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I watched “Sunset Boulevard” tonight.  Familiar with it?  William Holden?  Gloria Swanson? 1950? Black and white?  Yes? No?  It was on the Bonnet Channel tonight. 

I remember the first time I saw it.  I was in New York City staying at my usual hotel at 34th and Lex.  I saw it after a long day of meetings and I was enthralled.  It was one of those films that I’d heard about from my Mother since childhood – the line “I’m ready for my close-up” was commonly heard around our house.  It just took on a whole new significance when I finally saw the film.

Viewing it tonight, it took on a different quality for me.  Perhaps that’s the mark of a good movie – it can somehow match its message to your mood, as if it holds some universal hidden code that is only revealed to you piece by piece when you’re ready for it.

Tonight, I was caught up with the madness of the character of Norma Desmond.  Her obsession with staying young, with staying the star, with ensuring that her public still noticed her, with her devotion to living in the past and with her frantic desperation of staying in control of William Holden, her insanity around her “love” for him.  It was a brilliant portrayal by Gloria Swanson – even if she perhaps did ham it up a bit in spots.  I was so entranced by her and the message of madness that I paid very little attention to William Holden’s character, which is surprising as he has become one of my more favorite actors from the ’50s.

If you’ve seen the film, you know how it ends.  In fact, if you’ve seen the beginning of the film, you probably know how it ends.  But if you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil it for you – as long as you promise to watch it.  (Go.  Go on!)  It’s a worthwhile way to spend a chilly evening, and as our world spins crazily around these days, it’s a voyeuristic view inside the mind of a madwoman.

And heaven knows there are too many of those roaming loose these days.

On this day in 1847, the first group of rescuers reached the Donner Party.

Heavens, what a horrible trip these poor people had.  As you may know, the Donner Party is famous for having had to resort to cannibalism to survive when their overland journey from Illinois to California was stalled by deep snow in the Sierra Nevadas.  To me, one of the most unfortunate parts of this tale of woe is that, when the first rescue party arrived, while 14 of the emigrants had died, there had been no cannibalism.  However, in the week-long interval between the arrival of the first and the second relief parties, the survivors had begun to eat their dead.  Desperate times, desperate measures.  It’s not impossible to imagine. 

Today is the day that 30,000 United States Marines (boo-rah!) landed on Iwo Jima in 1945.  The image of the American Flag being raised by six soldiers was taken on the 5th day of the 35-day long battle by photographer Joe Rosenthal, and was the first photo to win a Pulitzer prize in the same year it was published.  Three of the six men in the photograph were killed in action during the conflict, which was ultimately a victory for the Allied Forces.

It’s the birthday of Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi, born in 1876.   Bohemian, with a rare ability to capture essence rather than appearance, Brancusi was a shepherd-turned-sculptor who excelled in carvings in wood, stone and bronze. 

He also made most of his own furniture and doorways, so he was clearly handy to have around the home.  A spiritual man, he nevertheless had a strong appreciation for wine, women and smokes. In the last 19 years of his career, Brancusi only made 15 sculptures, and in an interview towards the end of his life, was said to have been puttering around his studio, “communing with the silent host of fish, birds, heads and endless columns he’d created.” 

He’s known for having created the most expensive sculpture ever sold at auction ($37.2 million).  Sorry to be a modern art ignoramus, but I have to ask why this piece sold for that much.

Brancusi’s grave is in Montparnasse in Paris, which ironically has several sculptures that he crafted as gravestones for others.  His grave is remarkably unadorned, and for a reason that I can’t identify, he appears to have been buried with abstract husband-and-wife painters Alexandre Istrati and Natalia Dumitresco.

Today is British actress Merle Oberon’s birthday (1911-1979).  Beautiful yes, but honestly, I never thought much of her acting skills.  She’s always seemed so wooden and as if she were overacting.  She was the mixed race child of a British subject and a Ceylonese/Maori Eurasian woman, though it is unclear if her mother was actually her mother or, in reality, her grandmother.  After a car crash in 1937 resulted in severe facial trauma, she was somewhat obsessed with film and lighting techniques that would minimize the appearance of her scars onscreen.  She died from a stroke at the age of 68 and is now a resident of the famous Forest Lawn Cemetary.  (I had a friend who urinated on graves there by accident once in the dark.)

Today in 1963, Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking feminist book “The Feminine Mystique” was published.

I waited on Betty Friedan back in 1981 when I worked at a clothing store in Harvard Square called Serendipity.  I recall sneaking peeks at her as I ran her credit card through the machine.  I have to say, and I truly, truly, mean no disrespect by saying this, that she was one of the ugliest women that I have ever seen.  Though I did compliment her on her book.  Even though I never read it. 

It’s Chocolate Mint Day.  If you’ve never grown it in your garden, I’d encourage you to do so.  It really does smell just like chocolate when you rub its little leaves.

And lastly, it’s the 12th anniversary of the death of Grandpa Jones.  Known as Grandpa due to his extreme grumpiness when he arrived for early-morning radio shows, he was a remarkable clawhammer banjo player and a longtime cast member of “Hee Haw”, which will, no doubt, only be familiar to Southerners of a certain age.

When I was 15, I was forced to participate in a “talent” show at Theosophy Camp in Hot Sulphur Springs, Arkansas, where I was staying with my grandmother one summer, and the skit in which I had to perform was a recreation of the singing washboard women from Hee-Haw.  Oh, dear.  I’ll leave the whole damn thing to your imagination.

Thus endeth the history lesson.  Hope you feel slightly enlightened.

Today is Carmen Miranda’s birthday.  

The Brazilian Bombshell (or Notable Little One) would have been 101.  Born Maria do Carmo Miranda Da Cunha, she died at age 46.  As with our historic ladies I discussed yesterday, this vivacious woman, so full of life and spirit, found herself in a life that spiralled tragically downward. 

Trapped in an abusive marriage, addicted to amphetamines and barbiturates, and taking electic shock treatments for depression, she died of a heart attack following a performance on the Jimmy Durante Show. 

(She actually had a heart attack during her number on the show, but, ever the consummate performer, she carried on – she just came close to falling.)   After her body was taken back to Brazil for burial, the priest refused to  consecrate her soul due to her heavy make-up.  That little issue was resolved and millions of mourners lined up to see her interred at Cemitério São João Batista in Rio de Janeiro.

A hatmaker herself in her youth in Brazil (at a store called Olinda), she based her trademark towering fruit hat on the headdresses of the Baiana, the black women who sold fruit in the marketplaces of Bahia. 

While her father was not at all supportive of her musical aspirations, she became a wildly popular singer on the radio and club circuits of Brazil, and was invited to America to perform on Broadway.  She popularized the samba, which she performed in 6-inch platform shoes on stage, but she preferred to dance barefoot when she could get away with it.

Her path to stardom took her to Hollywood and the movie industry, and while it was not her first film, she attracted mass attention when she appeared as Rosita Murphy in Springtime in the Rockies.  (It’s actually the only film of hers that I’ve seen.) 

The hat, of course, came with her to LaLa Land, and at a diminutive 5-feet tall, the height of the hat no doubt heightened her image.  Talk in the town was that she refused studio chief Darryl Zanuck’s amorous overtures on principle — although I see nothing amorous about being chased around a couch by an unattractive half-naked man wanting my “tropical delicacies”.

While she retained dual citizenship in Brazil and Portugal (where she was born), her heart belonged to Brazil, and she was devastated when the Brazilian people criticized her for becoming “Americanized” when she visited in 1940.  But Brazilians can never completely fall out of love with a favorite daughter – visitors to Rio will find a museum dedicated to Carmen, as will visitors to Canaveses, Portugal, the town of her birth. 

A hot-air balloon called the “Chic-I-Boom” after one of her dance numbers, which portrayed a likeness of Carmen, was launched at the Albuquerque Balloon Festival in 1982, and Chic-I-Boom II is still floating at festivals today.

But the hat….let’s talk about the hat. 

There’s one on display in the museum in Portugal.  They inspired a line of turbans and a line of Bakelite jewelry in the 1940s that are highly collectible today. 

The hat (and the lady who wore it) became the model for the Chiquita banana logo.  

You can find online patterns for the quintessential fruit hat, which typically includes bananas (a must), apples, grapes, cherries, oranges, plums, feathers, beads, and twigs.  Carmen’s tallest hat (described by some as ten stories tall, but I have yet to determine the true height) was seen in the number “The Lady with the Tutti-Fruitti Hat” in the 1943 Busby Berleley film “The Gang’s All Here”.

The film also included hundreds of chorus girls dancing with six-foot bananas (that had to be held at waist-level rather than hip-level to reduce the phallic implications.)

Carmen has unfortunately been the object of ridicule in cartoons throughout the years,

and the inspiration for so many things that are just wrong.

I recall my Mother being quite fond of Carmen – that’s where I first learned about the fruit hat – though I never saw her samba.

So please, take a moment today and have a banana in honor of this wonderful lady.

As an aside, today is Read in the Bathtub Day!  If you’ve never done it, there’s no better time than the present. 

Just make sure you don’t drop the book.  Having lived in a bathtub one winter, I can tell you that it doesn’t enhance the quality of the experience.

Today in 1985, Maybell, Colorado, reached a record low temperature of -61 degrees.  You may not think this is overly noteworthy, but Maybell, Colorado, holds a special place in my heart, and since this is, after all, my blog, it’s noteworthy to me. 

A long time ago, in what right now does seem to be a galaxy far, far away, when Pat and I had only been together for about three years, we took off over the fourth of July to escape the heat.   We headed towards Dinosaur National Monument, which means we were really running TO the heat, as opposed to running AWAY from the heat, but that wasn’t our intent.  We always liked to take the backroads when we did driving trips, and didn’t really plan a detailed route, just took whatever turns looked inviting, and stopped at whatever little roadside motels looked cozy.  On this particular trip, we took a long (perhaps 12-mile) dirt road that stretched from Maybell to Meeker.  That road was iconic in our minds, and forever after, if either of us saw something that made us think of it, we could say to the other “Like that road!” and the other would know exactly what was being referred to.

The road seemed like it went on forever.  It was a gentle dirt road for the most part, just a few washboard spots here and there.  The day had been hot and dry and in the late afternoon, the sun turned everything a rich shade of gold and green.  We stopped and walked into a field of waving wheat and let it stroke our skin.  We caught sight of a mountain lion chasing something through the tall grass off the side of the road.  A herd of elk patiently wended its way down a grassy hillside.  The roadside stream would cascade into unexpected little waterfalls.  Aspens rustled in the breeze.  A creature the size of a pterodactyl flew directly over the roof of the truck encasing us in a massive shadow, and we turned to each other and said “What the HELL was that?”, but couldn’t find it when we stuck our heads out the windows.  We agreed that it was as if we had passed into another dimension, another world, another universe.  Time slowed down to a luscious crawl and we luxuriantly dreamed through it, trying to hold onto it, savor it, live only in that feeling, that moment, endlessly.

Ah, the road.  That’s why Maybell has made my history book. 

But back to business.  For you more practical, less romantic history buffs, here’s the further scoop on today.

It’s Clark Gable’s 109th birthday. 

Of course, he’s dead NOW, but he would be 109 if he were still alive.  While not one of my favorite actors, he is responsible for one of my favorite movie scenes – the hitchhiking scene in “It Happened One Night”.  Catch it if you can.  

He’s most famous for his role as Rhett Butler in “Gone With the Wind.”  We GRITS have all been able to forgive him for not having a southern accent when he played the role.  But Vivian Leigh complained about his bad breath during their kissing scenes, which detracts from his charming image. 

Gable was devastated by the death of Carole Lombard, his third wife, in a plane crash after three years of marriage.  Though he married twice more, he never really recovered, and is buried by her side at Forest Lawn.

It’s also Boris Yeltsin’s birthday – he would have been 79.  Since I rarely choose to get political here, I will just say that he was my favorite drunken, dancing world leader.  Not my favorite world leader, mind you, just my favorite drunken, dancing one.  How can you not retain a trace of affection for someone who once played wooden spoons on the balding head of Askar Akayev, the president of ex-Soviet state Kyrgyzstan?

Skippy Peanut Butter was also born on this day in 1933.  What the Skippy website doesn’t tell you in its history timeline, is that in 2008, they deceptively resized their standard-sized jars by adding a large dimple in the bottom of the jar, while keeping all other dimensions the same, so the trusting consumer, looking at what appears to be the same jar they’ve bought for years, was actually getting 1.7 oz. less for their money.  Not the peanut butter’s fault, but still just not cricket.

Today is the 90th anniversary of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, or “Mounties”, known for always getting their man. 

Also known internally as “The Force”, they are immortalized in modern-day cartoon culture by Dudley Do Right from the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, one of my childhood favorites,

and in modern-day film by Nelson Eddy, who had a propensity to sing to Jeanette MacDonald when he was in Mountie mode.

Today marks the 7th anniversary of the day the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon re-entry after its 27th mission, killing all seven astronauts aboard.  I remember the day.  I wept.

Rest in peace.

On a lighter note, today is Hula in the Coola Day, a day for those of us who have been too long away from the warmth of the sun and the sound of the waves to cast off the trappings of winter, wrap ourselves in sarongs and roast pigs and have a luau.  I can do the sarong with no problem.  I am awaiting delivery of the roast pig, but I think it’s going to take a while.

And finally (though in a way, not unrelated to the previous holiday), today is Robinson Crusoe Day, a day, according to Chase’s Calendar of Events, to be adventurous and self-reliant.  I firmly feel that every day in the years to come is Robinson Crusoe Day for me.

Thus endeth the history lesson.  Hope you feel slightly enlightened.

January 2020
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