IF: grow

Let it grow, let it grow, Let it blossom, let it flow

“As I grow older, I pay less attention to what men say. I just watch what they do.” — Andrew Carnegie

In 1889, self-made millionaire Andrew Carnegie wrote an article called “The Gospel of Wealth,” in which he described the responsibility of the country’s wealthy upper class to share and distribute their surplus funds to those less fortunate and in need . He inspired a new wave of nation-wide philanthropy. He made a case against extravagant and wasteful, self-indulgent spending. Instead, he explained, society would benefit most from distribution of wealth in a thoughtful manner and not in a way that encourages “the slothful, the drunken, the unworthy.”

Carnegie was a member of the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club, an exclusive club whose beautifully-appointed headquarters was located on the Conemaugh River near the South Fork Dam in Western Pennsylvania. The fifty-plus members of the club purchased the dam from the state of Pennsylvania and provided maintenance of the dam in exchange for turning the area into a secretive retreat for its members.  On May 31, 1889, the dam gave way after several days of heavy rainfall. The town of Johnstown was flooded under 20 million tons of water rushing at a rate equal to that of the Mississippi River. Over 2200 people died and Johnstown suffered over 17 million dollars in damage. The town of Johnstown unsuccessfully sued the South Fork Fishing and Hunting Club. Andrew Carnegie, however, built the town a new library.

IF: nature

Sit beside a mountain stream, see her waters rise

If you are around my age, you remember the catch phrase: “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.”

That was the punchline to a ubiquitous commercial for Chiffon Margarine that ran in the late 70s and into the early 80s. The announcer (character actor Mason Adams) informs a cheerful Mother Nature that the butter she is enjoying is actually the laboratory-created Chiffon. He explains “That’s Chiffon margarine, not butter…Chiffon’s so delicious it fooled even you, Mother Nature.”  Mother Nature, now thoroughly pissed off, extends her arms defiantly and, with a sinister tone, announces that “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” A clap of thunder and flash of lightning split the air, as the frightened woodland creatures hide their faces.

Anderson, Clayton and Company, the world’s largest cotton-trading enterprise, started a food division in 1952 — 36 years after its inception.  Chiffon Margarine was developed from research into the uses of cottonseed oil. In 1985, the company sold the Chiffon brand to Kraft Foods. Ten years later, Chiffon was purchased by another food conglomerate, Con-Agra Foods. Con-Agra discontinued manufacture of Chiffon in the United States in 2002, although it is still available in some Caribbean countries under a licensing agreement with Seprod Ltd.

Dena Dietrich, the actress who portrayed the iconic “Mother Nature, ” was a prolific character actress, appearing in comedies, dramas and soap operas, as well as Broadway. At 86. the Pittsburgh native retired to New England, where she most likely starts her day with buttered toast.

No foolin’.


from my sketchbook: james baskett

my oh my what a wonderful day

A one-time pharmacology student, James Baskett headed to New York City to become an actor. He joined Bill “Bojanges” Robinson and Louis Armstrong on Broadway in the all-black revue Hot Chocolates in 1929. When the musical Hummin’ Sam failed to open, James turned to motion pictures, with bit parts in comedies and horror films. He joined the cast of the popular radio show Amos ‘n’ Andy, playing the role of attorney Gabby Gibson.

In 1945, James auditioned for a voice-over role in an ambitious new film that would combine live action and animation called Song of the South. The studio’s head Walt Disney was so impressed with James’ reading that he hired him on the spot for the film’s lead role and narrator Uncle Remus. James also voiced the animated antagonist Brer Fox. Although he was later criticized for the demeaning role, James’ portrayal of “Uncle Remus” was one of Hollywood’s first non-comedic black characters. Due to strict segregation in the South, James was prohibited from attending the film’s Atlanta premiere. However, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences rewarded James with an honorary Oscar.

James battled diabetes and general poor health during the filming of Song of the South. After the film wrapped, he suffered a heart attack. He missed many episodes of Amos ‘n’ Andy, ultimately passing away during the show’s summer hiatus. Despite his appearance, he was only 44 years old.

IF: sharp

and I think it's gonna be a long, long time

In 1980, Saturday Night Live cleaned house. The remaining members of the original “The Not Ready For Prime-Time Players” were let go when creator/producer Lorne Michaels parted ways with the late-night series, and a new crop of sharp, young talent was signed on. Among the new cast members was Charles Rocket.

Charles, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, was part of a budding cultural underground movement that included avant-garde director Gus Van Sant and Talking Heads front man David Byrne. He served as news anchor for several local stations across the country before making his debut on Saturday Night Live. New show producer Jean Doumanian touted Charles as a comedic cross between Chevy Chase and Bill Murray, singling out the lanky performer as the show’s break-out star. He was given the coveted “Weekend Update” anchor spot and appeared in more sketches than any other cast member besides Joe Piscopo. (Even more than young co-star Eddie Murphy.)

During a 1981 sketch parodying the famous “Who Shot J.R.” episode of the popular nighttime soap opera Dallas, Charles, as J.R., blurted out — on live television — “Oh man, it’s the first time I’ve ever been shot in my life. I’d like to know who the fuck did it.” NBC executives were furious, as were the network censors. Shortly after the incident, Charles and Jean Doumanian were fired, along with most of the new cast. The only ones spared were Piscopo and Murphy.

Unruffled, Charles pursued other acting roles. He landed small parts in Dances with Wolves, Earth Girls are Easy, Hocus Pocus and Dumb and Dumber. On television, he starred in multiple episodes of Moonlighting, Max Headroom and Touched by an Angel, as well as single guest appearances on dozens of dramas and comedies. He also contributed some accordion playing to the B-52’s Mesopotamia album that was produced by his pal David Byrne.

In October 2005. Charles slit his own throat in a field in Connecticut. He was 56 years old.

IF: small

And in the name of the Lolly pop Guild, We wish to welcome you to Muchkinland

Harry Earles was the most successful actor in Hollywood. The most successful actor under 40 inches tall, that is.

Harry came to the United States as Kurt Schneider at the age of 13. He came with his sisters Freida (later called “Grace”) and Hilda (later called “Daisy”). The family, all little people, worked in the circus for a man named Earles. They adopted his surname professionally, although they were sometimes billed as “The Doll Family.” Their younger sister Tiny joined the act in the early 20s.

Harry made his motion picture debut in the Tod Browning-directed silent film The Unholy Three. The film, starring screen legend Lon Chaney, featured a preposterous plot involving a trio of circus performers embarking on a life of crime. Chaney, a ventriloquist, disguised himself in women’s clothes, passing as a grandmother. Harry, snuggled in a baby carriage, played Chaney’s grandson. Victor McLaglen, the circus strongman, came along for the ride as their accomplice for the heavy lifting. Together, they bilked the wealthy by selling them fake talking parrots. When complaints came in, they would come to the customer’s home to pick up the non-verbal birds and rob the place. Not exactly Mission: Impossible. The movie was remade in 1930, as a talkie, with Chaney and Harry reprising their roles. It would be Chaney’s last film before his death.

But Harry’s career blossomed. He went on to make thirteen more films, including six times as a man playing a baby for underhanded purposes. He still performed with the circus during his film career, eventually starring with Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey.

In 1932, Harry starred in the film for which he is most remembered (although not his most famous film.) He played “Hans,” the star of the circus in Tod Browning’s cult masterpiece Freaks. Harry’s sister Daisy was cast in the role of “Freida,” the wife of Harry’s character. (That’s right — his sister was playing his wife.) Featuring another absurd story line, Freaks was notable for presenting actual circus sideshow performers in their actual roles. Movie audiences were horrified and Freaks was eventually banned in many states and in England for 30 years.

Harry’s final film role was as a member of The Lollipop Guild, the little tough-guy Munchkins who welcome Dorothy when she crash-lands in Oz in the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz. (Harry’s the guy in blue on the right.) Harry returned full-time to the life that made him happy — the circus.

He retired to Florida and lived, with his sisters, in a house that was custom-built to accommodate the family’s small stature. Harry passed away in 1985, at the age of 83.

IF: vacation

Two weeks without you and I still haven't gotten over you yet
I’ll be honest with you. I took my second trip to Walt Disney World in 1981 because I was so drunk during my first trip the previous year, I wasn’t able to remember a whole lot.

I wasn’t violent or destructive or even mischievous. I was just plain, old-fashioned inebriated, and thus, a temporary amnesiac. Yeah, I know. Drunk in Walt Disney World? How awful! Not to justify my actions, but I was nineteen. I was on my first vacation without my parents. And, most importantly, I was of legal drinking age in Florida.  But, I must stress, I was not belligerent nor aggressive nor did I impede on anyone’s good time.

Unlike these people…

In 2009, my family took a trip to Walt Disney World. We did all the things we had done on previous trips regardless of the fact that my son was now 22. We all approached the experience with the strange combination of the wonderment of children and the cynicism of… well… Pincuses. One evening, we dined in one of our favorite restaurants – The Rose and Crown, located on the banks of the great World Showcase Lagoon in EPCOT’s United Kingdom Pavilion. Having no real frame of reference, I imagine that the eatery is a “Disney-fied” recreation of a sanitized version of a British pub. Our waitress, Linda, like most cast members (Disney’s corporate euphemism for “employee”), was friendly, talkative, attentive and overall delightful. In between dinner courses, she told tales of living in her native England* and about working at Walt Disney World. As she cleared away our main course dishes — and confirmed that it would be okay to linger and watch the nightly “IllumiNations” fireworks spectacular from our prime vantage point — she told us that she rarely waits tables in the dining room. Her usual assignment is tending the bar at the pub in the front portion of the building. We laughed and imagined that she probably has seen her share of interesting behavior. She suddenly pulled up a chair and leaned in close to relate one such incident. She smiled and explained that, while most guests are happy and cheerful, some get a little hostile after a few beers — no matter where they are. One recent night, as closing time approached, two gentlemen were knocking back more than their fair share of Bass Ales while their families where wandering about elsewhere. Something triggered a disagreement between the two. Soon, it elevated to a heated argument that evolved into several unwelcome shoves. Linda quickly set down the glasses that she was wiping down to practically leap over the polished wood bar and place herself in harm’s way as a buffer between these vacationing combatants.

“Hey!,” she shouted, extending her small arms in an effort to keep these lunkheads out of each others reach before they came to blows. “Let’s not forget where we are!,” she loudly reminded them,”We’re in Disney World! The happiest place on Earth!” Another cast member summoned a couple of burly security officers and the rambunctious pair were led off… in different directions. Linda confessed that episodes like that happen more often than you’d expect. Way more often.

More recently, as a matter of fact, Space Mountain and The Haunted Mansion weren’t exciting enough for one Andrew Hall. His May 2015 vacation called for a little more adventure than Disney could offer, as related in this story from The Orlando Sentinel.

My family is once again planning a Disney vacation. We will try to behave ourselves.

*When EPCOT first opened its gates in 1982, they made a conscious effort to employ natives of the respective countries represented in World Showcase in order to maintain the “you are actually in this country” illusion of which Disney is the pioneer and master.