150 Years Later, in the movie ‘Lincoln,’ Avonia Jones was Nearly Written Back into History

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By Ken Zurski

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Avonia Jones

Avonia Stanhope Jones was born in 1839 and in her teens and early 20’s was considered an accomplished actress.  Thank her parents for that.  Both were theater-types, and Avonia often played roles opposite her mother. In one instance, mother and daughter toured together in “Romeo and Juliet” where Avonia played “Juliet” and her mother played “Romeo.” More details of that “strange” production is not known. And for the most part neither is Jones – known, that is.

According to several internet sources, Jones married young, had no children, and died at the age of 28. Her name is not well remembered, but as an actress, she was important enough to warrant a sitting with the leading photographer at the time, Matthew Brady.

So there’s that.

But as history goes, Jones seemed to do nothing extraordinary or devious, which would have elevated her name or status. As for acting, the New York Times wrote this in her obituary: “Her understanding of mimic character was quick and thorough, and her intellectual attainments of a high order. Few actresses at the present day have had so much experience and received so much praise at so early an age.”

One biographical source claims the most discriminating words against her was a “declamation of the war,” meaning the Civil War, which one can assume she talked about a lot, one-sided or not. More on that in a moment.

Enter Hollywood.

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Tony Kushner

In November of 2012, the movie “Lincoln” opened in theaters. The highly anticipated film, directed by Steven Spielberg, was a commercial and critical smash. It was in essence history come to life, thanks in part to Daniel Day Lewis who channeled his vision of the title role into an Oscar win for Best Actor.

The movie itself, was based on historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals” and the screenplay was written by Tony Kushner, the Tony Award winning writer of “Angels in America.” Kushner was nominated for an Oscar for his work on “Lincoln.”

Kushner also brought back the name Avoina Jones.

In an interview with Smithsonian Magazine shortly before the movie was released, Kushner said this about Jones:  “I thought, I’ve discovered another member of the conspiracy!” Kushner explains that he was looking for a play Lincoln might have seen in early March of 1865. “I found a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ starring Avonia Jones.”

Kushner says Jones, from Richmond, was rumored to be a Confederate sympathizer. “She left the country immediately after the war, went to England and became an acting teacher.” (Note: Jones returned to America in 1867 and died that same year of consumption).

According to Kushner, the backstory is this: “One of her [Jones] pupils was Belle Boyd, a famous Confederate spy. And the guy who was supposed to be in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with her was replaced at the last moment by John Wilkes Booth—who was plotting then to kidnap Lincoln.” So according to Kushner, Jones could have been a member of Booth’s team of conspirators.

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It’s all speculation, of course, and Kushner doesn’t elaborate.  Still for a writer a “new” discovery is always worth exploration and in a Hollywood production where the facts can be loosely defined by the words “based on a true story,”  Kushner had hoped to introduce movie audiences to Jones.

But it was not to be.

Jones and her story never made it into the final script.

However, Kushner had another historical figure he claims was found through good research: William N. Bilbo, a crafty Nashville lawyer and lobbyist for Lincoln. Bilbo tried to bribe “swayable” Democrats to vote with Republicans on the thirteenth amendment, the overall plot point of the movie.

Bilbo was another forgotten soul. Even Goodwin’s book ignores him. Yet, much to Kushner’s liking, Bilbo was left in the script and actor James Spader brought the real life character back to life.

Avonia Jones will have to wait.

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Hey, Hey We’re The Muppets: ‘A Crazy Little Band’

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By Ken Zurski

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Jim Henson

Long before Jim Henson became famously known as the man behind the legendary Muppets, his early puppet creations were popular thanks to stints on television commercials, the Tonight Show, and The Jimmy Dean Show where a furry dog named Rowlf, pronounced Ralph, became nearly as popular as the folksy TV host himself.

Jimmy Dean didn’t seem to mind and neither did Jim. It was after all the characters who were in the spotlight, not the performers. So Henson and his team, including fellow puppeteer Frank Oz, were virtually unseen and unknown at the time.

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Jimmy Dean & Rowlf

This was between 1962 and 1969, the same time an English rock sensation known as the Beatles took over America. The Muppets played a completely different role than the lads from Liverpool, but in one respect they shared a rather innocuous connection with the Fab Four.

Author Brain Jay Jones points this out in his book Jim Henson: The Biography.

In a chapter titled “A Crazy Little Band,” Jones writes that “it wasn’t Jim’s name on the door or company letterhead, but rather THE MUPPETS.” Even Jim’s son Brian Henson would later admit, “The Muppets were known,” but as for his father: “He wasn’t.”

Apparently, without a face, there was uncertainty as to who or what the Muppets actually were.  Plus, if you didn’t know what the name stood for (a Henson invented combination of Marionette and Puppet), the confusion was two-fold.

So the name baffled some. Many thought Jim and his crew listed on guest lists as simply “The Muppets” were a rock band similar to other one-name bands like the Troggs, the Animals, the Hollies or the Beatles.

In addition, Jones writes, Jim had somewhat long shaggy hair “like a businessman beatnik” and a beard.  He was also tall and lanky and walked with long strides, similar to the look and style that the Beatles would make famous on the cover of “Abbey Road.”

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Add to that the Muppet characters who were transported in black boxes which resembled instrument cases. If you didn’t know who the Muppets were, Jones explains, you might have mistaken them for a rock group.

Even Frank Oz conceded to the confusion. “We were just kind of this crazy little band at the time,” he wrote. “We were the Muppets, but like an act.”

This confusion led to an embarrassing incident after a performance in Los Angeles when a stubborn hotel manager refused to give Henson and his crew a room for the night fearing a rock band would trash the place.

Henson, of course, would get the last laugh. He attempted to correct the problem by having a “serious conversation” with the manger. Jim’s real voice resembled Kermit the Frogs’s in tone and was quiet, calm and reassuring.  He rarely swore.

The manger was likely convinced without Henson having to take out one of his “instruments” as proof.

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How England’s Royal Showcase became an Inspiration for America’s Greatest Showman

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By Ken Zurski

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In the late 18th century, George, Prince of Wales, soon to serve as Prince Regent due to his father’s illness, was told by the royal physicians to take better care of his own health, specifically more baths, or “dips,” in the salt water properties of the sea.

The Prince choose the coastal village of Brighton, England, a once rundown fishing town that was turning into a seaside retreat for the wealthy.  Not only was Brighton close to London, but it’s warmer climate and proximity to the English Channel was perfect for those, like the Prince, who were ordered to take these so-called restorative “dips.”

Whether or not the Prince stuck to his doctors orders or not is not known. Regardless of his health, and befitting his reputation as a royal glutton, Brighton suited him just fine.  Soon he sought to build a grand palace in Brighton, under his orders and complete with a “glass domed roof, hand-painted Chinese wallpaper, a 62-horse stable, and a Great Kitchen.” Work began in earnest in 1787.

Although the Marine Palace soon to be transformed into the Royal Pavilion, was the brainchild of the Prince Regent (the future King George IV), the finished product, a mixture of many styles and influences, was the work of architect John Nash.

John Nash

Nash’s design suited the future King, but hardly anyone else.  “A masterpiece of bad taste” was one icy reception, while another described it as a “mad house.” Even Queen Victoria, wife of King William  IV, King George’s successor,  was unmoved calling it “odd” then demeaning its purpose. “Most of the rooms are low and I can see a morsel of the sea from one of my sitting windows,” she bemoaned, refusing to spend much time there.

Born in London in 1752, Nash earned a reputation for designing houses, castles really, for the rich. Eventually, his work caught the eye of the prince.  In 1806, Nash became his personal architect. The re-imagining of the Royal Pavilion, also named the Carlton House, was their partnership.

To make it even more unique, between 1815 and 1822, Nash added flourishing touches to the Pavilion that included an elaborate second wing and a special dome feature that made it’s outer appearance similar to India’s most famous architectural statement, The Taj Mahal.

The Royal Pavilion

The English shoreline never shone so brightly, but it was different, and not very British-like, especially for royalty, and the biting condemnations quickly followed.

But attitudes toward the Royal Pavilion would change.

In 1841, a rail line made it more accessible. Now more people could come and roam the grounds and enjoy the scenic location for themselves. To the British commoner, the Royal Pavilion was a work of art.

Unfortunately the man who endured the constant jabs about his work from his peers, never lived long enough to see it appreciated.  In 1835, shortly before the Pavilion became a popular tourist attraction, Nash died at the age of 83.

Nearly a decade after his death, Nash would be vindicated again when the Royal Pavilion was paid the ultimate compliment by an American entrepreneur and visionary who not only admired the uniqueness of the building, he sought to copy it too.

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 Bridgport, the state’s largest city.

All this was the creation of one man who commissioned the building as a “permanent residence” for his family.

His name was Phineas Taylor Barnum, better known as P.T. Barnum.

In admiration, Barnum patterned the design of his new home in the style of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton.

He named it the Iranistan.

The Iranistan


For more on the history of  P.T. Barnum’s Iranistan click here: https://unrememberedhistory.com/2018/01/02/the-greatest-showmans-home-was-everything-you-might-imagine-it-to-be-and-more/

Money, Money, Money: Salmon P. Chase and the $10,000 Bill

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By Ken Zurski

Salmon P. Chase

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.

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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.

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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.

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Nothing Personal, Fellas: When Bob Hope Beat the Marines to North Korea

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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

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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.

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Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Gen. Oliver P. Smith

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.

Bob Hope with troops in Wonsan , North Korea 1950 (courtesy Readers Digest)


The Greatest Showman’s ‘To-Do’ List

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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.”

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P.T. Barnum and Charity

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.

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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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