Trivia: Those we lost in 2016

December 31, 2016

I just go back from a pub trivia event centered around the theme of people who died in 2016.  As the host noted …. about the same number of famous people died in 2016 as any other year, but the summed notability of those who died in 2016 was a little higher than in most years.  Throw in the election of 2016, and the loss of family connected to friends and colleagues (my school district had three staff members die in the past year) and one might suppose democracy also can be added to this list.

Keeping with my trivia background:  facts about those who left us in 2016.  This is a long list.  Very long.  Hopefully you will find something curious here.

  • Vilmos Zsigmond won an Oscar for his amazing cinematography in 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  He had been Spielberg’s cinematographer on his first feature film, Sugarland Express, but shortly after coming to the US from Hungary, one of Zsigmond’s first film’s as cinematographer is the disaster  The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, which you may have guessed routinely can be found on lists of the worst films ever made, proving it isn’t how you start …
  • Princess Ashraf Pahlavi was the twin sister of the late Shah of Iran, and according to some sources may have had a lot of pull with her brother.  On the one hand, she supported basic human rights for women, but on the other, she was supposedly the one who convinced her brother to allow the CIA and British Intelligence to overthrow the elected government of Iran.  In either case, the more conservative Islamic fundamentalists were not pleased, and it led to … you know where it led.
  • Fame” and “Let’s Dance” are the only two David Bowie singles to ever reach #1 on the US Billboard Hot 100 Chart.  I sat through The Prestige twice before I realized he was playing Nikola Tesla, though he is more recognizable as Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s controversial The Last Temptation of Christ.
  • In 2008, Post Office Telecoms combined various voices and had people rate them to see which was the most wonderful voice based on tone, speed and intonation.  According to their findings, John McLane should be petrified because the best male voice is a mixture of Jeremy Irons, and the now sadly late Alan Rickman, both of whom played villains in the Die Hard series.  A poll of Harry Potter fans ranked Rickman’s portrayal of Severus Snape as the single best performance of any of the characters in the Harry Potter films.
  • Glenn Frey was hired to play guitar as part of Linda Ronstadt’s back up band while she was on tour, and over time that backup band came to include Don Henley, Randy Meisner, and Bernie Leadon.  The first time these four founding members of The Eagles ever played together … backing up Linda Ronstadt on stage at Disneyland.  Frey also occasionally acted … he played the tightwad GM of the Arizona Cardinals who finally showed Rod Tidwell the money in Jerry Maguire.
  • If you are thinking of plunking down a lot of money to buy one of those new fangled virtual reality video game systems, you might not realize how not-so newfangled it is.  The head-mounted graphical video display was first invented in 1963 by computer pioneer Marvin Minsky who co-founded the Artificial Intelligence lab at THE Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • When Monte Irvin passed away in January, he was believed to be the oldest living man who had played in the Negro Leagues, simultaneously demonstrating that this era wasn’t that long ago, and that at the same time, we are losing touch with the last few men who played in the era of segregation.  Irvin was playing for the Newark Eagles when Branch Rickey approached Effa Manley, the Eagles’ owner (and only woman to be inducted into the Hall of Fame) about getting Irvin to help integrate the Majors.  Manley wouldn’t let her star outfielder go without compensation, so Jackie Robinson had to go it alone.  When Irvin made his MLB debut for the Giants in 1951, not only was he a part of the first all-African-American outfield in MLB history, but he was joined there by a true rookie whome he would be mentoring … the immortal Willie Mays.  In 1968, Irvin was named the head of MJB’s public relations, becoming the first African-American executive in MLB history.  In 1973, he got the call to the Hall of Fame.
  • Since 1982, the joke has been that Abe Vigoda is dead, but in 2016 it happened for real.  In 1982, People Magazine accidentally referred to him as “the late Abe Vigoda”.  Proving he had a sense of humor about it, Vigoda appeared on the cover of Variety sitting up in a coffin, clutching the edition of People that declared him deceased.
  • Singe Toly Anderson and Paul Kantner both died on January 28, 2016, and they were both founding members of the band Jefferson Airplane.
  • The old saying is that you never want to be the guy who has to follow the guy.  Joe Alaskey was Mel Blanc’s understudy, and since the death of Blanc, Alaskey has taken on the job of giving voice to many of our favorite Looney Toons characters, including, for a time, Bugs Bunny himself.  His first professional voice work was as Yosemite Sam in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but after being put through nine auditions, for one film, he refused to come back and work with an indecisive director, meaning that he voiced no one in Space Jam.
  • Every family has a member who is a bit of the black sheep so to speak, and in the family of 12 men who have walked on the moon, Edgar Mitchell might have been that one.  Yes, he was the first ScD (aeronuatics and astronuatics from MIT) to walk on the lunar surface, but he also had a strong belief that most UFOs were likely visitors from another world, and he spent at least a little time on the moon conducting ESP experiments with people back on Earth. When he publicly claimed to have inside knowledge of alien visitation, NASA had to publicly slap him down because … do I need to explain why?
  • There is still a huge mess in the wake of the passing of Antonin Scalia.  Despite being fairly cross in their beliefs, one of Scalia’s closest friends on the Court was Ruth Bader Ginsberg.  The two shared a love of opera, and they even appeared on stage when in a production of the Washington Opera’s production of Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos.  While Scalia’s death came as a shock when it occurred, after the fact, his doctors admitted that he was in declining health, and that his heart problems were so severe that it excluded him from undergoing a fairly routine rotator cuff surgery.
  • Only one United Nations Secretary General failed to get elected to a second term, and that was Egyptian Boutros Boutros-Ghali.  Boutros-Ghali had four major headaches to deal with:  the Yugoslav civil war, Somalia, the Rwandan genocide, and the United States.  After Boutros-Ghali refused to support bombing efforts against Serb positions, and after numerous foulups in Somalia, the US exercised their veto power to prevent Boutros-Ghali from seeing a second term.  How much of this was Boutros-Ghali and how much was the fault of the US or others is still a matter for history to decide.
  • Probably the most famous college professor in the entire nation of San Marino, Umberto Eco may have been the predecessor to Dan Brown, mixing Catholicism, medieval philosophy, and mystery into a unique literary form.  One of his more famous works, Foucault’s Pendulum, deals with a group of publishers inventing their own conspiracy to stave off boredom.
  • While not as well known internationally as Eco, Harper Lee died on the same day he did.  Lee’s second major novel, Go Set a Watchman,  was released by the publisher as the sequel to the immortal To Kill a Mockingbird … but Go Set a Watchman was actually the first draft of Mockingbird.
  • Douglas Slocombe was the cinematographer for the first three films in the Indiana Jones franchise, but those were hardly the most important things he ever filmed.  As a young photojournalist, he was in Danzig in 1939 where he filmed the torching of a synagogue among other acts of anti-Semitic violence that he was among the first to film.  On 1 September 1939, he was in Warsaw when World War II broke out in front of him.  He escaped on a train that was machine gunned by advancing Nazi troops, witnessing a girl dying in front of him.
  • Donald E. Williams was the commander of the space shuttle Atlantis on mission STS-34.  On that mission one of NASA’s great success stories was launched – the space probe Galileo which was the first probe to orbit and study Jupiter and its many moons.
  • Only two actors have appeared in every one of the films of the Rocky franchise from the original film in 1976 through Creed in 2015.  Sylvester Stallone is, of course, one.  The other is the late Tony Burton, who played Duke, one of Apollo Creed’s trainers who later joins the corner crew for the Italian Stallion.  Burton earned his high school diploma and Bachelors degree from Cal while doing time at Chino for robbery.  While doing a bit role in The Shining, Stanley Kubrick learned that he was a capable chess player, and extended his contract from one to six weeks so that he would have a chess partner while on the set.
  • Martin Landau is not only still alive, but he can claim to be the oldest surviving winner of the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor … since George Kennedy died on of all days … the day of 2016’s Oscar ceremony.  Kennedy won his Oscar for playing opposite Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, but he was also known for having appeared in all four films in the Airport franchise … and as the hapless police captain Ed Hocken, boss to Frank Dreben, in The Naked Gun franchise.
  • Nobody knows what the first e-mail message ever sent was, because Ray Tomlinson, the man who invented modern e-mail and who sent the first e-mail was adamant that he didn’t think to save these historic messages, and really did forget what he sent.  Tomlinson invented e-mail as a side project, and it was his idea to separate the username and machine identifier with the “@”, which we still use today.
  • Hellcats of the Navy might be a fairly forgettable film in the annals of Hollywood history, but it is the only film to feature Ronald Reagan and future first lady Nancy Reagan (then, Nancy Davis).  Nancy is not fondly remembered for spending a lot on new White House china and dresses during a recession, and for her consultation with psychics, however, she can be credited with helping to ease Cold War tensions.  Nancy was personally responsible for putting together the state dinner which hosted Mikhail and Raisa Gorbachov, and she invited Van Clyburn to play the popular “Moscow Nights“, which reportedly had the Gorbachovs singing along by the end.
  • George Martin is one of a select number of people who can claim the title “The Fifth Beatle” … he did a lot of work for the Fab Four including production of their studio albums, and helping them arrange their work (given the lack of formal music education that the band had).  “Yesterday” is one of the Beatles’ best songs, but it was Martin who added the string quartet that gave it that real soulful feel.  Would “Penny Lane” quite be as playful without the quirky piccolo trumpet in the background?  Martin added that too.  Martin has been busy up to the end, working with all kinds of musicians … but, how do you top what he did for the Beatles?!
  • When the legendary Bill Veeck ended up selling the White Sox in 1980, the Vice-Chairman of the Board under new ownership leader Jerry Reinsdorf was Eddie Einhorn, and while Reinsdorf has emerged in the subsequent decades as the more well known name, early on, Einhorn was the bigger name of the two leaders.  Einhorn was a pioneer in televising collegiate basketball, and created the first network dedicated to covering the sport before becoming head of CBS Sports.  In addition to heading up the negotiating committee for Major League Baseball on TV deals in the early 1990s, he also was put in charge of the Olympic TV coverage.  While unlikely to make it to Cooperstown, Einhorn was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011.
  • Ken Howard, in addition to being a long time head of the major actor’s union in Hollywood, starred as a former Chicago Bull who went on to coach basketball at an inner city LA high school on the series The White Shadow.  Prior to playing a hoopster from Chicago, he was most famous for playing a farmer from Virginia … he created the role of Thomas Jefferson on stage in the musical 1776, and then reprised the role on film.
  • When Garry Shandling arrived in Hollywood, he started with writing before getting in front of the camera.  The first script he sold was to Sanford and Son (he ended up writing four episodes of the landmark comedy).  When he started on the LA comedy circuit, he made friends with another up and coming comic named Jerry Seinfeld, and supposedly the Seinfeld episode “The Bookstore” is based on a Shandling story.
  • Patty Duke, like Ken Howard, spent time running the Screen Actors Guild.  When Duke won the Oscar for playing Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker, she was the youngest person to win a competitive Oscar, and even today only Tatum O’Neal and Anna Paquin have won the trophy at a younger age.  What a lot of people have forgotten was that, at age 15, she was called before the Congressional committee investigating the rigging of quiz shows (Duke had won $32,000 on The $64,000 Question when she was 12).  She broke down in tears, admitting the producers had coached her on answers before the show.  The investigation of The $64,000 Question eventually led to the more famous investigation of the show Twenty-One.
  • Joan Marie Laurer was fluent in French, German, and Spanish, had a degree in Spanish Literature from the University of Tampa, spent time in Guatemala with the Peace Corps … all things more or less forgotten about when she adopted the name Chyna, and became one of the biggest female stars in professional wrestling.
  • If you happened to catch any of Rick James’ 1980 Fire It Up Tour, the best part was the warm up act.  Warming up for the Super Freak was the unknown Prince Rogers Nelson.  Keep in mind:  the single “Purple Rain” never made it to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 … but somehow, this number, did.  On a side note, according to a 2015 interview, Prince was the only artist who refused to give Weird Al Yankovic his blessing to parody his songs, and Al has honored this.
  • One of my favorite old science fiction films is George Pal’s 1960 adaptation of The Time Machine starring Alan Young as the Traveler.  Older fans know him as the human star of the TV series Mr. Ed, but to a younger generation, he spent most of the past 20 years as the voice of Scrooge McDuck.
  • Larry Holmes and Treveor Berbick, the last two fighters Muhammad Ali ever fought, are the only two fighters to beat Ali, whom Ali never defeated later on.
  • Gordie Howe was nicknamed “Mr. Hockey”.  He took his final professional shift on the ice for the IHL Detroit Vipers in 1997 at the age of 69.  He made his first NHL All-Star Team in 1948, and made his last one in 1980.  The Gordie Howe Hat Trick is accomplished whenever a player scores a goal, assists on a goal, and gets into a fight in the same game.  I think this means he was very good, and very tough.
  • In 2012, the Newberry Medal was awarded to the book Breaking Stalin’s Nose, which was written by Eugene Yelchin, the uncle of the tragically late portrayer of Checkov (Pavel, not Anton), Anton Yelchin.  Yelchin’s parents were figure skating coaches, and his father was the first coach of 2006 US Champion Sasha Cohen.
  • In 1976, the IOC decided to add women’s basketball to the Olympic program, and the US team won the first silver medal in the event.  More than a little ticked about not winning gold was the co-captain of that first women’s national team for the US, Trish Head.  Patricia (aka Trish, aka Pat) Head would marry Ross Summitt in 1980, and turned her career into one where losing was only an occasional thing.  In fact, Summitt was already named the new head coach at Tennessee when she took to the court in 1976 in the Olympics.  Her coaching salary was $250/month and she washed the one year old uniforms at home … they had been purchased with doughnut sales money.  Needless to say, thanks to people like Pat Summitt … female athletes don’t need to sell doughnuts to buy new uniforms.  Her career record was 1098-208; the most wins of any man or woman to coach collegiate basketball.  She led the US women’s team to Olympic gold in 1984 in Los Angeles, and in 38 seasons as had coach, her Lady Vols never had a losing season.
  • Michael Cimino will be known for two diametrically opposite films that he directed.  Heaven’s Gate, when filmed in 1980, was an unmitigated disaster.  It cost nearly $50 million to make, one of the most expensive films to that time, but the story of land disputes in 19th century Wyoming only grossed a little over $3 million.  The disaster was so bad, that the era of directors controlling their films came to an end in Hollywood (and United Artists, the studio Charlie Chaplin founded, went under as a result), and in came the modern era of suits and bean counters controlling films.  Before that, Cimino created his masterpiece: The Deer Hunter.  One of the first films to explore in depth the ravages of Vietnam on individuals, The Deer Hunter was the film that proved Robert DeNiro was no fluke actor.  It won Christopher Walken his Oscar, and served as the springboard to his entire career.  Little know actress Meryl Streep was told to write her own lines, since the role wasn’t that big (she did a good enough job to get nominated for the first of her umteen Oscars).  I choose to remember Cimino for this film (that, and he wrote Silent Running, which is also good).
  • What author would turn down Orson Welles to turn their book into a film?  Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel did.  He was convinced that turning Night into a movie would cost it its real meaning.  Wiesel dedicated his life to justice.  First, in doing what he could to make sure the horror and inhumanity that he had personally witnessed and lived in concentration camps would never be forgotten, and then fighting the very forces which seemed to continually nip and bite at humanity, trying to unleash the terror all over again … South Africa … Central America …. Asia.  He correctly saw that attacks against minorities were slippery slopes towards something far more sinister.
  • Once, he was a sports writer at Northwestern University, but later he moved to TV and gave us an adaptation of The Odd Couple.  He introduced the world to Ron Howard and Henry Winkler on his show Happy Days.  He introduced the wider world to a great standup comic named Robin Williams on the unlikely success of his Mork & Mindy.  He introduced the world to Julia Roberts when he directed Pretty Woman, and I will be eternally grateful for him introducing the world to Anne Hathway in The Princess Diaries.  He helped get Ron Howard started as a director, and even helped his own kid sister Penny get started as a director.  Garry Marshall was just really good at introducing people.  Hector Elizondo, whom Marshall put in almost all of his films, met and became friends while playing pickup basketball.
  • There have been many great film musicals … who can forget Marylin Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or Deborah Kerr in The King and I … Natalie Wood and Rita Moreno in West Side Story … all classics, but gifted actresses can’t always sing as well as directors want.  Sometimes an overdub is necessary, and in these cases, opera singer Marni Nixon was brought in to give the actresses a little help.  Nixon helped cover for more than a few actresses over the decades when hitting high notes was something too difficult.  She finally got to appear on screen in a substantive roll in The Sound of Music, playing Sister Sophia.
  • Before he became the man behind everyone’s favorite little droid, Kenny Baker was a stand up comic and performed in ice shows, two things his character, R2-D2, could not do.
  • Roger Tsien came from a family of scientists, and he hardly let them down!  He won the Nobel Prize for his work in developing green fluorescent protein, which allows scientists to tag material in biological systems and more easily track where it goes.  It is so common in science, even our high school students work with this now.  His father’s cousin, Tsien Hsue-Shen helped found the Jet Propulsion Lab, and then went to China and started their missile, nuclear, and space programs.
  • In 1963, the young Gene Wilder was starring on Broadway in the decidedly unfunny Mother Courage and Her Children where he starred opposite actress Anne Bancroft.  Bancroft, in turn, introduced Wilder to her boyfriend, Mel Brooks.  Thus a very un-funny anti-war play by a German dramatist led to some of the greatest comedy ever put to film.
  • Hugh O’Brian was an actor who starred in the successful 1950s TV series The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp and starred along side John Wayne in the film The Shootist, but he will likely not be remembered for that.  Back during a hiatus on the TV series, O’Brian traveled to Africa, and spent nine days working with Albert Schweitzer.  Motivated by that visit, O’Brian started the Hugh O’Brian Young Leadership  Foundation, which is a still operating non-profit that tries to instill in young people leadership qualities and a sense of need to improve the world around them.  One of his last film roles was playing one of the men who helped to father the title twosome played by Danny deVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Twins.
  • Arnold Palmer won a lot of golf (but never the PGA Championship), but was also a shrewd businessman.  In addition to selling a lot of cans of iced tea and lemonade, Palmer helped to design golf courses … over 300 of them on every populated continent except Africa, including the first golf course in the People’s Republic of China.
  • Shimon Peres was an early leader in the Israeli defense sector.  He negotiated the first deals to get Israel advanced fighters from France and advanced missiles from the US (he also established the Dimona nuclear plant, which has totally not been used to develop non-existent nuclear weapons which Israel totally doesn’t have).  In addition to helping plan the Suez War, he gave the go ahead to send Israeli troops into Uganda to end the Entebbe hijacking. However, as Prime Minster, Peres managed to sign the Oslo Accords with Palestinian leadership, and formally concluded an ongoing cold war with Jordan, and that is why a guy who spent a lot of his time hip deep in weapons won a Nobel Peace Prize.
  • Leonard Cohen dedicated his 1992 album, The Future, to his then girlfriend who helped produce the album for him.  That girlfriend was actress Rebecca De Mornay, likely best known for playing the prostitute whom Tom Cruise works with in Risky Business.
  • Robert Vaughn, likely best known for playing the lead Napoleon Solo in the 1960s TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E, earned a legit PhD, earning it in communications from UCLA based on a thesis about the blacklisting of communists in Hollywood during the Cold War.  I think the most amazing thing  about Vaughn is that his filmography includes his first role, two uncredited appearances in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, as well as the 2001 film Pootie Tang.
  • Back in the 1950s while representing Wisconsin’s 7th District in the House of Representatives, Melvin Laird‘s name ended up on a list written by Dwight Eisenhower as one of the ten men in the country who would make the best president.  His first legacy was in Congress as he pushed for more and more money geared toward the public health service to not simply go toward aide, but toward research, and thus generations of US health research owes him a huge debt.  He left Congress to spend four years as Richard Nixon’s first Secretary of Defense … which as you might note was at the height of that little unpleasantness in Southeast Asia.  Laird was often at odds with Nixon, as Laird wanted to get US troops out as soon as possible, and it was Lard who coined the term “Vietnamization” as a way to push this point.  He wasn’t asked back because Nixon needed to drag the war out until after he was re-elected, but that also meant Laird was clear of the White House when Watergate took down most of the administration.
  • Even in fiction, if you are mother to six kids in 1960s suburban LA, chances are you are Catholic, and while the Brady’s faith never came up, Florence Henderson was pretty Catholic.  Her last interview was with the St. Anthony Messenger, and throughout her professional career, the Benedictine nuns of rural Indiana who were her first teachers were one of her primary charities whom she went out to fundraise for.
  • When the attacks of 9/11 took place, and the Untied States was in the midst of shutting down air travel in and out and through the country, one of the first world leaders to offer help on this matter … el Comandante himself, Fidel Castro, who offered to allow US jets to land in Cuba without interference.  Love him or hate him, the man outlived every American president who tried to stop him, and when communism collapsed in Europe, he still kept things rolling along in Cuba.  To Castro’s credit, in keeping with his wishes, the Cuban government now has a law banning the erecting of any statues, art works or the naming of any places for Castro.  In the end, unlike a lot of dictators, he opposed the cult of personality.
  • Abe Vigoda wasn’t the only cast member from Barney Miller who died this year. Ron Glass, who played Detective Ron Harris also died.  To science fiction fans, Glass will be remembered for playing the Christian Shepherd Derrial Book on the short lived cult series Firefly.  This role as a preacher might have been the role he was most prepared for … he attended St. Francis Seminary in Cincinnati before studying drama at the University of Evansville.
  • The first Asian-American to win Olympic Gold for the US was a diver named Sammy Lee.  Lee won two golds in diving at the 1948 and 1952 Olympics, and was good enough to win the 1953 Sullivan Award given to the outstanding amateur athlete in the United States … he was the first diver to win that award.  After diving, Lee dodged a lot of anti-Asian prejudice in the 1940s and 50s but earned his medical degree, but also went into coaching.  His best student, who even lived with his family for a while – Greg Louganis!
  • The Distinguished Flying Cross is one of the highest honors given to military pilots for heroism and extraordinary achievement while in flight.  John Glenn earned six of them.  When the film The Right Stuff came out in 1983, Glenn, who was running for the 1984 Democratic nomination for president was nervous because Tom Wolfe had painted him in a poor light in the book, but Ed Harris’ portrayal was much more positive, and his campaign started playing that up after the movie came out.  Glenn went over $3 million in debt from that unsuccessful campaign, but he eventually paid back that debt over the next 20 years.
  • Thomas Schelling was a Nobel Laureate in Economics for his work on competition and game theory.  Like a lot of mathematicians, Schelling started applying his work to other fields, particularly the arms race of the Cold War.  Director Stanley Kubrick read an interview with Schelling in which the mathematician mentioned the novel Red Alert.  Kubrick was intrigued, and between conversation with Schelling, and reading the book, Dr. Strangelove was born!  Later, in 1961, Schelling invented the term “collateral damage”, a term that has entered the common lexicon.
  • TV shows get measured by audience rating, and one of the lowest rated shoes in history was one of the first attempts to go nose-to-nose with Johnny Carson.  That was the syndicated Thicke of the Night talk show hosted by Canadian Alan Thicke.  Thicke did not dethrone Carson, but a year later, Growing Pains premiered, so all was well.  And yes, Thicke also composed theme songs like this one, this one, and even this one.  Like any great Canadian, he died with family nearby while playing hockey, so he has that going for him!
  • Marching band drum majors occasionally go on to do great things, and one former drum major for Cornell’s marching band saved a lot of lives.  Yeah, he invented a portable oxygen system and a new valve to drain the chest cavity of blood, but none of those saved lives like some sharp thrusts to the gut.  Dr. Henry Heimlich may have ended up saving countless lives by popularizing his abdominal thrust technique to save choking victims.  In fact, the first person who may have been saved by the Heimlich Maneuver came about one week after Heimlich’s paper was published and quickly popularized in the press by a restaurant owner in Bellevue, Washington.
  • Officer Paul Kramer became famous in 1989 when he pulled over Zsa Zsa Gabor and she ended up slapping him.  In addition to the assault, she had an open bottle of Jack Daniels in the car, and despite the judge trying to let her off with community service, she would have none of that, and ended up spending three days in jail as a result.  If you ever wonder where Paris Hilton and her ilk get it from, keep in mind that Zsa Zsa had a public affair with her own step son, Conrad Hilton, Junior, (Conrad Hilton, Sr. was the second of Zsa Zsa’s nine husbands), and Conrad, Jr left his step mother for a more stable relationship … he became the first of Elizabeth Taylor’s seven husbands.
  • Back in the 1950’s literature was becoming more and more modernized as the world took notice of the explosion in technology, but in the 1960s there was a turn back toward nature, and one of the books that did that was written by an Assistant Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government.  The book was about a bunch of rabbits named Watership Down, and its writer was Richard Adams.  Adams took his role with animals seriously – he worked closely on anti-fur campaigns with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and a later book, The Plague Dogs, attacked cruelty in animal testing.
  • I am not a fan (nor hater) of George Michael, but was shocked to see that between his solo career and his career with Deadpool’s favorite band, Wham!, he had 11 #1 hits on the Billboard hot 100.  The only single that earned George a Grammy was “I Knew You Were Waiting”, a duet he did with Arethra Franklin.
  • No one should out live their children, and yet the year ended with a daughter nad mother dying so close together: Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher.  They both had rough lives, but a lot of triumphs too.  In the 1970s when the golden age studios were going under and were selling off everything, Debbie Reynolds invested heavily in film memorabilia, and ended up saving a lot of classic Hollywood history.  Among other things, she had a set of tuxedos worn by the Rat Pack, a pair of ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, that white dress that gets blown upwards on Marylin Monroe in The Seven Year Itch, one of Charlie Chaplin’s bowler hats, and one of Elizabeth Taylor’s dresses from Cleopatra.  She ended up buying a hotel in Vegas to display one of the largest collections of film artifacts (and to give herself a place to sing and make money).  She eventually sold the collection, but not before preserving it, and making a tidy profit.  Oddly missing from that collection was anything from Star Wars.  Carrie inherited her mother’s bipolar condition, and drug use didn’t help.  She did manage to get sober, but a binge in 1985 got her into the hospital.  That episode in her life  became the basis for her first autobiographical book, Postcards form the Edge.  When turned into a movie, Meryl Streep played Carrie and got an Oscar nod for the role.  To her credit, she, like her mom, became one of the biggest voices in speaking about mental health, and that’s far from a bad legacy.
  • When the TV series M*A*S*H ended, the warmhearted Fr. Mulcahy, who had recently lost most of his hearing, said he would spend his post-war time ministering to the deaf.  The real William Christopher who played the boxing padre from Chicago’s Loyola University followed a similar vein … one of his sons is autistic, and long before autism was being spoken about, Christopher was an advocate for more research and more compassion for a lot of people who were grossly misunderstood by medicine and society in general.

Farewell …

December 27, 2016

The movie Hook has a huge star-studded cast.  Quite a few of them had small parts like Phil Collins who was a police inspector and David Crosby, Jimmy Buffett, and even Glenn Close as pirates.  Very young Gwyneth Paltrow played young Wendy.  But two of the bigger stars were uncredited, and not really seen up close.


As Julia Robert’s Tinkerbell is carrying Robin William’s grown up Peter Pan to Neverland, they pass over a bridge, and some fairy dust falls on a pair of lovers engaged in a long embrace and kiss … and they begin to levitate off of the bridge.  They were played by a friend of Steven Spielberg and the film’s script doctor … the person called in to fix the problems with the script.

That was George Lucas and Carrie Fischer.

I had the chance a few years ago to catch Fischer’s Wishful Drinking show on HBO.  It is funny, and cathartic for someone who has gone through a lot … a lot of break up and drugs, and some mental health issues on top of that.  Rather than hide, she actually talked about it.  It is self-deprecating, a bit introspective, and pretty darn funny.

Here’s a clip focusing on her association with Star Wars, Lucas, the odd downsides of fame, and signing away the rights to her image at age 19 … She doesn’t hold back, and I suspect that part of this was as much for her personal well-being as it was simply funny to listen to.  My favorite quote:  “George Lucas, ruined my life … I mean that in the nicest possible way.”


College cracking down …

December 12, 2016

The narrative, and it is hardly an undeserved one, is that certain groups of college athletes, particularly football and basketball players, have the run of the place.   Many schools give them special tutors to help them with classes, and they often times eat separately from the rest of students, and in addition to top flight facilities and work out equipment that the rest of the students don’t get to use, they often get private accommodations on campus .. in addition to a largely free education that the rest of us pay tens of thousands of dollars for.  On the one hand, that’s a sweet deal, on the other, those kids are often working much longer hours and are risking debilitating injury in some cases.

There is another aspect of, particularly. men’s athletics .. hat being that the jock gets the girl!  Nothing wrong with that, unless it is the jock forcing himself on the girl.  For that, you would think there would be some serious punishment, but for many years male athletes could get away with this as coaches and school officials hushed things up.  Certainly, we know that sometimes those athletes are falsely accused (Duke lacrosse), but I think we also know that in some substantially large percent of cases, those accusations are real.

Just this year, Baylor is under a huge cloud because of its football team.  Harvard shut down its men’s cross country and soccer teams for following the example of the soon to be occupant of the White House.  Columbia shut down the wrestling team for the same reason.

But let’s face it … none of those programs is particularly well known (maybe Baylor football …. but note they aren’t shut down).  But a major shut down has finally come … not in athletics … but in music.

From the school that gave you the world famous prison experiment, the Leland Stanford, Jr. University Marching Band.  That’s right … the “band is on the field” band.

For those not in the know … a long time ago, the Stanford Marching Band was a normal marching band, but one day their beloved director got fired and the students took it upon themselves to rebel.  On the plus side, they became a very happy-go-lucky, relaxed, pop music based band that was a reaction to the harsh discipline of regular marching bands (I mean, Stanford is a pretty academically demanding environment, I would say the kids were right in wanting to have some fun).  This was all good!  Most of the real marching bands from schools like the Big-10 and PAC-12 don’t consider them a real band … and they have not been invited to competitions and get-togethers with other bands.  They’re like that one bad kid on the block who never gets invited over because none of the parents want him there.

The problem was that over time they really started stretching things a bit, and in a few cases made their halftime shows less fun and more openly mocking of their opponents.

There was the time they were at the University of Oregon and did an anti-logging, pro spotted owl routine…

… the time they did the show with the cows when Stanford played Iowa in the Rose Bowl (that is the first video up there) …

…. the time they played BYU and did a show with seven girls in wedding dressers called “Seven Brides for one Brother” ….

… the time they made fun of the whole priest sex abuse scandal in a show vs. Notre Dame (this included the drum major dressing as a nun, and conducting the band with a large crucifix) …

… then there was the other Notre Dame show entitled “These Irish, Why must they fight?”  It included jokes about the potato famine as part of the announcements …

… the time two members of the band decided to relieve themselves in a corner of the field while waiting to go on (as was explained later … they were pretty drunk, so no big deal) …

… and the time they recreated the O.J. Simpson white Bronco chase while playing at USC (O.J.’s alma mater) … that was after a small group of them set up shop outside the court house during jury selection to play “She’s Not There” to the assembled masses …

The band got … banned from many places (including the entire state of Oregon) for a time.  The university had their backs, and they must have started to think they were untouchable … kind of like all of those football players and other athletes.

It seems, however, the buck has finally stopped. After a few years which have involved issues swirling around drugs and alcohol related hazing, and sexual harassment also as a part of hazing that seemingly has not gone away, Stanford may have finally dropped the final shoe.  The band is now suspended for the rest of the year, and Stanford has announced they are hiring an honest to goodness professional band director to take over the reigns of this group.

I’m not even sure who would take that job?  Taking on responsibility for 200 college kids is one thing … taking on responsibility for a group that has made it a point to act rebellious is a whole other thing.  My guess would be many members of the band would not return to work unless there was some latitude to continue being … funny?

Why all of a sudden?  In the band’s  case, this may have been a long time in coming, but in Stanford’s case, their reputation is seriously on the line.  You may recall last year the trial of a swimmer from Stanford, Brock Turner, who was found guilty of assault and sexual penetration of a woman who was unconscious.  Whether this is overblown or underblown, the problem is that more and more universities are seen as dangerous places for women, with predators around every corner.  Schools must make it clear that this behavior isn’t tolerated, and that students will be safe.  Thus, schools are far more willing than before to jump to major sanctions on students or groups when there is suspicion they are not respecting the rules of respecting sexuality (and that includes alcohol and drugs which may put people into bad situations).  Consider this:  Indiana recently passed a prohibition on all hard liquor at fraternity parties.  Dartmouth outlawed hard liquor outright.  Stanford had already passed a ban on hard liquor bottles over a certain quantity …

I can remember 25+ years ago at Illinois … all women were given whistles, the rules were simple:  you didn’t travel alone at night, you didn’t drink anything unless you saw it poured from a container you saw opened in front of you, don’t trust fraternity boys.  There were certainly crimes committed, but perhaps we didn’t hear a lot about them, or we just were pretty safe back then.  Maybe it is awareness that has changed?

An era ends …

December 8, 2016

When I was in second grade, I won a contest sponsored by a realty company, and I drew a nice picture of the moon being sold by that company, which may or may not be legal, but almost certainly not recognized by any nation.  As a reward, I got to meet Wally Schirra.  Schirra was likely the least well known of the Mercury 7 astronauts, and like many astronauts got to trade on their heroic status as pilot and space farer to get some opportunities in business.  I didn’t care.  I met an honest to goodness real live genuine astronaut who had traveled into space (in fact, he commanded Sigma 7 of the Mercury Program, Gemini VI and Apollo VIII, becoming the first astronaut to command three different space missions).  That was a great day.

In contrast, while fewer people knew of Wally Schirra, billions knew the name John Glenn.

Glenn was the walking embodiment of just about everything that was America.  Heck, they could have replaced Uncle Sam with John Glenn, and I think few would have objected.  He was a lean mean US Marine pilot who saw combat duty who quit college shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and saw further combat in Korea where, for a time, his wingman was Ted Williams.  Ted Williams flying with John Glenn.  That was an amazing pairing!

He later became a test pilot, and became the first man to complete a supersonic transcontinental flight across the United States.

Despite all of this combat experience and tempting danger, he was a great looking guy, with a warm demeanor.  He appeared on an early version of Name that Tune.  Heck, in his later years he appeared on the TV series Frasier.  When the marionette show Thunderbirds was created, John Tracy was named for John Glenn.

Glenn flew the first US orbital flight, Friendship 7.  The previous flights has been named Freedom 7 (as a contrast to Soviet flights) and Liberty Bell 7 (because Gus Grissom was a funny guy, and painted a “crack” on the capsule), but Glenn wanted a name that was more welcoming to the people of the world.

Glenn left NASA, largely disappointed with the politics of the Administration, and entered into business and politics.  He spent 24 years representing Ohio in the Senate, and in 1984, ran for the Democratic nomination for president.  It took him over 15 years to pay off his campaign debt, but he did pay it off.  Glenn nearly became vice-president under Jimmy Carter in 1976, but when he failed to impress folks with his still developing political acumen, Walter Mondale got the call.

Glenn retired from the Senate in 1998, the same year he got the call for his second trip to space aboard USS Discovery.  There are varying stories that range from Glenn called in a bunch of favors to get this, to NASA had been planning for an elderly astronaut with space experience to compare early and later data, and that Glenn happened to be the best candidate.  I dunno.  Whatever it was, Glenn sparked interest in space again as he returned to orbit.

Glenn had his drawbacks.  In the early 1960s, he testified before Congress against permitting women to fly in space.  He later changed his tune, and supported the careers of some women who became astronauts.  While in the Senate, he was one of the “Keating Five” who got caught accepting donations from Charles Keating, who may have been trying to influence senators over an investigation of his mismanagement of Lincoln Savings and Loan.  Three of the senators were found guilty of ethics violations to different degrees.  Only Glenn and John McCain got off the hook.

Glenn’s greatest triumph:  his wife Annie was at his side when he died.  They had been married 73 years.  If you ever get to see the great film The Right Stuff, John and Annie were played by Ed Harris (his first really big role) and Mary Jo Deschanel (mother of Zooey).  One of the more factual aspects captured in the film is Annie’s stuttering problem.  For a guy where public image was everything, it took tremendous resolve and a lot of love to not turn on his wife (or for her to turn on him).  For the record, she spent time as an adjunct professor in the Department of Speech Pathology at Ohio State.  The pair were inseparable.  When Ohio State named a street after John, it was “Annie and John Glenn Avenue”.  And when Glenn got his most unique honor, he and his wife shared in the glory

Over 500 people have gone into space … only about 15 non-band members have ever gotten to dot the “i”.

One day, we will be working in space and hopefully preparing for the colonization of the solar system.  Looking back, Glenn and his fellow Mercury 7 astronauts (including the heroic men and woman of the Soviet cosmonaut corps) will be seen as the real trailblazers who took the first tentative steps into space … strapping themselves onto massive tanks of explosives, and hoping the engineers were all having good days during construction, mounting, and testing.

Amazingly, while Glenn was a politician, he seemed to fly above most politics.  since retirement, he has steered clear of giving opinions and prognostications.  It is rare that you will find him bad mouthing someone.  Perhaps the best thing you can say about him:  he would not have fit in with today’s politics.

At age 95, Glenn was the last of the Mercury 7 astronauts.  This means of the Mercury 7 and the Vanguard 6 (the original Soviet Cosmonauts), only Valery Bykovsky who flew Vostok 5 remains of the earliest generations of star/space voyagers.

As Scott Carpenter said to him as Friendship 7 cleared the tower … Godspeed, John Glenn!

Man, has 2016 just sucked the worst … and there are still 3 weeks to go!


Another example of charter schools screwing over everyone

December 7, 2016

Not all charter schools are bad or evil or attempts at a money grab, but more and more evidence is emerging that there is a startling high number of these schools that are part of the problem, and not the solution.  Today, let’s look at the UNO Charter Schools.

According to investigative journalists at the Chicago Sun-Times, the UNO Charter schools are a major problem.

UNO (United Neighborhood Organization) started a very long time ago as a way to unite the Latino community in Chicago and give the growing community some political leverage.  It worked, and there is no problem with that.

Political organizations, however, need money to push clout around, and Juan Rangel, the leader of UNO, saw a golden opportunity to make a lot of money by getting into the charter school business.  Thus, the UNO Charter School Network (UCSN) was born.  With each school, the Chicago Public Schools, and state of Illinois forked over tens of millions of dollars to the charter network … or so most people thought.

First, the board that governed UNO (the political entity) and the UCSN was, until recently, one and the same.  Rangel didn’t really make any money running UNO, but he made US$250,000 as head of the UCSN.  Running schools is also difficult, and most charter school networks will pay for a group to come in and manage the schools.  While some charters will hopefully get a company with people with experience in running schools, that is not a legal requirement.  UCSN hired … UNO to run its schools, and UNO made vast fortunes off of this.

UNO, as a non-profit community group, also managed to get Springfield to sen $98 million dollars to them to build new schools.  UNO then turned around and sold them to … UCSN for a nice profit.

To recap:  taxpayers gave a non-profit money to build schools.  They also gave a charter school network money to run schools.  The charters then gave money to the non-profit to buy the schools, and then manage them.  In the end, the tax payers were out well over US$100 million and counting, while the political non-profit got a whopping huge amount of taxpayer money.

Just for giggles, it should be noted that Juan Rangel was Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s campaign co-chairman when he first ran for office in Chicago.

What has finally happened is that the organization and the charters are finally separated, bu not before Rangel ran up huge credit card bills for restaurants and travel … and no one seems to be sure if he was using taxpayer money intended for the school (though he almost certainly was).

You can find school administrators and teachers who have abused their positions before.  Marcella Sills of New York is the poster child for this.  However, you also note that there aren’t that many stories that pop up about this kind of abuse in public schools.  A vast majority are run as responsibly as they can, balancing the needs of students (and often times teachers in concert with that) and tax payers (some of whom would rather keep their money and not fund any schools).  Charter networks, on the other hand have, by definition, far less oversight, and have access to far more taxpayer money.  The push to wards charters starts with a call for greater accountability of schools, yet, without realizing things, there is now far less accountability, all the while the public schools see less money causing people to demand action when the schools need to let go of staff, and then don’t produce what the public wants (higher test scores, more kids who can code, happy kids, kids who can write cursive … no one really knows).

Given proper oversight, which will likely cost even more money, charter schools might be able to do some good in very particular circumstances … but the push to add more needs to be checked.  Thank goodness the biggest supporter of charter schools, the NAACP, has finally seen the errors of their ways, and are pushing for a moratorium.