Monthly Archives: May 2010

Music: Irving Berlin

Irving Berlin came to the U.S. at the age of five, and turned out some of our most patriotic songs, including God Bless America. Uploaded by

I’ve featured some outstanding American songwriters on this site, those who’ve penned both contemporary hits and classics from the great American songbook. I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to get to Irving Berlin, because he may very well have written more songs that are part of our nation’s cultural fabric than anyone else.

Berlin was a legend before he reached 30. His first song, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” became a huge hit not just in the USA, but around the world. Although born in Russia, his family came to this country when he was just five. He said he wanted to “reach the heart of the average American,” something he undoubtedly accomplished.

The streets and restaurants of lower Manhattan provided Berlin his music laboratory. He sang on the corners for pennies, became a singing waiter in Chinatown (where he learned to play the piano after hours), and finally started writing songs of his own.

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During his lifetime he wrote sheet music, films, and Broadway plays – some 1,500 songs in all. Of his influence, the New York Times wrote, “Irving Berlin set the tone and the tempo for the tunes America played and sang and danced to for much of the 20th century.” Here’s a list of some of his most popular hits:

“A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” • “Always” • “Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)” • “Blue Skies” • “Cheek to Cheek” • “Doin’ What Comes Naturally” • “Easter Parade” • “God Bless America” • “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” • “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” • “Marie” • “Puttin’ on the Ritz” • “The Girl that I Marry” • “There’s No Business Like Show Business” • “What’ll I Do?” • “White Christmas”

Americana: Ringling Brothers Circus

For well over 100 years, Ringling Brothers circuses have been The Greatest Show on Earth. Uploaded by

My header isn’t big enough for the full name: Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. If you think that’s long, look at the name as it appeared in the late 1880s: “Ringling Brothers United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan, and Congress of Trained Animals.”

P.T. Barnum got the ball rolling (a little elephant pun) when he created his circus in 1871. James Bailey formed a competing circus four years later, and the competitors merged in 1881. The Ringlings formed their company in 1884, and finally purchased Barnum & Bailey in 1907. The two operations continued to tour separately until 1919, when they merged into the circus we know today.

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The company runs two circus productions concurrently, the Red Tour and the Blue Tour. The tours crisscross the country in special mile-long trains with approximately 60 passenger cars and 40 freight cars. Though everyone rightly associates Ringling Brothers with mammoth elephants, it’s also well-known for its clowns – the most famous being Emmett Kelly, whose “Weary Willie” is probably the most famous clown ever.

With acrobats, trapeze artists, clowns, high wire artists, and a wide variety of wild animals, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey has earned the right to call itself “The Greatest Show on Earth”…

Travel: The Coast of Maine

Bar Harbor is typical of the charming New England towns that dot the state's Atlantic coastline. Uploaded by

Here’s a fact that could win you a few bar bets: The total coastline of Maine is greater than the coast of California (3,478 mi. vs. 3,427 – includes shoreline of outer coast, offshore islands, sounds, bays, rivers, and creeks). Okay, that’s a little misleading, but there’s no disputing that the Maine coast is unlike anywhere else in the United States.

Portland, with about 66,000 people, is Maine's largest city. Uploaded by

Not long after you pass over the Piscatiqua River from New Hampshire, you’ll come to some classic coastal towns, such as Kittery, Kennebunk, and Kennebunkport. Travel further and you’ll come to Portland, Freeport (home of L.L. Bean), Camden, and Bar Harbor. The towns are charming, and the coastline is mesmerizing.

The Maine coast isn’t “the beach,” but it’s visually unique nonetheless. Let’s take a visual tour…

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Kittery, uploaded to Flickr by sweatmonkeys.

Bailey Island, uploaded by

Camden, uploaded by

Portland, uploaded by

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Uploaded to Flickr by ctp2112.

Kennebunkport, uploaded by

Person: Will Rogers

Will Rogers commented on the politics of his time, and yet his remarks seem surprisingly contemporary. Uploaded by

If you’ve seen The Will Rogers Follies, you probably think of the man as a humorist who told jokes and stories with the Ziegfeld Follies, punctuated by rope tricks. But that’s just one small part of Rogers’s life, the fellow who became the voice of the common man in America.

For example, he starred in 71 movies (only 21 were “talkies”), and became the highest-paid man in Hollywood. He had a highly successful vaudeville act. He wrote more than 4,000 newspaper columns. He toured the lecture circuit and wrote a number of humor books. He was one of the early stars of radio. And he loved to fly — a love that would be his undoing.

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Wiley Post was interested in finding a passenger and mail route from the West Coast to Russia, and invited Will Rogers to fly with him through Alaska. Rogers, looking for new material for his newspaper column, agreed. Post had built his own plane, and made it ready for this route over water by adding floats. Unfortunately, they made the aircraft nose heavy, and the plane crashed trying to take off from a lagoon near Point Barrow, Alaska. Both men were killed.

But nothing has been able to extinguish the flame of Rogers’s famous wit. Here are some memorable sayings from the humorist who said, “I never met a man I didn’t like”:

“Lord, the money we do spend on Government and it’s not one bit better than the government we got for one-third the money twenty years ago.”

“America has a unique record. We never lost a war and we never won a conference in our lives. I believe that we could without any degree of egotism, single-handed lick any nation in the world. But we can’t confer with Costa Rica and come home with our shirts on.”

“I am not a member of any organized political party, I’m a Democrat.”

“A fool and his money are soon elected.”

“Buy land. They ain’t making any more of the stuff.”

“Diplomacy is the art of saying “Nice doggie” until you can find a rock.”

“The only difference between death and taxes is that death doesn’t get worse every time Congress meets.”

Food: Strawberry Shortcake

I think this is actual shortcake and whipped cream. Sponge cake and Cool Whip are fine in a pinch, but this just looks more decadent. Uploaded by

It’s early May, and roadside stands selling fresh strawberries have popped up across the countryside. You can coat the berries with rich chocolate, dunk them in a sweet fruit dip, or even eat them just by themselves. But the highest calling for a strawberry is to be part of a delicious strawberry shortcake.

I say that, but I can’t confirm with certainty that I’ve ever had actual shortcake. Genuine shortcake is more like a scone, or a slightly sweet biscuit. If you don’t want your sweets to be all that sweet, this is just right for you.

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For convenience sake, some folks use those preformed sponge cakes displayed next to strawberries in the grocery store, which are sort of like Twinkies without the filling. Or they substitute another kind of cake. My wife prefers angel food cake, which is nice because it absorbs the flavors and isn’t as fattening. But if you’re worried about the diet, strawberry shortcake probably isn’t for you anyway.

Okay, now I’m going to have to stop at one of those strawberry stands this weekend and pick up some fresh strawberries. I’ve just made myself very hungry…

Sports: Robin Roberts

At one time or other during his career, Robin Roberts led the league in shutouts, strikeouts, complete games, wins, and innings pitched. He pitched 28 complete games - IN A ROW. Uploaded by

No. 36 made it to 83. Today, Hall-of-Fame Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Robin Roberts left the game. He was my boyhood hero and the man whose name inspired my own.

Robin is probably best known for two things. He led the Phillies to the World Series in 1950 as part of the young team immortalized in baseball lore as “The Whiz Kids.” And he gave up more home runs than any pitcher in Major League history.

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That World Series took place in October, 1950, and a month later I was born. My father liked the name Robin, and gave it to me. As a result, I followed Robin Roberts’s career, though he had his very best years before I became a fan.

And what years, and career accomplishments, he had. He won 20 or more games six straight years, and led the National League in victories between 1952-1955. He once pitched 28 complete games in a row.

As an adult, I always wanted to meet my hero, and I came very close in 1993. The MLB All-Star Game was held in Baltimore that year, and I wrote to Robin Roberts and asked if my sons and I could meet him during the weekend. He wrote back and told me to meet him at his hotel, but somehow our signals got crossed, and we missed him. Then a few years later he was to sign autographs at a memorabilia show in Chantilly, Va. My good friend Todd Marcum pulled some strings, and I got to sit with Robin while he signed baseball cards and other items for his fans. Today I’m so glad I had that moment.

People who knew him say he was a gentleman, and he always followed his Phillies right up till his passing. Here’s an interesting piece of trivia about my favorite player – he is the only pitcher to have victories against the Boston Braves, the Milwaukee Braves, and the Atlanta Braves…

Singer: Lyle Lovett

More people probably know that Lyle Lovett was married to Julia Roberts than know his music. That's understandable...but tragic. Uploaded by

Lyle Lovett has only had one single hit the top ten of the Country chart, “Cowboy Man” (1986). But he’s won four Grammy Awards, including Best Male Country Vocal Performance in 1989 for “Lyle Lovett and His Large Band” and Best Country Album in 1996 for “The Road to Ensenada.” I think it’s safe to say he’s not that concerned about singles.

While Lovett has always been categorized as a country artist, even a brief encounter with his music reveals him to be influenced by jazz, gospel, and blues. When he performs with his Large Band, his sound is clearly more closely identified with blues than country.

As a songwriter, he pens lyrics both quirky and smart. Take this verse from “If I Had A Boat”:

Now the mystery masked man was smart, he got himself a Tonto
‘Cause Tonto did the dirty work for free
But Tonto, he was smarter, and one day said, Kemo Sabe
Well kiss my ass I bought a boat, I’m going out to sea

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In addition to music, Lovett has acted in a number of TV shows and movies. He moved from the secluded world of underappreciated musician to the national stage in 1993 when he married Julia Roberts. They’d met on a movie set, were married after three weeks, and divorced in less than two years. America looked at Lovett, then looked at Roberts, and said, “Huh?”

Lovett’s Texas roots come through in both his phrasing and his attitude. He attended Texas A&M University, where he studied – get this – German and journalism. The most interesting fact about his time in college was his roommate, another eccentric musician — Robert Earl Keen. Imagine the jam sessions in that dorm room…

Kid Stuff: Crayola Crayons

With 133 different colors now made, what's America's favorite? I hope you're sitting down. It's - blue. Uploaded to Flickr by Nicole'.

The chemical company Binney & Smith muddled along during the late 19th century, making shoe polish, printing ink, and stuff. Around the turn of the century, the company began producing art supplies, with particular emphasis on developing a non-toxic crayon for schoolchildren. The Crayola name and crayon first emerged in 1903.

Originally, Crayola produced crayon boxes that held from six to 30 colors. That continued to expand over the years, reaching 52 colors in 1939, and the iconic 64-color box (with sharpener!) in 1958. Now there are 120- and 150-packs, though there are actually 133 colors active in the Crayola palette.

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In 1903, the first eight colors were black, brown, orange, violet, blue, green, red, and yellow. How quaint. Today, you can get jazzberry jam, inchworm, mango tango, and wild blue yonder. Of course, you won’t find “flesh” (it’s now peach), “Indian red” (now chestnut), “orange red” or “orange yellow.” We clearly live in a more sensitive (and less orange) world today.

Oh, Crayola had a huge vote in 2000 to have people choose their favorite Crayola colors. The winner is going to shock you. I hope you’re sitting down when you read this. It’s — blue. Wow…

Americana: USS Enterprise

The USS Enterprise was the first nuclear-powered carrier of the US Navy, symbolized here by Einstein's famous equation . Uploaded by

I can still remember when the Enterprise was launched at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Co. Even though I was just a kid (it was 1962), I sensed the pride of the entire city that our signature employer had built the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, “The Big E.”

Now, almost fifty years later, the USS Enterprise is the second-oldest ship still commissioned by the US Navy. Only the historic and symbolic USS Constitution is older. The Enterprise is 1,123 feet long, making it the longest naval vessel in the world.

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Today’s Enterprise follows the great carrier of the same name that was an integral part of America’s naval efforts in World War II. That carrier engaged in more battles against Japan than any other American ship, and was one of only three carriers commissioned before the war that survived it.

Today’s Enterprise has had a number of significant assignments, including helping in the quarantine of Cuba during the Missile Crisis and assisting with naval support during Vietnam and Operation Iraqi Freedom. Its home port is now the Norfolk Naval Base (within sight of its Newport News birthplace), The USS Enterprise is scheduled to be decommissioned in 2013. I hate for that time to come, but the ship will end its final tour as the longest-serving aircraft carrier in US history…

Song: “Over the Rainbow”

Judy Garland will always be linked to this song -- and she was just fine with that. Uploaded by

Louis B. Mayer is one of the greatest executives in the history of motion pictures. But he almost made the mistake of his life when he deleted “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz following a preview. He said it slowed down the movie, and “Our star sings it in a barnyard.”

Fortunately, he was talked back from the edge, and this song earned the honor as “Song of the Century” in a list compiled by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts. The American Film Institute also named it the greatest movie song of all time.

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Judy Garland will always be linked to her signature song, which she always performed just as it was heard in the film. When asked why she never changed it, she expressed her love for the song and respect for the beauty of its arrangement. Harold Arlen created the melody, while E.Y. Harburg wrote the lyrics.

Even so, “Over the Rainbow” has been covered countless times by a wide variety of artists. Here are a few of my favorites, starting with the original…

TV Show: Austin City Limits

Austin City Limits began, as you'd expect, by featuring the music of Austin. Then it expanded to Texas, and now you can hear national and international artists. Uploaded by

If Austin is indeed the “live music capital of the world” as it proclaims itself, much of the credit has to go to Austin City Limits, a PBS stalwart that’s now been running for 24 years. That makes the program the longest-running concert series in TV history.

ACL started life as a showcase specifically for the music of Texas. It had Western Swing. It had Tejano. It had progressive country. It expanded to what’s called “roots” artists, who may or may not have hailed from the Lone Star State. And today, you’re likely to hear virtually any type of music, not just from Austin…or Texas… or even the USA.

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Perhaps you think of ACL as it used to be. Well, here’s a list of recent artists on the show, a list that will perhaps open your eyes: Kenny Chesney, Mos Def, Drive By Truckers, Dave Matthews Band, Elvis Costello, Willie Nelson, Pearl Jam, Steve Earle, Kris Kristofferson, Foo Fighters, and Sarah McLachlan.

Austin City Limits was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President George W. Bush in 2003. It is the only television show that has been honored with this award…