Saturday, January 29, 2011

Pop History Moment: The Death of Freddie Prinze

On this day in 1977 one of the brightest young comedians in the United States died...

Freddie Prinze was just 22 and on top of the world - having made such a sensation at the age of 20 in Chico and the Man opposite Jack Albertson that his swansong would find him performing at the inauguration of US President Jimmy Carter - when it all came crashing down. Sudden fame and an influx of money escalated his drug use, which eroded his marriage to Katherine Cochran (mother of his baby son Freddie Prinze, Jr.), and twin obsessions with the assassination of JFK and watching Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver probably didn't help, although surely they were neither the cause nor the effect of any downward spiral merely its manifestation.

Having just received a restraining order, forbidding him contact with his wife and son, Prinze filmed what would his the last episode of the show - the one in which Albertson's character Ed talks to 'God'*. Then, the day before he died, Prinze holed up in his room at the Beverly Comstock Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, and started calling his family, friends, and colleagues to say goodbye. In his words, 'life [wasn't] worth living' without his wife and child, even though in those terrible days before rehab he seems to have forgotten that her decision to leave him was predicated only on his drug use. One colleague, his manager Marvin 'Dusty' Snyder, rushed to his side and tried to reason with him; Snyder was unable to stop him, however, putting a gun to his head and pulling the trigger while high on Quaaludes.

Prinze was rushed to UCLA Medical Center and placed on life support, from which he was removed after emergency surgery failed to save him. It took years, but his mother Maria finally got his cause of death changed from 'suicide' to 'accidental death'. Whichever cause took him, the stigma hardly matters now; surely it only matters that he's gone and that if it had all gone down just five years later a place like the Betty Ford Clinic (opened in October 1982) might have saved him.

*Actually his old Army buddy, talking through a PA system.

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Remembering... Jimmy Durante

For more than fifty years, Jimmy Durante was as durable a brand as pop culture had to offer - with a voice and a profile as distinctive as his patter...

PhotobucketBorn in February 1893 - seasoned by years in vaudeville, on Broadway, lighting up both movie and television screens and over the radio waves - by the time he took his final bow on this day in 1980, Durante had entertained untold millions with his jazz piano stylings, his raucous malapropisms, and occasionally even his poignancy - typically ending a performance with his signature song Inka Dinka Doo followed by a tip of the hat and the immortal line: 'Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.' The secret of her identity, which he took with him to his grave, is one of the greatest mysteries in pop culture.

My first exposure to Durante came as a result of a CD I once bought - now practically a sacred relic in the collection of the Pop Culture Institute, so long ago did I buy it - in which Durante made his usual uproar with Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Arthur Treacher during World War II on the Armed Forces Radio Network. In sharing the microphone with the most popular stars in the world at the time, Durante proved himself one of their number - garnering laughs, applause, and huzzahs which were the equal of his peers while boosting morale in the process.
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Gratuitous Brunette: Edward Burns

Although the output of his career has yet to compel me to partake of it - except for the Virgin Comics' series Dock Walloper, co-written with Jimmy Palmiotti, and soon to get the big screen treatment - the fact of his career has long held my interest; a proponent of low-budget film-making, Edward Burns has proven that budget doesn't make a good movie, story and acting and location do.

PhotobucketBeginning with 1995's The Brothers McMullen, the former production assistant has managed to retain an enormous amount of creative control over his finished product precisely because he hasn't allowed himself to become beholden to the studios for massive amounts of cash. In 1996, he wrote, directed and starred in the ensemble drama She's The One with Jennifer Aniston, Cameron Diaz, and Amanda Peet, which he followed in 2001 with Sidewalks of New York - shot for just $1 million in only 17 days. Looking For Kitty (2004) was shot in about the same time for $200,000 with a digital camcorder.

Despite being an indie darling, making such gritty, on-the-fly work for very little money, Burns has starred in a few of those lavish productions he himself has eschewed making, including Saving Private Ryan, Life or Something Like It, and 27 Dresses.

Born on this day in 1968 and married since June 2003 to my favourite supermodel and his future fellow Gratuitous Brunette Christy Turlington, together they have two children - Grace, born in 2003, and Finn, born in 2006.
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"Lie To Me" by Jonny Lang

Hard to believe, but Jonny Lang was just 15 when he recorded this song, and the album Lie to Me was released just one day before his sixteenth birthday in 1997. That said, it wasn't even his first album but his second, the independently-released Smokin by Kid Jonny Lang & The Big Bang having already come out in 1995*.

Jonny Lang began playing the guitar at the age of 12, after his father took him to a Bad Medicine Blues Band gig in Fargo; shortly thereafter he began taking lessons from Ted Larsen, the band's guitar player, and it was only a few short months later Lang joined the band himself.

Today Lang turns 30, and the sheen of his early prodigality has yet to wear off; in 2006 Lang won his first Grammy Award for the gospel-tinged album Turn Around. Like Kenny Wayne Shepherd - another spooky white kid who seemed to know exactly what to do with a guitar from the minute he picked one up - Lang has played a crucial role in the rebirth of interest in the blues over the past dozen years.

*When he was 13!

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Pop History Moment: The Accession of Liliuokalani

I've written a considerable amount regarding the Kingdom of Hawai'i as part of my passive-aggressive agenda towards the US government; too few people know the real story of the colonial era in general, let alone that the United States invaded and has occupied a sovereign nation since the 1890s, despite being founded itself on such high-flown ideals as independence from colonial rule.

PhotobucketOn this day in 1891 the last queen of Hawaii came to power, and for attempting to defend her people and the sovereignty of her nation - which, after all, ought to have been her job - she managed to bring the whole thing crashing down around her...

Following the death of her brother and predecessor Kalakaua, Liliuokalani came to power intent on abrogating the Bayonet Constitution, imposed on the island kingdom by American Lorrin A. Thurston and enforced by the Honolulu Rifles - a paramilitary organization backed by the country's Reform Party, who literally pointed their guns at the King as he signed it. Her second act was to protect her country's revenue from the McKinley Tariff, which had been imposed upon sugar exports and severely restricted revenues for the people who grew it.

So swift was her fall from power that she never even made it to the second anniversary of her accession; 1 year and 354 days after becoming queen she was deposed, and the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom was complete. As a closing salvo, though, she issued the following statement:

I Liliuokalani, by the Grace of God and under the Constitution of the Hawaiian Kingdom, Queen, do hereby solemnly protest against any and all acts done against myself and the Constitutional Government of the Hawaiian Kingdom by certain persons claiming to have established a Provisional Government of and for this Kingdom. 'That I yield to the superior force of the United States of America whose Minister Plenipotentiary, His Excellency John L. Stevens, has caused United States troops to be landed a Honolulu and declared that he would support the Provisional Government.' Now to avoid any collision of armed forces, and perhaps the loss of life, I do this under protest and impelled by said force yield my authority until such time as the Government of the United States shall, upon facts being presented to it, undo the action of its representatives and reinstate me in the authority which I claim as the Constitutional Sovereign of the Hawaiian Islands.

Alas, her faith in the world's superpowers - especially in their dealings with pivotal but poor colonies - was misplaced; on January 14th, 1893, a Committee of Safety was formed. Two days later the US government's John L. Stevens ordered two companies of Marines from the USS Boston deployed to guard such pivotal locations in Honolulu as the US Legation, Consulate, and Arion Hall. The following day, Liliuokalani was deposed, and Hawaii was a sovereign nation no more...
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Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven" read by John Astin

Here's an interesting reading of The Raven by John Astin, who honed his creepiness by originating the role of Gomez Addams on television - in The Addams Family in the 1960s - and who here bears an eerie resemblance to the poem's author, Edgar Allen Poe, which is an entirely new kind of creepy altogether...

The Raven was first published on this day in 1845 by the New York Evening Mirror.
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In Memoriam: W. C. Fields

In an industry where too few performers are able to control themselves, let alone their careers, W. C. Fields not only did just that but was able to exert tremendous control over his persona as well; meaning whether on stage, screen, or sidewalk the public saw him exactly as he wanted to be seen - namely as a lovable misanthrope. While he seemed to revel in the contradictions inherent in such an image, though, it only told half of the story...

PhotobucketBorn on this day in 1880, Fields dropped out of school at the age of 11 to tour in vaudeville, which was undoubtedly as educational as things got in the 1890s; by the time he was 21 Fields was being billed at 'The Eccentric Juggler' - precisely the sort of excellent moniker he'd never have gotten had he stayed in school. Just five years later he made his Broadway debut in The Ham Tree, at which point the already notable eccentric had begun juggling an increasingly busy career.

As a performer, even Fields' chosen apparel embodied the contradictions of his persona. Yet it was precisely by dressing as a 'genteel tramp' that he was able to expand his potential audience; rich and poor alike could both laugh at and empathize with such a character, as they could be drawn to a con-man with a heart of gold, especially during the tough times of the Great Depression. Fields was canny, however, in taking an archetype which was already popular from an established medium (namely the circus clown) and imbuing it with a sophistication which was more in keeping with the times - times which themselves were increasingly sophisticated thanks to the explosive growth of mass media in the first three decades of the 20th Century.

One of the first movie stars, Fields was appearing in two-reelers* as early as 1915, but due to his stage commitments was unable to appear in features prior to 1924, when he was released from his contract with the Ziegfeld Follies. Having appeared on Broadway in a musical comedy called Poppy he later reprised the role on film; another early film role was Sally of the Sawdust for pioneering movie director D.W. Griffith. As Fields' fame grew so did his reach into forms of media - roles of increasing length and popularity in the movies soon led to radio appearances, where his distinctive voice and patter reached a wider audience in a single broadcast than the average vaudevillian could possibly dream of. Alas, he died before he could make his debut on television, whose intimacy would have suited him and his abilities, and whose reached would have fired his ambition.

Just the highlights of W. C. Fields' movie work would do any film actor proud... Alice in Wonderland (1933), The Old Fashioned Way and Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1934), David Copperfield (1935), You Can't Cheat an Honest Man (1939), My Little Chickadee and The Bank Dick (1940), and his last starring role Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) are among the finest comedies of an era renowned for its quality films. The best of these he made with his kind of dame, Mae West; alas, she pulled her diva shtick over billing on My Little Chickadee and a promising partnership came to an abrupt end after just one outing.

But what of Fields' curmudgeonly affect? Well, while he was undoubtedly as complex as any creative person, he was said to be both privately generous and fond of his grandchildren - in contrast to the many kid-hating penny-pinchers he'd played on stage and screen. His dislike of Christmas Day - ironically the day he died, in 1946 - was probably more related to his dislike of sentimentality that anything else. Then again he was also a mean drunk who used to pepper sight-seers outside his home with a pellet gun!

His marriage, in April 1900, to chorus girl Harriet 'Hattie' Hughes (which resulted in the birth of a son, William Claude Fields Jr.) fizzled out when he refused to give up showbiz, just as he was starting to become successful, and yet he voluntarily sent them child support at a time when no court in the land would have made him do so. A second son, William Rexford Fields Morris, resulted from Fields' relationship with Bessie Poole; and while there were no issue from his relationship with Carlotta Monti, which lasted from 1932 until his death in 1946, he was generous with her in other ways - after a fashion...

By the time he died Fields had left her with enough anecdotes to fill a memoir of their life together; a book which was later made into a movie of the same name - W.C. Fields and Me - starring Rod Steiger as Fields and Valerie Perrine as Monti, who herself appeared as an extra in it. It was minor consolation, though; as he got older, and sicker, and drunker he grew more and more into the bastard he'd spent the previous half century creating. It was left to Monti to bear the brunt of that cruelty...

Not only are many of Fields' films available on DVD at long last, a more recent assessment of him appears in Man on the Flying Trapeze: The Life and Times of W. C. Fields by Simon Louvish - and wouldn't you know it, there's a copy of that very book in the library of the Pop Culture Institute!

*At approximately twenty minutes in length, the two-reeler is considered the forerunner of the sitcom.

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POPnews - January 29th

[The first players voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame were (clockwise from top left) Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, and Walter Johnson; they weren't formally inducted, however, until the museum - located in Cooperstown, New York - was dedicated in June 1939.]

904 CE - Sergius III came out of retirement to take over the papacy from the deposed antipope Christopher; he'd first been elected following the death of Pope Leo V the previous September.

1119 - Pope Gelasius II died, just five days after the first anniversary of his enthronement; he was succeeded by Callixtus II just days later, on February 1st.

1676 - Feodor III became Tsar of Russia following the death of his father, Alexis I.

1814 - Forces of the French Empire commanded by Napoleon himself defeated those of Russia and Prussia under Generalfeldmarschall Prince von Blücher at the Battle of Brienne.

1820 - Britain's King George III died at Windsor Castle; he was succeeded by his son, George IV, who'd been acting as Regent since 1811.

1856 - Britain's Queen Victoria created the Victoria Cross to recognize 'valour in the face of the enemy' during the Crimean War, backdating eligibility for the honour to 1854. The first medals were handed out in June 1857 by the Queen herself at a ceremony in Hyde Park, at which the first recipient was Charles Davis Lucas, whose medal is currently on display at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

1861 - Kansas became the 34th US state.

1863 - At the Bear River Massacre in Washington Territory (in present-day Franklin County, Idaho, near Preston) a US Army platoon commanded by Colonel Patrick Edward Connor slaughtered between 200-400 of the area's Shoshone people - including their chief, Bear Hunter - as part of the ongoing Bear River Expedition.

1891 - Liliuokalani was proclaimed Queen of Hawai'i; she would be the last sovereign to rule that country before it was forcibly annexed by the United States.

1916 - Paris was bombarded by German zeppelins for the second and last time during World War I; 54 people were killed.

1936 - The first inductees into the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, New York, were named: Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth, and Honus Wagner.

1940 - Three trains on Osaka's Sakurajima Line crashed and exploded while approaching Ajikawaguchi station, killing 181 people.

1944 - Bologna's Anatomical Theatre of the Archiginnasio was destroyed during an air-raid.

1959 - Walt Disney released Sleeping Beauty, the 16th and final film he would release before his death, and the last fairytale his studio would make until 1989's The Little Mermaid. It was also the last animated film the company made using hand-inked cels; beginning with One Hundred and One Dalmatians the studio incorporated xerography into its animation process.

1963 - The first inductees into the Pro Football Hall of Fame at Canton, Ohio, were named; the so-called 'charter inductees' are Sammy Baugh, Bert Bell, Earl 'Dutch' Clark, Harold 'Red' Grange, George Halas, Mel Hein, Wilbur 'Pete' Henry, Robert 'Cal' Hubbard, Don Hutson, Earl 'Curly' Lambeau, Tim Mara, George Preston Marshall, John 'Blood' McNally, Bronko Nagurski, Ernie Nevers, and Jim Thorpe.

1979 - Brenda Spencer killed two people and wounded eight at the Grover Cleveland Elementary School shootings.

1996 - Teatro la Fenice, an historic opera house in Venice, was destroyed by fire - again; La Fenice means 'the Phoenix' in Italian, referring to previous fires in 1774 and 1836. The event and its aftermath are thrillingly recounted in John Berendt's 2005 book The City of Falling Angels. After five years of legal wrangling, it took just 650 days and €90 million for the third Fenice to rise from the ashes; the theater reopened in December 2003.

1998 - A bomb exploded at an abortion clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, killing part-time security guard Robert Sanderson and severely wounding nurse Emily Lyons in the process; serial bomber Eric Robert Rudolph - who most famously committed the Centennial Olympic Park bombing at Atlanta's 1996 Summer Olympics in July 1996 - later confessed to the crime.

2002 - In his State of the Union Address, US President George W. Bush described 'regimes that sponsor terror' as an Axis of Evil, in which he included Iraq, Iran and North Korea.
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