Sometimes you meet famous people when you attend the theatre in London — I did at a recent performance in early June. I attended the new London version of The Philadelphia Story which though most people know by the Katharine Hepburn-Cary Grant movie, was originally a play. Indeed, it had been originally customized to Hepburn. The one in London is being done this year while Kevin Spacey is the artistic director of the Old Vic Theatre. He also stars as CK Dexter Haven. Jennifer Ehle has the starring role of Tracy Lord, and she makes the part her own. You may remember her as Lizzy Bennet from the British miniseries Pride and Prejudice. But more on this play later.
I hadn’t been to the Old Vic Theatre in years, indeed not since Patrick Stewart was doing his one-man version of “A Christmas Carol.” Back then I thought I’d go to the stage door around back to meet Captain Jean-Luc Piccard of Star Trek‘s USS Enterprise. So did a couple of hundred other “Star Trek: The Next Generation” fans. While I did not get to meet him, I did get close enough to breathe the same air molecules. But that was all.
One time though, my waiting at the stage door paid off. I waited behind the Wyndhams Theatre in London following Dame Diana Rigg‘s performance in “Medea,” for which she subsequently won a Tony on Broadway. It’s a real Greek tragedy: everyone dies in the end… and she kills them. Dame Diana breezed out 45 minutes after the show and apologized to the two of us waiting for autographs. I said I’d been following her career since the TV show The Avengers in the 60’s. She cooed, “Oh, the black and white ones?” She signed my program and I floated back to my hotel.
The night I attended I had a good seat in the second row of the stalls (translation: first level of balcony) and during the second interval (translation: intermission, and yes, there were two) across the row in front of me walks Rosemary Harris returning to her seat. I could not take my eyes off her. You know her as the kindly Aunt May Parker from the original Spider-Man movies, but back in her day she was an actress of great renown and prowess both in London and on Broadway, having won Tony, Obie and Emmy awards. She has appeared opposite Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier, and Michael Redgrave.
I spoke with her for a few minutes as we left the show. Her presence there was significant for two reasons. First, she had done 5 plays in this same theater, indeed, her picture is on the wall with Peter O’Toole in Hamlet in 1963. But second and more importantly, the starring role of tonight’s play was her daughter, Jennifer Ehle. I told her that I thought her daughter had done a marvelous job in the role, and I asked her what she thought. She thanked me and said it she was quite proud to watch her. I asked her if it was a thrill seeing her daughter perform in the same theatre that she had performed in back in 1963. She said yes and that she had to pinch herself… and that she had also performed here along with Richard Burton in Othello “in 1954, or was it 55?” (It was 1956.) And she had done Julius Caesar, Troilus & Cressida, and Uncle Vanya, and she couldn’t remember them all, there were five.
I told her that her daughter had made the part her own, and so she had. The play is a bit different than the movie, where Tracy Lord’s brother Sandy is absorbed into the role of CK Dexter Haven, making Cary Grant’s role much larger in the movie. In the play, the lines and the plot elements go to her brother, consequently, CK Dexter Haven has a rather smaller role. Ms. Elhe is the dominant role and she embodies the character so that you forget that she’s not the person you usually associate with the role. Her vocal range and presence on stage gave her a gravitas that grows on you. Her “American” accent was almost flawless, as were most of the British Actors. Her younger sister Dinah was played with whiny adenoidal delight by Talulah Riley in her stage debut. Nicholas Le Prevost’s Uncle Willy was a particular delight with a somewhat expanded role. Julia McKenzie’s Margaret Lord was a special breath of off-handed humor.
Kevin Spacey, as I mentioned, had a smaller role than expected, but he had fun with it. He delivered some of his lines as W.C. Fields or Groucho Marx. He was nimble and light on his feet and seemed almost outside the play at times. He did with volume and anger what Cary Grant did with tone and eyebrow. But Spacey’s emotion revealed nuances I hadn’t caught in my dozen viewings of the movie, and he can throw away a line like nobody but Sean Connery as 007.
As I left the play, Ms. Harris and I spoke for only three or four minutes, but at 78 she is gracious and poised. I told her it was a treat to meet her and she thanked me as we parted and walked off into the night.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood theatre buff
As a follow-up to my article commemorating landing on the moon in 1969, there is an interesting site here that shows what it will look like in the future:
In honor of the first manned Moon landing, which took place on July 20, 1969, we’ve added some NASA imagery to the Google Maps interface to help you pay your own visit to our celestial neighbor. Happy lunar surfing.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood futurist
The actor James Doohan, who played the beloved engineer Montgomery Scott, or “Scotty” on the original Star Trek’s U.S.S. Enterprise died today at his home in Redmond, Washington. He was 85 and had been battling Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, lung fibrosis and, most recently, pneumonia. Born March 3, 1920, in Vancouver, British Columbia, he fought with the Royal Canadian Artillery during World War II, and landed on the beaches of Normandy, France, as part of the U.S.-led D-Day invasion. He lost a finger in the war, and it was rarely noticeable in the show, as they usually used a “stunt hand.”
He is immortalized by the phrase “Beam me up, Scotty,” although Capt. Kirk never issued that order during the TV series, and indeed didn’t utter it until the subsequent fourth movie.I met Mr. Doohan in 1975 on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley when I was a student. He was doing a play on campus about Ulysses S. Grant and I was doing a show featuring theatrical fencing (and you though I only studied history.) When I saw him sitting on the lawn I excitedly told my acting-student fencing partner, “That’s the actor Jimmy Doohan!” He replied, “Who?” I said “Scotty, from Star Trek.” We sat on the grass with him and talked for about an hour. We spoke about theater, which he loved, and how he would do that exclusively, if it paid well enough but needed to do the occasional movie or TV show to pay the bills. He had a rather gruff Canadian accent and discussed his skill and delight in accents. In the play, he portrayed an American Civil War officer. A Scottish post-doctoral friend of mine used to say, “When he comes on, we watch and laugh at how bad his accent is!”
When my friends, who knew what a Star Trek junkie I was, ask if Mr. Doohan and I spoke about Star Trek, I replied, “No, I didn’t want to seem like a sniveling fan.”
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood Trek junkie
It was 36 years ago today, July 20, 1969 when man first stepped on the moon. As Neil Armstrong climbed down the ladder of Apollo 11’s Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) and stepped onto the lunar surface, he said “That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” What he meant to say, but didn’t in the exitement was “That’s one small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind.”
Take a look tonight at the moon, it will be full tomorrow night.
There is a new feature at moon.google.com where you can see the landing site for not just the Apollo 11, but also the:
- Apollo 12 on Nov 19, 1969
- Apollo 14 on Feb 5, 1971
- Apollo 15 on Jul 30, 1971
- Apollo 16 on Apr 20, 1972
- Apollo 17 on Dec 11, 1972
Zoom all the way in by clicking the “+” symbol on the map to see the detail of the lunarscape.
You can watch the official NASA video clip here.
Bill Petro, your friendlyneighborhood skygazer
Perhaps no one person is more associated with the 4th of July in American History than Thomas Jefferson, probably because he penned the immortal Declaration of Independence.
As my friend Clay Jenkinson says in his book Thomas Jefferson: Man of Light, “The Third President is the Muse of American life, the chief articulator of our national value system and our national self-identity. Jefferson was a man of almost unbelievable achievement: statesman, man of letters, architect, scientist, book collector, political strategist, and utopian visionary. But he is also a man of paradox: liberty-loving slaveholder, Indian-loving relocationist, publicly frugal and privately bankrupt, a constitutional conservative who bought the Louisiana Territory in 1803.” Even by 1782, as an admiring French visitor observed, Jefferson, “without having quitted his own country,” had become “an American who … is a musician, draftsman, astronomer, natural philosopher, jurist and a statesman.” He knew about crop rotation, Renaissance architecture, could dance a jig, play the fiddle, or tie an artery.
Though friends in their youth, disagreements separated Thomas Jefferson and our second President John Adams in later years. They were eventually reconciled toward their twilight years and though they never saw each other again after Adams left the White House to be replaced by Jefferson, in the last 14 years of their lives they exchanged 156 letters, some of them quite warm. This correspondence is generally regarded as the intellectual capstone to the achievements of the revolutionary generation and the most impressive correspondence between prominent statesmen.
They both died on the same day, July 4th, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, two of the last three signers. At the age of 91 John Adams collapsed in his favorite reading chair and died that afternoon, his last words were, “Thomas Jefferson still lives.” But Jefferson would have said “wrong, as usual.” In his last days his health had failed and he passed in and out of consciousness. On the 4th of July, 1826 just a few hours before Adams died — in his home in Monticello, Virginia — surrounded by his daughter and some special slaves, shortly after noon, at the age of 83, Thomas Jefferson died. His last words were, “Is it the 4th?”
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
Read more at: http://www.th-jefferson.org/home.html
HISTORY OF INDEPENDENCE DAY
The 4th of July, named after Pope Julius IV… sorry, wrong file.
Independence Day, or the Fourth of July is the adoption by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, of the Declaration of Independence, proclaiming the severance of the allegiance of the American colonies to Great Britain. It is the greatest secular holiday of the United States, observed in all the states, territories and dependencies.
Although it is assumed that the Continental Congress unanimously signed the document on the 4th of July, in fact not all delegates were present and there were no signers at all. Here is what really happened.
The congressional delegate from Virginia, Richard Henry Lee, introduced in the Continental Congress, on June 7, 1776, a resolution “that…body declare the United Colonies free and independent States, absolved from allegiance to or dependence on the Crown or Parliament of Great Britain…” On June 10 a committee of five, headed by Thomas Jefferson (the actual writer), was appointed to prepare a declaration suitable to the occasion in the event that the Virginia resolution was adopted. Jefferson’s version was revised by Benjamin Franklin and John Adams before it went to the Congress where they did some editing of their own.
Congress approved the resolution July 2; the declaration composed by Jefferson and amended by his committee was adopted July 4. That evening John Hancock ordered Philadelphia printer John Dunlap to print 200 broadside copies of the agreed upon Declaration that was signed by him as President and Charles Thomson as Secretary. These were distributed to members of the Congress and distributed to the 13 colonies and elsewhere. The Declaration was read in the yard of the state house July 8. New York did not even vote on it until July 9. The signing was even more gradual, and it is somewhat misleading to speak of the “fifty-six original signers of the Declaration of Independence”.
By August 6, most of those whose names are on the document had signed, but at least six signatures were attached later. One signer, Thomas McKean did not attach his name until 1781! Some of those who signed were not even in Congress when the Declaration was adopted, and some who voted for it in Congress never did get around to signing it. Robert R. Livingston was one of the committee of five; he helped to frame it; he voted for it; and he never signed it.
The first anniversary of the declaration was observed only in Philadelphia, Pa., by the adjournment of Congress, a ceremonial dinner, bonfires, the ringing of bells and fireworks. In 1788, after the requisite number of states had adopted the constitution, Philadelphia celebrated July 4 by elaborate festivities, including a grand procession.
Boston, Mass., first observed the day in 1783, and thereafter this celebration replaced that of the Boston Massacre, March 5. The custom spread to other cities and states, where the day was marked by parades, patriotic oratory, military displays and fireworks. In present time, games and athletic contests, picnics, patriotic programs and pageants, and community fireworks of pyrotechnic expertise are characteristic of the 4th of July.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
HISTORY OF FATHER’S DAY
The celebration of Father’s Day goes back all the way to the beginning, actually to the Garden of Eden when Abel gave his father Adam a razor while his brother Cain gave his father a snake-skin tie. This was the beginning of Cain’s downward slide.
Scholars have debated for ages why Mother’s Day seems to be more honored than Father’s Day. A parallel has been drawn between this phenomenon and that of the difference in popularity between the Irish patron saint and the Italian patron saint. The noted scholar, Father Guido Sarducci, papal legate and gossip columnist for the Vatican has pointed out that for St. Patrick’s Day, we have lots of festivities, lots of green, celebrations and major parades. But for St. Joseph, a very good saint, there is nothing. The only thing he is known for is children’s aspirin. Dr. Les Capable of Stanford University confirmed this research by saying “Ditto”. Professor Illinois Smith, of the Department of Redundancy Department at the University of California, Berkeley in Berkeley, California said much the same thing by repeating the same thing over and over again many times in a redundant and repetitive fashion.
The holiday was first canonized by Pope Hallmark in 1582 in the Papal Bull “Quando Ipso Facto Volare FTD Que Sera Sera” which translated means “When you care enough to send the very best”. This was confirmed years later in the United States when one of the founding matriarchs, Ma Bell ordained and established both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day in an attempt to help bolster the fledgling nation’s telecommunication coffers. It is well known that Mother’s Day generally posts the highest volume of long-distance telephone calls of any single day of the year. It is not as well known that Father’s Day posts the highest volume of long-distance collect calls.
Everyone has had a father, but not everyone can be a father, especially if you are a woman. But there are few challenges in the world that are more rewarding than being a father. It is a special joy and a great honor.
It is noteworthy, as we celebrate Father’s Day, that the Bible refers to the Almighty as Father.
Happy Father’s Day!
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
Children’s children are the crown of old men;
and the glory of children are their fathers. – Proverbs 17:6
The world is different than it was even a few years ago as we celebrate Memorial Day. We now are fighting a war, and we now remember why we fight. The History Channel recently re-ran the HBO series “Band of Brothers,” the adaptation of the Stephen Ambrose book about a company of men from the landing at Normandy through the end of the World War II.
During WWII my father crossed paths a couple of times with the Company E mentioned in “Band of Brothers”. Once at the Battle of the Bulge and later while liberating the death camp Dachau.
My father’s story is told in part on HBO’s website regarding the episode on the liberation of Dachau at: http://www.hbo.com/band/landing/why_we_fight.html.
He rarely volunteered to me information about the War, but when I did asked, he would answer. He left me pictures taken during the liberation of Dachau. Ironically, during a recent visit to Dachau, when I told the workers a this modern memorial, they all asked me the same question: “Do you have pictures?” I still have these pictures of those who survived, who looked like skeletons. I also have pictures of the skeletons of those who did not survive, of the open boxcars with bodies piled high.
Dachau gate: “Work Makes Free”
My father had seen a lot of action during the war and later was in charge of three P.O.W. camps for German prisoners, but nothing prepared him for what he saw at Dachau. He said that he watched his commanders vomit when they saw the camps. Those who were liberated were like the dead, they could not believe that they were finally being freed.
These gruesome images must never be forgotten. It must never be forgotten what barbarism that man is capable of committing toward fellow men. But some may say, “I don’t want to think about it, surely no one believes that these atrocities were justified, that they’d ever be repeated.” But only two decades ago, an organization asked to use University of California conference grounds property for a meeting. This request was later denied when it was learned that the organization requesting the facilities believed that the Holocaust was a hoax, that it did not really occur. There was also a corresponding outcry that this organizations’ free speech rights were being violated.
A person who remembers the past can be grateful for the freedoms that were purchased at great cost by those who went before them. They can memorialize those who fought and died, they can honor those against whom horrors were committed. A person without this sense of history is a severed person, self-referential, cut off from the past.
On this Memorial Day, the words of George Santayana, Harvard philosopher and poet are most apt:
“Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.”
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
The city of Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, an American village on the National Historic Register, claims to be the birthplace of Memorial Day, as does some 24 other towns in America. But Boalsburg’s claim goes back to a practice at the end of the Civil War. It does have an local museum, and a history that stretches back over two centuries. It’s claim is supported by pointing out, on a large sign near the center of town that:
“The custom of decorating soldiers’ graves was begun here in October, 1864, by Emma Hunter, Sophie Keller, and Elizabeth Myers. Named for David Boal who settled here in 1798. Village laid out in 1808. Boalsburg Tavern built in 1819. Post Office established 1820. First church erected 1827. Home community of three United States ambassadors.”
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian