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.
It was the summer of 1969 and Deep Purple was on the charts with the trippy hit “Hush.”
I thought I heard her calling my name now
She broke my heart but I love her just the same now
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 life and 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 eye – and ear, in this case – of Webber and lyricist Tim Rice. Gillan’s version of “Gethsemane” was a highlight for Webber who called the singer’s vocals “extraordinary.”
As a concept album and rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” was a huge 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 first arena tour and Ted Neeley in the movie.
Gillan likely had no regrets about his decision. 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.
Gillan would never reprise the role of “Jesus.”
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.”
A book based in part on the blog site “UNREMEMBERED History” releases Thursday, August 9. E-book to follow: https://amzn.to/2KECpAj
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.
Isambard K. Brunel
Annie Edson Taylor
Father Louis Hennepin
William B. Ogden
George Francis Train
Arthur Whitten Brown
By Ken Zurski
In 1925, when Judy Garland was only three-years-old, a movie version of “The Wizard of Oz” was released that was loosely based on a stage play of the same name which in itself was loosely based on L. Frank Baum’s famous book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
There was no singing of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” in this film version. In fact, there was no singing at all. “Talkies” as they were known in the movie business, hadn’t been perfected yet. This was a silent movie and compared to the musical film that was released fifteen years later in 1939, this version, as were other early adaptations of Baum’s book, remains somewhat of an enigma.
Here’s why: Baum’s book came out in 1900 and became an instant best seller. Two years later, under Baum’s direction a play based on the book was set to music and opened in Chicago. The title was shortened and the story was altered slightly. The main difference between the book and the stage adaptation, however, was an obvious one. Baum wrote the book specifically for children, while the play was geared for adults. Due to the popularity of the stage version, a 13-minute live action short was released that mostly confused viewers familiar with the book. The first full-length movie version then in 1924 was also based on the play and differed quite a bit from Baum’s original story
In the film, Dorothy and three farmhands arrive in Oz after a tornado sweeps them away. The Wizard proclaims Dorothy the long lost Princess of Oz, but the Prime Minister, named Kruel, wants nothing to do with her. The prince, however, named Kynd, welcomes the princess’s return and accuses the farmhands of kidnapping her.
To thwart the Prince’s soldiers, the farmhands, who are madly in love with Dorothy, dress up in disguise: one as a scarecrow and one in sheets of tin. The two men are eventually caught but the third farmhand who dons a lion’s costume, scares the guards, and helps the others escape. The Tin Man eventually sides with Kruel and the whole tangled mess leads to a showdown in a tower between the Scarecrow and the Tin Man, both of whom lose Dorothy’s affections to the handsome prince. The movie ends as the 1939 version does, when Dorothy wakes up from a dream.
“‘The Wizard of Oz’ goes way beyond even our wildest expectations,” proclaimed I.E. Chadwick, president of Chadwick pictures, upon its release. “A thing of great beauty and fantasy. Marvelously entertaining. A knockout!”
The movie’s top billing went to a popular comedian named Larry Semon, who played the scarecrow and directed the film. Dorothy Dwan, Semon’s real life wife, played Dorothy. The movie was advertised as a comedy and it did well at first. ‘It’s a Whiz!” was one excited description. But it didn’t last. By the time the Garland version appeared, the silent film had long since been forgotten.
Yet, the movie may best be remembered for the introduction of the larger-than-life figure who played The Tin Man. “Large” in this instance, referring to his outwardly size. The relative newcomer’s portliness would eventually become his trademark, but for this role, it was more a liability. Even a fellow actor questioned why a man of his girth would – or even could – wear a suit made of tin. “What are you going to do about the costume?” he asked. Oliver Hardy as it turned out would go on to have greater success as the bigger half, literally, of the comedic duo, Laurel and Hardy.
But the most glaring difference of the early film may be the absence of many of Baum’s most enduring characters, including two that featured prominently in Garland’s version: the Wicked Witch and Dorothy’s little dog, Toto.
In fact, in the stage version, Toto was replaced by a cow named Imogene.
By Ken Zurski
Agostino Ramelli was a military engineer, which meant he wore the armored suit and carried the sword, but used his brain rather than brawn on the battlefield. This came in handy during the 16th century French Wars of Religion when the Italian born Ramelli went to France, took up arms with the Catholic League, and was captured by the Protestants (Huguenots). While incarcerated, Ramelli not only found a way to break out, but in as well. After he escaped – or was exchanged – Ramelli returned and breached the fortification by mining under a bastion. From that point on, he called himself “Capitano” and dedicated his life to figuring things out.
In 1588, he released a book titled, Various and Ingenious Machines of Capitano Ramelli. The expertly illustrated book was a compilation of 195 machines that made laborious tasks more practical. Many of the machines lifted things in crafty ways, like water, or solid objects, like doors off their hinges. One machine milled flour using rollers rather than stones.
Then there was the Book Wheel.
“This is a beautiful and ingenious machine, very useful and convenient,” Ramelli wrote. By convenient, he meant for those suffering from gout, a painful joint disease which made walking or standing difficult. A noble gesture, for sure, but the wheel itself was six-feet in diameter. So its doubtful Ramelli designed it strictly for the disabled. Nevertheless, its usefulness is left up to the user to decide. The operator remains seated while the books, eight in all, each come to the front by turning the wheel.
Ramelli was especially proud of the gearing system that kept the books constantly level to the ground. He built an intricate gear for each slot and prominently featured a diagram in his book. The impressive technology was similar to that used in an astronomical clock. It was also wholly unnecessary. A simple swivel pivot and gravity could do the trick just as engineer George Ferris would prove many centuries later in a similar design that carried people rather than books. Speculation is Ramelli knew this, but as a mathematician, and a bit of a swank, couldn’t help himself.
By Ken Zurski
In the summer of 1936, documentary filmmaker Pare Lorentz got the go ahead from the U.S. Government to make a short film about a rather long subject: the Mississippi River.
The film’s job was to throw more support towards the newly appointed Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), a government agency created in 1933. The $50,000 budget approved by President Franklin Roosevelt would be used to highlight the environmental and economic concerns along the river, specifically the catastrophic flooding caused by industries like farming and the timber trade that inadvertently sent large amounts of topsoil down the river into the Gulf of Mexico.
Two years earlier, Roosevelt had funded a mildly successful film project titled The Plow That Broke the Plains, also directed by Lorentz, which showed how uncontrolled farming led to the devastating and deadly effects of the Dust Bowl.
It’s fair to say that both Roosevelt and Lorentz had no intentions of making another documentary together. “The Plow” had gone over budget and the government balked, refusing to provide more money and forcing Lorentz to personally foot the bill just to complete the film. At some point however, attitude’s changed. Lorentz saw a map of the Mississippi River and thought it would make a good subject. Roosevelt agreed and gave him a significantly higher budget than “The Plow.” Lorentz was also extended a $30-dollar a day salary.
Immediately Lorentz went to work, filming location after location on the ground and from the air. The crew worked their way up the river from the Gulf of Mexico to Cairo, Illinois, oftentimes working for days on end until principal filming wrapped up in early January 1937. In the end the visuals showed less of the Mississippi and more of the many tributaries. This was as much a part of the river’s history as it was the problem, the film purported.
Reaction to a film being made about the Mississippi River was mixed. Although it’s the most important body of drainage water in the U.S., perhaps even the world, to many, the river itself, was nothing particularly pleasing to look at. The water is drab and dirty looking and along it’s shoreline there is very little rock formations or scenery to enhance it. “If driving, you become aware of its presence miles before you reach it,” author Simon Winchester wrote about the river’s approach. “The landscape falls away. There are swamps on either side, dense hedgerows and copses, miles of small lakes of curious shape.”
Indeed the Mississippi River, especially its midsection, is banked by mostly mud. Even Mark Twain’s flourishes of the river’s attributes from the perspective of a steamboat pilot couldn’t push the attitudes toward its appearance into anything more than just a very long strip of dirt-colored water and sludgy shores.
No question beauty is subjective. Hundreds of quaint cities dot the river’s shoreline and dense tree lines along the Mid to Upper sections provide a multi-colored vista in the Fall.
In St Louis, Missouri, a large man-made monument standing as tall as it is wide (630 feet), greet visitors at the river’s edge; a testament to the men who used the Mississippi’s offshoots to chart the west.
When Lorentz made his movie, however, the idea of a symbol like the “Gateway Arch” was nearly 30 years away. But like the early explorers, Lorentz found significance in its vast network. The tributaries and the people who live along them were the key to its resourcefulness.
The visuals, however, were just part of the overall experience of the 30-minute film. The script, dramatically narrated by an opera singer and actor named Thomas Hardie Chalmers, was not only informational, but poetic too. There’s a good reason why. To promote the project, Lorentz had written two articles for McCall’s magazine. One was wordy and statistical, he thought, so he wrote another version that was more lyrically composed:
From as far East as New York,
Down from the turkey ridges of the Alleghenies
Down from Minnesota, twenty five hundred miles,
The Mississippi River runs to the Gulf.
Carrying every drop of water, that flows down
two-thirds the continent.
Carrying every brook and rill, rivulet and creek,
Carrying all the rivers that run down two-thirds
The Mississippi runs to the Gulf of Mexico.
McCall’s chose to publish the latter version and readers responded by writing request letters for copies. Lorentz used the more poetic prose in the film. The music, which incorporated part folk and gospel styles, was written by composer Virgil Thomson.
While the unflinching subject matter certainly raised awareness of the need for more locks and dams, the film is best remembered for it’s cinematic achievements. It went on to win the “Best Documentary” at the 1938 Venice International Film Festival and the script was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in poetry. The noted novelist and poet James Joyce, shortly before his death at age 60, called Lorentz’s script, “the most beautiful prose that I have heard in ten years.”
Before all the artistic accolades rolled in, upon release in October of 1937, the film titled simply “The River” received positive reviews and general widespread acceptance. The first showing at the White House , however, proved less than ideal. While Roosevelt was generally pleased, the president’s Secretary of Agriculture at the time, Henry Wallace, a Midwesterner from Iowa, didn’t know what to think.
“There’s no corn in it,” he said.
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. Plus, soft drink giant Coca-Cola was sponsoring 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.
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.