By Ken Zurski
In the summer of 1861, after the Battle of Bull Run disproved the theory that the Civil War would end quickly, the U.S. Treasury Secretary at the time, Salmon Portland Chase, turned to the option of paper money to help pay Union soldiers.
This included the first government-issued dollar bill. A bill that looked much different than it does today.
For instance, the man on the front of the bill was Chase himself who did the honors of appointing his own likeness to the first “greenbacks (named for the green ink used on the back, with black ink in front).
Although serving the same party, Chase was still considered a savvy political nemesis of Abraham Lincoln, when in 1861, the newly elected 16th president tapped him as Treasury Secretary. The feuding didn’t end with the appointment. Seeking the high office himself, Chase’s frustration with the president would result in the secretary threatening to quit until Lincoln diffused the matter, as he often did, with a joke.
Chase resigned from the cabinet in June 1864 shortly before Lincoln was reelected to a second term. Later that year, Lincoln nominated Chase to the Supreme Court where he served as chief justice until his death in 1873 at the age of 65.
Eventually, Chase would be replaced by George Washington on the dollar bill.
But in 1928, more than 50 years after his death, Chase was honored again with his picture on the newly minted $10,000 bill.
The big dollar bills, like the $1,000 bill (Grover Cleveland), the $5,000 bill (James Madison), along with the $10,000 bill (with Chase) were used mainly for large transfers between banks. The largest paper denomination ever, printed in 1934, was the $100,000 bill featuring Woodrow Wilson.
Although it eventually went out of circulation, Chase’s $10,000 bill is still considered legal tender and banks would be glad to exchange it if collectors were crazy enough to pass on the market price that is now ten times more than its original face value.
Chase is also remembered to this day, by a large bank, now a merged institution, with his name still on the logo.
They say there is a healing power in laughter, so I always go well supplied with jokes. And I’ve discovered that are men our pretty quick with a joke themselves – Bob Hope
By Ken Zurski
In the book On Desperate Ground, a retelling of the troubled Korean War’s Chosin Reservoir Campaign, author Hampton Sides deftly and brilliantly chronicles the officers and soldiers who fought a perilous and ultimately hopeless battle.
Rough terrain, freezing conditions and poor decision making were the Americans undoing, Sides surmises, but the soldiers, especially the brave Marines somehow prevailed by sheer ingenuity and determination. Their reasoning for retreating, if you can call it that, was resolute: to live to fight another day rather than sit and be slaughtered. Losses were already great.
The enemy seemed to be on a suicide mission to keep the Marines from reaching Pyongyang, something General Douglas MacArthur thought they would do with ease. But that was against only North Korean forces. When the Chinese joined the fight, their sheer size alone pinned the Americans into a corner, a trap without an escape hatch. The Korean winter was another matter. Frostbite took soldiers toes and fingers and weapons wouldn’t fire. Eventually, an impossible rescue mission was devised to retrieve the trapped and wounded soldiers.
It was just the start of the Korean conflict, but as Sides writes, it was the war’s “greatest battle.”
The brave Marines in this case, the First Marine Division, a body of 20-thousand strong, were certainly the last to leave the Chosin Reservoir. But unlike the classic Marine Corp motto that a Marine is always “the first to arrive and the last leave,” in this instance, which Sides touches on in the book, they were not the first to arrive.
It wasn’t their fault.
On September 15, 1950, after a successful water landing at a South Korean seawall, the Marines quickly secured the occupied town of Inchon. It was a commanding early victory for the Americans and one General MacArthur took credit for. Then as Sides so painstakingly points out, the general got greedy. He wanted to work his way inland and claim the whole peninsula for the Americans and its allies.
North Korea and its communist leader would be quickly overrun, he predicted.
He ordered his field generals, Edward Almond and Oliver P. Smith to lead the charge. The plan: Marines would enter North Korean territory by sea, leaving Inchon and sailing down the Yellow Sea to a landing in a port city known as Wonsan. The first to arrive! From there they would convoy by vehicle and foot to the capital city.
But not everything went as planned. The transport ships had to stop short of the coast. An intelligence report arrived that the North Koreans along with the Russians had mined the waters off Wonsan. “Eventually the word shifted through the ranks,” Sides writes. The Marines would have to remain out to sea, stalled, while minesweepers cleared the coastline.
The reports were accurate. Thousands of mines were planted and the excavation was long, arduous and costly (two American minesweepers lost their lives). The Marines in the transports could do nothing but wait. Bobbing in circles, and bucked by waves which never seemed to subside, morale waned, food rations ran short, and the ships began to reek of sweat. “Never did time die a harder death,” one disparate soldier explained. “And never did the grumblers have so much to grouse about,”
Then even more bad news, especially to a proud Marine.
Wonsan was already occupied by Republic of South Korea forces who worked overland from Seoul. Nearby an air field was established allowing American forces, both Marine specialists and the U.S Army X-Corps, to be flown in instead. “We had the word that the beach had been secured, but we came in fully loaded and ready to fight if necessary,” said Marine Joe Lieutenant Joe Owen to Stars and Stripes in 2011. “Then we saw the flyboys standing on the beach waving us in.”
Before the Marines arrived, however, Wonsan was deemed secure enough to fly in the USO show featuring popular comedian Bob Hope and actress Marilyn Maxwell. Hope had done the same for troop units in World War II. This was his first visit to Korea. “I hate war with all my guts,” Hope would later say about his USO tours, “but I admire the guys with guts enough to fight them when they have to be fought.”
In Wonsan, while flying overhead, Hope spotted the armada of stalled transport ships. In his usual deadpan style, he joked about beating the leathernecks to shore. “Boy are we going to have a big show tonight,” he quipped. “I want you guys to back me up at all my landings.”
A bit of levity before the nightmare campaign would begin.
By Ken Zurski
In addition to his celebrated showy attributes and unabashed self-promotion, P.T. Barnum kept a meticulous daily schedule.
Every day before leaving his lavish home in Fairfield, Connecticut, after a sip of hot chocolate and a roll, Barnum would make a “to-do” list right down to where and what he would eat that day and when he would take a stroll in the garden.
One day, Barnum wrote on his “to-do” list: “drop Charity [his wife] off at the dress maker.”
When Barnum returned home that day, his daughter asked, “Where is mother?”
Barnum thought for a moment then realized he had dropped his wife off as scheduled, but did not return to pick her up because he had not put it on the list.
He immediately called for a carriage to retrieve her.
She was “exceedingly angry,” Barnum explained.
By Ken Zurski
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.
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.
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.
By Ken Zurski
Travers John Heagerty, better known as Henry Travers, was an English stage actor who came to America in 1917 and starred in numerous Broadway productions that spanned nearly two decades.
His most famous stage role was in “You Can’t Take It With You,” a Pulitzer Prize winning play about “a man from a family of rich snobs who becomes engaged to a woman from a good-natured but decidedly eccentric family.” In over 380 performances, Travers played the role of Grandpa Vanderhof, the patriarch of the oddball Sycamore family. When it came time to make a movie version, however, Travers was passed over for the more well known American film actor Lionel Barrymore. Jimmy Stewart played the lead.
“You Can’t Take It With You” became the highest grossing picture in 1938 and won an Oscar for Best Picture.
Director Frank Capri won Best Director, his third in five years.
Although Capri went with more established actors in the Oscar winning film, in 1945, when casting for a new production, he found a role for Travers as a bumbling but goodhearted guardian angel who saves a man from taking his own life and shows him the true spirit of living. In turn, the angel earns his wings to heaven.
The angel, of course, was named Clarence and the film was titled “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
The rest of the movie’s cast was a familiarity. Capra tapped the steady Lionel Barrymore to portray the miserly banker, Mr. Potter and mainstay Jimmy Stewart played the part of George Bailey. Travers got fourth billing behind actress Donna Reed who played George’s wife, Mary.
But as it turned out, the movie was a bit of swan song for the interminable character actor. After decades in the business and over 50 films, Travis’ appeared in just one more movie, a 1949 comedy, “The Girl for Jones Beach,” starring Ronald Reagan. That same year, Travis retired from acting. He was 75.
Then in the 1970’s, three decades after it’s release, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” gained interest and dedicated fans. It has been a beloved perennial holiday favorite ever since.
Travers didn’t live long enough to see it.
He died in 1965 at the age of 91.
By Ken Zurski
In November 1939 Philip Van Doren Stern, an American author, editor and Civil War historian wrote an original story titled “The Greatest Gift,” a heartwarming Christmas tale about a man named George Pratt who gets a dying wish granted 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
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.
The card book and story somehow caught the attention of RKO Pictures producer David Hempstead who showed it to actor Cary Grant’s agent.
In April 1944, RKO bought the rights but failed to create a satisfactory script.
Grant went on to make “The Bishop’s Wife.”
However, another acclaimed Hollywood heavyweight, Frank Capra, who already had three Best Directing Oscars to his name, liked the idea. RKO was happy to unload the rights.
“The story itself is slight, in the sense, it’s short,” Capri said referring to Stern’s book. “But not slight in content.”
Capra bought it and brought in a slew of writers to polish 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.