Monthly Archives: June 2011

Actress: Doris Day

Doris Day began her career as a big band singer, and had a huge hit with "Sentimental Journey," recorded with Les Brown and His Band of Renown. Uploaded by

Here’s a fact that may surprise you. I admit, I was completely shocked: Doris Day is the number one female box office star of all time. All time. And she’s tied for number six for both men and women. She was the number one star in 1960, 1962, 1963, and 1964, and made the top five in three other years.

Doris began her career as a big band singer in the 1940s, and had eight hit singles during her career, the biggest being her first, “Sentimental Journey” with Les Brown’s Band of Renown. But she’s remembered as the queen of romantic comedies, and was popularly paired with Rock Hudson, though they made only three pictures together. Among her best-loved movies:

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  • April in Paris (1952)
  • Calamity Jane (1953)
  • Young at Heart (1954)
  • The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956 – introduced the song “Que Sera, Sera”)
  • The Pajama Game (1957)
  • Pillow Talk (1959 – w/ Rock Hudson, Oscar nomination)
  • Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960)
  • Lover Come Back (1961 – w/ Rock Hudson)
  • That Touch of Mink (1962)
  • Send Me No Flowers (1964 – w/ Rock Hudson)
  • With Six You Get Eggroll (1968)

Doris also had a moderately popular TV series, The Doris Day Show, which ran from 1968-73. As of this writing, she’s still with us and living in California.

Americana: Duct Tape

Duct tape came into use during World War II, when it was used to repair everything from ammunition boxes to weapons, to Jeeps, to airplanes. Uploaded by

What holds America together? Is it our shared history? Our common sense of purpose, of what it means to be Americans? Is it the founding documents that have given us direction and hope? Much as these things help, the fact is that America is held together by duct tape.

Duct tape on Apollo 13. Uploaded by

This fabric tape sealed with polyethylene can fix just about anything. When the Apollo 13 mission encountered critical danger with its CO2 scrubbers, duct tape helped provide the solution and saved the lives of the astronauts on board. The ground crew member who designed the solution said, “I felt we were home free,” when he learned there was duct tape on board.

People disagree about whether the proper name is duct or duck tape, and about which usage came first. It’s generally agreed that the tape first came into use during World War II when it was used to repair Jeeps, weapons, even aircraft. There is one use, however for which duct tape isn’t allowed. And that is to tape up ducts. Apparently it doesn’t meet building codes.

Film: Movies of 1962

Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda, and John Wayne led the all-star cast of The Longest Day. The year 1962 also featured musicals (The Music Man), westerns (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), and dramas (The Miracle Worker). Uploaded by

I have to acknowledge up front that the highest-grossing film of the year was also the Academy Award winner: Lawrence of Arabia. A British film. But the Yanks had a memorable year as well, in fact we produced some terrific films in 1962. To wit:

The Longest Day — John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, and a huge international cast storm the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.

To Kill a Mockingbird  — Gregory Peck wins Best Actor portraying Atticus Finch in the classic film version of Harper Lee’s novel.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane  — A horror film with an elderly Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. That’s scary.

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The Music Man — When musicals still could draw crowds, this faithful version of the Meredith Wilson show starred Robert Preston and Shirley Jones.

Mutiny on the Bounty — Neither the first nor the last time this story has been brought to the screen, but with Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard, probably the best.

Gypsy — Another great musical. With lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and music by Jule Styne, how could it be less than a hit?

The Miracle Worker — It started on television in the anthology series Playhouse 90, then went to Broadway, and Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke reprised their stage roles in the film. Bancroft received Best Actress and Duke earned Best Supporting Actress.

Advise and Consent — Otto Preminger brought this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel to the big screen with Henry Fonda in the lead.

Birdman of Alcatraz — Burt Lancaster in the story of the prisoner who actually spent most of his time at Leavenworth. Go figure.

Cape Fear — Robert Mitchum terrorizes Gregory Peck’s family.

Dr. No — Sean Connery makes an international splash in the very first James Bond movie. If I remember correctly, a few more have been made since.

How the West Was Won — More remarkable now as one of the last of the epic movies with a huge all-star cast.

Lolita — This story scandalized the public in 1962. One of Stanley Kubrick’s first movies, with James Mason and Sue Lyon.

The Manchurian Candidate — Frank Sinatra proves he really could act in this Cold War thriller.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance — One of the great John Ford’s last Westerns, starring Jimmy Stewart.

That Touch of Mink — Not particularly memorable, but it starred Cary Grant  and Doris Day in a romantic comedy, and that’s enough.


Person: Willis Carrier

While he doesn't typically get recognized in the pantheon of great American inventors, Willis Carrier's invention of air conditioning has increased productivity, allowed the growth of the Sunbelt, and saved the lives of thousands with respiratory problems. Uploaded by

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Willis who?” When the roll of great American inventors is called, you usually hear the names of Edison (Great American Things, Mar. 25, 2010), the Wright Brothers (Great American Things, Sept. 13, 2009), and maybe Alexander Graham Bell. Let’s here and now make sure to include Willis Carrier, inventor of air conditioning. As we say in the South, Bless his heart.

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Carrier, a mechanical engineer first submitted theoretical drawings for a/c in 1902. He received his first patent in 1906, and his systems were in use in factories and some residences by the 1920s. The Depression and World War II slowed the demand for the product, but the 1950s saw a huge growth in demand.

Now, think of the great things that air conditioning made possible. Its use in factories caused productivity to increase dramatically during summer months. The massive migration to the Sunbelt states wouldn’t have occurred without a/c. Thousands of lives have been saved, people who suffer from respiratory problems that air conditioning relieves. And, doggone it, it’s simply made life more livable for everyone. You don’t get enough credit, Mr. Carrier. But we salute you and recognize your accomplishments as one of the truly Great American Things.

Film Studio: Pixar

All of Pixar's films are among the top 50 highest-grossing animated movies of all time - and Toy Story 3 is number one. Uploaded by

Hard to imagine how many films 20th Century Fox has made. Or MGM. Or Universal, Columbia, Paramount. But we know how many Pixar has made. Eleven. Eleven of the smartest, most charming, and most profitable films you’ll ever want to see.

The studio began as The Graphics Group, a part of Lucasfilms. True to his reputation as a visionary, Steve Jobs purchased the group. Disney saw how Pixar’s software could help its traditionally animated movies, as well as its potential making its own computerized animation films, and bought it. Jobs bought it for $5 million; when Disney purchased it, its value was $7.4 billion. Nice going, Stevie boy.

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Here’s a complete list of the Pixar catalog:

  • Toy Story (1995)
  • A Bug’s Life (1998)
  • Toy Story 2 (1999)
  • Monsters, Inc. (2001)
  • Finding Nemo (2003)
  • The Incredibles (2004)
  • Cars (2006)
  • Ratatouille (2007)
  • WALL-E (2008)
  • Up (2009)
  • Toy Story 3 (2010)

All these movies are among the top 50 highest-grossing animated movies of all time, and Toy Story 3 is number one. Altogether, Pixar films have won 26 Academy Awards and seven Golden Globes. Not to mention the hearts of millions of fans all around the world.

Director: Rob Reiner

When Harry Met Sally is typical of Rob Reiner's films - hugely popular with audiences, not critically acclaimed. See Misery, The Princess Bride, The Bucket List. Only A Few Good Men received an Oscar nod. Uploaded by

It’s kind of sad that after all he’s accomplished as a writer and director, my first thought of Rob Reiner is to call him “meathead.” That role on All in the Family gave Reiner the credibility he needed to make his move in show business. (Being the son of the great Carl Reiner didn’t hurt, of course.)

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His directorial debut came with the brilliant This Is Spinal Tap (Great American Things, November 21, 2010), which he also co-wrote.  Among the movies he directed:

  • Stand by Me (1986)
  • The Princess Bride (1987)
  • When Harry Met Sally (1989)
  • Misery (1990)
  • A Few Good Men (1992)
  • The American President (1995)
  • Ghosts of Mississippi (1996)
  • The Bucket List (2007)

As an actor, he won two Emmy Awards for his part in All in the Family. He’s maintained his acting skills, performing mostly character roles in such movies as Postcards from the Edge, Sleepless in Seattle, and The First Wives Club. Most of his movies resonated more with audiences than critics, though I’m not sure Reiner would appreciate that point of view. Even so, only one of his films (A Few Good Men) has been nominated for an Oscar. But that filmography demonstrates conclusively why he belongs in the list of Great American Things.

Singer: Tom Petty

Tom Petty has never had a number one song on the Hot 100. In fact, he's only had one song in the top 10. But he's had an extended career of excellence, with The Heartbreakers, The Traveling Wilburys, and solo. Uploaded by

Whether he was fronting The Heartbreakers, singing with the Traveling Wilburys, or recording as a solo artist, Tom Petty has always experienced success. His first album, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, wasn’t an immediate hit when released in 1976. But from the second album on, and all his solo and Wilburys albums, he’s at least achieved gold status. And his Greatest Hits is 10x Platinum.

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Several of the band’s songs are played regularly on classic rock stations, but didn’t make much of an impact on the singles chart: “Breakdown,” “Here Comes My Girl,” “Into the Great Wide Open,” and “American Girl.” Here are some that had more success on the Hot 100 Chart:

  • “Don’t Do Me Like That” (#10, 1979)
  • “Refugee” (#15, 1980)
  • “The Waiting” (#19, 1981)
  • “You Got Lucky” (#20, 1982)
  • “Don’t Come Around Here No More” (#13, 1985)
  • “I Won’t Back Down” (#12, 1989)
  • “Runnin’ Down a Dream” (#23, 1989)
  • “Free Fallin'” (#7, 1989)
  • “Learning to Fly” (#28, 1991)
  • “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” (#14, 1993)
  • “You Don’t Know How It Feels” (#13, 1994)

As you can see, Petty has enjoyed a career of sustained quality, but never been the flavor of the month. However, it’s a measure of the respect in which he’s held by his fellow artists that he was included with the Wilburys, a modest group that included George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and ELO’s Jeff Lynne.

Food: Jell-O

Jell-O debuted with four flavors back in 1897 - strawberry, raspberry, orange, and lemon. Today the product line includes more than 150 flavors of gelatin, pudding, cups, pops, and more. Uploaded by

Is there anyone who doesn’t like at least some of Jell-O’s products? It’s something we grew to love as kids, made for us by parents because it was cheap, relatively easy to make, and if not healthy, then certainly not harmful. One of the first “cooking” I ever did was to make chocolate Jell-O pudding, stirring in the milk and continuing to stir until it thickened. Chef Robin, whose repertoire in the kitchen never advanced much.

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Rather than go on about Jell-O, here are some interesting facts about this wiggly stuff:

  • The first patent for gelatin dessert was held by Peter Cooper. Who he? He invented the Tom Thumb steam engine. Logical connection?
  • In 1897, the first flavors of Jell-O were strawberry, orange, raspberry, and lemon. Chocolate and cherry came along in 1904, peach in 1907.
  • Early Jell-O ads were created by artists such as Maxfield Parrish and Norman Rockwell (Great American Things, June 12, 2009)
  • Chocolate pudding debuted in 1934.
  • Bill Cosby began advertising for Jell-O in 1974, and continued to represent the company for almost 30 years.
  • Today, all 150+ Jell-O products belong to Kraft Foods

Jell-O advertising has been part of the culture for 100 years. Even though it hasn’t been used in decades, I bet you can sing the five rising notes of the jingle “J-E-L-L-O.” And “There’s always room for Jell-O” is one of the enduring tag lines of modern advertising.

Song: “I Hope You Dance”

"I Hope You Dance" won the Grammy Award for Best Country Song, and was chosen Song of the Year by CMA, ACM, NASI, ASCAP, and BMI. Uploaded by

In 2000, Lee Ann Womack had proved to be a reliable, but unspectacular country singer who’d had a couple of good albums, each of which produced two songs that made it to number 2 on the country chart. Successful, yes. Star, not really. Then in 2000 she released “I Hope You Dance,” and everything changed. It not only was a number one country hit, but crossed over and topped the adult contemporary chart as well.

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I find myself agreeing with Ken Barnes of USA Today. He listed “I Hope You Dance” as his fourth-best song of 2000 and wrote, “Uplifting message song whose greeting-card sentiments and imprecise rhymes are outweighed by a gorgeous performance by today’s reigning pure-country vocalist.” The song’s hopeful, positive vibe outweighs its slightly corny nature.

“I Hope You Dance,” written by Mark D. Sanders and Tia Sillers, earned CMA, ACM, NSAI, ASCAP and BMI awards for Song of the Year. It also won the Grammy Award for Best Country Song and was nominated for Song of the Year. Womack told Billboard, “”When a song really connects with so many people, it’s because they felt something when they heard it. This song makes you think about and feel for the people you really love in your life.”

TV Show: Your Show of Shows

Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca headlined Your Show of Shows, a live variety-comedy show that ran from 1950-1954 and set the stage for such future programs as the Dick Van Dyke Show and the Carol Burnett Show. Uploaded by

Things were very different in the early years of television. Most programs were broadcast live, which requires a level of performance discipline that’s unnecessary when tape is available. One of the first blockbuster shows that brought Americans together around their new black and white televisions was a great sketch comedy show that’s become legendary.

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Your Show of Shows starred Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca along with a great supporting cast that included Carl Reiner and Howard Morris (whom you probably remember better as Ernest T. Bass on The Andy Griffith Show). That’s a terrific cast, and it was supported by some equally amazing writers, including Neil Simon and Mel Brooks. The program was created by one of the greatest creative forces in TV history, Sylvester L. “Pat” Weaver – Sigourney’s dad. With that kind of accumulated talent, it’s no wonder that the show is so fondly remembered as a major stepping stone in the new medium’s development.

Your Show of Shows lasted just four seasons, the pressure of doing so many live broadcasts took its toll. Carl Reiner acknowledges that his experiences as one of the show’s writers/performers were the basis of another Great American Thing – The Dick Van Dyke Show. Also in the early years of the industry, Your Show of Shows won Emmy Awards in 1952 and 1953 as Best Variety Show.

Sports: Mary Lou Retton

At the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, Mary Lou Retton earned five medals, the most of any individual in that Olympics. Uploaded by

Everyone knows you can’t become a world champion gymnast if you live in Fairmont, West Virginia. But that didn’t stop Mary Lou Retton, who drew her inspiration from Romania’s Nadia Comaneci. She learned from the best trainer in town, but when she started to demonstrate Olympic-caliber talent, she moved to Houston. There she trained under the best – Béla and Márta Károlyi, the couple who trained Comaneci before they defected to America.

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Retton made her name in 1983-84, winning the American Cup, two American Classics, and the Japanese Chunichi Cup. Then came the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. She trailed Romanian gymnast Ecaterina Szabó with two events remaining in the All-Around competition, but scored a perfect 10 in her floor exercise and vault to win the gold medal by .05. The first American ever to win the All-Around, she also earned two silver medals and two bronze in 1984. Her five medals were the most earned by any athlete at that Olympics.

Her accomplishments earned her the honor of being Sports Illustrated’s Sportswoman of the Year – and the first woman ever on a Wheaties box. And, appropriately, the 4’8″ giant in her field received induction in the International Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 1997.

Writer: Carl Sandburg

Perhaps because of his strong Midwestern, especially Chicago, roots, it's not surprising that Sandburg wrote several biographies of Abraham Lincoln - one of which won a Pulitzer Prize (to go with the two he won for poetry). Uploaded by

California has its artists and writers, as does New York. Lots of writers are associated with the South and New England. For some reason, those born in the Midwest – the staid, stolid, hard-working Midwest – often move to a coast to practice their art. That’s one reason Carl Sandburg is celebrated, because he made his reputation in Chicago, and only moved to North Carolina to retire.

Here’s how he famously described his adopted hometown:

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:

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During his lifetime, Sandburg published 22 books of poetry in addition to a number of biographies and children’s books. It’s probably no surprise, considering his Illinois heritage, that Sandburg wrote several books about Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, one of which won a Pulitzer Prize. He won two other Pulitzers for his poetry. He said, “Here is the difference between Dante, Milton, and me. They wrote about hell and never saw the place. I wrote about Chicago after looking the town over for years and years.”

Kid Stuff: Weekly Reader

From its creation in 1928, Weekly Reader has helped kids understand what's going on in the world around them, in language that they can understand. It's also had a Presidential poll for each election, and been right all but once: when Bill Clinton beat George H.W. Bush. Uploaded by

Since 1928, kids have looked forward to the day each week when they’d get their copy of Weekly Reader. It was created by York, Pa. educator Dorothy M. Johnson. She said, “I saw children reading folk and fairy tales and myths, which I adore, and to which there is no objection; but the pupils had no idea of what was happening in the world — not a flicker. The idea came to me that school children needed a paper of their own, especially written, so they could read it.”

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Johnson contacted an organization called American Education Press, who agreed to publish the weekly magazine for grades one to six. (It’s now available in Pre-K through high school.) She served as its editor-in-chief until 1971. And through its history it’s been somewhat schizophrenic about whether to call itself My Weekly Reader or just Weekly Reader. For the last decade or so, it’s been the latter.

I think I liked Weekly Reader because it was written on a level for kids. Or maybe it was because we could read it in class, which meant no other lessons for a while. And there was usually cool stuff about sports, or space. Or sports and space. Weekly Reader is now in the Reader’s Digest family and produces specific editions for current events, health, and science. But with the Internet and explosion of media for kids, it can’t have the same impact it once had on kids who looked forward to each week’s issue.

Music: Sun Records

Sun Records had an impressive beginning by distributing such blues artists as Rufus Thomas. But they also rented the studio by the hour, and one day a truck driver named Presley stopped in during his lunch hour...Photo by Rick Kobylinski.

With today’s sophisticated software, almost anyone can record music and cut their own CD, or create a digital file that can be downloaded by listeners. But let’s go back to 1952, when recording equipment was a lot more expensive. And much more scarce. A fellow could create a record label, then charge people to record their music.

In 1953, a truck driver came into the Memphis studio of Sun Records on his lunch hour and paid four whole dollars to record two songs. He later said it was a gift for his mother, but he probably wanted to be discovered. Sam Phillips, the legendary owner of Sun Records, wasn’t there at the time, so his secretary managed the recording. She was sufficiently impressed to tell Phillips about this

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Elvis fellow, but it was still months later before Phillips got him back in the studio. This time, there was no missing his talent, and his first song (“That’s All Right, Mama”) came out in 1954. Elvis had only five singles on Sun Records before moving to RCA, but the partnership was the springboard to success for both artist and label.

Sun Records became the leading distributor of what came to be known as “rockabilly” records. Among the label’s stars were Jerry Lee Lewis (“Great Balls of Fire,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On”), Carl Perkins (“Blue Suede Shoes”), Johnny Cash (“I Walk the Line”), Charlie Rich (“Raunchy”), and Roy Orbison (“Ooby Dooby”). Unfortunately for Sun and Sam Phillips, his artists became so successful that he couldn’t afford to keep them. The Sun began to set after about a ten-year phenomenal run. But during that time, it had such a profound impact on both rock and country music that it holds a permanent place in American musical history.