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Meet Vince Guaraldi: The Man Behind The Music of ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’

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By Ken Zurski

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In 1965, while traveling by taxi over the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco, television producer Lee Mendelson heard a single version of “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” a Grammy Award winning jazz song written and composed by a local musician named Vince Guaraldi.

Mendelson liked what he heard and contacted the jazz columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. Put me in touch with Guaraldi, he asked.

Vince Guaraldi, a jazz pianist, was born in 1928 in San Francisco to a musical family which included an uncle, Muzzy Marcellino, a singer known for his whistling. After serving a stint as a cook in the Korean War, Guaraldi returned to his studies as a musician and composer, contributing to several bands and projects in the Bay area.. He wrote and recorded his first original piece in 1953. Then in the 1960’s, Guaraldi, who was the conductor and composer of the Eucharist chorus in San Francisco, released several recordings of waltzes and jazz pieces including an original piece titled “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.” That’s when a certain aforementioned TV producer heard the song while stuck in traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge.

Mendelson called Guaraldi. He asked the composer to score a planned documentary of Charlie Brown, an idea Mendelson had after producing a successful documentary of San Fransico Giants baseball slugger Willie Mays. “Why not do a documentary on one of the worst baseball players,” Mendelson proposed, perhaps half jokingly, to Peanuts creator Charles Schultz. Schultz liked the idea, and gave the project a green light. Guaraldi enthusiastically agreed to come up with something musical for the documentary.  Several weeks later, Mendelson received a call. It was Guaraldi who performed a version of “Linus and Lucy” to Mendelson over the phone.

When the documentary idea was scrapped, Mendelson picked the song and Guaraldi’s music to accompany a new Charlie Brown Christmas special to air on television in 1965.

It was, as they say, a perfect fit. But it wasn’t an easy sell. Network executives didn’t like the special it at first viewing and thought the jazzy score was odd and that people wouldn’t get it.

Regardless, the program aired as scheduled and became so popular that it was included each and every Christmas after that and quickly became the holiday television institution it still is to this day.

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Over the next 10 years, Guaraldi would score 17 “Peanuts” television specials, plus the feature film “A Boy Named Charlie Brown.” In 1976, while on tour and resting in between sets at a club in Menlo Park California, Guaraldi collapsed and died from an apparent aortic aneurysm. He was 47.

“It was totally unexpected, ” said Mendelson. “He was so young.”

During the funeral service, “Peanuts” music was played over the church’s sound system.

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Although Guaraldi was working on another “Peanuts” special at the time of his death, his first score, “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” is still his most famous and most popular work.

The soundtrack released shortly after the special in 1965 and reissued in several formats since, remains one of the top selling Christmas albums of all-time.  

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Before the Movie, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Had Modest Beginnings

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By Ken Zurski

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Philip Van Doren Stern

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 that literally changes his life.

Stern’s story begins on a Christmas Eve night as a despondent George leans over the rail of an iron railroad bridge. He contemplates jumping into the river below:

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” a quiet voice beside him
said.

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.

George tells the man that he wishes he was never born. The man tells George his wish is granted. “You’ve never been born,” he says.

“The Stranger,” as he is called, then tells George to pose as a door-to-door brush salesman to avoid any confusion with people he knows well, but who now have no idea who he is.

When George confronts his wife Mary, she’s married with a child, a son, who pretends to shoot George with a toy gun. “You’re dead,” the boy tells him.  Dejected, George offers her a complementary brush and leaves.

George goes back to the bridge to confront “the stranger” and demands an explanation. “You already had the greatest gift of all,” the stranger explains, “the gift of life.” George begs for his old life back and returns home to Mary.  There he finds the brush he gave her.

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.

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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.”

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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.”

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Capra bought it and brought in a slew of writers to polish and stretch Stern’s book into a full length feature film.  They hired another a well-known actor James Stewart to play the main character, now renamed George Bailey. “The Stranger” in the book became a guardian angel named Clarence. And while the rest of the film is mostly a screenwriter’s version, the story of George saving his little brother from a drowning incident was included from the book.

In December of 1946, seven years after Stern wrote the original story, “It’s a Wonderful Life” was released in theaters.

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Ask Your Local Library to Add UNREMEMBERED!

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The global library catalog World Cat categorizes UNREMEMBERED under these three Genre/Forms:
“True adventure stories. biography and anecdotes.”

Ask your local library to get it …give the book title and the author. Available on Ingram, Baker & Taylor and Amazon http://a.co/d/iteJoll

“UNREMEMBERED: Tales of the Nearly Famous and the Not Quite Forgotten

Ken Zurski, author of The Wreck of the Columbia and Peoria Stories, provides a fascinating collection of once famous people and events that are now all but forgotten by time. Using a backdrop of schemes and discoveries, adventures and tragedies, Zurski weaves these figures and the events that shaped them into a narrative that reveals history’s many coincidences, connections, and correlations.

We tumble over Niagara Falls in a barrel, soar on the first transcontinental machine-powered flight, and founder aboard a burning steamboat. From an adventurous young woman circumnavigating the globe to a self-absorbed eccentric running for President of the United States, Unremembered brings back these lost stories and souls for a new generation to discover.

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FEATURING
John Alcock
Nellie Bly
Isambard K. Brunel
Samuel Cunard
Nathaniel Currier
Annie Edson Taylor
Ruth Elder
William Harnden
Father Louis Hennepin
Dorothy Kilgallen
Samuel Langley
Bobby Leach
John Ledyard
Thomas Moran
Catherine O’Leary
William B. Ogden
Fanny Palmer
Sam Patch
Rembrandt Peale
Cal Rodgers
Amos Root
Janet Scudder
George Francis Train
Cornelius Vanderbilt
Arthur Whitten Brown
John Wise
Victoria Woodhull

UNREMEMBERED ROLE: Ian Gillan Superstar

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By Ken Zurski

As rock n roll trivia goes this one is divine…

It begins when a rock singer named Ian Gillan joined an emerging progressive music group called Deep Purple.  Gillan, who to this point was a journeyman vocalist for other bands, had no idea where his rock swagger might take him.

To the very top it would seem.

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It was the summer of 1969 and Deep Purple had a hit with the trippy “Hush.”  While the single’s success was welcoming, the band members were looking to add a harder edge to their sound and in turn find a more permanent lead singer. Gillan’s vocal range fit right in. The English-born Gillan had fronted a few groups, wrote some songs, but none failed to ignite. The Deep Purple gig was a godsend…literally. That’s because also paying attention to the band’s progress were a gaggle of theater producers who were looking to put on a musical based on the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. They were searching for a singer with a strong vocal range who could handle the demands of the rock tinged, almost heavy metal like passages, in the score. If all went as planned, an album would likely be followed by a theatrical version, and possibly a movie.

The musical’s composer Andrew Lloyd Webber had previously attended a Deep Purple concert (without Gillan) and was unimpressed. Once Gillan was on board, however, Webber gave the band’s manager another call. “The moment I heard Ian’s primal scream was the moment I found my Jesus,”  Webber would later remark in his 2018 memoir, Unmasked.

Gillan recorded the album under the watchful ear of Webber and lyricist Tim Rice. His version of “Gethsemane” was a highlight for Webber who called it “extraordinary.”

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As a concept album and rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” was a big hit. Gillan was slated  for an arena tour and ultimately considered to reprise his studio role on Broadway, but rock n roll intervened. His commitment to Deep Purple came first and in 1973 in casting for the movie version, Gillan who was top on the director’s list, refused the role due to salary demands and conflicts with the band’s touring schedule.  Jeff Fenholt eventually took on the role of Jesus for the arena tour and Ted Neeley in the movie. Unlike some of the other singers on the original album, including stage and movie star Yvonne Elliman as “Mary Magdalene,” Gillan would never reprise the role of “Jesus.”

Gillan likely had no regrets. After a successful stint with the band including several radio singles like “Smoke on the Water” and “Woman from Tokyo,” Gillan left Deep Purple in 1973, later fronted Black Sabbath for spell and eventually returned to Deep Purple in the 90’s.

 

UNREMEMBERED CLEANLINESS: Benjamin Franklin and the Merits of Taking a Bath

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By Ken Zurski

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As America’s first diplomat in France, Benjamin Franklin thoroughly enjoyed the pleasures of taking a bath, a European luxury, although his desires may have been influenced more by the pretty French maids who administered it.

“I have never remembered to have seen my grandfather in better health,” William Temple Franklin wrote to a relative. “The warm bath three times a week have made quite a young man out of him [Franklin was in his 70’s at the time]. His pleasing gaiety makes everybody love him, especially the ladies, who permit him always to kiss him.” Regardless of his reasons for actually taking a bath, Franklin couldn’t help but get clean.

Franklin was certainly onto something and bathroom tubs were soon introduced in America. But it was a task just to own one. Before indoor plumbing, a large tub may have been made of sheet lead and anchored in a box the size of a coffin.  Later when tubs became more portable, they were made of canvas and folded; still others were hidden away and pulled down like a Murphy Bed. They were called “bath saucers.”

However, throughout most of  the 19th century, popular tub models were heavy and costly and used as much for decoration as for its other intended purpose.

It wasn’t that most people didn’t understand the merits of taking a bath, but it was a chore. Water had to be warmed and transported and would chill quickly; then when finished, it had to be dumped too. Oftentimes families would use the same bath water in a pecking order that surely forced the last in line to take a much quicker dip than the first.

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In the later half of the 19th century, as running water became more common, bathtubs became less mobile. Most were still bulky, steel cased and rimmed in cherry or oak. Fancy bronzed iron legs held the tub above the floor.

Ads from the time encouraged consumers to think of the tub as ornamental. “Why shouldn’t the bathtub be part of the architecture of the house?” the ads asked.  After all, if there is going to be such a large object in the home, it might as well be aesthetically pleasing.

Getting people to actually use the tub to clean themselves?

Now that was another matter.

In fact, in Franklin’s case, when a large tub of warm water wasn’t present, he liked to take what he called “air baths” instead. Franklin thought being inside and cooped up in a germ infested, walled, and shuttered space,  was the reason he got colds. So to keep from getting sick, Franklin would open the windows and stand completely naked in front of it.

Ventilation was the key to prevention, he explained.

Others likely weren’t so emboldened.

UNREMEMBERED PUT-DOWNS: William Shakespeare, Prince Hal and the Art of the Insult

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By Ken Zurski

In William Shakespeare’s Henry IV part I & II, King Henry is troubled by his son Hal’s disreputable behavior. That’s because the youthful Prince Hal, the future King Henry V, is a rabble-rouser in his father’s eyes. For example, throughout the play, Hal forsakes his roots by frequenting taverns and conversing with peasants and lowlifes. This royal debauchery gives Shakespeare a chance to introduce the character of Falstaff, Prince Hal’s friend and foil.

Described as “fat, drunk, and corrupt,” Falstaff is satirically based on Sir John Oldcastle, a historical figure who was much more sagacious than the buffoonish character portrayed in the play.  Still, Shakespeare originally wanted to name Falstaff, Oldcastle, but descendants of the family objected. Regardless, Falstaff is one for the ages: An entertaining braggart, liar and cheat, who both interjects and deflects colorful and deviously intended barbs.

This Clearly amuses Prince Hal, who berates Falstaff with his own words or those of others, lest he be the one judged.

His descriptions, however, are some of the greatest put-downs of the 16th century. “Why dost thou converse with that trunk of humours?’ he explains, then unleashes a folly of insults mostly in relation to Falstaff’s girth: “The bolting-hutch of beastliness, that swollen parcel of dropsies, that huge bombard of sack, that stuffed cloak-bag guts, that roasted Manningtree ox with pudding in his belly.”

The prince’s jabs are meant to solidify the future King’s own disregard for those who criticize the “merry and old,” as Falstaff relates. But Falstaff doesn’t mind. When Prince Hal calls Falstaff, “the old white bearded devil,” Falstaff gleefully responds:

“My lord, I know the man.”

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UNREMEMBERED [the book] out Thursday, August 9

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A book based in part on the blog site “UNREMEMBERED History” releases Thursday, August 9.  E-book to follow:  https://amzn.to/2KECpAj

Unremembered

Ken Zurski, author of The Wreck of the Columbia and Peoria Stories, provides a fascinating collection of once famous people and events that are now all but forgotten by time. Using a backdrop of schemes and discoveries, adventures and tragedies, Zurski weaves these figures and the events that shaped them into a narrative that reveals history’s many coincidences, connections, and correlations.

We tumble over Niagara Falls in a barrel, soar on the first transcontinental machine-powered flight, and founder aboard a burning steamboat. From an adventurous young woman circumnavigating the globe to a self-absorbed eccentric running for President of the United States, Unremembered brings back these lost stories and souls for a new generation to discover.

FEATURING
John Alcock
Nellie Bly
Isambard K. Brunel
Samuel Cunard
Nathaniel Currier
Annie Edson Taylor
Ruth Elder
William Harnden
Father Louis Hennepin
Dorothy Kilgallen
Samuel Langley
Bobby Leach
John Ledyard
Thomas Moran
Catherine O’Leary
William B. Ogden
Fanny Palmer
Sam Patch
Rembrandt Peale
Cal Rodgers
Amos Root
Janet Scudder
George Francis Train
Cornelius Vanderbilt
Arthur Whitten Brown
John Wise
Victoria Woodhull