Thursday, July 30, 2009

Nat M Wills One great comedian of an age long ago.

The comic Nat M Wills leaves us with more questions than answers on his life. He was a great performer, but in his private life there were hard times and difficult moments. He was married 4 times. He was a head liner of great fortune. He was working the Palace theater 6 weeks after it opened as its star. He made countless recordings. He was a master at the monologue.

Yet there was sadness in this life. He was in terrible debt, He was for a while living at the Lambs Club on 44th street in New York. He was as the papers said at the time, without any assetts. He was paying alimony on his previous wives. I guess this problem haunted him. He was only 44 when he died, So I gather he went through some marriages rather fast. I guess they were ugly situations as well. But he was working then, but something was wrong.

Things seem to change with his 4th wife. He had a child with his 4th wife, and he lived in New Jersey as many stars did. His address at the time was #2 31st Street in Woodcliff, New Jersey. One would think he was trying to start again. He was popular on Broadway at this time too.

Wills made a number of recordings to cover much of what he did on Broadway and Vaudeville. His recordings of No news or what killed the dog and BPOE were so famous and great sellers. But through it all he was in trouble. One did not see this, but there seemed to be problems.

The NY Times reports on Dec 10, 1917 that Wills went into his garage to work on his car as he was a car buff. He locked the garage doors and turned on the car. Hours later he was found by the door of the garage with the key of the garage in his hand, very dead. Did he want to die? was it a choice? Was he depressed enough to do that? No one really knows.

He was known to tinker a lot with cars. He enjoyed them. But one would think that anyone who knew about cars would know to leave some opening in a garage to allow air to come in. That is what is puzzling? He was a smart man, and a good man with cars. So why lock the door? Does it sound like suicide? I would have to say yes, but I cannot prove that. No one can. If it was a mistake is was a very foolish one, and one that almost does not make sense.

But the world lost a great entertainer on the 10th of December 1917. His death shocked the theatrical community and of course his family. He was embalmed and laid out at Campbell's Funeral home in NYC. His funeral service was joined by delegations from the Lambs club, Friars club and the Players club. He was then entombed in a mausoleum in WoodLawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

I was there looking for him, but as of yet have not found him. I will of course in time. But this short little piece is about a great performer who left us all with a smile, even if he was crying.
Nat M Wills as the Hobo Comedian for which he was famous..... Wills 1873-1917
One of his many Edison recordings, this one BPOE. That was a great classic.
No News or what killed the dog was his greatest hit. It was funny in 1906, and still funny in our own age. Good comedy lives, just like good fashion, for a long time. I played a recording of Wills just before I wrote this. I listened to him and had to smile. If his comedy reaches me a century later he really was doing a great job. He truly was one of the greats on Broadway and in Vaudeville. He left this world far too soon.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The phonograph record that started it all. The record I shared with my friends in Fort Lauderdale Florida in 1969 -70

I have had a fascination for recorded sound since I was a little boy. I went to Thomas Edison's Laboratory in 1964. It was still a working factory then, It was there an old fellow who had worked for the old man played a phonograph for me. I WAS HOOKED. I became fascinated with recorded sound. But did not know much about it. I needed to learn, and I did in time.

The starting point of this learning curve took place in October of 1969. I was in class at Riverland Elementary School in Fort Lauderdale Florida. I was in Mr Dixon's class in the 6th grade. I had my friends there...Mark (itchy) Fletcher, Jimmy, Kern Orr and a few others. We would hang out together and have fun as all 12 year old kids did in those days. Gosh we would climb trees and sing in them, or just hang out and walk around. I still remember the songs we used to sing in the trees. Those were such fun days, and I have always missed those guys.
It was another age... Kid's today would not understand it at all. But one day in class we did a show and tell program.

I was originally from New Jersey and has some stuff from Washington's Headquarters in Morristown NJ. It was cool pictures of the site. I was proud of my presentation, however a kid in the class brought in something that made my eyes bulge out. He brought to class an old record. He and his dad had gone fishing in Port Everglades and had pulled this up with their hook. It was record unlike any I had ever seen before. I traded with him all my pictures of Washington's Headquarters for that record. I thought at that time I had one of the oldest records in the world. Well I was 12, and VERY naive.

I brought the record to Itchy Fletchers house and his father played it on their stereo. In those days stereos had 78 as a speed. It was amazing to listen too. It was four guys singing harmony. Not very well I will admit. But what did I know. Itchy's father called the local radio station in Fort Lauderdale and they said it was a recording from around 1900. I was excited. It meant it was a recording nearly 70 years old! Well it was nice to think that.

Well that was then, and now 40 years later I have that record, and I know what it is, and what age it is as well. It is from the 1950's. It is a homemade record of 4 guys singing barbershop harmony. Not too well I will admit, But it was this record that started it all for me as a record collector. A record dredged up from Port Everglades. Perhaps the fellows listening to what they recorded, tossed the record into the harbor. Who knows, but since 1969 that record that was fun for us kids to look at has been a part of my collection. It is not worth anything, but it is a wonderful memory of my childhood.

I almost forgot it too, I was leaving Florida on February 14, 1970. I had brought the record to Mark (Itchy) Fletchers house and we did some fun stuff and his dad tried to study it. I took my bike and went home as we were to leave for New Jersey the next day. Both Mark and Jimmy came by and brought back that record to me. It was the last time I would ever see them. So when I do look at this record, I remember my friends from the past in Fort Lauderdale where this record changed my life.

This is that record that I forgot at Mark Fletchers house and he brought back to me with my friend Jimmy, on February 13, 1970. We all said goodbye and cried a little. I wonder how they are all doing today? I always think of them when ever I see this record. The record that started my obsession with the history of recorded sound.

I wish I could talk to those guys again. My friends from so long ago...I miss you

Monday, July 27, 2009

The USS Baltimore..A most remarkable unremarkable American navy vessel

The USS Baltimore lived a very long charmed life. Her existence goes from going into service in January 1890 to finally being scraped in 1942. Few vessel have lived so long and such a varied life as hers.The Baltimore was an early steel navy vessel based on much of the work of an inventor who would always be a part of this vessel. Although he never saw her, John Ericsson the great Swedish inventor who created the original Monitor of 1862 and many afterwards, the screw propeller for ships, and many other wonderful inventions for the United States Navy. Ericsson died in early 1889. In August of 1890 it was decided to send his body back to his his native homeland. The Baltimore was selected to be the vessel who would have the honor to bring back the body of John Ericsson.
John Ericsson 1803-1889
This is a photograph of the Baltimore leaving New York Harbor with the body of Ericsson on board. The USS Boston is firing a salute to Ericsson. There was a massive ceremony in New York. Ericsson's body had been kept in the Marble Cemetery while things were prepared in Sweden to accept his remains. His coffin was cloth covered and sealed in a massive mahogany lead lined outer cover. A very heavy coffin to be sure. On the coffin was placed both the US flag and that of Sweden. On the foremast of the Baltimore as you will see was the flag of Sweden as well.
A panting of that scene in New York Harbor
The Baltimore was all over the globe in the early 1890's. She was in Venezuela during military disputes and soon on the west coast of the US. She was at Mare Island for a while and then in Hawaii till early1898.
The Baltimore soon found herself in Asian waters and as fate would have it, she became part of Dewey's squadron in Hong Kong. She was part of the great battle of Manila Bay. She stayed in that area patroling till 1900.
Then she spend a few years at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. By 1903 she was on the move again. She was part of the Caribbean, Asiatic, and the North Atlantic fleet. By 1911 she was a relic from a distant age already. She was changed into a receiving ship at the Charleston Navy yard. That is usually a sign time is about to run out.
However, things changed and she was made into a mine layer and recommissioned in 1915. She was used in tests and practices in mine laying in the Charleston area. In 1918 the old vessel was sent to Europe to lay mines all around Ireland, Scotland, and Iceland .
The Mine Layer USS Baltimore in 1916. She would serve in Europe till early 1919. Then she sailed for the West coast of the USA and joined the Pacific Squadron. She was there till early 1921. After that she sailed for Pearl Harbor where she was in service till she was placed out of commission as she had been so many times before. But now it was the summer of 1922 and she was 32 years old.
However fate interceded and she became a receiving ship again for Pearl Harbor. She was in the company there of another old timer of the early steel navy, the USS. Kearsarge. In fact by this time the Kearsarge has been changed into a Crane ship. Her hull supported a massive heavy duty crane.
The Baltimore just slowly rusted away in her post as a receiving ship. By 1937 she was pushing 50 and not really even usable as a receiving ship. She was taken of the lists. However she did not go, she stayed there and rusted.
She was there during the attack on Pearl harbor on December 7, 1941. But now with a new war starting there was no use for this old rust bucket of another age. She was finally sold for scrap in February of 1942. She entered this world and left it a lady. As I said in the title, a remarkable, unremarkable ship.

The great Bert Williams (1874-1922).. A great star in a not so great time.

Bert Williams was a great performer, dancer, writer, comedian, and mime. That he happened to be black had nothing to do with anything. But in the age he lived, it did. This was a great mind and a great collector of books. He loved Shakespeare, but never could perform it.

He was one of the most beloved performers on stage, yet he was not allowed in the front door of many of the hotels of the cities in which he performed. He was a star on Columbia Records. His recordings were numerous. He received a handsome amount of money for his recordings alone. He was outsold by only a few on the Columbia label.

He traveled the country to rave reviews. Yet when he wanted a drink at a bar, he was often insulted and driven away. In fact once while at the Astor Hotel he went in and asked for a drink. The Bartender was not going to serve a black man so he told Williams that it would cost $50.00 for a drink. Not to be undone by this racist bartender Williams produced a wad of $100.00 bills and said "Buy a round for every person at the bar" That solved that. But still he had to deal with racism in his work and in his private life.Burt Williams 1874 - 1922
The song that became Williams most popular hit. He came to hate the song in time, but was forced to perform it for the rest of his life. As it became his theme song and most people associated the song with him.
Burt Williams in the Columbia recording laboratory as they liked to call it back then. Notice he is singing into a large horn, and just the end of a clarinet is sticking out behind him.
Here is a 1913 edition of his famous song Nobody. One of the best selling records in the Columbia catalog in its day.
Here is Bert Williams in some of his costumes. He always performed in black face as was the custom of the time. I wonder how many in the audience even knew he was black. What was demeaning was this talented performer had to always perform this way. He made a lot of money that is true. He was a super star of his time. He was perhaps the first of the great black stars on stage. It is sad he lived such a short life.
He lived in a age of Jim Crow, but was a dignified gentleman through out his life. I wish that could be said of most of his white colleagues of the time. Because for many it can not. W.C. Fields wrote of Williams saying, "he was the funnest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew."
Was he bothered by it all. I am sure he was. But he also knew he was in a much better position to deal with it. He was wealthy, and famous, but still it was hard in America for him. I will finish this up with Bert Williams own words on what he thought of his lot in life.

"People sometimes ask me if I would not give anything to be white. I answer . . . most emphatically, "No." How do I know what I might be if I were a white man? I might be a sandhog, burrowing away and losing my health for $8 a day. I might be a streetcar conductor at $12 or $15 a week. There is many a white man less fortunate and less well-equipped than I am. In fact, I have never been able to discover that there was anything disgraceful in being a colored man. But I have often found it inconvenient . . . in America."

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Who is to blame for the sinking of the Lusitania?

On May 7, 1915, the RMS Lusitania was torpedoed by the German submarine U-20. The Lusitania sank in the short space of 18 minutes. This was an amazingly short space of time for a massive ocean liner to sink. What went wrong? This was a very well designed ship. In fact it had been designed to admiralty specifications.
It seems that the torpedo just hit the right spot and doomed the ship many called practically unsinkable. Yes that is what the ads for the Lusitania said. That she was practically unsinkable. It was not just the owners of the Titanic that said that, most ocean liner companies of the period said that. But that is getting away from my point here. Who is to blame for the sinking?

I would have to say both sides are equally at fault. Both are equally to blame. The German's had every right to sink her. She was carrying arms. She was even listed in Jane's fighting ships. The British were guilty of deceiving the world by saying that the Lusitania was not carrying arms. In many ways the British are more guilty than the Germans. If the German's had not stopped the ship, those bullets and shells would be fired at the Germans and killing many of them.

You see the German's had spies in New York Harbor and they saw what was going on. Information was passed. There were 4 Germans caught on the Lusitania and they were imprisoned in the brig below to be taken to England. However their deaths were assured when the vessel was torpedoed.The Lusitania 1907-1915
The Germans made a medal of the Lusitania sinking. It shows Cunard the British Shipping Company selling tickets to a ship they willing filled with arms. The person selling the tickets is death. It makes sense, it was criminal to do such a thing. But they told no one. The German Government put out ads telling people not to sail on the ships that would be going into a war zone. No one listened. Why should they? They were told that the Lusitania could outrun any submarine.
But what they didn't tell them was that many of the boilers of the ship were not lit to reduce the cost of sailing the ship. Therefore she could only go around 18 knots. Not that fast, for she was able when pushed to do 27 knots with all the boilers lit. That was fast, but in her condition as she was she was not the speed queen stated to her passengers. So she was a massive floating lie in many respects.

Once the ship was sunk the medal put out in limited quantities was reproduced by the British in massive quantities and the public was told that they had all been made by the Germans. In fact they were sold in England in great numbers. Over 250,000 were sold. This further demonized the Germans and their sinking of an unarmed vessel.
There are memorial cards further casting blame on Germany for the Lusitania disaster.

The British Government spent weeks over the wreck of the Lusitania in the 1950's. A great deal of mines were dropped onto the wreck to make it almost unrecognisable as the vessel it had once been. WHY?

There has been more recent investigations into the wreck and more bullets and shells have been found in the wreck. A great deal of arms were in this ship. Although they were not responsible for the sinking of the ship, they were contraband and illegal. Germany had every right to sink the vessel. England had no right allowing passengers on a ship that was loaded with arms for a war that played neutral. It was really a bad embarrassing moment for the USA and England.

For it was criminal to allow anyone on a vessel that was carrying arms....The victims of the Lusitania were pawns in a game of chance played by the allies.

A 1898 accessment of Nikola Tesla. The wizard of the electrical world.

The great mind and vision of Tesla are of a lot that is rare in the world. Sadly much of Tesla's life was wasted trying to find support for his experiments. His vision was amazing, his canvas of scientific art incredible. Had he been more able to deal with others or worked with a laboratory in a great university I wonder what would have become of his work and ideas. He was a most gifted man, yet flawed like most geniuses. But the world owes him much. Sadly most of the world does not even know his name. A great man, a great mind, a great seer in the field of electricity and technology.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Walker's Dictionary 1815... One of the first in America

Walker's dictionary started in 1791. It went into various revisions and editions. It was the way a dictionary looked before the age of Websters. The spelling of course is in the British style. The age of Noah Webster was soon to arrive. But as of this printing of 1815, it was still 11 years in the future. This book was published in New York City at 14 Wall Street.
The original owner I would guess was Oliver Corey, who signed this book quite elaborately on Jan 11, 1821.
This is the faceplate of the book
Notices about the publication and what is in the book and introduction. It is interesting to read.
One of the many pages of definitions that really are so different from our own of today. However, many will be recognised. Such as fart, gently described as a wind from behind. Walker's Dictionary was not know as a great dictionary. It was just an early one, specially in the United States where much was lacking in the world of books. Many of the great books were printed in Europe. By the start of the 19th century that was all starting to change. This is one of the books of the transition. Part European, part American. It was the end of an era. Soon everything about the American form of English would change and books like this would be relegated to the shelves and forgotten. As fortune would have it this copy was spared for another day's eyes to enjoy it.

The book no one wanted anyone to read. Behind the Scenes by Elizabeth Keckley

I wish I had a first edition of this book. However I have a lovely Lakeside Classics version. Lakeside Classics are printed once a year. I have enjoyed reading it. I gather there were many years ago who were not happy at all it ever existed.Elizabeth Keckley was Mary Lincoln's dressmaker. She was also a confident and friend to the former first lady. She was also in life a slave and a brilliant woman. She worked very hard to purchase her freedom. She was a great dressmaker and gained a reputation for her skills. She made dresses for the wives of a number of famous politicians. In the early 1860's she got a job that was to be her greatest. The dressmaker for Mary Lincoln. A woman of great taste and powerful emotions. A woman who had the ear of the man who ran the United States during it's most trying times. Her emotional state is chronicled to a degree in this book.
She was behind the scenes to many events and conversations. She wrote a book in the late 1860's about her relationship with the troubled first lady and her husband Abraham Lincoln. In her book she made them all a little too human for many, including Mary Lincoln. Robert Lincoln was not at all pleased with the book.
The press against it was quite strong. Keckley never received any money from her original book, and died in poverty in 1907. Her book is a wonderful window into the Lincoln White House. Perhaps one of the more wonderful exchanges in the book describes Lincoln running his fingers through his son's hair as he rested beside him. Or of Lincoln proudly announcing that his goats in the back yard recognized him and he would yell, laugh and wave at them. Lastly it showed the human tragedy of the death of their son Willie. Lincoln was shown to be more human in this book than any before. Perhaps that is why is was not liked. I loved it. I recommend you to read it.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

RMS Queen Elizabeth in Fort Lauderdale Florida on December 8, 1968...Newpaper Clippings saved by me as an 11 year old boy.

This is me in 1968

Yes this looks a little rough and not too well done. I must confess it was done by me at the age of 11. It was on Dec 8, 1968, that the RMS Queen Elizabeth was brought to Port Everglades. This was in Fort Lauderdale Florida. I lived a short distance from Port Everglades and I was there often to look at the ships. But this was special. The great Queen Elizabeth, which had sailed for 28 years at this time. It took a while to get her in the harbor as she was way larger than anything that had come on before.
I remember my father wanting to see the ship he had been on in the 1950's called the USS Wasp. It came but had to stay outside of Port Everglades as the draft of the ship was too great for the harbor.
In the case of the Elizabeth, she drew a great deal of water too. She arrived on the 7th. However she could not come in till the 8th as they were dredging the harbor to allow her to make it in. These pictures were from the local paper in Ft. Lauderdale. However it has been too many years and I do not recall the name of the paper anymore.This is a great shot of the Queen Elizabeth
A color picture of the arrival
Greetings at pier 24-25. As a boy I went to this pier and look at the old Queen Elizabeth often. She was a massive wall of rusty steel. I was so impressed by her size. However today liners are much larger. It was something special to stand next to this ship. I had seen as a younger kid the arrival of the Queen Mary in NYC, Now I was seeing the other Queen. I would sit down in the grass and just look at her.
Ok, this is what it is. I was 11 years old and curious. I tried "silly putty" on this picture to see if it did indeed copy the picture. It did but left a nasty scar where a curious 11 year old learned his lesson about using silly putty on important pictures.
One last picture as she comes in. This scrap book was started by my grandfather and I finished it. He had pictures of the Vestris and the Leviathan and I of course added the Queen Elizabeth.

It is always interesting to see what you did as a boy many years after.

Items bought on the Queen Elizabeth in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 1969

The Queen Elizabeth was the biggest thing in Fort Lauderdale. Unfortunately it was a great disaster. It never amounted to anything. This post card from the time shows it all. There was not much around there then.The Queen at rest in Florida. She stayed there and just rusted.
Here is a rare advertisement from my days in Ft. Lauderdale. It is from 1969 and I clipped it out and saved it. I never ate on the Queen Elizabeth. But this add makes it sound fascinating.
On the ship you could get things like this. A deck plan
If you look carefully on the lower right bottom you will see The Queen Limited Port Everglades, Florida.
Here is a rare rare item I would imagine. How many people have one of the bags from the Queen Elizabeth's gift shop in Port Everglades? This item was not in use for long and one of the special things I saved as an 11 year old boy.

Monday, July 20, 2009

In fairness to the Hindenberg. It was a wonderful airship. There is much more to this vessel, than it's crash in 1937.

The Hindenburg airship has been the object of failure and disaster for over 70 years now. In fact I have seen it called the Titanic of the air. I have to politely disagree with that. First off the Hindenburg was not an unsuccessful aircraft. It was the airship that followed the most successful passenger airship in history, the Graf Zeppelin. The Hindenburg also had a wonderful season of transportation in the year 1936. In it many thousands of passengers were carried.

The Titanic was a failure from the start. Often it is thought that the Hindenburg was making it's first voyage. Not so, it had been a success for over a year already by the time of the accident. The careful nature on how the vessel was handled was the reason for the success of the flights. The Graf Zeppelin flew from 1929 till 1937 with out any mishap. There would not be a problem as long as certain procedures were always followed.
One of the most important was you did not land an airship like the Hindenburg or Graf Zeppelin during an electrical storm. That was exactly what was done in Lakehurst, New Jersey in May of 1937. The death of the Hindenburg has been bent all out of proportion. I will go into more detail at the end of this piece.The Hindenburg To this day the most luxurious way to fly.
The Hindenburg over New York City
One of the many rooms of the Hindenburg.
Chef's making gourmet meals on board an all electric kitchen
Passengers enjoying some time in the dinning room with an attentive staff
The smoking room, yes I said a smoking room. This room contained not only a room to smoke but also a bar. It was located on a lower deck and was in a well controlled sealed room. There was only one person who could light a cigarette, cigar, or pipe. It was the bartender who had strict control. Also the rooms air pressure was higher in the smoking room to keep out any gas. It was amazingly ingenious in it's design.
The bar and one of the wall decorations. The walls of the Hindenburg were decorated with lovely little paintings and motifs.
One of the two observation decks. This one by the passenger lounge.
The lounge was a popular spot for folks as they traveled. In fact there was a piano on board. Not a normal type of piano, it was made of light materials to allow it to fit in the weight specifications.
A passenger bedroom on the Hindenburg. Not fancy, small yes, but it allowed for this vessel to sleep 60 passengers comfortably. Also if you think of it how much time would you spend in your stateroom. In your stateroom were bunk beds, hot and cold running water, a little desk, and lastly a small closet to put suits and dresses. The bathroom facilities were on the deck below. Along with the shower room. As this was the second successful airship to follow the great Graf. It had many features that were not part of the Graf Zeppelin's design. One of these of course being showers.
The reading and writing room
The dining room set for dinner. This room could seat all 60 passengers
An order form to travel on the vessel. It was not cheap. But the Hindenburg was the Concord of its day. You could go from Europe to the USA in 2 and a half days. This was half the time it usually took on any other transportation system. Also in complete luxury.
Today as we all get crammed into the jets as we travel and have meals that lack much of anything. It seems this would have been a wonderful way to travel. But airliners today have to follow protocol. If there is a problem or bad weather, the flight is delayed or canceled. That is why air flight today is so safe. Had such issues been followed in the days of the Hindenburg, it is probable that the accident would not have occurred.

Now one last thing, more people survived the Hindenburg disaster than died. 35 people died in the Hindenburg accident. That was the first accident of a commercial German airship since the service had started. In 1937 alone well over 100 people were killed in plane accidents. from 1929 to 1937 the airship had one accident and lost 35 people. If you look at the airplane from 1929 to 1937 you will see a massive amount of deaths.

One of the main reasons that the airship was killed had nothing to do with the small amount of deaths compared to airplane travel. It had to do with the Political situation in Germany. There was to be a grander airship called the Graf Zeppelin II which would be the sister to the Hindenburg, and had even better facilities than the Hindenburg.
But due to the fact that Helium could not be had, and the airship demonized by politics and the press it was scraped and never made a commercial voyage.

The Hindenburg has been thought today to be a ship of disaster. However that was not the case. Look at the Jet called the Comet. That was a series of aircraft that were disasters. The Hindenburg carried hydrogen, only cause the USA would not sell the needed Helium. It is understandable due to the conditions of the time, but so sad that they great ships would be doomed by this choice.

Had the Hindenburg used Helium this disaster would never have happened. Or at least not as bad. As much of the problem with the fire on the ship was due to the dope or coating used on the fabric or skin of the airship.
Even still the disaster seems to have been caused by static electricity and of course the vessel was landed late in Lakehurst during an electrical storm which was something not allowed. I repeat, not allowed.

Had the commander followed protocol the disaster most probably would not have happened. But since keeping schedules seemed more important than safety it was landed. In that case the Hindenburg is like the Titanic. Cause the Titanic tragedy was due to following a schedule rather than following safety measures. Although they waited a while till the worst of the weather was over, it was still not a good idea.
I remember waiting at the airport for 5 hours because of heavy and serious thunder and lightning storms. They could not fuel the airplane or do much of anything till the storms had gone.

But in fairness to the Hindenburg and the many passengers she carried safely. They enjoyed a air flight unlike any we today can ever experience, or ever hope for.