SEPTEMBER 14, 1914: THOSE THRILLING DAYS OF YESTERYEAR

THOSE THRILLING DAYS OF YESTERYEAR

It may be every kid’s dream to run away and join the circus. Not many do, but Jack Carlton Moore, born September 14, 1914 did at the tender age of eight. It may also be every kid’s dream to grow up to be the Lone Ranger. Jack did that too. With his new name, Clayton Moore, he donned a black mask, picked up a Native American buddy and rode into television history.

Following his stint in the circus, Moore worked as a model, a stunt man and a bit player in western movies. In 1949, his work in the serial Ghost of Zorro brought him to the attention of the producer of the Lone Ranger radio program. He was signed to play the ranger in the television series, along with Jay Silverheels as Tonto. The series was the first Western written specifically for television. It aired for eight seasons — 221 episodes.

tontoAfter the series ended, Moore refused to give up his mask, wearing it in public appearances. This rather dismayed the owner of the rights to the character who in 1979 secured a legal ruling preventing Moore from wearing his mask in public. In response, the daring and resourceful masked rider of the plains began wearing oversized sunglasses. The ruling was eventually reversed.

Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. The Lone Ranger rides again!

We Come in Pieces

Back in 1957, the Soviet Union had stunned the rest of the world with the success of Sputnik. In the United States this was viewed as a major crisis, triggering a catch-up effort. The Space Race, the scientific side of the Cold War, was on. And two years later, on September 14, 1959, those pesky commies did it again. Luna 2 landed on the moon.

Luna 2, son of Luna 1, was the first spacecraft to reach the surface of the moon, and in fact the first man-made object to land anywhere in space.

It certainly wasn’t the last. Since then, the moon has become somewhat of a landfill for us Earthlings. Crash landings, the preferred method of landing for unmanned spacecraft, have left the remains of more than 70 vehicles spread across the moon. Other spacecraft, just passing by, have jettisoned junk of all sorts, it too finding a home on the lunar surface. And visiting moon1astronauts rarely practiced “carry in, carry out” when visiting. Estimates suggest the moon is home to over 400,000 pounds of man-made castoffs.

A highly selective inventory: Rovers, modules and orbiters; a dozen pair of boots; hammers, rakes and shovels: cameras; javelins: objets d’art; barf bags; golf balls; a silicon disc with the words “Man has reached out and touched the tranquil moon. May that high accomplishment allow man to rediscover the Earth and find peace there. –Pierre Elliot Trudeau;” a plaque that reads “we came in peace for all mankind.”

And left you our garbage.

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JULY 26, 1921: EXCELSIOR, YOU FATHEADS

EXCELSIOR, YOU FATHEADS

To many of those who have even heard of Jean Shepherd, he is the voice of the grown-up Ralphie Parker whose childhood struggle to score an Official Red Ryder 200-Shot Range Model Air Rifle for Christmas is the subject of the holiday classic A Christmas Story. The film is based on Shepherd’s stories about growing up in Indiana.

Born July 26, 1921, Shepherd was an American raconteur, radio and TV personality, writer and actor. After several radio gigs, he settled in at WOR radio New York City in 1956 with an overnight slot on which he delighted fans by telling stories, reading poetry, and organizing listener stunts. The most famous of his stunts was the creation of a book, I, Libertine, by an 18th century author. Shepherd suggested that his listeners visit bookstores and ask for a copy of it, which led to booksellers attempting to purchase the book from their distributors.  Fans of the show also planted references to the book and author so widely that demand for the book led to its being listed on The New York Times Best Seller list even though it hadn’t been written.  Shepherd’s radio stories found their way into magazines and were later collected in the books In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash; Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters; The Ferrari in the Bedroom; and A Fistful of Fig Newtons.

 

shep“What the hell time is it?” muttered the old man. He was always an aggressive sleeper. Sleep was one of the things he did best, and he loved it. Some look upon sleep as an unfortunate necessary interruption of life; but there are others who hold that sleep is life, or at least one of the more fulfilling aspects of it, like eating or sex. Any time my old man’s sleep was interrupted, he became truly dangerous.”Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories: And Other Disasters

 

From A Christmas Story:

I had woven a tapestry of obscenity that as far as I know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.

Only I didn’t say “Fudge.” I said THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the “F-dash-dash-dash” word!

Now, I had heard that word at least ten times a day from my old man. He worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium; a master.

And of course:  You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.

July 26, 1895: Say Goodnight

With husband George Burns, Gracie Allen (born on July 26, 1895) made comedy history – in vaudeville, the movies, on radio and television.

The Burns and Allen comedy act began with Allen as the straight man, feeding  lines to Burns who delivered the punchlines. George explained later that he noticed Gracie’s straight lines were getting more laughs than his punchlines, so he reversed their roles. Audiences immediately fell in love with Gracie’s character, a clever combination of ditziness and total innocence.

George attributed their success to Gracie, even though he was a brilliant straight man: “All I had to  graciedo was say, ‘Gracie, how’s your brother?’ and she talked for 38 years.  And sometimes I didn’t even have to remember to say ‘Gracie, how’s your brother?'”

I read a book twice as fast as anybody else. First, I read the beginning, and then I read the ending, and then I start in the middle and read toward whatever end I like best.

 

“Gracie, those are beautiful flowers. Where did they come from?”
“Don’t you remember, George? You said that if I went to visit Clara Bagley in the hospital I should be sure to take her flowers. So, when she wasn’t looking, I did.”

 

Presidents are made, not born. That’s a good thing to remember. It’s silly to think that Presidents are born, because very few people are 35 years old at birth, and those who are won’t admit it.

 

A word of warning: The F-dash-dash-dash word appears on page 3 of Terry and the Pirate.  You could cross it out if you wanted, if you owned your own copy.

 

JUNE 6, 1971: THE SHEW MUST GO ON

THE SHEW MUST GO ON

Ed Sullivan was to the golden age of television what Google is to searching.  He ruled Sunday night TV for 23 years – from 1948 to his very last broadcast on this day in 1971. Sullivan presented acts from the era’s biggest stars to acrobats, dancing bears, puppets, contortionists, you name it.  Ten thousand in all – if they were entertainers, an appearance on the Sullivan show was their holy grail.

Musical performances from rock to opera were a staple of the program. Even its first broadcast, when it was known as Toast of the Town, made music history as Broadway composers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II previewed the score of their upcoming musical, South Pacific. And after that, West Side Story, Cabaret, Man of La Mancha – if it was on Broadway, it was on Sullivan. One of those Broadway musicals, Bye Bye Birdie, was all about making it on the Sullivan show.

Sullivan also chronicled the history of rock and roll from Elvis Presley’s appearance in 1956 through the Supremes, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, the Mamas and the Papas, and on June 6, 1971, the last program, Gladys Knight and the Pips.

When CBS canceled the show, the network let it end with a whimper.  But in the 33 years since cancellation, numerous tribute shows and DVDs have kept Sullivan in the public eye.

Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon a great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers in arms on other fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world. — General Dwight D. Eisenhower, June 6, 1944

MAY 30, 1908: THAT’S ALL FOLKS

THAT’S ALL FOLKS

Although Mel Blanc, “the Man of a Thousand Voices,” is most often remembered as the voice of Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Woody Woodpecker, Tweety Bird, Sylvester, Yosemite Sam, Speedy Gonzales, Foghorn Leghorn, Pepé Le Pew, the Tasmanian Devil and many of the other characters from theatrical cartoons and Hanna-Barbera’s television cartoons, he had a long career as a comedian and character actor in radio and television. He was born on May 30, 1908, and died in 1989.

Blanc was a regular on The Jack Benny Program in various roles, and appeared on many other shows (Fibber McGee and Molly, Great Gildersleeve, Abbott and Costello, Burns and Allen), including his own which ran from September 1946 to June 1947. In the Jack Benny radio show he was Carmichael, the irascible polar bear who guarded the comedian’s underground vault; his outspoken parrot; his violin teacher, Monsieur Le Blanc; his Mexican gardener, Sy; and even his Maxwell automobile.

Blanc was easily the most prolific voice actor in the history of the industry and the first to be melgraveidentified in the ending credits. In his 60-year career, he helped develop nearly 400 characters and provided voices for some 3,000 animated cartoons. During the cartoon heydays of the 1940’s and 50’s, he voiced 90 percent of the Warner Brothers cartoon empire. As movie critic Leonard Maltin said, “It is astounding to realize that Tweety Bird and Yosemite Sam are the same man!”

A gem from The Jack Benny Program:

MAY 12, 1812: POETRY WITHOUT NAUGHTY WORDS

POETRY WITHOUT NAUGHTY WORDS

Edward Lear, born in England in 1812, was a true dabbler — artist, illustrator, musician, author, poet. Starting off his career as an illustrator, he was employed to illustrate birds and animals first for the Zoological Society and then for Edward Stanley, the Earl of Derby, who had a private menagerie. He also made drawings during his journeys that later illustrated his travel books. and illustrations for the poetry of Alfred Lord Tennyson. As a musician, Lear played the accordion, flute, guitar, and piano (not simultaneously). He also composed music for a number of Romantic and Victorian poems, most notably those of Tennyson.

Lear is remembered chiefly for his work as a writer of literary nonsense. He might easily have been given the title Father of the Limerick for bringing the much maligned form into popularity (without the raunchiness that later found its way into the form). LearIn 1846, he published A Book of Nonsense, a volume of limericks that went through three editions. In 1871 he published Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany and Alphabets, which included his most famous nonsense song, The Owl and the Pussycat, which he wrote for the children of the Earl of Derby.

Lear’s nonsense books were successful during his lifetime, but he found himself fighting rumors that he was just a pseudonym and that the books were actually written by the Earl of Derby. Conspiracy theorists cited as evidence the facts that both men were named Edward, and that Lear is an anagram of Earl. A few even suggested he was born in Kenya, not England.

The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
‘O lovely Pussy! O Pussy my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
You are,
You are!
What a beautiful Pussy you are!’

Pussy said to the Owl, ‘You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?’
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-tree grows
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood
With a ring at the end of his nose,
His nose,
His nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.

‘Dear pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?’ Said the Piggy, ‘I will.’
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

Naughty Words Without Poetry

Stand-up comedian, social critic, satirist, actor, writer/author George Carlin was born on May 12, 1937 (died 2008). Noted for his black humor as well as his thoughts on politics, the English language, psychology, religion, and various taboo subjects, he won five Grammy Awards for his comedy albums. Carlin and his classic “Seven Dirty Words” comedy routine were central to the 1978 U.S. Supreme Court case in which the justices affirmed the government’s power to regulate indecent material on the public airwaves.

In his own words:

george

Swimming is not a sport. Swimming is a way to keep from drowning. That’s just common sense!

Honesty may be the best policy, but it’s important to remember that apparently, by elimination, dishonesty is the second-best policy.

george-carlin2

The very existence of flamethrowers proves that sometime, somewhere, someone said to themselves, “You know, I want to set those people over there on fire, but I’m just not close enough to get the job done.”

Religion has convinced people that there’s an invisible man…living in the sky, who watches everything you do every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a list of ten specific things he doesn’t want you to do. And if you do any of these things, he will send you to a special place, of burning and fire and smoke and torture and anguish for you to live forever, and suffer and burn and scream until the end of time. But he loves you. He loves you and he needs money.

APRIL 21, 1986: SEEMS LIKE WE STRUCK OUT

SEEMS LIKE WE STRUCK OUT

Notorious gangster Al Capone moved to Chicago in 1919 where he built a career in gambling, alcohol, and prostitution rackets, eventually becoming Chicago’s go-to guy in the world of crime. He oversaw his various enterprises from a suite at the Lexington Hotel until his arrest in 1931.  He died in 1947.

The Lexington Hotel outlasted Capone by a good many years. In the 1980s, a construction Al-Capone-psd53402company undertook a renovation of the historic hotel. While surveying the building, the company made some unusual discoveries, including a shooting range and an elaborate series of hidden tunnels connecting to taverns and brothels and providing escape routes should the Chicago police get frisky and raid Capone’s headquarters. Most intriguing of all was a secret vault beneath the hotel, where rumor had it, Capone hid vast sums of his ill-gotten gains.

These discoveries were just too tempting for “investigative reporter” Geraldo Rivera to let pass by.  So on April 21, 1986, Geraldo planned to open the vault on live TV in a much ballyhooed special, The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults. What would the two-hour media event reveal? Piles of plunder? Bodies of Capone competitors? Jimmy Hoffa? Judge Crater? Among those who stood by Geraldo as the whole world watched were a medical examiner and agents of the Internal Revenue Service, lending the entire undertaking an aura of grim importance.

The vault was opened, and there . . . ? A lot of dirt and a couple of empty bottles. Geraldo did his best to snatch something out of the rubble, suggesting to 30 million disappointed viewers that the bottles were exciting because they had been used for bathtub gin during Prohibition. A nice try, but he summed up the evening by saying: “Seems like we struck out.”

 

 

April 20, 1935: Splish Splash, Snooky Was Taking a Bath

A music staple of the 40s and 50s, Your Hit Parade, made its radio debut on April 20, 1935. It lasted for nearly 25 years before being done in by rock and roll music – and perhaps Snooky Lanson. It began as a 60-minute program with 15 songs played in a random format, and eventually moved to television where the seven top-rated songs of the week were presented each week in elaborate production numbers requiring constant set and costume changes.  The list of top songs was compiled through a closely guarded top secret algorithm that involved record sales, quarters plunked into jukeboxes, shoplifted sheet music and the divination of an unidentified mystic in Memphis, Tennessee.

Dorothy Collins , Russell Arms, Snooky Lanson and Gisèle MacKenzie were top-billed during the show’s peak years. And Lucky Strike cigarettes starred throughout its run.

As the rock and roll era took over, the program’s chief fascination became seeing a singer like Snooky Lanson struggle with songs like Splish Splash and Hound Dog.

Tiny Tomato Killer Strikes Again

It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness, or so says some annoying pundit.  Likewise, I suppose, it is better to do something positive than curse the mounds of snow still encircling us.  I’ve always been of the curse the darkness ilk, but occasionally I do try and rise above the winter of my discontent and light a candle in the snow.  One of the better remedies for my malaise is the old seed catalog – tiptoeing through the tulips, tomatoes and zinnias almost brings warmth to my icy heart.

If you ever order anything from a seed catalog, you will never have to worry about being without one again.  They will arrive every January just as reliably as your income tax packets.  There’s Seed City, Happy Seeds, Seeds R Us and many more.  Funny thing is they all come from the same little town in the Midwest.  One could develop a dandy conspiracy theory about this: a single little old lady – Granny Burpee – taking seeds out of great big jars and putting them in little envelopes with all those different names so that every spring every one of us plants the same seeds in every garden everywhere.  Are we really planting radishes and marigolds?

Nevertheless I jump in full seed ahead.  Seven tomato varieties, a couple of cucumbers, greens, beans, okra.  Snapdragons, sweet peas, exotic species I’ve never heard of.  “And there’s no such thing as too many sunflowers,” I’m reminded.

There is such a thing as too many seeds, however.  Granny Burpee doesn’t hold back – a hundred seeds here, two hundred there, a thousand.  I’d like to order six tomato seeds, please.  I really only need two cucumber seeds.  The theory seems to be that you must overplant, just in case some of them don’t sprout.

But they all sprout.

I wanted a couple of tomatoes.  I planted a plastic seed-starting tray, two or three seeds in each of its six cubicles.  Twenty tomato plants emerge.  Just thin out the extra plants, the catalogs advise, leaving one healthy tomato plant in each cubicle.  That’s theory again.  From over my shoulder, as I carefully pull out the runts of the seedlings:  “You’re not going to murder those little plants, are you?”

Come June, I have twenty tomato plants, a dozen cucumbers, a dozen nasturtium, I don’t know how many dozen sunflowers, a sea of seedlings that I forgot to label, and six zucchini.   With six zucchini plants, I’ll be able to place a giant zucchini on the back seat of every unlocked car in Vermont.

Maybe I’ll curse the darkness for a while.

APRIL 14, 1999: THE FUTURE WILL BE BETTER TOMORROW

THE FUTURE WILL BE BETTER TOMORROW

Fireworks, rock music and chants of “Q2K” punctuated the April 14 announcement by former Vice President Dan Quayle that he was tossing his hat into the Republican ring for the 2000 presidential race. He offered himself as the antidote for “the dishonest decade of Bill Clinton and Al Gore.” He promised to restore integrity, responsibility and more malaprops to the White House.

And he came out swinging against television character Murphy Brown (even though she wasn’t running for anything). She and her ilk contribute to a “poverty of values,” he intoned. “A character who supposedly epitomizes today’s highly intelligent, highly paid, professional woman — mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another lifestyle choice.”

Quayle’s candidacy was greeted by a thunderous silence. He exited the race a few months later, after finishing eighth in the first Republican straw poll. Maybe too many folks were confused by that Q2K campaign slogan.

In any event, the world was cheated out of future Quayle gems such as these:

If we don’t succeed we run the risk of failure.

Republicans understand the importance of bondage between a mother and child.

A low voter turnout is an indication of fewer people going to the polls.

It isn’t pollution that’s harming the environment. It’s the impurities in our air and water that are doing it.

When I have been asked during these last weeks who caused the riots and the killing in L.A., my answer has been direct and simple: Who is to blame for the riots? The rioters are to blame. Who is to blame for the killings? The killers are to blame.

Bank failures are caused by depositors who don’t deposit enough money to cover losses due to mismanagement.

I deserve respect for the things I did not do.

I love California, I practically grew up in Phoenix.

The global importance of the Middle East is that it keeps the Far East and the Near East from encroaching on each other.

I believe we are on an irreversible trend toward more freedom and democracy – but that could change.

The Radish That Broke My Mother’s Heart

We were the first on our block to have a television set.  Perhaps today that’s more a confession, an admission of weakness, than a source of pride.  But back then it was a source of great pride.  This, of course, was way back then — when we got our first television set, television programming didn’t invade our living rooms until four in the afternoon, and it exited by eleven, wrapping things up and signing off with the Star Spangled Banner and a test pattern, a device that tested the clarity of your vision or something like that.  (The late night part is hearsay; I was not allowed, early on, to stay up that late.)  But even though it was a mere seven hours of television, we flaunted it.

One problem with that early television schedule quickly surfaced – it stretched right through dinnertime.  But technology would solve that problem for us, too.  One night, with great ceremony, my father brought home the devices that would allow us to watch “Super Circus” and “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet,” without culinary interruption — TV trays.  What a marvelous idea.  They were tinny, vulgar and liable to collapse under anything heavier than roast beef, but night in, night out, my mother would slap a full meal right onto those trays.

Bless her.  Given diners who never once dropped their eyes to look at their plates and a husband with the narrowest of gastronomic parameters, she still put that dinner on those TV trays every night, making certain that every meal, no matter how meat and potato it might be, was accompanied by a healthy salad.  Little wooden bowls brimmed with lettuce, onion, carrot, celery and radish. We were partial to radishes – round and ruby red until cut by my mother into slices so uniform that, if they were placed side by side, you’d need a micrometer to measure the difference in thickness.

Though they all look pretty much the same, radishes can vary widely in their intensity of flavor, so it was not unusual that on one night our salads contained some particularly potent radishes.  Nor was it unusual that a person such as myself who never checked to see what was on the salad fork before plunging it into his mouth might inadvertently bite into several radish slices at once.  The resulting assault on tender ten-year-old taste buds was dramatic.  And any adolescent gourmand in the same situation would, after the fire died down, shriek:  “What are trying to do, kill us?”

My mother quickly and quietly, with mumbled apologies, removed the offending salad and went to the kitchen, where she remained, sitting in the shadows, most likely sobbing, while her selfish loved ones blithely watched television, unaware that a heart had been broken.

I thought nothing of my thoroughly ignoble behavior at the time; it was just one more carelessly tossed off cruelty.  But as the years passed, that single unpleasant act began to haunt me more and more.  My early visions of my mother sitting in the kitchen sniffling intensified as I aged.  And finally my mother was wailing at the top of her lungs and beating her breast before finally flinging herself in anguish against the refrigerator door.  And it was all my doing.

When I reached the age she would have been on that day of infamy and then some, I finally had to face my personal devils.  One night over martinis, during a visit with my mother, I broached the subject, and words of remorse began to tumble from my mouth like ills from Pandora’s box.  My mother looked at me as though I were crazy or something and said in her understanding, gray-haired way:  “Are you crazy or something?”

Classic denial.  My mother had buried the Day of the Radish deep within some crevice of her mind, denying it, and she continued to do so for the rest of her days.  Nevertheless, I have cleansed my conscience, and I can eat radishes once again.

 

 

February 28, 1949: Hey kids, What Time Is It?

Okay, you could be forgiven for answering “It’s Howdy Doody Time.”  Howdy was certainly a pop star of the puppet world. As were Kukla, Fran and Ollie.  But let’s talk importance.  Albert Einstein.  You’ve probably heard of him.  Which puppet show did he watch?  Not only did Einstein watch Time for Beany, he once excused himself from a conference of Nobel prize winners, telling them it was time for Beany.

Time for Beany arrived on the television scene on February 29, 1949, a couple of years after Howdy and Kukla.  The show’s  creator Bob Clampett pointed out that these shows featured puppets as puppets, appearing alongside humans.  He wanted to create a fantasy world that would let audiences lose themselves in the illusion that Beany and his friends were full-sized people and that Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent was ten feet tall.

In daily 15-minute episodes, Beany, Cecil and Uncle Captain Horatio Huffenpuff sailed the world aboard their ship Leakin’ Lena in search of adventure. A wild array of supporting characters included Carmen Dragon, Mouth Full of Teeth Keith, Hopalong Wong, Tear-along the Dotted Lion, Dinah Saur and the Red Skeleton.  Dishonest John and Dudley Nightshade provided villainy.  Stan Freberg and Daws Butler were the principal puppeteers and voices.

Time for Beany aired until 1955. An animated version, Beany and Cecil, followed during the 60s.

February 22, 1956: Not Your Typical Barbarian

You can pretty much be certain you’ve got a turkey on your hands when you’ve got actors such as Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead (Endora on Bewitched), and John Wayne (!) playing Mongolians, when the entire film is shot in one location in a desert in southern Utah (haven’t we seen that rock before?) and when you have such dialogue as:

“Joint by joint from the toe and fingertip upward shall you be cut to pieces, and each carrion piece, hour by hour and day by day, shall be cast to the dogs before your very eyes until they too shall be plucked out as morsels for the vultures . . . pilgrim.”

The Conqueror, released on February 22, 1956, was the epic story of a 12thconqueror century Mongol warlord who worked his way up the barbarian ladder to become the infamous Genghis Khan. Produced by Howard Hughes, it was meant to be his crowning cinematic masterpiece. The film cost $6 million to film in Cinemascope and Technicolor and is frequently ridiculed in the same breath as Plan 9 from Outer Space, another 50s flop which cost about $2.99 to make. Hughes spent another $12 million to buy back every single print of the film after its disastrous release.

The Conqueror not only destroyed RKO, the studio that made it, but wiped out a good number of the cast and crew. The shooting location turned out to be downwind from Yucca Flats, Nevada, where the government was merrily testing atomic bombs, and the cast and crew received far more than the recommended daily allowance of radioactive fallout. Nearly half of them, including Wayne, were later diagnosed with cancer (although Wayne also smoked six packs a day).

February 22, 1907: Hey Youse

sheldon_leonardThose who remember his screen appearances at all are most likely to recognize him as Nick, the surly bartender who gives George Bailey and Clarence the heave-ho in  It’s a Wonderful Life. As an actor, Sheldon Leonard, born on February 22, 1907, specialized in playing supporting characters, most often gangsters or or other tough guys with names like Pretty Willie, Lippy, Jumbo, Blackie, or, notably, Harry the Horse in the 1955 film of Guys and Dolls. He spoke with a thick New York accent, usually delivered from the side of his mouth.

His many appearances in movies and television spanned six decades. But it was as a producer and director that Sheldon Leonard really made his mark. He began a new career as a television producer in the early 50s and turned out a succession of hit series — The Danny Thomas Show (Make Room for Daddy), Gomer Pyle: USMC, The Andy Griffith Show, and The Dick Van Dyke Show (winner of 21 Emmys). He had another success in the mid 60s with I Spy, the first series to cast a black actor (Bill Cosby) as an equal co-star with a white actor in a dramatic role.  Leonard is also informally credited with having invented the spin-off,  the practice of using an episode of a series as a backdoor pilot for a new series.The character of Sheriff Andy Taylor was introduced in an episode of The Danny Thomas Show, which led to the series The Andy Griffith Show. 

Sheldon Leonard died in 1997.