Monday, January 17, 2011

What's The Occasion? Dr. King Day

Although the holiday had its genesis in the weeks following King's assassination in April 1968, it would be fifteen years before Congress forced President Ronald Reagan (who was personally opposed to it) to sign the act - sponsored by Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan) - into law during a predictably tense November 1983 ceremony in the White House Rose Garden. The overwhelming support for the holiday in Congress (338-90) and the Senate (78-22) meant that Reagan's threatened veto of the bill could not go ahead; Reagan's own Vice-President and hand-picked successor George H. W. Bush later expanded the celebration of King's Birthday.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingThat, of course, was a major victory, but not the end of the struggle by any means. Continuing to lead the charge against it were some of the usual suspects - Senator Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina) naturally covered his bigotry with a lie, suggesting King wasn't important enough. Arizona Governor Fife Symington III was also opposed to the honour, leading the campaign against the day in that state, to the extent that the NFL boycotted Arizona when it was due to host Super Bowl XXVII.

The states which held out the longest were New Hampshire, Arizona, and Utah (which until 2000 called it 'Human Rights Day'); that same year, lawmakers in Virginia changed the name of Lee-Jackson-King Day to reflect the incongruity of celebrating a civil rights leader's birthday alongside those of two Confederate generals. This despite the fact that Virginia had been the first state to elect an African-American governor, L. Douglas Wilder, in January 1990.
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"With Whom To Dance" by Magnetic Fields

I've liked The Magnetic Fields ever since I first heard the honeyed vocals of birthday boy Stephin Merritt; then I saw this video. Whoa!

To be honest, it wasn't my intention to post this video at all; I couldn't find the one I wanted - Two Characters in Search of a Country Song - but this one does nicely. Very nicely indeed.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a clean up on aisle nine...

With Whom To Dance originally appeared on the band's 1995 album, Get Lost.

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Happy Birthday Betty White

Any day can be made a whole lot brighter if it's got some Betty White in it, and I should know; I've had some pretty dark days myself, and my Golden Girls DVDs have the grooves lasered into them to prove it.

PhotobucketWhite is, of course, a television legend, and the particular intimacy of television is best suited to her brand of magic. Her first sitcom, Life With Elizabeth, debuted in 1953; she was already well-known from her appearances on Password, What's My Line?, and To Tell the Truth, when she joined the cast of the hugely successful The Mary Tyler Moore Show in its fourth season, playing the conniving bitch Sue Ann Nivens. White was cast at its star's behest, since White is known to be one of the nicest people alive; Moore thought the contrast would be amusing. And was it ever!

Following the end of that show, White did more guest appearances, virtually becoming the queen of the game show in the process. In the early 80s, White also appeared as Ellen Harper Jackson, Eunice's two-faced sister on Mama's Family; then came the second smash of what had already been a smashing career.

Originally White was cast as Blanche in a new show called The Golden Girls; at her own insistence she took the role of Rose Nylund (since she felt the man-eating Blanche was too close to her old Sue Ann character). The title of the show proved prescient, and for seven years White spun gold from the sweet, wholesome Rose and her meandering stories about the goings-on in fictional St. Olaf, Minnesota.

Long active on behalf of animal welfare, White's career has accelerated in recent years, at a time when she could rightly sit back on her laurels. Currently White can be seen all over TV, on The Bold and the Beautiful and Boston Legal, as well as in guest spots on shows like Ugly Betty (in an episode wittily entitled Ugly Betty White), a hilarious appearance on Comedy Central's Roast of William Shatner, and occasional guest spots on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson with TV's Craig Ferguson.  Her fans are currently on tenterhooks awaiting the second season of TV Land's original sitcom Hot in Cleveland, in which White plays Elka Ostrovsky.
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In Memoriam: Benjamin Franklin

In stark contrast to his more subdued Revolutionary brethren, Benjamin Franklin must have seemed like a breath of fresh air in the halls of power; while history has increasingly imbued Washington, Adams, Jefferson and the rest with all the elan of plaster saints, Franklin's legacy has always afforded the scholar and casual observer alike with oodles of wicked fun.

PhotobucketBorn in Boston on this day in 1706, Franklin was imbued with his zeal for an independent America early on; having learned the printing trade from his brother, by the age of 17 he was already muckraking. When it was discovered that a certain 'Mrs. Silence Dogood' - whose letters had all of Boston talking - was in fact him, Franklin fled to Philadelphia, where he was to be based for the rest of his life.

Following Franklin's return from his first trip to London in 1726 he took up with his old girlfriend Deborah Read, with whom he had to live common-law, since her husband had absconded to the Indies and so couldn't be brought to court for a divorce. Together they had two children, and raised a third, whom Franklin had sired with an unknown woman. Read died in December 1774.

The first of Franklin's numerous contributions to American life involved the founding of a public library, which sought to provide access to books for everyone; today this collection is one of the most valuable in the world, comprising half a million titles, and is housed in Independence Hall. In the fullness of time, Franklin would produce his famous Poor Richard's Almanack, broker the crucial support of the French for the cause of independence, invent a portable stove which made settlement of the West a possibility, and perform a series of famous experiments into the nature of electricity (for which he received the Royal Society's Copley Medal in 1753).

A noted polymath, Franklin never graduated from university, and was essentially self-taught through voracious reading; like many of the Founding Fathers, he embraced Deism, and was disgusted with religious orthodoxy and dogma. Franklin died in April 1790, at the grand old age of 84, having lived an extraordinary life in times that were equally extraordinary in part because he had lived in them.

Today the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial is a must-see when passing through the City of Brotherly Love.
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"Where Is My Man" by Eartha Kitt

Today's birthday wishes going out to Eartha Kitt are bittersweet at best; bitter because her death is still relatively recent, sweet because to remember her is to remember one of the most exciting performers of all time. From her earliest stage and screen performances stretching back to the 1940s - from her star-making turn as Catwoman in the campy 1960s TV series Batman to her final appearances at the Café Carlyle in Manhattan she did not disappoint.

1983's Where Is My Man (co-written by Fred Zarr, Jacques Morali - and Bruce Vilanch!) was Eartha Kitt's biggest single - which is all the more amazing when considering her discography as a whole; songs like C'est si bon, Monotonous, I'd Rather Be Burned as a Witch, and the Christmas classic Santa Baby are indispensable, and the music library at the Pop Culture Institute would be the lesser without them, not to mention the many others she recorded as well.
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Pop History Moment: "The Goldbergs" Debuts

The Goldbergs, the first American television sitcom, was first broadcast on this day in 1949...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketHaving begun its run on radio in 1929, The Goldbergs was also a popular comic strip before it hit its first cathode ray tube. There were also Goldbergs books, a Broadway show called Molly and Me in 1948 and, in 1951, a movie.

The brainchild of Gertrude Berg (who starred as Molly Goldberg) The Goldbergs was a fairly standard family sitcom, albeit with a decidedly ethnic flavour. It followed the family as they left the tenements for suburbia, and occasionally incorporated real-world events - such as Kristallnacht - into its ongoing narrative. In many ways, the show was a kitchen-sink soap opera in the same way Coronation Street is a sitcom.

It also had a catch-phrase, that ever-present hallmark of sitcoms; in the Thirties and Forties 'Yoo-hoo! Is anybody?' was on everybody's lips.

The show costarred Philip Loeb as Jake Goldberg until, in 1950, Loeb was blacklisted; Berg refused to fire him under pressure from CBS, and they dropped the show. NBC (where the show had debuted on radio) later picked it up, albeit without Loeb, who later committed suicide. In its final season - 1954 - the Goldbergs moved to the troubled DuMont network. It struggled on until 1956, when production ceased for good - and an entire cottage industry died alongside it.

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