Monthly Archives: April 2010

Americana: Carnegie Hall

Carnegie Hall was the home of the New York Philharmonic for 70 years until the opening of Lincoln Center. Uploaded by

Two blocks south of Central Park on Seventh Ave. you’ll find one of the world’s premier concert halls. Funded, as the name implies, by the great philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, the building has been a leading venue for outstanding artists in many musical genres since its completion in 1892. It’s known for its beauty and fabulous acoustics.

The main auditorium, which seats 2,804 on five levels, was home for the New York Philharmonic until it moved to Lincoln Center in 1962. Without its primary tenant, the building was scheduled for demolition to make way for a skyscraper. Fortunately, the city of New York was able to purchase the historic site, much to the relief of music lovers everywhere.

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Over the years, Carnegie Hall has seen the debut of important musical works, including Symphony No. 9, opus 95, “From the New World” by Antonín Dvořák, Sinfonia Domestica by Richard Strauss, and An American in Paris by George Gershwin. Other composers whose works premiered at Carnegie Hall include Sergei Rachmaninoff, Béla Bartók, Duke Ellington, Igor Stravinsky, and Philip Glass.

Lest you think popular music has no place in such a sacred venue, consider that rock and roll has been represented by everyone from Bill Haley and the Comets to the Beatles to Pink Floyd to Stevie Ray Vaughn.

Naturally, you’ll want to see this important building when you visit New York City. So exactly how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Prac…

Sports: Jack Nicklaus

Jack Nicklaus was instrumental in getting golf included as an Olympic sport, beginning in 2016. Uploaded by

While Tiger Woods may someday eclipse his totals, the title of greatest golfer of all time now belongs to Jack Nicklaus. “The Golden Bear” exerted a mastery over the game – and his opponents – that hadn’t been witnessed until Woods (Great American Things, June 19, 2009) came along.

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Nicklaus made his debut on the professional scene during the heyday of Arnold Palmer (Great American Things, July 2, 2009), whose charisma alone helped open up golf from a country club sport to one for a mass audience. For a time Nicklaus was “the bad guy” who often bested the people’s champion. It took years, a patient temperament, and continuous displays of his prodigious talent to win over America.

It would take paragraphs to list all of Nicklaus’s accomplishments, so here’s a quick summary. He’s won 18 major titles and finished in the top five 56 times. He accumulated 73 PGA Tour victories. He’s designed almost 350 golf courses, in the U.S. and 34 countries around the world. Naturally, he’s in the World Golf Hall of Fame, and there’s a Jack Nicklaus Museum on the campus of his alma mater, Ohio State University.

Author Rick Reilly said this about Jack Nicklaus: “He was not homespun like Sam Snead, funny like Lee Trevino. His pants didn’t need hitching like Palmer’s. Instead, he won over America with pure, unbleached excellence.”

The Arts: Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway was a big game hunter, a world-class fisherman - oh, and he could write a pretty good novel, too. Uploaded by

He was a great writer, called the greatest writer since Shakespeare by John O’Hara. And he had a larger-than-life personality. You can call him a lot of things, but I don’t think you can call a man who drank too much, married four times, and eventually committed suicide, “Papa.”

What do you say about a man who wrote some of the greatest novels and short stories in the history of American literature, but who never actually realized his true potential? He drove an ambulance in Italy during World War I…lived in the amazing Paris arts community along with Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, and Ezra Pound…covered the Spanish Civil War for the North American Newspaper Alliance, landed with the Allies at D-Day and was present at the liberation of Paris…all while writing the occasional novel or short story. What could he have accomplished if he’d given himself completely to novels?

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Just look at what he accomplished when he did focus. In order of publication, his novels include “The Sun Also Rises,” “A Farewell to Arms,” “To Have and Have Not,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and “The Old Man and the Sea.” This last book won the Pulitzer Prize (Great American Things, February 19, 2010) for fiction, and also influenced his selection for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Hemingway had four rules for writing: 1. Use short sentences. 2. Use short first paragraphs. 3. Use vigorous English. 4. Be positive, not negative. Hemingway elaborated on his method to F. Scott Fitzgerald: “I write one page of masterpiece to 91 pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”

Song: “A Change Is Gonna Come”

Though the song never cracked the Billboard Top 25, it was named by Rolling Stone as the 12th greatest song of all time. Uploaded by

Question: How many American Idol contestants does it take to completely ruin a song? Answer: If it’s truly a classic, like “A Change Is Gonna Come,” even Adam Lambert can’t ruin it.

Lots of people have recorded this song, and some have done a very creditable job with it. But no one has ever – or will ever, I’m sure – bring the depth of feeling to it as Sam Cooke did in the original recording in 1963.

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Cooke went to talk to some sit-in demonstrators in Durham, North Carolina following a concert there. Known for light songs such as “You Send Me” and “Twisting the Night Away,” he wanted to make a statement about the changes taking place in society. He was also dealing with the death of his 18-month-old son in an accidental drowning that same year. He went back to the tour bus and wrote the first draft of “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

The song has gained in both popularity and influence in the decades since its release. It peaked at number 9 on the Billboard R&B Singles chart, and number 31 on the Billboard Hot 100. But the song became an anthem for the civil rights movement, and it’s now recognized as one of the greatest songs in pop music history. This song, which never reached the top 25 in its initial release, was voted the number 12 song in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time…

Americana: Louisville Slugger

We're not sure who J. Fred Hillerich of Louisville made his first Slugger for, but we know it's been used by the greats from Babe Ruth to Derek Jeter. Uploaded by

J. Fred Hillerich of Louisville, Kentucky, wanted nothing to do with baseball bats. On that, everyone agrees. He focused his woodworking shop on more profitable things, such as bedposts, tenpins, and a swinging butter churn. A patented swinging butter churn, no less.

His son, Bud, had other ideas. Maybe he made the first bat for a local pro named Pete Browning. Maybe he made it for a visiting player, Arlie Latham of the St. Louis Browns. Or maybe he made it for a little green man from Mars. Does it matter? What America knows is that baseball players all the way from Babe Ruth (Great American Things, Aug. 3, 2009) to Derek Jeter have relied on Louisville Sluggers.

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One factor in the company’s success has been that amateur players could swing a bat endorsed by the top Major Leaguers. Honus Wagner was the first to sign a sponsorship contract, which was also the first product endorsement in American sports history.

Of course, each Louisville Slugger is unique. The heaviest ever ordered was 48 ounces, used by Ed Roush of the Cincinnati Reds. The lightest came in at only 30 ounces – Billy Goodman of the Boston Red Sox used it in 1950 to win the American League batting crown. And Al Simmons used the longest bat, at 38 inches.

It’s with a heavy heart that I report that Hillerich & Bradsby (the corporate name of the manufacturer) also makes – it really pains me to say this – aluminum bats as well. No doubt the aluminum bats make the profit that allows the company to continue making wood bats, when few amateur groups still use them.

I still remember using Louisville Sluggers in my youth baseball days. Ah yes, the many home runs that…oh, all right, the many doubles I hit with my Al Kaline and Richie Ashburn models…

Oh, and Carrie Underwood reminds us of another use for these bats:

Kid Stuff: Scrabble

Scrabble was invented by a man named BUTTS. You'd think the game's creator would total more than 7 points. Uploaded by

Scrabble follows the pattern of a lot of board games. Invented by a creative mind. Failed to be sold to a major manufacturer. Creator keeps at it, gets a lucky break. Game becomes popular.

In the case of Scrabble, the inventor was a man named Alfred M. Butts, who meticulously studied the distribution of letters in the New York Times and Saturday Evening Post to determine their relative frequency of use. He called his game “Criss-Crosswords.” Butts didn’t sell many sets, but one of his customers believed in the game, and bought it from Butts. His name was James Brunot, and he changed the game’s name to “Scrabble.”

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Brunot struggled, but the break he looked for came (according to legend) when the president of Macy’s played the game while on vacation. He was surprised, upon returning to his store, to find that Scrabble wasn’t on its shelves. He placed a large order, and within a year “everybody had to have one.” It’s said that today there’s a Scrabble game in one of every three American households.

Now you can get dozens of Scrabble-related products. Card games, PC games, pocket games, Upwords. There’s even a Scrabble app for the iPhone.

My mother loved Scrabble, so we took it with us on vacations during my childhood. On one memorable vacation, someone set the game on the roof of the car, and forgot it. We trailed wood tiles for hundreds of yards before we realized our mistake…

Singer: Steven Curtis Chapman

His recording totals would be impressive in any musical field - more than 50 Dove Awards, 5 Grammys, 10 gold and 2 platinum albums, and 45 number one radio hits. Uploaded by

Amy Grant probably has sold more records. Michael W. Smith is probably better known. But if you had to look to one person as the face of the Contemporary Christian musical genre, it would have to be Steven Curtis Chapman.

I was surprised to read that he’s 47 years old. He looks about 30. That would be pretty difficult, however, since he’s been releasing albums since 1987. His recording totals would be impressive in any musical field – more than 50 Dove Awards, 5 Grammys, 10 gold and 2 platinum albums, and 45 number one radio hits.

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As impressive as that is, what separates Steven Curtis Chapman is his dedication to service. He has been a longtime advocate of adoption, having adopted three of his own children. He and his wife formed an organization called Show Hope that mobilizes individuals and communities to care for orphans, and provides grants for international adoptions. Show Hope just completed Maria’s Big House of Hope, a center that provides medical care to special needs children in China. In addition, he’s lent his efforts to thwart violence in schools, worked with World Vision on Project Restore to help rebuild the Louisiana coast following Katrina, and brought attention to the problems of refugee children in Uganda.

Chapman’s five-year-old daughter Maria was tragically killed in an accident in 2008, when one of her older brothers hit her while pulling a car into the family driveway. The entire Chapman family has struggled through its grief, and Steven recorded an album (Beauty Will Rise) in 2009 that he has called his “personal psalms.”

When someone has been named “Entertainer of the Year” seven times in the Dove Awards, more than any other artist, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them “go Hollywood.” That’s why Steven Curtis Chapman is so refreshing. Here’s a man who walks the true walk of the faith he believes. Enjoy this song, but have a tissue handy…

Film: Ben-Hur

Before the fake world of computer-generated images, the chariot scene of Ben-Hur was filmed with 15,000 extras on a special set that covered 18 acres. Uploaded by

Charlton Heston is more closely associated with this role than any other in his celebrated career. The part of Judah Ben-Hur was originally offered to Burt Lancaster, but Lancaster was an atheist who didn’t want to appear in a film that “promoted” Christianity. So Heston got the part. The religious sections of the film didn’t bother director William Wyler, who was Jewish. Wyler had been an assistant director on the silent version of Ben-Hur back in 1925.

The sheer scale of the movie’s production is mind-boggling. The film used more than a million props, and more than 300 sets were constructed. It had the largest crew ever for a film, and the most extras – 15,000 for the chariot scene alone. Most of that would now be computer-generated, and wouldn’t have the wonderful reality created for Ben-Hur.

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Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Story of the Christ provided the source for the movie, which stayed basically true to the novel. One significant difference is that the movie ends shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus, while the book continues on with Ben-Hur helping Christians to worship during the period of persecution under Emperor Nero.

Opera singer Claude Heater performed the part of Jesus, the only film appearance he ever made. Jesus appears most prominently early in the film, giving water to a suffering Ben-Hur, and of course during scenes leading up to and including his crucifixion.

You can’t feature this movie without discussing the chariot scene, one of the most famous in the history of film. It took five weeks to shoot, and took place on a specially built set that covered an incredible 18 acres. Even now, with virtually anything possible in the era of computer graphics, this is still considered one of the most spectacular productions of all time.

Ben-Hur was the top-grossing movie of 1960, and won 11 Academy Awards, a feat that’s only been equaled twice since. In the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Movies, Ben-Hur ranked number 72, and was the number two in the epic category…

TV Show: The Muppet Show

Waldorf: 'Just when you think this show is terrible, something wonderful happens.' Statler: 'What?' Waldorf: 'It ends.' Uploaded by

We first knew Jim Henson’s Muppets from their appearances on Sesame Street (Great American Things, September 1, 2009). Henson, however, didn’t want to be stuck with the label of “children’s entertainment.” He knew he could make his creations – and his quirky humor – popular with adult audiences as well. The result, we’re all happy to say, was The Muppet Show.

The show debuted in 1976, and built momentum from early disappointing results to huge success. Part of the credit goes to the desire of many major stars to be on the show. Guest stars over the show’s five seasons included: Julie Andrews, Harry Belafonte, Carol Burnett, George Burns, Johnny Cash, John Cleese, John Denver, Bob Hope, Elton John, Danny Kaye, Gene Kelly, Gladys Knight, Loretta Lynn, Steve Martin, Rudolph Nureyev, Kenny Rogers, Linda Ronstadt, Peter Sellers, Paul Simon, Sylvester Stallone, Peter Ustinov, Raquel Welch, and dozens more.

Uploaded to Flickr by sanchee.

The characters created by Henson and his fabulous puppeteers (including Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Dave Goelz, and others) were fully realized. The modest Kermit, the outrageous Miss Piggy, the endearing Fozzie Bear, the daredevil Gonzo, the intrepid inventor Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and his assistant Beaker, the inventive Swedish Chef, wild drummer Animal, and the two hecklers in the balcony, Statler and Waldorf.

The show only ran for five seasons, but has often been seen in syndication since (though it’s not appearing now, best I can tell). During that time, it earned four Emmys (including Outstanding Comedy-Variety or Musical Series) and the prestigious Peabody Award.

By the way, did you know Miss Piggy’s whole name? It’s “Miss Piggy Lee”…

Americana: Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure

Each year, breast cancer strikes about 190,000 American women. The Race for the Cure helps fund research to make breast cancer a thing of the past. Uploaded by

Each year, more than a million people run or walk a 5k course to help raise funds for the fight against breast cancer. Some of them are breast cancer survivors, and participate to celebrate their victory. Others are the friends and relatives of those who were victims of the disease. They come in memory, and in tribute.

They all have one goal: To raise money for research that will, once and for all, end this disease that affects about 190,000 women each year.

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Susan G. Komen was a woman in Peoria, Illinois who was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 33, and died three years later. Her sister, Nancy Goodman Brinker, had promised Susan to do all she could to boost breast cancer research. Her pledge was realized when she established the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation in 1982.

Now, just more than 25 years later, and known as Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the foundation has invested more than $1.5 billion in research. In more than 100 cities across the country you’ll find a Race for the Cure event, with women and men united toward one goal: “To end breast cancer forever.”