Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Ypsilanti, Michigan History - What's in a Name?

Dimitrios Ypsilantis
Where the ancient Native American trail crossed the narrows at a bend of the Huron River, Gabriel Godfroy--a French-Canadian fur trader from Montreal--established his Indian trading post in 1809. Fifteen years later, Judge Augustus B. Woodward of Detroit with two local land speculators--William Harwood and John Stewart--laid-out a town on land they purchased from the original French settlers.

Judge Woodward was a Grecophile who wanted to name the town in honor of Greek war hero Demetrius Ypsilanti--a general famous for successes in his country's war for independence against the Ottoman Turks. This struck a chord with Woodward. America had waged its own war for independence against the British not so very long before.

Ypsilanti Woolen Company

His partners had a different idea with more commercial potential. They favored a name like Waterford or Waterville which highlighted the water-power feature of the Huron River to attract manufacturing business. Judge Woodward--being the major investor in the land project--had the final word. In 1824, the new town of Ypsilanti spanned both sides of the Huron River on the old Chicago Road (soon to be renamed Michigan Avenue). An area which began as a frontier trading outpost eventually became downtown Ypsilanti.

The east side of Ypsilanti developed when the Michigan Central train line began rail service in 1838, making the city an important economic hub for the area’s growing light-industry and agricultural concerns. A lovely, three-story train depot said to be the nicest depot between Detroit and Chicago was built in 1864. A two block long commercial district grew up along both sides of East Cross Street—aptly named Depot Town.

Original Ypsilanti train depot with landscaping.
The Depot Town businesses on the ground floors catered to the needs of weary travelers and light manufacturing. The upper floors were used for lodging, warehousing, or residential use. Depot Town was a destination for the Underground Railroad before and throughout the Civil War. Soldiers of the 14th and 17th Michigan Regiments left for the South from the Ypsilanti train station platform.

Depot Town Today
A fire destroyed the tower and the upper floors of the depot in May of 1910. New owners--Pennsylvania Central Railroad--decided to rebuild only the ground floor. Amtrak ended passenger service in 1982.

There may be some life in the old girl yet. Depot Town could be a stop on the proposed Ann Arbor to Detroit commuter rail line which would bring more activity into the area. Restoring the Depot Town train buildings preserves a remnant of Ypsilanti's history which could be re-purposed on the interior to increase the commercial value of the property.

I can envision a fine dining, Victorian-styled restaurant. Maybe a seafood restaurant. How about a sushi bar or an Asian noodle shop? Something that doesn't take business away from Frenchie's Sidetrack Bar & Grill or Aubrey's Pizzeria & Grill. Ypsilanti's very own Gandy Dancer or something similar would be nice.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Up and Down with The Three Stooges

Known for farce and slapstick comedy, The Three Stooges began their career in 1925 as second bananas to vaudeville comedian Ted Healy. The original trio consisted of Moe (Moses) Howard, Shemp (Samuel) Howard, and Larry (Louis Feinberg) Fine--collectively known as Healy's Stooges.

In 1932, Shemp left the act because he was fed up with Healy's alcoholism and abusive behavior. He pursued a successful solo career with Vitaphone Pictures in Brooklyn, New York--his hometown. The boys needed a quick replacement, so Moe suggested his younger brother Jerome.

Healy took one look at Jerome and said he didn't look funny. Jerome was too well-dressed and had a full head of chestnut-colored, wavy hair. Jerome left the room saying he would be back in several minutes. He returned with a freshly shaved head and a star was born. Jerome was given the stage name Curly. He was the original chowderhead and most popular of the Stooges. Untrained but with a flair for physical comedy, Curly's child-like mannerisms and natural comedic charm made him a fan favorite.

The team signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lasting one year. Healy and his Stooges played bit parts of comic relief in half a dozen B-grade movies. The Stooges split with Ted Healy in 1934 and signed a one year contract with Columbia Pictures to appear in eight comedy short-subjects within a forty week period. The trio was paid $7,500 per film to divide among themselves.

During their twenty-three years at Columbia Pictures, Moe Howard managed The Three Stooges--as they were now known. Moe was never fully aware of The Three Stooges' wild popularity at the box office or their income-earning potential. Every year, the boys had to sweat out whether they had a job or not. Studio mogul Harry Cohn complained the market for movie shorts was dying out. Moe never negotiated for a salary increase--nor were The Three Stooges ever offered one. 

When they stopped making shorts in 1957, Moe finally realized what cash cows they were for Columbia Pictures. It was their cheap-to-make, two-reelers that kept the studio's gates open during the Great Depression and World War II.

The Three Stooges shorts satirized greed, high society, health care, crime, the Depression, and World War II. The Stooges were the first Americans to take on Adolph Hitler and the Nazis. On January 19, 1940, Larry, Moe, and Curly ridiculed the German dictator in You Natzy Spy. Although not considered one of their finer efforts, it would be almost two years before the United States' entrance into World War II.

In the 1940s, Curly's weight ballooned from overeating and drinking. By 1945, he had trouble remembering his lines. He was lethargic. His voice was deeper and strained. He couldn't do the high-pitched woo-woos and n'yuk-n'yuks anymore. Doctors discovered Curly had had a minor stroke. The following year, a massive stroke ended his fourteen-year-long career. At the end of his life, he could only communicate with Moe by squeezing his hand or blinking his eyes. Jerome (Curly) Howard died in 1952 of a cerebral hemorrhage at age forty-eight. He appeared in ninety-seven Columbia shorts.

Moe asked his older brother Shemp to reprise his role as an original Stooge. He had a successful solo career but returned in 1947 to keep the act alive. After Curly's last few sluggish performances, Shemp injected some zany vitality into the series. Larry Fine was also given more screen time.

Shemp was with the act when The Three Stooges made their first television appearance on Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theater in 1948. Their slapstick brand of short sketch comedy was well-suited for variety shows. Because there was no backlog of television programming, they were in great demand to fill air time. The Three Stooges became reacquainted with their core audience. Three years after Curly passed, Shemp died of a massive heart attack at age sixty in 1955. He appeared in seventy-seven episodes.

Moe Howard and Larry Fine lived for twenty more years and continued to work with several other replacements. Larry died of a stroke at age seventy-two in January 1975; Moe died of lung cancer at age seventy-seven in May 1975.

In January of 1955, Screen Gems--a Columbia Pictures television subsidiary--began packaging The Three Stooges for the television market. Because of the large body of material--190 shorts--shows were broadcast Monday through Friday in syndication across the country. This heavy exposure led to a new generation of Stooge fans--the Baby Boomers.

Although The Three Stooges were never a hit with critics, they outlasted all their contemporaries. They are beloved by generations of Americans and respected for their large body of work. In 2000, ABC aired a made-for-television The Three Stooges bio-pic telling their story through the eyes of Moe Howard. I thought it was quite good. Evan Handler played Larry, Paul Ben-Victor played Moe, Michael Chiklis played Curly, and John Kassir played Shemp.

In 2012, Twentieth Century Fox released their The Three Stooges movie to a world-wide audience reigniting the global popularity of one of the greatest celebrity brands. This film is divided into three episodes--similar to how the shorts were packaged for television--and attempts to recreate the classic act. 

The list of supporting actors is impressive: Jane Lynch, Sofia Vergara, Jennifer Hudson, Kate Upton, Larry David, among others. The first movie was successful enough to warrant a sequel. On May 7, 2015, Fox studios announced that Sean Hayes as Larry, Will Sasso as Curly, and Chris Diamantopoulos as Moe will reprise their roles.

Hardcore Three Stooges' fans will find the following Larry Fine interview fascinating.

1973 Larry Fine interview (part one):

Larry Fine interview (part two):

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Detroit Athletic Club Turns One Hundred

The Detroit Athletic Club (DAC) is a private social club in the sports and entertainment district of downtown Detroit. Its doors opened April 24th, 1915. The club celebrated its centennial this year with the dedication of a 2.3 million dollar sculpture project commemorating the club's original mission--supporting amateur athletes.

Henry Ford's renowned architect Albert Kahn designed the six-story Italian Renaissance Revival building which boasts a grand staircase, a hotel, meeting rooms, a ballroom, banquet facilities, restaurants, Grill Room bar, exercise facilities, a lap pool, a gymnasium, a basketball court, a spa, an eight lane bowling alley, and a glass enclosed rooftop lounge with a cigar bar.

Many Metropolitan Detroit residents are unfamiliar with this Detroit institution, located at 241 Madison Avenue on the corner of John R. Street. Today, DAC claims forty-four hundred members from two thousand companies. Twenty-nine hundred resident members have voting rights and--at last report--pay a $3,500 entrance fee and $300 to $400 dues per month, depending on the level of membership. The club has four hundred intermediate members (ages 21-33) and eleven hundred non-resident members scattered around the country and internationally.

The DAC survives on membership dues and new growth. The club encourages the families of its members to participate in club events and fundraisers. The sons and daughters of Detroit's business elite comprise a good portion of DAC's intermediate membership. Their children benefit from this arrangement as they have for generations.

Henry Ford was an original member, as has every generation of his descendants since. The DAC has been the most prominent locale for Detroit's business power-brokers to network with the city's movers and shakers. The club's founding members once controlled ninety percent of the world-wide automobile business. Many of the economic decisions affecting the Detroit area were discussed over cocktails at these exclusive gatherings.

Olympic-sized lap pool.

During much of DAC's history, Jews, African-Americans, and women were denied membership. One by one, those barriers were overcome. In 1986, women were finally admitted and currently make up twelve percent of the club's members. Today's club is trying to shed its good old boy heritage.

A strict application process is in effect. Potential members must have a sponsor, six members to write recommendation letters, an intensive interview, and approval by DAC's membership committee. This private club reserves the right to deny membership to anyone.

Geoffrey Fieger
Earlier this year, Geoffrey Fieger--best known as Dr. Jack Kevorkian's lawyer--was summarily rejected after filing for club membership. Fieger's sponsor delivered the bad news personally. The DAC never sent a formal letter of rejection nor was Fieger told why he did not measure up.

When asked why he was rejected, Fieger commented, "The DAC has a long history of bigotry, and I'm a lawyer for the underdog. The club's hierarchy are deeply ensconced in that old tradition."

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Ypsi-Ann Trolley - Maybe What's Old Can Be Made New Again!

While doing some research on Washtenaw County, Michigan, for my next book - The Rainy Day Murders - I came across an interesting tidbit of history about the Ypsi-Ann trolley which linked the campus of Michigan State Normal College in Ypsilanti with the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor some nine miles away.

This early mass transit service was popular, and at its height served approximately 600 people a day. Trains operated every ninety minutes at an average speed of eight miles per hour. The original fare was a thin dime. Despite frequent breakdowns and delays in its schedule, the line got plenty of use from U of M students, who were mostly young men--and from the Normal College students, who were mostly young women. It was said that on the weekends, a rough parity was achieved.

Established in 1889, this extension of Detroit's longer Interurban line was steam powered. Because Ypsilanti's population could not support its own streetcar system, a seven and a half mile line was built the following year connecting Ypsilanti's downtown with the outskirts of Ann Arbor. Ypsi-Ann trolley owners petitioned the Ann Arbor Common Council to extend the line into the city. The steam powered engine was designed to look like a street car on wheels, so it would not scare the horses. It could haul as many as four trailers.

But Ann Arbor residents opposed the noisy and dirty steam locomotives. Arrangements were made with the Ann Arbor Street Railway Company for its cleaner and quieter electric cars to meet the Ypsi-Ann at the city limits and transfer passengers. In November of 1896, the Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor route was fully electrified opening a direct connection between the cities without a transfer.

The trolley service continued to operate until 1929. As the trolley made horses obsolete, cars and bus service made the trolley obsolete. Most of the line's tracks were pulled up in World War II for scrap metal drives. It was believed all of the Ypsilanti tracks were removed, but in 2004, road construction crews found a stretch of track on Washington Street buried under the pavement.

Today, anyone who drives down Washtenaw Avenue can attest to the congested traffic between the cities. Too bad an old idea can't be made new again--or maybe it can. What about a solar powered mono-rail with electromagnets or some hybrid energy backup built over existing right of way?

America needs new technology. Why shouldn't Washtenaw County be the developmental center for a new age in transportation? Ann Arbor has the technical resources and Ypsi has the manufacturing facilities and know how. Create the new technology, build it in the old Ford plant, and ship it across the country and the world.

This could be the hottest commercial venture for the area since the development of the Ypsilanti union suit with the flap in the back--a well-known and sought after product across America in the nineteenth century. Look to the future.

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Rainy Day Murders Reincarnation

I think about this Robert Frost poem every time I'm asked if The Rainy Day Murders will be finished soon. "The Armful" sums up where I'm at in the writing process.

The Armful 
For every parcel I stoop down to seize
I lose some other off my arms and knees,
And the whole pile is slipping, bottles, buns --
Extremes too hard to comprehend at once,
Yet nothing I should care to leave behind.
With all I have to hold with hand and mind
And heart, if need be, I will do my best
To keep their building balanced at my breast.
I crouch down to prevent them as they fall;
Then sit down in the middle of them all.
I had to drop the armful in the road
And try to stack them in a better load.

After seeking advice from several editors, I've decided to restructure the story to strengthen the narrative and sharpen the focus. I'm considering a change of title also. 

The only realistic answer to the question--"When will your manuscript be finished?"--is when I master the material rather than it mastering me. The sooner, the better--but not until it is ready.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Bald Barbie Doll

My wife Susan wrote Mattel Consumer Services last January suggesting that their company produce a bald Barbie doll for young cancer patients. We were quite moved by Mattel's response and want to share this rare look into Mattel's corporate heart.
From: Mattel Consumer Services [mailto:MattelConsumerService@Mattel.com] Sent: Thursday, January 15, 2015 12:08 PM To: [address omitted] Subject: In Reference to Case Number: 23107550 
Hi Susan,

We are honored that you believe that Barbie could be the face of such an important cause. Mattel appreciates and respects the passion that has been
built up for the request for a bald Barbie doll.  

Play is vital for children, especially during difficult times.We are pleased to say that in 2013 we produced a fashion doll, Ella friend of Barbie,and she included wigs, hats, scarves and other fashion accessories to provide girls with a traditional fashion play experience.For those girls
who choose, the wigs and head coverings can be interchanged or completely removed.

We will work with our longstanding partner, the Children's Hospital Association,to donate and distribute the dolls exclusively to children's
hospitals directly reaching girls who are most affected by hair loss. A limited number of dolls and monetary donations will also be made to CureSearch for Children's Cancer and the National Alopecia Areata Foundation.

Through a thoughtful approach, we made the decision not to sell these dolls at retail stores, but rather get the dolls directly into the hands of children who can most benefit from the unique play experience, demonstrating Mattel's ongoing commitment to encourage play as respite for children in the hospital and to bring joy to children who need it most.
We appreciate the conversation around this issue, and thank you for contacting us to provide
your feedback!


Consumer Services Associate

Links to:
The Children's Hospital Association - https://www.childrenshospitals.org/
Curesearch for Children's Cancer - http://curesearch.org/
National Alopecia Areata Foundation - https://www.naaf.org/

Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Old Globe Theatre Celebrating Eighty Years in San Diego

Conrad Prebys Theater Centre

San Diego's Old Globe Theater was originally built in 1935 as part of the California Pacific International Exposition in Balboa Park. The building was saved from the wrecking ball in 1937 by a local community theater group for $10,000. The restoration of the theater was a labor of love for the volunteers who worked and performed there until the outbreak of World War II.

During the war years--and for several years afterward--the Globe's stage was dark, except for USO shows broadcast nationally and overseas on Armed Services Radio for the troops. It was not until 1949 that the Old Globe re-instituted its annual Shakespeare Festival with a production of Twelfth Night.

The Old Globe began hiring professional Equity Actors in1959 attracting top talent like Christopher Walken, Michael Learned, Christine Ebersole, Robert Foxwood, Christopher Reeve, and David Ogden Stiers to name only a few. The roll call of fine actors who have graced the Old Globe's stage reads like a Who's Who of American actors.

Arson fire destroyed the Old Globe building on March 8th, 1978. The loss of their beloved theater hit the San Diego community hard. But the show must go on! The play running at the time was relocated downtown to the Spreckle's Theater--so it could complete its run. An outdoor structure was quickly built on an adjacent canyon hillside which was ready for the Old Globe's Summer Shakespeare Festival several months later.

The San Diego community rose to the call to rebuild the Old Globe. Fundraising events were held throughout San Diego ranging from blind auctions to Jazzercise marathons. Combined with business support and private endowment funding, the Old Globe was reborn in 1982. The state-of-the-art modern theater opened with a production of Shakespeare's As You Like It

Two years later, the temporary outdoor Festival Stage also fell victim to arson. It was immediately replaced with the 612 seat Lowell Davies Festival Theatre in 1985.

The Festival Stage
Today, the Conrad Prebys Theatre Centre includes the Old Globe Theatre, a proscenium arch stage; the Sheryl and Harvey White Theater, a theater-in-the-round stage; and the Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, an outdoor amphitheater stage.

Built adjacent to the Old Globe are the box office, gift shop, administrative offices, and rehearsal halls. Lady Caroline's Pub lies between the White and the Festival theaters and helps frame the plaza welcoming a quarter of a million patrons to the complex annually.

In addition to Shakespeare's plays, the Old Globe produces a broad array of modern, classic, and original works. Fifteen plays hit the Globe's boards every year. Several of their debut productions have gone to Broadway winning Tony Awards. What began as a community theatrical enterprise has become a top-rated, nationally respected regional theater.

Preview scenes from this summer's 2015 Old Globe musical production of Kiss Me. Kate.