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Edmond O’Brian and National TV Dinner Day

The second week in September, and the weather should be cooling off in the Great Lakes by now. Could even spend a few days with the windows open just to get some air in the building, as long as the neighbors keep it down.

10 September, a momentous day in China (before they knew it was even September) in 210 BC, when Qin Shi Huang died; this was the founder of the Qin dynasty and first emperor of a unified state that could be called China. It was he who brought the warring states under central control and secured most of modern China.  On this day in 1897 in London was the first drunk driving arrest–gotta wonder what that field sobriety test looked like. George Smith, a 25-year-old London cab driver, was arrested after ramming a building; he pled guilty and paid a 25 shilling fine.  Finally, on 10 September 1977, the guillotine was last used in public. Hamida Djandoubi was a Tunisian-born farm laborer who kidnapped and murdered his former girlfriend in 1972. He was convicted and sentenced to death, the last time the guillotine was used in public, and the last capital sentence to be carried out in the European Union. Today is also National Swap Ideas Day, dreamed up by Robert L. Birch (no, really). But today we talk about the hardest working man in Hollywood, and convenience under tin foil.

His first film contract with RKO brought him in contact with Eve Arden and Deanna Durbin at Universal, but his first really big part was with James Cagney in White Heat (1949).

Eamon Joseph O’Brien was born on 10 September 1915 in Brooklyn, New York, the last of seven children. He did street magic as a child and learned the acting trade early in his life, at the feet of Harry Houdini and Sanford Meisner. His fellow students included Lillian Gish and Burgess Meridith in summer stock and Shakespeare road shows.  His first film contract with RKO brought him in contact with Eve Arden and Deanna Durbin at Universal, but his first really big part was with James Cagney in White Heat (1949).

220px-EdmondOBrien. Wiki Commons
Edmund O’Brien as Frank Bigelow in “DOA” (1950)

But his best-known role was in DOA (1950), where O’Brien played a notary public who spent the last hours of his life investigating his own murder. That got him enough notoriety to land a role in The Barefoot Contessa (1954) as Oscar Muldoon, for which he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and a Golden Globe. He would be nominated for the same awards for his role as a boozing senator in Seven Days in May (1964), winning the Golden Globe and another Oscar nomination. He also won the Western Heritage Award for Best Theatrical Motion Picture for his role as yet-another lush in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962). As many awards as O’Brien won, however, did not compensate for his health challenges: his weight swung drastically, and he suffered from arthritis in his hips.

As an independent actor, O’Brien showed a business acumen and creative talent all his own, earning him the moniker “the hardest working man in Hollywood.”

O’Brien also landed leading roles, notably in Sheild for Murder (1954), 1984 and A Cry in the Night (1956).  But he’s undoubtedly best known for his characters, which he always thought were more natural to play than lead because an actor “could always fill in white space with a wisecrack.” His cinematic work was matched by his television roles, making him one of the few actors who could and did play both mediums with relative ease. O’Brien was best known on TV for Johnny Midnight (syndication, 1960) and Sam Benedict (NBC, 1962-63), and for literally hundreds of character roles on scores of programs. As an independent actor without permanent contracts in an age when contracts were the only route to steady work, O’Brien showed a business acumen and creative talent all his own, earning him the moniker “the hardest working man in Hollywood.”

Legend has it that O’Brien was to have been awarded an Honorary Academy Award in 1986, but he passed before a vote was held.

O’Brien’s last roles on the big screen or small were in 1974 when he was 59. But his weight and his hips were getting the better of him, his memory seemed to be failing and so was his heart. So was his bank account. For all the work he did, his finances were never sterling, he was divorced twice, and the father of three children, all of whom ended up in television. Edmund O’Brien died in Inglewood, California of Alzheimer’s Disease on 9 May 1985. Legend has it that O’Brien was to have been awarded an Honorary Academy Award in 1986, but he passed before a vote was held.


Now, today is National TV Dinner day because on 10 September 1953 the first TV dinners (turkey with all the trimmings) were made commercially available in the US by Swanson. The food was pre-cooked and came in aluminum trays, and the meals were meant to be heated in the oven at home. They were intended for convenience like so many things in the ’50s were, and just having a TV was a status symbol: the scene above was promotional for the televisions, not the non-packaged meals.

TV dinners have gone through many transitions since their origins. Swanson wasn’t the first and was hardly the last, but Swanson was the first to make it a commercial success. In my youth, TV dinners were common about once a week when Dad was out-of-town on business. They were generally OK but tended towards the bland, and in the ’60s there wasn’t a great deal of variety: chicken, roast beef, turkey, repeat. When the brownies started in the mid-60s, this was something, and there were hot dogs with buns and beans and franks. Then, as ever, life changed, and I didn’t see another TV dinner until I saw the Army’s version–the T-Rations–only once, sometime around 1975. They were about the same except on a cardboard tray and slightly larger.

In my bachelor days I tried some TV dinners again, but either I had outgrown them, or the industry had just stopped trying, as I found them bordering on the disgusting–even my cooking was better. I don’t think I’ve had a TV dinner since the early ’80s.

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National Dress Day and My New Gig

Oh, there’s a lot I could talk about this week, like the discovery of Guam in 1561, the Missouri Compromise in 1820, the Alamo in 1836, and Malenkov succeeding Stalin in 1953, among other things. But today there’s dresses. And my career.

National Dress Day began with Ashley Lauren Kerr of ASHLEYLauren declaring 6 March that in 2016 (why 6 March is still a mystery–probably a birthday). Lauren is known for classic dress designs that recall a simpler age and a simpler social dynamic.  Though many 21st century designers have reached back in time for inspiration, ASHLEYLauren seems to have resurrected the 20’s “flapper” shapelessness and melded it with vivid ’60’s colors and lines, resulting in bold and personal high-end women’s attire (and no, I didn’t copy that from anywhere else).  But these things are expensive, and some of the lovely creations, like the prom dress above, will set the buyer back a month’s rent or more. And for prom?  We all know what kind of disasters we can see when a bunch of hormonal teenagers get together (and no, I never went to any of mine). Personally I don’t get it, but I’m told that I’m poisoned by my Y chromosome. So, those of you of whatever gender definition you choose who are so inclined, wear a dress and post pictures of your faves on social media today.

My writing career sometimes takes me away from my home office, and for the next three to six months that’s what will happen. The commute it about 45 minutes one-way, and that won’t allow a lot of time for a weekly blog (sorry, but I have other commitments on the weekends).  So this blog may become irregular for a while, or be restricted to my holding forth on whatever national day I elect to talk about.  All that means, my loyal readers (both of you) is that I’m out making money writing for someone else so I can continue writing my own material for a bit longer.

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Charles I, USS Monitor, FDR and Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day

In the name of true eclecticism, we’re talking about beginnings and endings today.  Still, there’s a lot to choose from for 30 January: Maryland ratified the Articles of Confederation in 1781, putting the Articles into effect as a framework of government; Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933; the Lone Ranger began on WXYZ radio in Detroit, also in 1933; and the Tet Offensive of 1968 began in Vietnam, which eventually turned public opinion against the American presence.  But today, we’ll forego National Croissant Day and Seed Swap Day and discuss that vital material, bubble wrap.

As an American I have bent my mind mightily around all the politics involved, but by many commentators it came down to the power of religion, churches, communions, kings, Parliament, guns, and money.

If you ever really want to be confused about English politics, try to study the English Civil Wars (there were three or so) of 1640-1651.  As an American I have bent my mind mightily around all the politics involved, but by many commentators it came down to the power of religion, churches, communions, kings, Parliament, guns, and money.  The House of Stuart became the ruling house of England and Ireland on the death of Elizabeth I in 1604.  The first Stuart, James IV of Scotland and James I of England and Ireland, was at least moderately popular until his death in 1625.  His son, Charles I, was actually the second son of James, the first having died at 12.  Even if Charles was an Anglican, he was married to a Catholic, Henrietta Maria of France, daughter of Louis XIII, which brought him under suspicion.  Pledged to England not to raise the suppression of Catholics but pledged to France to do just that, Charles led something of a double life, favoring his wife’s faith (that he came to share) more than the Anglican. Too, he raised taxes without the benefit of Parliament, which everyone resented.  Open war broke out between Parliament and the Crown in 1642.  By 1646, harried by money trouble and battlefield losses, Charles took refuge in Scotland, but they sold him to Parliament on 23 January 1647. In a squabble you simply can’t make up, the Army kidnapped Charles from Parliament custody in June 1647.  After more exchanges between squabbling interests differing primarily by religion,  Charles signed a secret treaty with Scotland to have him restored to the throne.  His Royalist supporters rose in May of 1648, only to be put down decisively in August.  After more negotiations, bribes, secret treaties and other nonsense Parliament was purged, Charles arrested and put on trial, and was condemned to death on 26 January 1649.  He was beheaded at Whitehall on 30 January 1649, the first anointed king of England to be executed.

Legend has it that the new ship was meant as much a check on Confederate naval ambitions as on an intentions of Great Britain to intervene in the conflict.

Among many other things, the Americans two hundred years later inherited many of the same animosities from the Mother Country that stemmed from religious outlook, but manifested itself in the New World as deep cultural divisions based on political economy: the value of land versus the value of capital.  When the American Civil War broke out in April 1861, the US Navy was not just small, it was microscopic.  A Swedish-born inventor named John Ericsson proposed the construction of an entirely new type of warship, a flush-deck, steam-powered ship not clad in iron but built entirely of metal.  Due largely to his tremendous reputation as an engineer, Ericson’s design was accepted and construction commenced at Continental Iron Works in Brooklyn 25 October 1861.  The new ship slid down the ways on 30 January 1862. The name Monitor, meaning “one who admonishes and corrects wrongdoers,” was proposed by Ericsson on 20 January 1862 and approved by Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox. Legend has it that the new ship was meant as much a check on Confederate naval ambitions as on an intentions of Great Britain to intervene in the conflict.  Monitor fought her only major duel with an enemy vessel 8 March 1862 at Hampton Roads in Virginia, and foundered in a storm off Hatteras 30 January 1862.  Few warships have ever had such influence not only on naval architecture, but on naval warfare itself.  Today the word monitor is used for any low freeboard warship dominated by gun turrets.

As a youth, FDR attended all the right schools, benefitted greatly from the inherited wealth of one of the oldest families in New York, and went into politics in 1911, serving a term in the New York State Senate.

It wasn’t long after Monitor began her short career that a future naval enthusiast was born not that far away in Hyde Park, New York. Franklin D. Roosevelt was born to the Hyde Park Branch (the Democrats) of the well-to-do Roosevelt family on 30 January 1888; the Oyster Bay Branch (the Republicans) produced Theodore Roosevelt, President from 1901-1908.   As a youth, FDR attended all the right schools, benefitted greatly from the inherited wealth of one of the oldest families in New York, and went into politics in 1911, serving a term in the New York State Senate. Taking up his cousin Theodore’s  old job as Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1913, he served there until he ran for vice-president with James Cox in 1920, but was defeated soundly.  Stricken by polio in 1921, Roosevelt recovered enough by 1929 to win election as Governor of New York.  From there, he won cousin Theodore’s old job as President in 1932.  FDR’s tenure of office was the longest of any American, winning reelection three times.  He died in office 12 April 1945, just three weeks before the death of Adolf Hitler.  Criticized and admired, sometimes in the same breath, FDR’s imprint on the Presidency and the power and reach of the Federal government are undeniable.

…bubble wrap is that plastic sheet stuff that some people insist on popping endlessly, I believe primarily to be annoying, but is said to “relieve stress” (with little explosions?)

And finally, Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day.  Yes, there is such a thing, which is a thing, for reasons not obscure but that make the decisions to have “National anything” day seem sane.  Now, bubble wrap is a generic trademark that, properly, should be rendered “Bubble Wrap® brand cushioning sheets,” but nobody does. Sealed Air Corporation of New Jersey owns it and, apparently pursues its protection from time to time. Be that as it may, bubble wrap is that plastic sheet stuff that some people insist on popping endlessly, I believe primarily to be annoying, but is said to “relieve stress” (with little explosions?)  But I once again digress from the Appreciation Day, which is the last Monday in January, was started by WNVI-FM 95.1 “Spirit Radio” serving Bloomington, Indiana.  It seems they were unwrapping a load of new microphones on the air and one popped, much to someone’s amusement.  Anyway, the first “appreciation” day was held on Monday, 29 January 2001 with a popping relay, a sculpture contest, and a fashion design contest.  You can’t make this stuff up…oh, wait…somebody did.

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Strategic Bombardment: In The Beginning (1915)

The means were crude: enormous gas bags with diesel engines pushing against the wind.  Their targets weren’t factories, or docks or barracks or railway stations, but buildings in towns.  On the night of 19-20 January 1915, the first German Zeppelin raids hit Norfolk at King’s Lynn, Great Yarmouth and Sheringham.  The bomb loads were tiny in comparison to what would follow.  By 1917 Germany gave up on bombing England.

In the period between WWI and WWII, Germany, Britain and the US took two different views of those early raids.  The Germans looked at the targets the Allies hit (mostly in 1918) and saw failure; the British and Americans looked at the results of the Zeppelin raids and saw success.  They would design their air forces accordingly.

Crop Duster: A Novel of WWII is a fictionalized story about American and German fliers and the air forces that they flew for.  Available at booksellers everywhere in paperback and e-book.