Tuesday, December 31, 2013

December 31 - Jule Styne

Songwriter Jule Styne was born in London on December 31, 1905, as Julius Stein, to Russian immigrants who owned a grocery. He grew up in Chicago, where he took piano lessons and was found to be a prodigy. He began writing songs at age 16, and became successful in Hollywood in the 1930s and ‘40s composing songs for movies. In 1942 he met lyricist Sammy Cahn, with whom he wrote "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" and many other songs. In 1949, Jule (pronounced “joo-lee”) moved to New York and collaborated on a series of blockbuster musicals that made him a Broadway icon. These included “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1949), which made Carol Channing a star; “Bells Are Ringing” (1956), with Judy Holliday; “Gypsy” (1959), starring Ethel Merman; and “Funny Girl” (1964), which made a star of Barbra Streisand. A handful of his enormously popular songs includes "Three Coins in the Fountain," "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," "Everything's Coming Up Roses," "Just In Time," "Let Me Entertain You," "Make Someone Happy," "The Party's Over," "Don't Rain on My Parade" and “People."

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Thursday, December 26, 2013

December 26 - "I Want to Hold Your Hand"

50 years ago: On December 26, 1963, Capitol Records rush-released a song titled “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by a British group called the Beatles. The foursome had become wildly popular in the UK (with a hit single, “She Loves You”). “Hold Your Hand” had been written in October by Paul McCartney and John Lennon, working together on a piano in a London basement – “eyeball to eyeball,” in McCartney’s words. On the flip side of the 45 rpm record was "I Saw Her Standing There." Capitol had planned to release “Hold Your Hand” in mid-January 1964, to precede the Beatles’ appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” but had to move quickly when a teen fan, Marsha Albert, urged a Washington, D.C., radio station to smuggle the song from England (aided by a BOAC stewardess). When WWDC aired the song on December 17, its popularity took off. The song hit Billboard’s No. 1 spot on February 1, 1964 (for seven weeks). Demand was so strong that Capitol hired Columbia Records and RCA to press additional copies. The song launched 1964’s "British Invasion" that included the Dave Clark Five, the Rolling Stones and others.

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Friday, December 20, 2013

December 20 - Boeing 707

On December 20, 1957, the Boeing Co. in Seattle conducted the first flight of its first production Boeing 707 jet airliner, a narrow-bodied, long-range aircraft with four jet engines, seating up to 179 passengers. The 707 was the first commercially successful jetliner, designed for transcontinental routes. When crossing the North Atlantic, it often required a refueling stop (usually in Newfoundland). Developed from a prototype first flown in 1954, the 707 was first operated by Pan American World Airways, with revenue flight service inaugurated in October 1958. At the time, Boeing competed fiercely against the Douglas Aircraft DC-8 jet for orders from air carriers. The 707 became a ubiquitous image of the Jet Age and dominated the boom in passenger air travel through the 1960s and part of the 1970s. Its use resulted in massive changes in airport facilities, food service, baggage handling, fuel use, ticketing and computerized reservations. Ironically, the travel boom it helped start led to its own demise because it was too small to handle passenger volume on the routes for which it was designed. Few 707s are in use today.

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

December 18 - George Stevens

Movie director and producer George Stevens was born on December 18, 1904, in Oakland, California, to parents who were stage actors. He started in the movie business in the 1920s and ‘30s as a cameraman with Hal Roach Studios for Laurel and Hardy films. His first major directing job was “Alice Adams” (1935), which helped revive the lagging career of Katharine Hepburn. He later directed Hepburn in “Woman of the Year” (1942), and Rogers and Astaire in “Swing Time” (1936) and Cary Grant in both “Gunga Din” (1939) and “Penny Serenade” (1941). In World War II he headed a U.S. Army Signal Corps film unit that documented D-Day in Normandy, the liberation of Paris and terrible scenes at the liberated Dachau concentration camp (that film was used at the Nuremberg Trials). Stevens’ major post-War movies – all Oscar winners – include “I Remember Mama” (1948), “A Place in the Sun” (1951), “Shane” (1953), “Giant” (1956) and “The Diary of Anne Frank” (1959). His movies have been described as “fully engaged with American society” and “a chronicled photoplay of the pursuit of The American Dream.”

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December 18 - Keith Richards

70 years ago: Musician, singer and songwriter Keith Richards was born on December 18, 1943, in Dartford, Kent, in greater London. His mother bought him his first guitar, while his father was unenthusiastic about his talents. In the 1950s Mick Jagger was a neighbor, with whom he became reacquainted in 1960, at the Dartford railway station. They realized they shared a love of rhythm and blues music. In 1962 they both joined instrumentalist Brian Jones in a band that Jones named, in an impromptu moment, after a Muddy Waters track, “Rollin’ Stone.” The resulting group, The Rolling Stones, gained international fame in February 1965 with two Jagger-Richards songs, “The Last Time” followed by “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” The guitar riff for the latter song came to Richards in his sleep; he woke up long enough to record it on a cassette player. Richards has been ranked as one of the 10 best electric guitar players of all time. Notorious for his personal life, he has been tried on drug-related charges five times. An avid bibliophile, in 2010 he remarked that he yearns to be a librarian.

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Monday, December 9, 2013

December 9 - Clarence Birdseye

Naturalist, inventor and businessman Clarence Birdseye II was born on December 9, 1886, in Brooklyn, NY, the sixth of nine children. He initially practiced taxidermy and worked at various wildlife jobs, including isolating ticks as the cause of Rocky Mountain spotted fever. In 1912, he went to Labrador in northeastern Canadian to buy and sell fox furs. There he experienced his first insight about flash-freezing foods. Fishing with the Inuit in extremely cold weather, he discovered that the fish he caught froze almost immediately and, when thawed, tasted fresh. Only small ice crystals formed on the fish, and their cell walls remained intact. In 1925 he founded General Seafood Corporation, focusing on Birdseye's process using chilled stainless steel belts to quickly freeze fish. Later he extended the process to include meat, poultry, fruit and vegetables. In 1929 he sold the company to what became General Foods Corporation, which established Birds Eye Frozen Foods. Birdseye also held patents on a light bulb, a whale-fishing harpoon and an infrared heating process.

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Sunday, December 8, 2013

December 8 - Jim Morrison

70 years ago: Singer-songwriter Jim Morrison was born on December 8, 1943, near Cape Canaveral, Florida. His family moved often because his father was a U.S. Navy officer. In high school and college he read widely in literature, and in 1965 he graduated from UCLA with a degree in film. The same year, while living on canned beans and LSD in Venice Beach, California, he and fellow UCLA student Ray Manzarek formed the rock band the Doors, which took its name from “The Doors of Perception,” a book by Aldous Huxley on psychedelic drug use, which in turn referred to a line in a William Blake poem. The group’s first eponymous album, “Doors” (January 1967), included the hit single "Light My Fire" as well as "Break On Through (To the Other Side)" and “The End.” Their second album featured the hit "Love Me Two Times" and "People are Strange”; their third album, in 1968, included the song "Hello, I Love You." Morrison's alcoholism and multiple drug addictions fueled bizarre, violent and obscene – though electrifying – concert performances, and also led to his controversial death in Paris in 1971 at age 27.

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Wednesday, December 4, 2013

December 4 - Rainer Maria Rilke

Poet Rainer Maria Rilke was born on December 4, 1875, in Prague, in what was Austro-Hungarian Bohemia. The child of an unhappy marriage, as a youth Rilke was forced into military training, for which his intellect, artistic talents and sensibility were uniquely unsuited. In his 20’s he fell in love with a married woman of letters (who later studied with Sigmund Freud), and traveled with her throughout Europe. In Russia he met Leo Tolstoy, and in Paris, while serving for a time as secretary to sculptor Auguste Rodin, he began a period of creativity that included his first great work, The Book of Hours (1905), poems about the search for God and the nature of prayer; and a semi-autobiographical novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), influenced by the works of Nietzsche, which explores man’s individuality and alienation in an increasingly indifferent world. Rilke was deeply scarred by World War I, which he was forced to endure in Germany. Afterward he wrote his greatest poems, the mystical and deeply religious Duino Elegies (1912-1922), in which his spirit rises from suffering to transcendence.

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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

December 3 - Gilbert Stuart

Portrait painter Gilbert Stuart was born on December 3, 1755, near Newport, Rhode Island. His father was an early maker of snuff (pulverized tobacco). By age 14 he showed promise as an artist, and from 1777-1793 he established himself as a portrait painter in England and Ireland, where he became famous and commanded high prices. In 1795 he moved his studio from New York to Philadelphia, where he was certain that he could paint President George Washington. Though he established no rapport with Washington, he painted a series of warm, iconic portraits that led to demand for copies, which kept Stuart well paid for many years. Even so, he was constantly near bankruptcy. His most famous likeness of Washington, known as “The Athenaeum,” remained permanently unfinished (pictured). It is shown on the U.S. one dollar bill in reverse. Stuart painted 130 reproductions of this image, most of which he sold for $100 each. Stuart’s large, full-length picture of Washington, known as the Lansdowne portrait, was saved from the East Room of the White House in 1812 by Dolley Madison, assisted by a slave.

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Monday, December 2, 2013

December 2 - Statue of Freedom, U.S. Capitol Dome

150 years ago: On December 2, 1863, the final section of the bronze Statue of Freedom was placed on top of the nearly completed cast-iron dome of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. The ceremony received a 35-gun salute, which was answered at the 12 forts surrounding the city during the Civil War. The colossal bronze is a female allegorical figure that wears a military helmet decorated with stars, topped with an eagle's head and a crest of feathers. Her right hand rests on the hilt of a sheathed sword; her left hand holds a victory laurel wreath and the Shield of the United States. Commissioned in 1854 from sculptor Thomas Crawford, the statue originally included a liberty cap, an ancient Roman symbol of an emancipated slave. But Mississippi Senator and Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (later President of the Confederacy), a militant slaveholder who supervised the Capitol’s construction, vehemently objected. And yet, a slave, Philip Reid, helped supervise the bronze casting and assembly process, and the statue’s five sections were hoisted into place by former slaves.

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