DCS: eugene bullard

Eugene Bullard was unhappy as child, as was evidenced by his numerous attempts to run away from home. After each unsuccessful try, he was returned to his father, who proceeded to beat young Eugene. In 1906, at the age of 11, Eugene got far enough away and hoped to experience a happier life. He wandered for years, fending for himself through odd jobs and scrounging.

In 1912, Eugene stowed away on a German freight ship. The ship docked in Scotland and Eugene made his way across the United Kingdom working with an African-American traveling entertainment group, as well as taking opponents as a boxer. He made it to France for a boxing match and decided to make it his home. He loved the customs and culture of France and felt comfortable, noting in a journal: “It seemed to me that French democracy influenced the minds of both black and white Americans there and helped us all act like brothers.”

When World War I broke out, Eugene enlisted in the French Foreign Legion, serving with the 170th Infantry Regiment. He eventually joined the Aéronautique Militaire, the French Air Force. He engaged in many successful air battles and his fierce fighting methods earned him the nickname “Black Swallow of Death.” He was repeatedly decorated by the French government for his efforts.

In 1917, when the United States entered the war, Eugene attempted to join the US Air Force. He was turned down, citing a number of made-up excuses. The real reason, of course, was that the US Air Force did not accept African-Americans. He returned to his unit, but a confrontation with a superior officer relegated him to menial duty until his discharge.

Back in civilian life, Eugene ran an athletic club, then worked in and eventually owned a nightclub — an establishment that was frequented by Louis Armstrong and Josephine Baker. In the months before the start of World War II, Eugene was employed as a spy, looking for Nazis among the nightclub patrons. Fearing for his safety and the safety of his family, he headed for Spain, then Portugal with the United States his eventual destination. His military settlement from the French government was enough to buy an apartment in Harlem.

An activist for civil rights, Eugene was involved in the notorious Peekskill Riot. A protest at an appearance by singer and fellow activist Paul Robeson escalated to violence when a local VFW chapter accused Robeson of being a communist. Eugene and others were severely beaten by a mob which included law enforcement.

The treatment Eugene received in the United States was jarring as compared to the accolades he experienced in France. Each morning he would look at his 15 French war medals as he left his apartment for his job as an elevator operator at New York’s Rockefeller Center. On December 22, 1959, Eugene was interviewed by Today Show host Dave Garroway about his war exploits. He wore his elevator operator uniform during the interview.

Eugene developed stomach cancer and passed away in 1961 at the age of 66. He is remembered as the first African-American military pilot — but for a different country than his own.

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DCS: cindy williams

No, that’s not Natalie Portman, although Cindy Williams thought it was.

I met Cindy Williams at a collector show in Gaithersburg, Maryland. A two-plus hour drive from my house, this particular show offered something for both Mrs. Pincus and myself. It boasted a large variety of vendors selling antiques and assorted collectibles, something my wife loves to peruse, eventually wheeling and dealing on the final prices. For me, there was the appeal of several celebrity guests, brought in by the show’s organizer to entice folks (like me) to attend.

Set up at long tables among the vendors, celebrities would display glossy photos of scenes spanning their careers, available with a personalized inscription for a nominal fee. I collected autographed photos for years and the prices were pretty reasonable when I started. Now, things have gotten way out of hand, with different prices for each additional ala carte service. An autographed picture? Sure! Forty dollars. A color picture? Add ten to that. Oh, you brought something to be signed? That’ll be sixty dollars. Wait, that item you brought is pretty big. Make that a hundred dollars. You want to take a picture with me? That’s another twenty. 

At this show, the special guests were Cindy Williams and her friend, actress Lynne Marie Stewart. Cindy, of course, is best remembered as the perky eternal optimist “Shirley Feeney” on the popular 70s sitcom Laverne & Shirley. Lynne played “Miss Yvonne, the most beautiful woman in Puppet Land” on the Saturday morning kids show send-up Pee Wee’s Playhouse. She also appeared in George Lucas’s 1973 love letter to his youth American Graffiti with Cindy Williams.

The two ladies were seated at a long folding table laden with shiny stills highlighting their career accomplishments and they were chatting. While my wife was deep in price negotiations with a nearby vendor, I approached the two actresses with my then teenage son, who was not exactly thrilled to be there. He was wearing a long, almost floor-length, black overcoat with silver clasps down the front. Cindy turned towards us, smiled and began to make a fuss over my son’s jacket. I mean she stood up and leaned over to examine it, narrowing her eyes and delivering a stream of compliments. I told them both that I was a devoted fan and I selected a photo from each of their respective inventory to be autographed and eventually added to my collection. Let me tell you… Cindy was adorable! She was friendly and talkative and engaging and very sweet. Lynne was charming, as well. I thanked the two ladies for their time and we began to walk away from their table, with Cindy still going on about my son’s coat. My son’s demeanor changed a bit, after his taste in wardrobe was given such praise and validation by that woman who lives in a Milwaukee basement apartment on that TV show and caps beer bottles for a living.

Many years later, Mrs. Pincus and I found ourselves at another Maryland collector show, this one a mere 14 miles from Gaithersburg in the tiny municipality of Cockeyville (I am not making that up). This little hamlet is the home of the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention (MANC), a three- day gathering of vendors, lecturers, fans and, of course, celebrities. I’ve been to MANC and I have even written about several adventures there. On this day in 2017, Cindy Williams was in attendance. Since I had already obtained Cindy’s autograph, I decided to present her with an original Josh Pincus portrait… of her, not of me. (It’s the one at the top of this page that you and Cindy thought was Natalie Portman.)

MANC was set up in a similar fashion to other shows. Aisle after aisle of books, toys and novelties informally illustrating a history of pop culture from the Golden Days of Radio right through present day. In the center of a large hotel ballroom was a corral of tables, behind which sat the likes of Larry Storch, Dawn Wells and a number of other names from television’s formable years. Among these folks was Cindy Williams in a maroon blazer and still looking great. I waited behind a couple who were wrapping up their little chat with Cindy and when they moved away, I sidled up to her table. I explained that we had met years earlier and that I just wanted to give her something. I withdrew the color drawing from a manila envelope and handed it across the table to Cindy. She kvelled (as “my people” say). I had heard her kvell before when she went on about my son’s jacket. This was very similar. She laughed a little, pointing out that my drawing made her look like Natalie Portman, adding that was not a bad thing, as she explained that Natalie Portman was beautiful in her opinion. Cindy asked me about my artwork and about being an artist. She seemed genuinely interested. We spoke for a few minutes and Laverne & Shirley or television or movies or show business never breached the conversation.

Then, to my surprise, she said: “Please! Let me give you a picture! I insist!”

She picked up a color shot of herself and co-star Penny Marshall in character from Laverne & Shirley and wrote the following to my wife and me:

Love & Thanks
to
Josh & Susan
XXOO
Cindy (Natalie P.) Williams
AKA Shirley F.

She thanked me again for the drawing and for coming by to say “Hello.”

Cindy was truly a sweetheart and one of the nicest, most genuine and down-to-earth celebrities I have met. Her passing was unexpected… and sad.

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DCS: charles shackleford

ambidextrous

Charles Shackleford could have been big.

He was a celebrated forward for NC State in the mid-1980s, with a promising career in the NBA. He played for the New Jersey Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and the Minnesota Timberwolves, with successful stints in the European basketball league in between. Unfortunately, several brushes with the law and an accusation of involvement with a point-shaving scandal kept stardom just out of Charles’ reach.

He is best remembered, however, for a quote from an interview while in college. He told a reporter: “I can shoot with my left hand, I can shoot with my right hand, I’m amphibious.” The quote haunted him for his entire professional career.

Charles was found dead in his home in North Carolina in January 2017. Charles had suffered an apparent heart attack. He was 50 years old.

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DCS: marty allen

Paired with Mitch DeWood, comedian Marty Allen worked as an opening act for such popular stars as Sarah Vaughan, Eydie Gormé, and Nat King Cole. They played major clubs including the famous Copacabana in New York. The pair split in 1958 and Marty teamed up with singer Steve Rossi.

Allen and Rossi were wildly successful. They made upwards of 700 television appearances, including two of the four Ed Sullivan Shows on which The Beatles performed. Marty endeared himself to the February 16, 1964 audience by announcing that he was Ringo’s mother. Allen and Rossi recorded 16 albums and made a film in 1966 — a spoof of the popular spy genre. The duo remained active until 1968 when Marty’s often-mention wife “Frenchy” passed away. Devastated, he retired from show business and — amiably — broke up the act.

Marty returned to stage and screen after a few years, taking several dramatic roles, much to the surprise of his fans. He became a staple on television, with numerous appearances in sitcoms, anthologies late-night talk shows and game shows, including a regular stint on Hollywood Squares. He even reunited with Steve Rossi on several occasions.

Marty remarried in 1985 to singer-songwriter Karon Kate Blackwell. The couple performed all over Las Vegas as well as on cruise ships, where their act was very well received. Remaining low key about his personal life, Marty was quite the philanthropist, contributing generously to a number of charitable causes, including the American Cancer Society, March of Dimes, Fight for Sight, Cerebral Palsy, and serving on the board of the Epilepsy Foundation. He also found the time to entertain US troops in military hospitals.

Marty was performing until 2016, when his health began to fail. He passed away at his Las Vegas home in 2018, just a few weeks prior to his 96th birthday.

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DCS: virginia o’brien

Virginia O’Brien was at the very top in the 1940s. She was featured in 17 films, most of which showcased her comedic ability and lovely singing voice. But, what made Virginia stand out among her contemporaries was her style. And her style was deadpan.

In numerous featured performances, whether fronting a big band or at the forefront of a musical number, Virginia employed a deadpan, unblinking, expressionless façade that eventually became her trademark. In films like The Big Store with The Marx Brothers, Panama Hattie and DuBarry was a Lady with Red Skelton, Virginia sang her heart out while barely moving a muscle…. and audiences ate it up. Virginia explained that this was a coping mechanism she used early in her career to combat a bad case of stage fright. She didn’t always sing in this manner, but it was always well received when she did. Her acting was as emotive and natural as her co-stars, but her singing style was her comedy secret weapon.

When her contract was unceremoniously dropped by MGM Studios, Virginia effortlessly moved on to television and live theater. In 1976, she appeared in the comedy film Gus for Walt Disney Pictures, but soon returned to the stage. She performed into the 1990s in a one-woman show, as well as in a touring production of the musical Show Boat and a stint in the popular The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies musical revue.

Virginia passed away in 2001 at the age of 81.

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DCS: glenda farrell

Glenda Farrell was the epitome of the snappy-talking blonde, so popular in 1930s Hollywood. She was often cast as confident women in films, including I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang and Lady for a Day. She appeared alongside Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar and a succession of film noirs to great success.

In 1934, she was paired with fellow Warner Brothers player Joan Blondell for a series of comedy films. Once more, Glenda’s career met with more success, as the well-received pairing led to eight additional films.

In 1937, Glenda made the first of seven films portraying investigative reporter “Torchy” Blane. In the series, Glenda showed off her trademark rapid-fire delivery of dialogue. Paired with tough guy Barton MacClane as hard-nosed police detective “Steve McBride,” the two brought great chemistry to the big screen, securing a regular “second feature” spot for years. In later years, Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel cited “Torchy Blane” as his inspiration for “Lois Lane.”

In 1937, she was elected honorary mayor of North Hollywood, beating out Bing Crosby for the office. Originally intended as a publicity stunt, Glenda took the position seriously, setting the groundwork for the installation of a sewer system on Ventura Highway.

Glenda rode her success into the 40s, 50s and 60s, with stage roles, more film roles and parts on episodic television. She even appeared with her son Tommy in two films in 1964 — Kissin’ Cousins with Elvis Presley and Jerry Lewis in The Disorderly Orderly. She was coaxed out a brief retirement in 1968 to appear on Broadway in Forty Carats, a play which earned a Best Actress Tony Award for star Julie Harris. Glenda’s run in the play was cut short due to health issues. She was diagnosed with lung cancer. Her health deteriorated and Glenda passed away in 1971 at the age of 66.

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