Monthly Archives: January 2011

Americana: The Appalachian Trail


Pictured is McAfee's Knob near Roanoke, one of the most famous overlooks along the Appalachian Trail. Some 10,000 people have claimed to complete the entire hike. Uploaded by

I’m sure that, among the thousands of people who read Great American Things, there are bound to be some who’ve hiked the Appalachian Trail in its entirety. All 2,181 miles, from Mount Katahdin in Maine to Springer Mountain in Georgia. Or the other way, depending on whether you’re a SOBO (southbounder) or a NOBO (northbounder). Along the way you passed through Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia.

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The original idea for the Trail  belonged to a man named Benton MacKaye. The New York Daily Post published his dream, and the ball got rolling. Or, rather, the people got walking. But the entire trail didn’t open all at once; the first section was completed in 1923, but the first person didn’t actually hike the trail’s entire length until 1948. Even so, the trail wasn’t completely marked until 1971.

The longest stretch of the Appalachian Trail goes through Virginia (550 miles); the shortest through West Virginia (4 miles). If you’re one who’s contemplating the hike, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy says you’ll take about 5,000,000 footsteps to complete it. Some 10,000 people have reported doing it. I think that’s great; but I had to go and soak my feet after just writing this post.

Film: Movies of 1954


Sabrina, starring Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, and William Holden, didn't win any of the year's major awards, but it's one of the most-beloved - largely because of Hepburn. Uploaded by

Most of us think of the 1950s as a bland, forgettable decade. The calm before the storm. On the movie front, however, it was a decade of spectacle and style. One of its best years was 1954, which featured these movies:

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – Shared the prize as the year’s box office champ. Starring Kirk Douglas and James Mason. The first sci-fi film from Disney.

The Barefoot Contessa – Perhaps Ava Gardner’s finest role. Humphrey Bogart co-starred.

The Caine Mutiny – Humphrey Bogart and those little steel balls. (Great American Things, July 15, 2010)

The Country Girl – Grace Kelly won the Academy Award for Best Actress in this film that co-starred Bing Crosby and William Holden.

Dial M for Murder. Uploaded by

Dial M for Murder – Hitchcock’s second-most-successful film of the year. Starred Ray Milland and Grace Kelly.

On the Waterfront – The critical hit of the year, winning eight Oscars, including Best Picture. Elia Kazan directed Marlon Brando, Eva Marie Saint and Rod Steiger.

Rear Window – Big at the box office, and one of Hitchcock’s best. With Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly. (Great American Things, September 6, 2010)

Sabrina – Billy Wilder’s comedy-drama starring Audrey Hepburn, William Holden, and Humphrey Bogart.

A Star Is Born – Maybe Judy Garland’s most famous (adult) performance. With James Mason.

White Christmas – The other co-leader at the box office. No snow in Vermont. Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney. (Great American Things, December 24, 2009)

Person: Walt Disney

Think of all the areas Walt's imagination created -- animated feature films, family movies, children's television, prime time variety TV, and theme parks. He changed American entertainment. Uploaded by

Lots of people have changed American culture. Some for better, some for worse. But few have had the positive influence that Walter Elias Disney brought to the world of entertainment.

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From Steamboat Willie to The Wonderful World of Color to Epcot Center, Walt Disney’s imagination has inspired and delighted generations of Americans. His movies managed to achieve the near impossible task of simultaneously enthralling both children and adults.

Just think of all the areas his imagination affected. He virtually invented the animated feature film with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Great American Things, October 22, 2010) … Made memorable live-action movies for families, such as The Absent-Minded Professor and Mary Poppins … Had a huge impact on the development of television, with both The Mickey Mouse Club and the Wonderful World of Disney… virtually invented the theme park with Disneyland, then ratcheted it up to a whole new level with Disney World.

In the Disney movie Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket said it best: “Like a bolt out of the blue, fate steps in and sees you through. When you wish upon a star your dreams come true.”

Originally posted April 14, 2009

Song: “God Only Knows”


When released as a single, "God Only Knows" was on the flip side of "Wouldn't It Be Nice," which initially got more attention. Still, Mojo magazine named it the 13th best song of all time, and Rolling Stone had it as number 25. Uploaded by

The Beach Boys (Great American Things, May 16, 2009) changed with the times during the sixties — or maybe, they made the times change. Known originally for surfing and car songs (“Surfer Girl” and “Little Deuce Coupe,” e.g.), the Boys – and particularly Brian Wilson — wanted to make songs with more complex structures, more unusual harmonies, different instruments. The song that led the way in this direction was “God Only Knows.”

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Brian Wilson wrote the melody and Tony Asher composed the lyrics. And they knew instantly that they had a hit on their hands. Asher bucked conventional wisdom by starting a love song with a negative: “I may not always love you.” Most producers would have insisted on a change, but Wilson embraced the innovative approach. This was also the first pop song to have “God” in the title, and this would bother me personally…except that it seems clear that this wasn’t using God’s name in vain. The singer doesn’t know what he’d do without his love, and seems to appeal to God for solace.

When released, it was on the flip side of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” another great song.Back in 1990, Paul McCartney said about “God Only Knows”: “It’s a really, really great song — it’s a big favorite of mine. I was asked recently to give my top 10 favorite songs for a Japanese radio station … I didn’t think long and hard on it but I popped that on the top of my list.” And Bono said, “The string arrangement on ‘God Only Knows’ is fact and proof of angels.” The song was named the best song of the 1960s by Pitchfork Media, the 13th best song of all time by Mojo magazine, and made number 25 on Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest songs of all time.

TV Show: Lost

Lots of characters, lots of plots, lots of twists, lots of head-scratchers...Wait. Lots is an anagram of Lost. Coincidence? I don't think so. Uploaded by

It all started with Survivor. In 2004, the show was in its prime, drawing huge audiences and helping CBS devour the competition in the ratings. ABC in particular was feeling the crunch, and was desperate for a show to siphon off some of the viewers Survivor was drawing. They contacted J.J. Abrams, who was fresh off his success with his show Alias, in the hopes that he would write a script for a series that was essentially a dramatized version of Survivor. Abrams said he would, with the condition that he could include supernatural aspects to the show. ABC agreed, and Lost was born.

The risk that ABC took on creating Lost, and the support it gave the show when its hit status was far from guaranteed, cannot be understated. The two-hour pilot episode, filmed on location in Hawaii and including a plane crash sequence that would rival many big budget films’ special effects, was the most expensive episode the network had ever produced. It premiered Sept. 22, 2004 to a huge audience and critical acclaim, and quickly became a water cooler phenomenon the nation hadn’t seen since “Who Shot J.R.?”

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Where did the polar bear come from? How can the bald guy suddenly walk? Where is the signal coming from? What is the smoke monster? Who are The Others? Viewers asked these questions and many, many more, as the show’s writers seemed to take twisted pleasure in keeping their audience guessing. By developing an unusual format of storytelling (each individual episode focused on a particular character in the story, and through flashbacks gave backstory that was often relevant to the action occurring on the island), the writers were able to create one of the most fully characterized casts ever seen on television.  These characters (and the superb actors who played them) were often stretched to the limits by the genre-toying exercises indulged in by the writers, but it was the connections felt by viewers to Jack, Kate, Sayid, Sawyer, Hurley, Claire, and the rest that kept the show fresh week after week, cliffhanger after maddening cliffhanger.

Reactions to the series finale of Lost were mixed, but those who would complain are the same people who ask “Are we there yet?” during every road trip. It will be a very long time before television sees another show that challenges and delights its audience in such a myriad of ways, and when that show comes, it too will surely be a Great American Thing.

Kid Stuff: Bugs Bunny


Bugs has been named the number one cartoon character of all time. Ever since his first appearance in 1940's A Wild Hare, Bugs has been our favorite wascally wabbit. Uploaded by

It was all there in his very first appearance, A Wild Hare, directed by the legendary Tex Avery and released in 1940. The distinctive voice provided by Mel Blanc (Great American Things, July 31, 2009) … his eternal adversary, hunter Elmer Fudd who says for the first time, “Be vewwy vewwy quiet, I’m hunting wabbits” … and his now-famous catch phrase: “What’s up doc?” The only thing we didn’t know until his second film (“Elmer’s Pet Rabbit”) was his name: Bugs Bunny.

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Audiences have always loved his smart-alecky attitude, and his fearlessness in the face of the dangerous hunter. Okay, we always knew there was no way Elmer would really get Bugs, so we felt safe. Bugs quickly became the star of the Merrie Melodies / Loony Tunes (Great American Things, March 10, 2010) cast of characters. He appeared in 163 cartoons over the years, not including his twelve appearances in features such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Space Jam.

Bugs should actually be introduced as “Academy Award Winner Bugs Bunny,” since his film Knighty Knight Bugs earned the statue for Best Animated Short Film. In 2002, Bugs took the honor of number one cartoon character of all time as selected by TV Guide. One of the magazine’s editors summed up the appeal of Bugs Bunny perfectly: “His stock…has never gone down…Bugs is the best example…of the smart-aleck American comic. He not only is a great cartoon character, he’s a great comedian. He was written well. He was drawn beautifully. He has thrilled and made many generations laugh. He is tops.”

Singer: Jack White

Rolling Stone named him the 17th Greatest Guitar Player of All Time, more for his seeming endless wealth of foot-stomping guitar riffs and searing, almost spastic soloing, than for his technical prowess. Uploaded by

In a rapidly evolving music industry, Jack White, born John Anthony Gillis, has been a ubiquitous presence in the independent music scene, becoming a rock star in a system that no longer creates rock stars.  Between fronting the venerable White Stripes, playing lead guitar and sharing songwriting duties with Brendan Benson in The Raconteurs, and playing drums and singing with The Dead Weather, White’s distinctive style and voice are etched in much of the best rock music of the last 15 years.  When you consider his producer credits (Loretta Lynn, The Greenhornes, Wanda Jackson), the formation of his own record label, Third Man Records, and his steadily increasing film career, the clichéd term “hardest working man in showbiz” seems perfectly applied.

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The rugged, deliberate blues of the White Stripes epitomize White’s hometown of Detroit, but when you explore his songwriting catalog past the bombast of tracks like “Seven Nation Army” and “Icky Thump”, you discover a more nuanced and gifted songwriter.  Deeper cuts like “We’re Gonna Be Friends” and “I Want To Be The Boy” show melody and songwriting chops on-par with the all-time greats.  Rolling Stone named him the 17th Greatest Guitar Player of All Time, more for his seeming endless wealth of foot-stomping guitar riffs and searing, almost spastic soloing, than for his technical prowess.  His axe of choice with the White Stripes is a JB Hutto Montgomery Airlines, a fiberglass and plastic guitar with a hollow body which was sold through Montgomery Ward catalogs in the 1960’s, an odd choice that furthers his legend as a guitarsman.

His captivating brilliance as a live performer is unmistakable no matter which of his bands he’s onstage with.  He attacks each song like a human blowtorch, squeezing every ounce of visceral energy as if he were simultaneously channeling the sad lives of every departed bluesman who ever strummed an E chord.  He twitches, yelps, howls and screams, delivering each line believing he literally can expel his heartbreak through a microphone.

Post written by Quinn Chalkley

Film: That Thing You Do

Tom Hanks directed this musical about the one-hit Wonders. He also directed it. And wrote the script. And played one of the major parts. And wrote some of the songs. That's a long way from Forrest Gump. Uploaded by

I’m actually quite embarrassed to say how much I like this little movie. I’m kind of a sucker for other movies with this very basic storyline, like The Glenn Miller Story with Jimmy Stewart and The Benny Goodman Story with Steve Allen. In each case, the band (here it’s The Wonders, originally the Oneders) struggles to find “the sound” that makes it distinctive. In That Thing You Do it happens quickly, when drummer Guy Patterson (Tom Everett Scott) takes the title song from a ballad to an upbeat dance tune at the Mercyhurst College Talent Show. (They’re “Wicked.”)

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The movie follows the band from sock hop to local rock and roll show, to the Play-Tone state fair tour, and ultimately, to the Ed Sullivan Show. Well, they called it the Hollywood Television Showcase. However, “artistic tension” between lead singer Jimmy (Johnathon Schaech) and the rest of the band causes the breakup of the band. As their manager Mr. White (Tom Hanks) said, “One hit wonders. A very common tale.”

TTYD is Hanks’ sole film director credit, and shows just how versatile he is. (He also wrote the movie and some of the music.) It has a great supporting cast, including Charlize Theron, Liv Tyler, Steve Zahn, Chris Ellis, Chris Isaac, Alex Rocco, Obba Babatundé, and Rita Wilson (Mrs. Tom Hanks). The movie didn’t win any awards, and really isn’t a “serious” film. But it’s a “good watch.” By the way, has there ever been a better band name than Cap’n Geech and the Shrimp Shack Shooters?

Americana: Harley-Davidson


Marketing professionals stand in awe of the brand loyalty Harley owners show. Uploaded by

Occasionally, these posts are hard for me to write. Like this one. Because not only am I not a motorcycle guy, a motorcycle is about the last thing that interests me. However…

Harley-Davidson is without doubt more than worthy of a place on any list of Great American Things. William Harley and his childhood friend Arthur Davidson couldn’t have imagined the phenomenon to which they were midwives when they introduced their first motorcycle in 1903. Now, over a century later, marketing folks in all fields are jealous of the intense brand loyalty of the Harley-Davidson community.

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It wasn’t always this way. The outlaw biker movies of the 50s through the 70s and the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang associated Harley-Davidson with some of society’s least desirable elements. But even that has changed. Now Harley riders tend to have good incomes, be in their 40s, and often ride their Hogs to benefit charitable causes.

Some people love the legend. Some enjoy the freedom. Others are power junkies. But they all see themselves captured in the Steppenwolf song from the classic motorcycle movie Easy Rider.

Like a true nature’s child /We were born, born to be wild /We can climb so high /I never wanna die

Originally posted April 29, 2009

Actress: Greta Garbo


Garbo is noted for her quote, "I want to be alone." In 1954 she won an honorary Oscar for her screen career, but didn't show to get the statue. I guess she really did want to be alone. Uploaded by

Few actors or actresses made the transition from silent films to talkies while maintaining their popularity. Greta Garbo was a clear exception. Born in Sweden as Greta Gustafsson, she made several hugely popular silent movies, including Flesh and the Devil (1926) and A Woman of Affairs (1928). She feared her Swedish accent would be her undoing with sound, but she needn’t have worried. The publicity campaign was “Garbo talks!”, and she became the queen of MGM throughout the 1930s.

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Did she ever say, “I want to be alone”? Yes, in the 1932 film Grand Hotel. The American Film Institute voted it the 30th most popular movie quote of all time. Though she was certainly a private woman, she disputed the characterization of her by the press as an eccentric . “I never said, ‘I want to be alone,'” she explained. “I only said, ‘I want to be let alone.’ There is all the difference.”

Garbo was nominated for four Academy Awards (Romance, 1930; Anna Christie, 1930; Camille, 1938; and Ninotchka, 1940) but never won. She did receive an honorary Oscar in 1955 for her lifetime of performances. (She didn’t show up to receive the award.) Daily Variety voted her Best Actress of the Half Century in 1950. And the AFI named her number 5 in its list of Greatest Screen Legends. Garbo, who worked in the USA most of her life and lived in New York after retiring from films, became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1951.

Travel: Kauai


Kauai is sometimes called Hawaii's "Garden Isle," and every one of its 562 sq. miles gives this brand credibility. Uploaded by

While all of the islands of the Hawaiian archipelago are beautiful and have their own attractions, Kauai might just be the most scenic of them all. It has mountains (the highest is Kawaikini at 5,243 feet), a canyon (Waimea Canyon, called “The Grand Canyon of the Pacific”), the dramatic Napali Coast,  and several gorgeous bays and beaches.

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Oh, those beaches. On the island’s north side you’ll find Hanalei Bay Beach, a near-perfect two-mile semicircle of white sand. And Kee Beach, with a reef that provides some of Hawaii’s best snorkeling. On the east side there’s Kalapaki Beach, a favorite of surfers. Poipu Beach Park highlights the south shore, with its crystal clear waters and the occasional appearance of monk seals. And the west side offers Kekaha Beach, uncrowded and great for sunbathing.

Kauai has only about 60,000 residents, and more of them are involved in welcoming tourists than any other business. It’s the fourth largest of the Hawaiian islands, and is 105 miles northwest of Oahu. Whether you’re looking for an active vacation, with hiking and snorkeling, or a purely relaxing one, Kauai might be the Hawaii you’re looking for.

The Napali Coast. Uploaded by

Waimea Canyon. Uploaded by

Hanalei Bay Beach. Uploaded by

Kee Beach. Uploaded by

Kalapaki Beach. Uploaded by

Food: Tabasco Sauce


Tabasco Sauce is sold in 160 countries around the world. Not bad for a business that's been in the same family now for six generations. Uploaded by

This is the third hot sauce to make this list (Texas Pete, April 16, 2009, and Blind Betty’s, February 27, 2010), so you can tell our family likes spicy foods. Apparently, we’re not alone; the McIlhenny Company of Avery Island, Louisiana produces more than 700,000 bottles of the palate pleaser every day.

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It’s not unusual for a business to begin as a family enterprise, and this one started from the garden of Edmund McIlhenny after he was given some tabasco pepper seeds from Latin America. He grew the plants, created the sauce, and gave some to family and friends. They loved it. “Got to have more of that famous sauce Mr. McIlhenny makes,” they said. So Edmund ordered some cologne bottles, used them for his product, and started selling to local retail stores.

That was in the late 1860s. What’s remarkable is that the McIlhenny’s never sold out to a bigger firm. Today, Paul McIlhenny is the sixth family member to run the company which still operates on Avery Island. In fact, about half the company’s employees live on the island, and many are the descendants of people who’ve work for the McIlhenny clan for generations. The company has made one major accommodation to changing times — they’ve dodged hurricanes so long that they’ve finally moved some of their growing fields for peppers to Central America. But the seeds are all still grown on Avery Island.

Sports: Bonnie Blair


Apollo Ohno has now surpassed Bonnie Blair in total Olympic medals earned, but with five, she still has the most golds. Uploaded by

Maybe you’ve seen the kids at the shopping center, raising money to go to a national tournament, or to sports camp. Maybe they washed your car, or sold you some doughnuts. In Champaign, Illinois, a young speed skater named Bonnie Blair wanted to compete in Europe, but lacked the funds to make the trip. So the local police department took the initiative to hold raffles and bake sales — and the money was raised.

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Bonnie Blair definitely made the Champaign police department proud. The year following her trip, she won the U.S. indoor speed skating championship. She won again the next year, and competed in her first Winter Olympics. She didn’t win a medal, but her time was coming. In 1988 in Calgary, she won a gold and a bronze. Next in Albertville in 1992, two more golds. Then in Lillehammer in 1994, two more golds. Apollo Ohno has now won more total Winter Olympics medals, but Blair still has earned the most golds.

For her accomplishments, Blair was named winner of the Sullivan Award in 1992, given to the outstanding American amateur athlete. And in 1994, she was co-winner of Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year, and the Associated Press chose her as Female Athlete of the Year. But winning has always had a different meaning for her. “Winning doesn’t always mean being first,” she said. “Winning means you’re doing better than you’ve ever done before.”

TV Show: The Larry Sanders Show


Garry Shandling was the headliner of this show, but Jeffrey Tambor as Hank and Rip Torn as Artie were the real stars. Uploaded by

Each time I watched The Larry Sanders Show, I had the same thought: I wonder how close this is to reality? And I always concluded: Pretty doggone close. Garry Shandling portrayed Sanders as a vain and insecure late night talk show host, complete with neurotic sidekick Hank Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor) and  world-weary producer Artie (Rip Torn).

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Each week, Sanders had to deal with the eccentric world of Hollywood celebrities and an ambitious production staff. Real celebrities were the guests on this fictional talk show, giving the show impressive verisimilitude. Larry would often hide in his office, using his producer to deal with employees and guests. The show ran from 1992 to 1998 on HBO.

Some of the major accomplishments of the show include being listed at number 38 on TV Guide’s 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time… 56 Emmy Award nominations… Six Writers Guild of America awards for comedy writing… and making the execrable Janeane Garofalo almost likable. Hey now!

Poet: Robert Frost


The woods are lovely, dark, and deep. But I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep. Uploaded by

Who’s the greatest American poet? Experts might nominate Longfellow … Dickinson … Whitman … Cummings. I’d no doubt go with T.S. Eliot, and his remarkable mastery of both symbolism and language (Say this aloud: “Combing the white hair of the waves blown back /when the wind blows the water white and black.”) except that he left the good old U.S. of A. and became a citizen of England.

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Which doesn’t mean that Frost merits only first runner-up. Although born in San Francisco, he lived most of his life in New England, and his language reflected the simple things he treasured. As one biographer wrote, “With his down-to-earth approach to his subjects, readers found it is easy to follow the poet into deeper truths, without being burdened with pedantry.”

Is there a more resolute sadness than Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening? Or a better treatise on destiny than The Road Not Taken? Robert Frost spoke for himself, but his words expressed the hopes, dreams, and fears of his countrymen. In my opinion, the Greatest American Poet.

(Originally posted April 27, 2009)

Album: Saturday Night Fever


The Bee Gees are on the cover of the album, and contributed the most songs. But some of the best tunes were done by the Trammps and KC and the Sunshine Band. Seriously. Uploaded by

It’s just the soundtrack of a period movie, remembered primarily for John Travolta walking down the street in the opening credits and for starting the disco craze which swept America. America couldn’t get enough of the soundtrack, though, and the Bee Gees went from being just another pop act to one of the best-selling bands in music history.

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This was a double album, with 17 songs in all. Four were new recordings by the Bee Gees, two were their older hits, and one they wrote was performed by someone else (“If I Can’t Have You” by Yvonne Elliman). But two of my favorite songs from the album didn’t come from the Gibb boys. “Disco Inferno” is one of the very best disco hits (though I don’t think we need all eleven minutes), and “Boogie Shoes” is the one song by KC and the Sunshine Band that I can still endure.

Here are some of the Saturday Night Fever’s main tracks:

  • “Stayin’ Alive” (Bee Gees)
  • “Night Fever” (Bee Gees)
  • “How Deep Is Your Love” (Bee Gees)
  • “More Than a Woman” (Bee Gees)
  • “If I Can’t Have You” (Yvonne Elliman)
  • “Jive Talkin'” (Bee Gees)
  • “Boogie Shoes” (KC and the Sunshine Band)
  • “Disco Inferno” (The Trammps)

Just how big was the SNF soundtrack? It sold over 15 million copies. It topped the album charts for 24 straight weeks. It won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. And it’s ranked number 131 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

Song: “I Will Always Love You”

Dolly Parton wrote this song to honor the breakup of her partnership with Porter Waggoner. Her version reached number one in 1974 and again in 1982. Whitney Houston's cover was the number one song of 1993. Uploaded by

Most of us associate this song with Whitney Houston, which is only natural: Her version is one of only a handful of singles that have sold more than 10 million copies. But the songwriter did okay with her original, too. Dolly Parton (Great American Things, June 3, 2010) wrote and released this single as a follow up to Jolene, and it reached number one on the Country Music charts. Parton had been discovered and featured by singer Porter Waggoner, but after seven years as his protegé, she became more popular than her boss. The only answer was to go on her own, and she wrote this song in honor of their relationship.

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In 1982, Parton re-recorded “I Will Always Love You” for the soundtrack of the movie version of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and it again topped the charts. A decade later, Whitney Houston did her own interpretation of the song for another movie, The Bodyguard. You could say it was a modest hit…if being number one for 14 consecutive weeks and landing as the number one song for the year 1993 is your idea of modesty.

Houston’s recording was named “Record of the Year” and “Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female” at the Grammy Awards. And it is number one on the list of 100 Greatest Love Songs as chosen by both VH1 and CMT. But don’t feel bad for Dolly that she had the less-successful version – the story is that Whitney’s recording brought Dolly $6 million in royalties and publishing fees.

Compare the two versions for yourself:

Person: Harry Houdini

Houdini escaped from handcuffs, strait jackets, crates submerged in the river, even graves. Uploaded by

Houdini’s first trick was to escape his name — Erich Weiss. I don’t know why, but you don’t expect the most amazing escape artist in history to have that name. Or to come from Appleton, Wisconsin. Or to be only 5’5″ tall and have a high-pitched voice. But such was Houdini’s talent and reputation, that he rose above all these limitations.

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Houdini’s act wasn’t an instant success. In fact, he became so discouraged that he took out an ad to sell all his magic equipment for $20. No one called. Then he came up with what he called the “Challenge Act.” He told the audience he could escape from any pair of handcuffs they produced. (Local law enforcement officers started jamming them on purpose to thwart him.) He then started escaping from more difficult circumstances — upside down in a strait jacket, jail cells, padlocked crates thrown in rivers, an oversize milk can filled with water, even being buried alive.

Sadly, Houdini also thought he could escape death from a ruptured appendix. He was wrong. A fascinating display of Houdini memorabilia and paraphernalia is part of an exhibit titled Houdini’s Art and Magic. It’s going to be on display at the Jewish Museum in New York through March 27, 2011, then will be moved to Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Madison, Wisconsin.

I think I see my grandfather in this video. He’s the man in the hat:

Travel: Florida’s Overseas Highway

If you get creeped out by long bridges, then the Overseas Highway connecting the Florida Keys isn't for you. It has 42, including the famous Seven Mile Bridge. Uploaded by

To me, building bridges is one of man’s most amazing feats. To build the infrastructure underwater needed to support traffic is something my little right-brained self can’t comprehend. Now, consider the Overseas Highway, stretching 127.5 miles and connecting the mainland with Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon and, ultimately, Key West (Great American Things, July 14, 2009). I think it’s a modern wonder of the world.

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The original highway followed the route of Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway. Flagler constructed the necessary bridges to get rail connections to Key West, but his enterprise ultimately encountered financial problems and shut down. Then a major hurricane in 1935 destroyed much of the infrastructure, and the remnants of the rail line were sold to the state of Florida. It didn’t take many years for the bridges to be expanded to take auto traffic, and this amazing highway became a reality.

They say it’s about a four-hour drive now from Miami to Key West. Drivers now can enjoy not only the beautiful Gulf waters, but a variety of wildlife along the way. The Highway is part of Route 1, and includes 47 bridges, the 7-Mile Bridge being the most famous. In 2009, the Overseas Highway joined such famous byways as Route 66, The Blue Ridge Parkway, and Route 1 – Big Sur as an “All-American Road”, designated by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Film: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was a complete film -- outstanding script, excellent music, great direction. And, of course, Newman and Redford. Uploaded by

Paul Newman (Great American Things, May 17, 2009) and Robert Redford starred in just two films together — this one and The Sting (Great American Things, April 14, 2010) — which is a shame, because film audiences couldn’t get enough of them. Butch (Newman) and Sundance (Redford) were outlaws in the Old West, train robbers in what they called the Hole in the Wall Gang. This movie had everything – great acting of course, wonderful music, and a memorable script.

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That script was the work of William Goldman (Great American Things, October 13, 2010), who devotes a chapter in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade to the making of this film. Lots of interesting stuff there, including this, in which Newman and director George Roy Hill had an ongoing argument about the proper placement of a scene:

Toward the end of the first week (of rehearsal), Newman and Hill were at it again, tearing into each other, back and forth, on and on — until we were all aware of this strange, new, and altogether remarkable sound. The gofer, way across the room, in his sleep, had let fly with this whopper of a fart. Newman and Hill registered the event, paused briefly, then went back into combat.

But the fart continued.

Now they paused a second time, all of us staring at this old sleeping guy. Newman and Hill turned back to each other again —

–the fart went on and on. (All true, I swear.) Now we were all silent. Still it continued.

Everyone was aware of the fact that we were in the presence of a phenomenal physical feat. Amazing. We all had to take a break after that. The old guy slept on, eventually lapsing into silence.

Ah, hard to pass up a good fart story. Anyway, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid earned seven Oscar nominations, and won four. (It lost Best Picture to Midnight Cowboy.) Even so, it was ranked number 50 in the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Movies.