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 1906, at the age of 21, Pauline Chase was asked to portray Peter Pan on stage, a play about “the boy who wouldn’t grow up,” and a title role that had been played by only two people before her – and both female. Chase continued that trend and in the process became the face of the role too. Even today based on the number of performances – nearly an estimated 1400 – Chase is arguably the most popular actress ever to play the boy Peter. And you probably have never heard of her.
But in the early 20th century thanks to her continuing success in the play, Chase became an instant celebrity. Not for the innocence of the character she portrayed, in fact, quite the opposite. Chase was a bit of a jezebel in real life. “She certainly knew what she wanted from a man, and it wasn’t a good heart or worthy talent,” wrote author Gavin Mortimer in his book Chasing Icarus about the early aviators (more on that in moment). And men, well, they couldn’t resist her either. Their pursuance, however, came with stipulations. “I’ve no time to waste on duffers with no position or money,” Chase once told a reporter, firmly setting down the ground rules. Even her performances were sarcastically criticized by one glaring – more like obvious – diversion. Her strikingly good looks. “Distractingly pretty.” is how the Chicago Tribune put it.
Enter Charles Frohman. The world renowned theater producer recognized Chase’s talents early on when she was just a teenager. He promoted his new find and kept a close watch on her like a daughter. It was Frohman who suggested to James M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, or The Boy who wouldn’t Grow Up, that Chase take over the title role after another actress Cecelia Loftus got sick. Barrie already knew Chase, who was one of the Lost Boys in the London production. But playing the high-flying main character was a different matter.
“Barrie and I are coming down to see you act,” Frohman wrote Chase before the show,”and if we like you well enough, I will send you back a sheet with a cross mark on it.” After the performance, Chase received a piece of paper. It had a cross mark on it.
Frohman was devoted to Chase, his star in the making, and although rumored, their relationship was never sexual. Soon after his untimely death in 1915 along with more than a thousand other unfortunate souls aboard the ill-fated RMS Lusitania, it was discovered that Frohman had a longtime live-in companion, Charles Dillingham, another theater producer.
Robert Falcon Scott, the debonair British naval officer and explorer was another who reportedly had a close friendship with the magnetic Chase. The connection was influenced by Scott’s association with Barrie. “I never could show you how much your friendship meant to me,” Scott wrote to his author friend, “for you had much to give and I nothing.” Perhaps that gift was Chase. Scott reportedly went to see a production of Peter Pan in 1906 the year Chase took over the role. Was it just flirtation or something more? No one knows for sure. Scott’s affections toward Chase apparently ended in 1909 when he married the cosmopolitan and socialite Kathleen Bruce. Barrie reportedly penned a letter to Chase breaking the news. “Capt. Scott wrote to me that he is to be married to Miss Bruce soon. So there!”
In 1912, Scott perished along with his crew in Antarctica.
Claude Grahame-White was another interest of Chase’s. Perhaps the most desired bachelor in all of England at the time, Grahame-White made the ladies swoon over his athletic six-foot frame and naturally good looks. As one of the early aviation pilots, Grahame-White became instantly famous. Handsome, dashing and adventurous, Grahame-White mixed all of these traits to great advantage.
How Chase and Grahame-White met is unknown, but they were reportedly friendly for many years before becoming lovers. Grahame-White attended multiple performances of Peter Pan and would invite the pretty actress aboard his Farman biplane for joy rides.
Chase was charmed by her latest admirer. Grahame-White had all the attributes she was looking for: money and status. Their courtship, engagement and eventual marriage in 1910 was the stuff tabloid’s are made of. But it didn’t last. The next year Chase and Grahame-White drifted apart. The industrious flyer had spent all his assets on expensive business ventures and earnings from his flying career was waning. Sparked by a sudden fear of dying in a plane crash – something that was happening quite frequently on the show circuit – Grahame-White decided to quit flying altogether and forgo the riches that came with it. Chase was typically frank when she told a reporter, “Mr. Grahame-White could not compensate me from my retirement from the stage.” They separated and divorced.
Chase ended her seven year reign as Peter Pan in 1913 and never appeared on stage again. Her sexual exploits, true or not, continued to make headlines, especially the extensive string of male suitors. In addition to Capt. Scott and Grahame-White, the list also included a nameless American millionaire, an English auto manufacturer, and even James M. Barrie, the author who created the character that changed her life. Chase eventually married into a wealthy British family, had three children, and died at the age of 76.
“The boy who wouldn’t grow up” was her most famous and final role.
By Ken ZurskiI
In April 1917, shortly after President Woodrow Wilson announced his intentions to enter the protracted war in Europe, the New York Commissioner of Education at the time, Henry Sterling Chapin, advertised a nationwide contest to come up with an American Creed, or short paragraph that represented a U.S. citizen’s beliefs and principles.
Capin’s idea, inspired by his own patriotic pride, was supported by Baltimore mayor John Preston who gave the contest instant credibility by offering a $1000 grand prize. More than three-thousand entries were received.
A year later, a government worker named William Tyler Page was declared the winner. Page’s three sentence submission borrowed words and phrases from the Gettysburg Address, Declaration of independence, Preamble of the Constitution, and ended with a pledge: “I therefore believe it is my duty to my country to love it, to support its constitution, to obey its laws, to respect the flag, and to defend it against all enemies.”
Many liked it. “As creeds go this embodies what the leaders of America has said and attempted to put into practice,” one newspaper writer expressed. While others thought it was inessential. “No one American can write creeds for all Americans,” the Indianapolis Star reported. “The real American creed is in the heart.”
Page defended his work, accepted the prize money, and eventually became a clerk for the U.S. House of Representatives. His creed, while still recognized, was never officially adopted by the federal government. Instead many years later, in 1942, Congress chose a one-sentence composition written in 1892 for a children’s magazine to honor America’s symbol of freedom.
It begins with these words: I pledge allegiance to the Flag…
By Ken Zurski
In the summer of 1936, documentary filmmaker Pare Lorentz got the go ahead from the U.S. Government to literally 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 in in a lightweight “floppy winged” plane. 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 that branch off it. 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, and certainly an influential part of the nation’s growth, to many, the river itself, was nothing particularly pleasing to look at. In fact, visually, it’s an eyesore. 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 surmises. “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, 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 too. 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 30-minute film is best remembered for it’s cinematic achievements. The film 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 the film’s words, “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
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.