Monday, April 05, 2010

Pop History Moment: The Explosion At Ripple Rock

On this day in 1958 a sizable portion of the Canadian viewing public watched, transfixed, as one of the first coast-to-coast television broadcasts in the country's history showed them the destruction of Ripple Rock, near the Vancouver Island community of Campbell River...

Essentially an underwater mountain in the Seymour Narrows of British Columbia's Discovery Passage - at low tide a mere 2.7 meters (9 feet) underwater - Ripple Rock represented a major threat to shipping, and the area where it was situated was even described by Captain George Vancouver as 'one of vilest stretches of water in the world'. Since much of the province's mainland coastline isn't connected to the Port of Vancouver by road, residents of Haida Gwaii and cities like Prince Rupert then (as now) relied on coastal freighters for much of their food and other vital consumer items.

Ripple Rock's appetite for boats is borne out by the historical record; beginning in 1875 with the side-wheel steamer Saranac 20 large and 100 smaller vessels were either badly damaged or sunk by it at a cost of at least 110 lives. As early as 1931 a Marine Commission called for a solution to the problem; given the pace of bureaucracy, it wasn't until 1942 that the government approved its removal. The National Research Council of Canada undertook a feasibility study to consider the problem in 1953, and beginning in November 1955 a two and a half year effort to mine Ripple Rock with explosives via a 762 meter horizontal shaft began...

At 9:31:02 am 635,000 metric tons of rock and water were displaced by 1,270 metric tons of Nitramex 2H, which increased the clearing at low tide to about 14 meters (45 feet). Authorities cleared the blast zone to a radius of 3 km, and the camera operators who captured the historic images shown above were housed within a bunker when they did. The blast was felt as far away as Vancouver, and rained debris down from a maximum height of 300 m, some of which struck land on either side of the strait.

Fifty years later to the second the city of Campbell River commemorated the blast by recreating it with the aid of a special effects company; over the intervening years the event had been the subject of two songs - one by folk singer Stu Davis and another by Vancouver punk legends The Evaporators, whose 2004 third album Ripple Rock featured a song by that name.
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Gratuitous Brunette: Haruma Miura

In the interest of full disclosure I must say that I'd never heard of Haruma Miura until research uncovered his name, and further research revealed he'd be a suitable candidate for Gratuitous Brunette...

PhotobucketStill, seeing as the Pop Culture Institute's agenda supports a fair and equitable globalization* it only seems right to highlight a multi-talented actor and singer (formerly with J-pop sensations Brash Brats) from Japan rather than using this space to witter on about some one-hit wonder from the Eighties who just happens to be from the UK.

Born on this day in 1990, Miura's career began when he was just 5; alas, my complete ignorance of Japanese culture - not to mention my inability to read the language - means that all I'm able to glean about him is from his woefully inadequate English-language Wikipedia page.

If you speak Japanese you might want to check out his official website, or if you are a fan of that manga-esque stuff that makes me feel slightly uneasy you might want to leave a comment.

*Translation: Don't care where it gets hits from.
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Remembering... Howard Hughes

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While a more standard news outlet might report that on this day in 1976 Howard Hughes died, there's very little that's standard about the Pop Culture Institute; here we'd be more likely to debate precisely when the handsome and dashing aviator known as Howard Hughes died and was replaced by the agoraphobic Howard Hughes who was scared witless of germs. Nevertheless, it's a debate which could continue for years...
As long ago as the early 1930s Hughes was displaying symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder with regards to the size of peas on his dinner plate; as a film producer he was a micro-managing control freak (even more than usual), often overlooking the quality of the picture as a whole in favour of fixating on some minor flaw in costuming, for instance, as he did during production of The Outlaw. By 1947 he'd taken to locking himself away from the world, surrounded only by a few flunkies to whom he issued variable and complicated instructions; for the most part he would spend the last 30 years of his life in such a reclusive state, using his vast wealth to insulate himself from everyone and everything.
Certainly, he'd survived numerous plane crashes - including that of the XF-11 in July 1946 - which left Hughes addicted to various pain medications, but he may also have been susceptible to a hereditary mental illness which, given the judgements and pharmaceuticals of the day, no one at the time could have done anything to allay...

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"Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight)" - ABBA

Birthday gal slash pop goddess Agnetha Fältskog today turns 60; formerly one-quarter of Sweden's own ABBA - along with Björn Ulvaeus, Anni-Frid Lyngstad, and Benny Andersson - she later had a less successful solo career. Still, how does one top the massive success of a group like ABBA?

Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight) originally appeared on a 1979 greatest hits compilation, as well as on their later album ABBA Gold, and is a must-have for ABBA fans; it was later, of course, heavily sampled as the basis for Madonna's massive hot single Hung Up.

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In Memoriam: Bette Davis


It's no secret that Bette Davis - born on this day in 1908 - is pretty much considered a goddess around the Pop Culture Institute; more than a dozen of her movies reside in the collection, and among actors she takes up the most space* in the stacks as well, with a half-dozen titles of biography and autobiography of varying qualities devoted to her life and work. Despite this she made more than 80 movies from her screen debut in 1931 to her death in October 1989, and has been the subject of at least a dozen books, which makes our cozy little selection representative, but far from complete.

Yet what's here is choice; to my way of thinking, if one can't have it all one should at least strive to have the best. Among the books, this means her two memoirs - The Lonely Life, written at mid-career (with Sanford Dody), and This 'N That, written near the end (with Michael Herskowitz) - and a pseudo-memoir entitled Mother Goddam. Of these three, the first two are fairly standard actressy memoirs - fairly candid, breezy in tone, with the occasional barbed anecdote for the fans (Miriam Hopkins was a bitch!); the third represents an innovation in celebrity biography which was simply too good an idea to catch on - interspersed with Whitney Stine's brisk, interesting narrative are passages by Miss Davis herself (which in the original were printed in red ink!). All three are preserved here in more or less their initial hardcover incarnations.

Also included in our collection are a slim but fact-filled volume from a series Illustrated History of the Movies (written by Jerry Vermilye), a middling biography by Barbara Leaming, and another somewhat better-than-middling biography by Charles Higham (which happens to be the first book I ever read about her, at the age of 13). Rounding out the literary side of the collection is a poisonous hatchet job written by Davis' daughter B. D. Hyman, entitled My Mother's Keeper, which is dreck, but entertaining dreck nonetheless. Recently I've been sniffing around a new bio by the thorough (and thoroughly hunky) Ed Sikov; there's another, by the Higham-esque James Spada, which might conceivably join its colleagues someday.

Yet reading about Bette Davis - whether in her 'own' words (that is to say the words of her ghost-writer) or even those of a slavishly devoted fan like Whitney Stine - simply does not do; she must be seen and heard and her performances felt to be fully understood. Selecting a favourite movie of hers is a challenge I normally don't like to undertake, even as a parlour game; for the purposes of this blog, though, I'd have to give the edge to 1937's Marked Woman, a brisk, timely melodrama in the best old-school Warner Bros. tradition. Also in the collection of the Pop Culture Institute are Of Human Bondage, The Petrified Forest, Jezebel, and Dark Victory from the 1930s, as well as The Letter, The Little Foxes, The Man Who Came to Dinner, Now, Voyager, All About Eve, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, and The Whales of August.

Watching her transformation over 50 years from a pop-eyed mass of neuroses in her earliest films to a soigne sophisticate at the height of her career to a monstre sacree on the long trek to immortality is not only the best biography of the woman-as-actress but also offers a striking insight into the parallel transformation of the actress-in-Hollywood as well.

*Space which is becoming increasingly coveted, I might add.

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Remembering... Nigel Hawthorne

As prestigious as the thea-tah may be, for shallow people such as myself, television is where it's at; where else, for instance, could I have discovered the genius that is Nigel Hawthorne if he'd only ever deigned to tread the boards? Especially since I only ever get to the National Theatre when I visit London, which is, uh, never. (Not that I'm bitter about that either. Much.)

PhotobucketA n y w a y... Born on this day in 1929, Hawthorne's portrayal of Sir Humphrey Appleby - the quintessential civil servant - in the timeless sitcom Yes Minister just goes to show you what can happen when real acting talent and the reach of mass media collide; wrapping his honeyed voice around mouthfuls of bureaucratic gobbledygook, Hawthorne's portrayal was equal parts charm and smarm, and left audiences absolutely certain of who's really in charge of the government*. Thanks to brilliant scripts, a strong ensemble, and his own gifts, both he and the show became internationally renowned.

In later years he continued to tackle meaty dramatic roles, playing such historical figures as George, Duke of Clarence, in the stylish film version of Richard III (1995), as well as George III in both the stage and film versions of Alan Bennett's seriocomic play The Madness of King George (onscreen opposite Helen Mirren, playing yet another Queen, in this case Charlotte). He also played Martin Van Buren in Steven Spielberg's ambitious epic Amistad (1997).

Always intensely private, in the last years of his life he was outed; despite his discomfort with the way it was done, he proceeded to give interviews on the subject, and even attended the 67th Annual Academy Awards in 1995 with his partner Trevor Bentham (only to lose the Oscar for The Madness of King George). Awarded the CBE in 1987, he became Sir Nigel in 1999. Hawthorne died of a heart attack in December 2001, while battling pancreatic cancer; his memoirs, published posthumously, are entitled Straight Face.

*The good news is, it's not the politicians; the bad news is, it's not the politicians.
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Pop History Moment: The Battle of the Ice

During the Battle of the Ice - which took place on this day in 1242 on Russia's Lake Peipus - Alexander Nevsky rebuffed an invasion attempt by the Livonian Order, a branch of the Teutonic Knights commanded by Hermann of Dorpat; Nevsky's victory was a significant setback for Roman Catholic forces during the Northern Crusades and probably saved the Russian Orthodox Church from destruction.

In the 1939 film Alexander Nevsky by Sergei Eisenstein (with a thrilling score by Sergei Prokofiev) two medieval armies meet and attempt to do battle for nothing less than men's souls; while thrilling, the film's timely overtones - coming, as they did, on the eve of World War II - somewhat distorted the historical record.
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POPnews - April 5th

[Jacob Roggeveen had been discharged with finding Terra Australis at the helm of a three-ship convoy - consisting of the Arend, the Thienhoven, and Afrikaansche Galey - when he accidentally encountered an island known to its residents as Rapa Nui on Easter Sunday 1722; the ships were greeted by as many as 3,000 natives and some mysterious sculptures known as moai...]

1566 - 200 Dutch noblemen, led by Hendrik van Brederode, forced their way into the presence of the country's regent - Margaret of Parma - and presented her with their Petition of Compromise, denouncing the Inquisition in the Netherlands; the Inquisition was subsequently suspended there and a delegation was sent to Spain to petition Philip II, although van Brederode himself was banished by the governor, the ruthless Duke of Alba.

1614 - Pocahontas married English colonist John Rolfe at Henricus, a plantation up river from Jamestown Settlement, after which they settled on their own property at Varina Farms.

1621 - Captain Christopher Jones left the Plymouth Colony aboard the Mayflower and returned to England.

1722 - The Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen became the first European to visit Easter Island.

1792 - The presidential veto power was first exercised when President George Washington vetoed the Apportionment Bill (on the grounds that it was unconstitutional); the Bill was designed to apportion representatives among the several states following a census (in this instance, that of 1790). Congress overrode this veto and the bill subsequently passed.

1804 - The High Possil Meteorite - Scotland's first recorded meteorite, and one of only four in that country's history - fell in High Possil, to the north of Glasgow (where it now resides, in the collection of the Hunterian Museum).

1818 - At the Battle of Maipú, Chile's independence movement - led by Bernardo O'Higgins and José de San Martín - won a decisive victory over Spain, leaving 2,000 Spanish and 1,000 Chilean patriots dead.

1847 - Birkenhead Park - Britain's first public civic park - was opened in (of all places) Birkenhead; designed by Joseph Paxton, it would later influence Frederick Law Olmsted's work on New York's Central Park.

1879 - Chile declared war on Bolivia and Peru, starting the War of the Pacific.

1904 - The first international rugby league match was played between England and an Other Nationalities team (comprised of Welsh & Scottish players) in Wigan's Central Park.

1932 - In the Dominion of Newfoundland 10,000 rioters unhappy with the government of Prime Minister Sir Richard Squires seized the Colonial Building; he only barely escaped with his life. As a result of the riot the Commission of Government was established, returning the colony to unelected leadership subordinate to London, and eventually leading to the country's admission into the Canadian Confederation in March 1949.

1949 - Fireside Theater had its television debut on NBC.

1951 - Americans Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to death by Judge Irving Kaufman for engaging in espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union; their trial, which began on March 6th, had already led to their March 29th conviction.

1955 - Sir Winston Churchill resigned as British Prime Minister, citing ill-health; unbeknownst to the public, Churchill had suffered a stroke.

1958 - Ripple Rock, an underwater threat to navigation in British Columbia's Seymour Narrows, was destroyed in one of the largest non-nuclear controlled explosions to date.

1976 - During the Qingming Festival - China's annual day of mourning, held in Tiananmen Square, which was that year dominated by mourning for the country's recently deceased Premier Zhou Enlai - the removal of the usual displays of mourning evoked protests by members of the April Fifth Movement; later deemed 'counter-revolutionary' and resulting in the house arrest of Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping ordered by the Gang of Four, the Tiananmen Incident has since been considered a display of patriotism.

1986 - Three people were killed in the bombing of the La Belle Discotheque in West Berlin, two of whom were American servicemen - Kenneth T. Ford and James E. Goins - in addition to a Turkish woman, Nermin Hannay; in retaliation US President Ronald Reagan ordered Operation El Dorado Canyon against Libya, who it was believed ordered the attack.

1992 -President Alberto Fujimori used military force to dissolve the Peruvian Congress.

1998 - When Japan's Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge - linking Shikoku with Honshū at a cost of about US$3.8 billion - opened to traffic, it became the longest suspension bridge in the world, with a span of 1,991 m (6,529 ft).
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