)
When The Circus Found the ‘Tallest Lady on Earth’
By Ken Zurski
Ella Kate Ewing literally “grew up” on a rural Midwest farm.
Born in La Grange, Missouri in 1872, Ewing was a normal sized toddler, but by the age of six began to quickly grow. By age 14, Ella had sprouted to over six feet tall, nearly a full foot or two taller than most of her classmates.
Her rapid rise in height was attributed to a rare hormone condition.
By the time she reached 18, Ella was close to seven feet in height. When she stopped growing at age 22, she topped out at an astounding 8-foot, 4 inches.
Of course she was stared at and teased. “The girls of my own age shunned me,” Ewing would later say about her childhood in tiny Gorin, Missouri. “My tastes were the same as theirs; I loved dolls and scrap-books and it was as much fun for me to make mudpiles as it was for them.”
“When I called on my friends there were no chairs large enough for me to sit on,” she added, “and I was out of place apparently, everywhere.”
But for oddities like Ella, there were opportunities.
The circus came calling.
“I reckon you must mean Ella Ewing,” a local was quoted as saying when a museum agent from Chicago came to Gorin on a tip of a “wonderful giantess” in town. “She’s the biggest gal in these parts, and I calc’late she hain’t got her growth yit.”
The agent went to Ella’s home. A newspaper writer described the meeting this way:
“‘Was Miss Ewing in?’ [he asked]. Yes she was, and she soon entered the parlor, being compelled to stoop to get through the door. Her head almost grazed the ceiling and the agent looked upon the tallest human being he had ever seen.”
The agent soon “made known his errand.” Ella’s parents were reluctant at first. Ella was self-conscious about her height and hated the idea of people gawking at her. She and her family thought celebrity-hood clashed with their strong Christian beliefs too.
But money talks.
Ella was offered $1000 to spend four weeks as an exhibit at a Chicago museum. Another report claims she was offered $500 a week for forty weeks. Either way, it was an offer Ella and her parents couldn’t refuse. “If people are going to gawk,” a friend convinced, “make them pay.”
Ella instantly caught the attention of other museum mangers throughout the nation. “She was a giant in reality and none of the other living giants wanted to share a stage with her,” the Palmyra (Missouri) Spector reported. Ella was larger than the “famous Chinese Giant” who stood seven-feet eleven inches tall, and P.T. Barnum’s Colonel Ruoth Goshen who was seven-feet six inches “in his thickest soled boots.” Ella, at over eight feet tall, “readily looked over the heads of either of these two men,” the Spector explained.
After the museum stint, Ella was featured at Chicago’s 1893 Worlds Fair. From there she appeared in state fairs and other events near her home earning her the nickname ‘Missouri Giantess.” Eventually, P.T Barnum hired Ella for his traveling circus. Ella became the “Giant Giantess” for Barnum and billed as “A true giantess far exceeding in height all other giant’s that ever lived.” Typical of a Barnum “freak” show, he paired her with other human oddities like the Midget Man who was “only six-inches tall” and a “cyclopean young lady” weighing in at “over 300 pounds.
Ella towered above them all. “I am delighted with it and find it quite different from what I expected before I entered it,” she said about circus life. “I have always received the best treatment from all the people in the show, and enjoy traveling about and seeing the country.”
For six-months work , Ewing received $3,250 dollars, which made the days on the road more bearable and homecomings more special. Even the attention became commonplace and acceptable. “It was terribly embarrassing to me at first,” she explained referring to the constant gawking, ” but I have almost gotten used to it now.”
In 1897, after making a good living on the circuit, “the tallest lady on Earth” finally settled down. Travelling had become burdensome. “I couldn’t get into the berth of an ordinary sleeping car,” Ella told the St Louis Dispatch, “and had to travel day and night in an ordinary car. The rooms of a hotel have always been a torment for me.”
Ella returned to rural Missouri, bought a modest farm house near her parents and rebuilt it to her specifications: 12-foot ceilings, 6-feet tall windows, and over-sized furniture.
“I’m always glad to get back to our peaceful Missouri home,” she said. “Here everybody knows me and I’m not considered a “freak.”
At home, Ella’s stature continued to grow. She received constant attention from locals who came to marvel, not at her, but at a privilege only the “Giantess” could afford: a telephone.
She never married claiming her size prevented her from finding true love. “I have never given matrimony a serious thought,” she exclaimed in 1899, “and I have no doubt that I shall live and die an old maid.”
Ella died of tuberculous in 1913 at the age of 40.
Magician Doug Henning Was One of the Biggest TV Stars of the 1970’s
By Ken Zurski
On December 26, 1975, a Friday, millions of viewers tuned their TV sets to NBC and watched a special hosted by comedian Bill Cosby, featuring dancer Gene Kelly and starring a performer most people were not all that familiar with.
Not yet, at least.
Almost overnight, Doug Henning would become a household name.
Doug Henning’s World of Magic became the highest rated show of the evening and the third highest rated show of the week behind sitcom giants All In the Family and Maude according to AC Nielsen. Most importantly, it was the top magic television show of all time, drawing an estimated 50-million viewers.
Henning, a Canadian native from Winnipeg, Manitoba, had already been a successful act on Broadway starring in the rock musical The Magic Show in 1974. Henning had initially funded the project himself, calling it Spellbound, and opening to rave reviews in Toronto. When New York came calling, Henning reworked the show into a hit that ran for more than four years.
Henning says he got interested in magic at an early age while watching acts on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” He started doing magic as a teenager but quit because he didn’t want to be just “a magician for kids.” While finishing up his physiological psychology degree at McMasters University in Hamilton, Ontario and preparing to enter medical school, Henning’s love for performing returned. He also met a young writer and director named Ivan Reitman, who would direct Henning’s Spellbound production. (Reitman would go on to make several successful Hollywood movies like Stripes and Ghostbusters.)
The TV Special was the next logical career step for Henning. Sporting long curly hair, a bushy mustache and a big-toothed grin, Henning looked more like a happy hippie than a magician. He also wore colorful body suits rather than the traditional tuxedo and tails associated with magic acts. “Henning appears to be one of the last cheerful survivors of the Age of Aquarius,” wrote Jay Sharbutt, the television writer for the Associated Press.
Henning didn’t call himself as much a magician as an illusionist, saying it in a way that emphasized his point. “I’t’s an Illuuusion” he explained in a close up camera shot with his hands expressively fluttering the air in wonderment.
In Henning’s hands, things disappeared, vanished into thin air, then reappeared again. It was a magic in a sense, but in a sense, it was magical too.
“It’s important to me to create the largest wonder,” Henning told The LA Times in 1984. “If I produce a 450-pound Bengal tiger, it’s going to create a lot more wonder than if I produce a rabbit.”
In the first TV special he went big. For the finale, Henning recreated, in his own frantic way, Houdini’s “Chinese water torture” trick. The first trick of the show was a bit simpler, involving a coin in Henning’s hands.
Thanks to a sponsorship from oil giant Mobil, the show was broadcast live and without commercial breaks. Henning himself insisted there be no interruptions. “What’s the use of creating a sense of mystery and magic,” he explained,”when suddenly you see a guy pumping gas into a car.
“The reason why I wanted to do it live is that I feel magic has never been performed successfully on TV before. People are always suspicious of trick photography; they can’t really see what’s going on. I have created five illusions specifically for television in which a hand-held camera will be used extensively to give viewers a close look at the hocus pocus.”
Henning continued to enjoy popularity through most of he 80’s appearing on a dozen more TV specials and numerous talk shows. He worked on Micheal Jackson stage shows and went back on Broadway for another magic inspired show, “Merlin.” Henning also appeared on several segments of TV’s “The Muppet Show.” “Believe in your own magic and then nothing is impossible,” he told Robin the frog, Kermit’s nephew.
“With a curly mane of hair and a near-constant grin, Mr. Henning was one of the most famous illusionists in the world,” The New York Times explained. “In each case, he stunned audiences with a seemingly impossible array of disappearing assistants and levitating ladies. Doves became rabbits in Mr. Henning’s hands, and horses took wing.”
Before his death due to illness in 2000 at the age of 52, Henning had transitioned from magic to what he called the “real magic:” meditation and transcendental levitation. Some say he just dropped out of sight, but he claims it was more personal. “Magic is something that happens that appears to be impossible,” he said. “What I call illusion magic uses laws of science and nature that are already known. Real magic uses laws that haven’t yet been discovered.”
In his obituary, the LA Times wrote: “Wonder, Henning always said, is necessary in life, and magic can reawaken the wonder that occurs naturally in children but is lost to cynicism as people grow up.”
“Henning’s own sense of wonder,” the Times continued, “fueled his professional success and personal appeal.”
Even today, Henning’s groundbreaking TV special still resonates: “Every magician that’s out there working today owes Doug Henning a great debt,” said Las Vegas stage magician Lance Burton.
Do We Thank a World War II Nuclear Weapons Specialist for Video Games?
By Ken Zurski
In the fall of 1958, physicist William Higinbotham was part of a research team at New York’s Brookhaven Laboratory when he came up with an idea that had nothing to do with nuclear science.
A nuclear weapons specialist during the war, Higinbotham or “Willy” as his friends called him, was instrumental in helping develop the first nuclear bomb. Now a decade later, “Willy” and others were studying the application of nuclear energy in more practical and peaceful means. Higinbotham had lost his two brothers in the war.
To show off their work, every year, the Institute held an open house – or Visitor’s Days. And every year the scientists tried to find ways to make the visit more exciting for their less than scientific-minded guests.
So Higinbotham looked around for inspiration. The laboratory had several analog computers and “a book which tells you how to do a bouncing ball and some other things,” Higinbotham explained. “I look at it and say, well, obviously, with this machine I can fix it so instead of having it pre-programmed, people can control it.”
Within two days he created what some people believe to be the very first video game.
Tennis for Two, as it was called it, was played on an oscilloscope and used an electrical charge to show the path of a bouncing ball. “Players served and volleyed using controllers with buttons and rotating dials to control the angle of an invisible tennis racket’s swing.”
“It took me about two hours to rough out the design and a couple of weeks to get it debugged and working,” Higinbotham said. Even though the screen was small – about 5 inches in diameter, “Everybody stood in line to play. It was a big hit.”
In context, Andrew Ervin, author of Bit by Bit: How Video Games Transformed Our Lives, explains it this way: “Imagine trying to create a playable version of Minecraft on a contraption made out of Lincoln Logs, wires, and a few 9-volt batteries hooked up to an Etch A Sketch.”
The next year in 1959 during another Visitor’s Day, Higinbotham displayed an improved model of Tennis for Two. It had “a larger monitor, a button to increase the force of a serve and changeable gravity effects to show what it would be like to play tennis on another planet.” But that was all for the game. The following year it was gone without explanation. Higinbotham later said he focused on other projects instead.
Today, some argue the game had no video signal, only electric voltage, so the “video” tag might be a stretch. Others disagree, like Ervin who puts Higinbotham and Steve Russell, the inventor of Spacewar! in 1961, together as the “two dads” of video game history. “They are the true creative pioneers,” Ervin explains.
Regardless of who gets credit for the introduction of video games, Higinbotham found no use for his creation. He never patented Tennis for Two, a mistake he would later regret. “Even if I had [patented it], the game would’ve belonged to the government,” he said. “I didn’t think it was worth it.”
Years later, in 1972, one company was smart enough to take a variation of Higinbotham’s idea and market it.
That company’s name was Atari and the video game was called Pong!
Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, Cowboy Reunions and the Las Vegas of New Mexico
By Ken Zurski
On June 24, 1899, on the one year anniversary of the Battle of Las Gusaimas, about a hundred soldiers who called themselves the Rough Riders gathered together to celebrate victory in the Spanish-American War. Where they gathered wasn’t as important as why. But when it came time to organize such an event only one Old West town seemed appropriate: Las Vegas.
Yes, Las Vegas.
Only this was not the Las Vegas built in the middle of the Nevada desert. That town’s reputation was still several decades away.
No, this was the City of Las Vegas in the New Mexico territory.
Why this Las Vegas? Well, there wasn’t anything particularly glamorous or glitzy about New Mexico’s Las Vegas, but there was a train track and a depot built in 1880. Many of the recruited Rough Riders had boarded the train there to depart on to their destiny with war.
As usual, for a town like Las Vegas, the accessibility of a railroad stop also brought it’s share of shady characters. Some of its more notable visitors are famously known, like Doc Holiday, Billy the Kid and Jesse James. “Murderers, robbers, thieves, gamblers, gunmen, swindlers, vagrants, and tramps poured in, transforming the eastern side of the settlement into a virtually lawless brawl,” was one article’s assessment.
The article goes on claim in it’s title that Las Vegas was “as wicked as Dodge City.” One can argue that. But the point being that before Las Vegas, Nevada, Las Vegas, New Mexico was the place to go for a rip-roaring party, good or bad.
Now in 1889, a handful of Rough Riders came to Las Vegas, New Mexico to celebrate.
Some were returning, others came for the first time. Many were there to to see old friends and honor their leader, a man whose reputation had been cemented by stories of a valiant charge up a hill. Now as Governor of New York and on a pathway to the White House, the corporal, Teddy Roosevelt, came to Las Vegas to accept the rewards and thanks from his soldiers; a band of misfits ranging from good horse riders, lawyers and Ivy League men Roosevelt recruited. Roosevelt had whipped this rag tag bunch into a fighting force and despite some discourse among the ranks, in part to an unexpected drought of imported smoking and chewing tobacco, the Rough Riders defeated the Mexican army and saved the border territories for the U.S.
Roosevelt arrived in Las Vegas to find not only his men waving their hats in unison for him, but nearly ten-thousand adoring spectators too. They greeted the governor – who wore his old military uniform – with hearty cheers and sincere thanks. According to author Mark Gardner Lee, “there were plenty of medals and medal ceremonies.”
Among the most decorated was Roosevelt of course, who received what Lee describes as a lapel made of solid gold. “The elaborate medal featured the New Mexico ‘coat of arms,’ crossed sabers, and, raised in relief, a highly detailed eagle with outstretched wings.”
The festivities were not without its circuses, however. Several displays and depictions recreated the battles including the infamous charge of San Juan Hill. There were speeches, brass bands and in the evening elaborate firework displays. The highlight was a mile-long parade through town. “A Hot Time in Las Vegas,” the papers reported. “Teddy and his terrors renew the bonds of Comradeship.”
Roosevelt’s speeches were grandiose: “I am proud of you because you never flinched. When you went to war you knew you would not have an easy time; you expected to encounter hardships and you took them without a murmur.”
Roosevelt told them that only a reunion with his old regiment could him take him away form his duties in New York City. “For that purpose,” he expounded, “I would have gone to Alaska or anywhere else, for the bond that unites us one to another is as close as any bond of human friendship can be.”
New Mexico, the territory, was the perfect setting for a reunion of soldiers in the Spanish-American War. Even the New Mexico Governor Miguel Antonio Otero got an honorary member award. Although it was only symbolic, this rankled a few of the more hardened veterans who felt one should have served with the others before receiving such a distinction. Nevertheless, Otero humbly accepted the “membership” and as the papers noted, “the society almost closed its role by agreeing that honorary members must hereafter be men who were under fire with the regiment in Cuba.”
By the early 20th century, thanks to the success of the Rough Riders gathering, Las Vegas, New Mexico became known for its cowboy reunions. The brash affairs were sponsored by the Las Vegas Cowboy Reunion Association and complete with a slogan: “Git Fer Vegas Cowboy.” Thousands of ranchers and farm hands attended the events with ran annually from 1910 until 1931.
Ironically, the cowboy reunions ended a year after the Hoover Dam in Nevada was built. Thanks to the new power supply created by the massive man made dam, a small establishment nearby opened its first gambling house.
The town already had a name: Las Vegas
(Sources: Rough Riders: Theodore Roosevelt , his Cowboy Regiment and the Immortal Charge of San Juan Hill by Mark Lee Gardner; “New Mexico Legends – Las Vegas – As Wicked as Dodge City”. Legends of America. Retrieved 2012-07-13; The Los Angeles Times June 25, 1899.)
‘Showman’ St. John Terrell and The Music Circus
By Ken Zurski
In a scene from the movie musical “The Greatest Showman,” Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum proclaims that he doesn’t need a building to put on a show, “All we need is a tent,” he says. The scene seems to suggest that Barnum came up with the idea of using a tent to house a circus-type show. Fair enough, especially for a dramatized movie script, but not entirely true.
While Barnum eventually did use tents to put on a show, the idea to stage circus acts under a temporary shelter actually dates back to 1825 by a man named J. Purdy Brown who used small canvas tents for shows. Although Brown doesn’t get much recognition, the canvas-covering stage idea, then a one-ring circus act, was a revolutionary one.
Eventually in the 1870’s, Barnum took his “Greatest Show on Earth” on the road traveling by train and setting up very large tents which became known as the “Top” or the “Big Top” as we know it today. Under the “Big Top,” there was room enough for three rings. “A crammed company,” as Barnum called it.
So for spectacle and invention at least, like the “three-ring circus,” Barnum gets his due.
Enter St. John Terrell.
Certainly not a household name, St. John (pronounced Sinjin) Terrell was a visionary and showman whose story may not be as fanciful – or as successful – as Barnum’s, but just as entertaining, especially to his audience. Only in Terrell’s case, it wasn’t acrobats, fire eaters and elephants that wowed the crowd, but something much more refined.
Terrell was born in Chicago, Illinois in December 1916. He worked in the circus before transitioning into theater. In 1939, he opened the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania along the banks of the Delaware River. Terrell attracted up and coming Broadway talent who apparently weren’t bothered by the 90-mile distance between the Playhouse and New York City.
But Terrell had something else in mind for his musical theater and like Barnum, all he needed was a tent. The plan was to pitch a tent large enough to fit a stage surrounded by seats. There Terrell could put on shows, mostly operettas, to appreciative audiences.
Inspired by Barnum’s “Big Top”, he would call it “The Music Circus.”
In August 1949, The Music Circus opened in Lambertville, New Jersey, and that’s where it stood for many years. The 75-foot by 105-foot tent was “square-oblong” in shape and sat 800 people. The staging was different too. “Terrell is offering theater in the round,” reported the New York Daily News. “instead of the traditional drama on the half-shell.”
One of the first productions was Noel Coward’s “Bittersweet.” “Once you are used to the absence of scenery and adjusted to being part of the show, it’s a lot of fun,” the Daily News added. “During the love scenes between Wilbur Evans and Dorothy Sandlin, well, they’re quite close.”
Every Christmas, Terrell would play General George Washington in a staging of the famous crossing of the Delaware River at the actual site near Trenton, a tradition he carried on for 25 years. The idea was originally planned as a publicity stunt for the Music Circus in 1952. “He jokingly mentioned during a speech that George Washington was going to cross the Delaware and word made it to the editor of the local newspaper,” a Trenton historian noted about Terrell’s first mock crossing. He had no choice but to follow through.
Today in nearby West Amwell Township, New Jersey, a historical sign stands near the original location of the Music Circus. It reads in part: “From 1949 to 1971 many famous film and stage starts got their start in one of the country’s first tent theaters.”
Over the years, the term “music circus” faded. However, variations of the tent idea are still being used by summer stock theater groups throughout the world.
Not just Barnum.
Thank St. John Terrell for that.
(Some images courtesy of the Spruance Library of the Bucks County Historical Society)
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