Monday, December 06, 2010

Happy Birthday Steven Wright

Steven Wright's deadpan delivery and surreal take on life set him apart from the typical 1980s standups, with their recycled jokes about airline food and various skirmishes in the battle of the sexes; in a decade in which every third person seemed to be peaking on cocaine, Steven Wright came across like he was mainlining NyQuil.

Born on this day in 1955, Steven Wright began doing stand up in 1982, and in 1989 won an Academy Award for his short film The Appointments of Dennis Jennings; one of the few performers of his era not to have had a network sitcom based on his act, in 2006 he made Steven Wright: When the Leaves Blow Away, his first stand-up special in 16 years.

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Remembering... Agnes Moorehead

Having been a sensation in such acclaimed black & white films as The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Dark Passage (1947), and Johnny Belinda (1948), not even Agnes Moorehead herself (born on this day in 1900) could have predicted what impact colour would bring to her career... Anyone who doubts it should watch and compare the first season of Bewitched to the second.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketBeing a serious actress, Moorehead disdained the 'hack' scripts of situation comedy, refusing to see Bewitched for the trenchant social commentary it was. She had a clause in her contract that she would only appear in eight of every twelve episodes filmed long after it was obvious that she was the fan favourite.

In the time-honoured sitcom tradition, though, it was second-fiddle Endora who made that show as great as it was; without her the show would have had no tension - no 'situations' and therefore no comedy - no raison d'etre. Still, comedy is used to getting the short shrift; as important as making people laugh is, too many still consider the considerably easier task of making people cry to be the more important one.

Moorehead's devout Christianity also gave the show a touch of verisimilitude; in any of the scenes she has with Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) replace the word 'witch' in her dialogue with 'Christian' or 'Presbyterian' and you'll see what I mean. Endora is the most evangelical of witches, and therefore the most complex character on the show, heart and soul.

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In Memoriam: Ryan White

At a time when AIDS and HIV bore an even greater stigma than they currently do, it took a teenager named Ryan White to dispel many of the myths regarding these infections...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketBorn a hemophiliac on this day in 1971, in 1984 Ryan White received a tainted batch of Factor VIII; having nearly died from a bout with pneumonia, he was diagnosed with HIV in December 1984 and given six months to live.

The fact that Ryan White lived another five and a half years is fortunate; not only did it give him the chance to finish high school, it also gave him and his mother Jeanne time to battle the school board and the good people of Kokomo, Indiana, who refused to allow his attendance.

Despite the fact that he was thirteen at the time of his diagnosis, many of his fellow students (and not a few of their parents) had subjected him to vicious homophobia, including vandalism of their home; yet Ryan White never turned homophobic - as some hemophiliacs were known to do in the early days of AIDS - nor did he care to think of himself as an 'innocent victim'. In fact, his mother later credited Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York City with prolonging Ryan's life by suggesting experimental treatments which were as yet unknown in the Midwest. Eventually Ryan would be allowed to attend Hamilton Heights High School in nearby Cicero, thanks to the school's particularly enlightened principal, Tony Cook, and superintendent Bob G. Carnal.

As is usually the case in these stories, the more the bigots tried to fight, the more attention Ryan's story got, and whenever Ryan White was allowed to speak for himself he usually won the day; his testimony at President Reagan's too-little-too-late AIDS commission in 1988 was the only testimony to receive applause from the committee members.

By the time he died in April 1990 much had changed regarding the public perception of AIDS and the people who live with it; four months after his death, Congress passed the Ryan White Care Act, which today pays for half a million people a year in the United States who would not otherwise be able to afford it to receive treatment for their condition.
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The Halifax Explosion: A Canadian History Minute

The following spot was produced by Canadian broadcasters in an effort to rescue Canada's history from the depredations of deadly dull historians; the Pop Culture Institute celebrates any effort by anyone to make history interesting even if, as is the case with this clip, the events don't quite match the historical record...

Vince Coleman has long been considered one of the heroes of the disaster; had he abandoned his post for safety the death toll could have been much higher. The fact that his post was located in the middle of the railyard, not next to a busy downtown street as is shown here is almost beside the point. Coleman's heroism - as depicted in this Heritage Minute and in the miniseries Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion - was considerable, and he perished when the Halifax Explosion destroyed the city's Richmond Station.
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Pop History Moment: The Halifax Explosion of 1917


Halifax is one of Canada's loveliest cities, but its picturesque harbour, with a quaint blend of old and new, was once the scene of the greatest man-made devastation prior to the atomic age...

On this day in 1917, the French cargo ship Mont-Blanc collided with the Norwegian ship Imo laden with relief supplies for Belgium in Halifax Harbour; the ensuing fire on board the Mont-Blanc ignited 2.6 million kilos of explosives in her hold, which just after 9 AM exploded.

The fireball from the explosion rose 1.6 km into the air, raining both hot shrapnel and carbon soot on the city. The force of the explosion swamped the waterfront under an 18m wave, and the force of the blast flattened buildings in every direction in a 1.6 km radius. The blast was felt and heard as far as 360 km away, in Cape Breton, and debris from the Mont-Blanc flew as far as 5.5 km into neighbouring Dartmouth.

The official death toll was 1,950 but could have been much lower; the day after the explosion the area was hit by a rare December blizzard, which brought 40 cm of snow. Untold numbers of people who survived the blast buried under rubble likely perished due to the harsh weather; in all, more Nova Scotians died in this blast than in the combat of World War I. 9,000 people were injured, 6,000 of them seriously - the majority of the injuries were caused by flying debris, and resulted in 600 incidences of partial blindness.

Hugh MacLennan's 1941 novel Barometer Rising is among the first depictions of the disaster in popular culture; a miniseries, entitled Shattered City (2003), has also been made. Of a slew of books written about the Halifax Explosion the best is probably the latest - Curse of the Narrows: The Halifax Explosion 1917, by Laura M. MacDonald.
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POPnews - December 6th

[Anyone who thinks the Florida Everglades are safe simply because they've been preserved as a park has clearly a) underestimated the contempt of so-called conservatives for the natural world, b) naively relinquished their grasp on reality in favour of impractical idealism, and/or c) never read the works of one Carl Hiaasen.]

1060 - Béla I was crowned King of Hungary.

1534 - Sebastián de Belalcázar founded the city of Quito in Ecuador.

1648 - Colonel Pride of England's New Model Army purged the Long Parliament of MPs sympathetic to King Charles I, in order for the King's trial to go ahead; the event came to be known as Pride's Purge.

1768 - The first edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica was published.

1849 - American abolitionist Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery on the Underground Railroad.

1865 - Ratification of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution ended the legal sanction of slavery in America.

1877 - The Washington Post was first published, apparently.

1884 - The capstone was set in place atop the Washington Monument, signifying the end of work; originally begun in 1848, a lack of funds and the intercession of the US Civil War prevented Robert Mills' obelisk from being completed earlier. Dedicated in February 1885 and opened in October 1888, it became the world's tallest structure (after Cologne Cathedral) until 1889, at which time it was surpassed by the Eiffel Tower.

1907 - 362 were killed by an explosion at a coal mine in Monongah, West Virginia.

1917 - Finland declared its independence from Russia.

1920 - The Anglo-Irish Treaty was signed in London.

1921 - Under the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the Irish Free State became a sovereign nation.

1933 - U.S. federal judge John M. Woolsey ruled that James Joyce's novel Ulysses was not obscene.

1941 - The United Kingdom declared war on Finland in support of the Soviet Union during the Continuation War.

1947 - Florida's Everglades National Park was established.

1969 - Meredith Hunter pulled out a gun during The Rolling Stones' performance of Under My Thumb at their infamous Altamont Free Concert, and was stabbed by Hells Angel Alan Passaro, who was there acting as security; at his trial Passaro claimed self-defense, and was later acquitted. The event was captured on film, and became a key scene in the documentary Gimme Shelter; it also made the pages of Rolling Stone magazine as Rock & Roll's Worst Day, by John Burks.

1978 - The current constitution of Spain was approved by a national referendum.

1989 - Marc Lépine massacred 14 women in an anti-feminist spree at Montreal's École Polytechnique.

1992 - 200,000 Hindu extremists in India demolished Babri Masjid, a 16th century mosque in Ayodhya, which had been used as temple since 1949.
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