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.
By Ken Zurski
It’s hard to imagine anything other than the 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. He did however admire the flightless bird. But Franklin’s choice for America’s national symbol was much different than both the bald eagle and 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.”
Franklin had a point. It was a a matter of principal. The bald eagle was a notorious thief, he implied. Here’s why: 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 the choice of bald eagle not in support of the turkey 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.
But was it a fair assessment?
Ornithologists today provide a more scientific and sensible explanation. In the”Book of North American Birds” the bald eagle gets its just due, for as a bird, it’s actions are justifiable. “Nature has her own yardstick, and in nature’s eyes the bald eagle is blameless. What we perceive as laziness is actually competence.” Being able to catch a “waterfowl in flight and rabbits on the run,” the book suggests is a noble and rewarded skill.
Perhaps, a better choice for the nation’s top bird, might have been the golden eagle, who unlike the bald eagle captures its own prey, mostly small rodents, but is powerful enough to attack larger animals like deer or antelope on rare occasions. (Its reputation today is tainted somewhat by rumors that it snatches unsuspecting domestic animals, like goats or small dogs.) But golden eagles don’t want attention. They shy away from more populated areas and appear to be “lazy” only because they can hunt with such precision and ease they don’t really have to ruffle their feathers. Plus, golden eagles were already symbolic. History finds them “perched on banners of leading armies, the fists of emperors and figuring in religious cultures.”
The bald eagle, by comparison, would be truly American.
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.
By Ken Zurski
The town of Red Bud, Illinois sits in northwest Randolph County on the far southwestern part of the state along Illinois State Route 3, a scenic byway that’s part of the Great River Road, a long designated drive that follows the banks of the Mississippi River from Minnesota south to the Gulf of Mexico. Due to practically, it seems, the River Road branches off the Mississippi banks just south of St. Louis. Then it extends eastward for about a 100 miles before looping back to join the river’s shoreline again in Chester, Illinois.
Basically, where Illinois’ protruding belly – its western border – bottoms out near the southern tip of the state, the River Road is associated with the river in name only.
Red Bud is in the middle of this inland path, about 30 miles east of the river. So comparative to the more picturesque Mississippi shore, the deviated route that passes through Red Bud is pastoral enough, but nothing special. In fact, on an official site map for the Great River Road and its attractions, among the hundreds of interesting places to visit, Red Bud is not listed as one of them.
Those who live there, however, would say otherwise.
Red Bud’s history reads like many other cities of its size and location. A rouge pioneer happens upon the land and builds a log cabin. He begins to farm and prosper and soon other settlers are coming for similar reasons. A school is built along with several businesses. In 1847, the first public lots are sold. Homes are constructed and on each landowners plot there’s a distinctive feature, a colorful tree, known as a redbud. The stout tree, with its distinctive pink and red leaves that bloom during the spring before turning green in the summer, is what the town is named after.
In 1867, Red Bud was chartered.
In 1875 it officially became a city.
Less than 20 years later, in 1892, it was nearly wiped off the map.
The date was November 17.
It was 3:30 in the morning when the distant rumbling of thunder awakened the less hardy of sleepers. Then streaks of lightening were followed by an awful rush of wind. Suddenly, timbers began cracking in succession and flew like sharpened arrows in all directions. Horses neighed in terror.
Townspeople, already frightened by the sickening sounds of rushing wind and startled animals, huddled inside their homes and watched in horror as their roofs and walls blew out. They held on for dear life as everything around them was swept up by the mighty wind.
Then in a whoosh it was gone, followed by an eerie silence.
At first light, the devastation was apparent. “Where Wednesday night stood a beautiful city, full of happy homes,” the Rolla New Missouri would later report, “there is to-day a scene of wreck and desolation. Houses, barns, fences and orchards are leveled to the earth and spread over the surrounding country. The scene is difficult to describe. The streets when lit up the first streaks of dawn presented a pitiable scene of ruin.”
The search for survivors commenced at dawn. “The streets were blocked with the debris of the storm’s wreck and for some time it was impossible to get an accurate list of the sufferers of the terrible visitation.” the paper read. One thing however was painfully clear. “The number of houses wrecked by the storm is fairly complete.”
What the searchers found, however, was surprising.
While just the loss of one person’s life constitutes a tragedy, the number of dead was far less than expected. A woman referred to in the papers as Mrs. Jacob Koch and her 11-year-old son were so badly injured, went the report, “they will likely die.” Sadly they did. But they were the only two casualties. While many were injured, and some may have later succumbed to their injuries, the mother and child were listed as the only victims of the “terrible twister.”
Most of the other residents, however, while fortunate to survive, were left homeless. Describing one structure as “handsome and solid” before the storm, the paper remarked: “[The residence] was crumbled to a shapeless mass as though it had been a toy house, with scarcely one stone standing above another over the foundation. The destruction was complete.”
Eighty-four buildings in all were destroyed leaving a town not just in utter destruction, but “utter desolation,” the papers reported.
The town’s rebirth is also a remarkable story. In the months and years that followed, the people of Red Bud banded together and rebuilt their homes and their lives. Even the beautiful redbud trees, the ones lost in the raging cyclone, were replaced.
Red Bud literally regrew.
More than 120 years later, in 2013, on the same date, November 17, during a seasonally warm Sunday morning, a tornado ripped through the town of Washington, Illinois, in the central part of the state. While sirens wailed and warned those it was coming, where it would end up and how powerful it would be could only be answered after the twister had cut a destructive path through a tightly packed neighborhood. “Utter destruction,” was a term used again to describe the widespread damage. Large lumber piles sat where mid-sized homes once stood.
The story of the Washington tornado, like Red Bud’s, is a tragic one. A man was killed in the storm and several more later died from injuries.
We know the Washington story well. In the modern day era of social media, instant messaging, and uploaded videos, almost everyone could share in some sense at least, the terror of those few horrifying minutes when the twister barreled through. And like Redbud a century-and-a-quarter ago. Washington’s spirit lives on. Despite the heartbreaking losses, residents rebuilt homes and got on with their lives.
Today, Red Bud does not commemorate the deadly tornado of 1892. It’s just too far removed. But it’s still listed in Illinois history books as one of the most damaging in the state’s history. There are others that have been more deadly, but in comparison to time, and in terms of destruction, it was devastating.
Perhaps what did not change after all these years are the twisters themselves; menacing in size and fury, unsuspecting and weirdly confusing. “Some of the freaks of the storm were marvelous,” the papers described in 1892. “Here a house was literally lifted from the ground and scarce a vestige of it left, while a neighboring residence seemed to have escaped with comparatively little injury.” That report from Red Bud, could have been also been written about Washington. In both cases, in freakish instances, a home on one side of the street was completely leveled while a structure on the other side was left unscathed.
Today, we may be better informed and better prepared when a tornado suddenly strikes, but we are still humbled, awed and shocked by its size, strength and impact. Nature, as it turns out, has no diminishing gain. Not even time can change that.
In Illinois, Red Bud and Washington didn’t pick the date, November 17, but the two are forever linked by that day, over a century apart, when a tornado came to their respective towns and changed lives forever.