Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Little Richard Streicher--Ypsilanti's Depression Era Unsolved Murder

On the blustery afternoon of March 8, 1935, thirteen-year-old Buck Holt and his eleven-year-old brother Billy followed muskrat tracks in the snow and discovered the body of seven-year-old Richard Streicher Jr., missing since the previous evening. He was found frozen solid under the footbridge leading to Island Park (now called Frog Island), adjacent to the Cross Street bridge spanning the Huron River.

Buck Holt ran to the Anderson Service Station (gas station) across the street and told attendant Raymond Deck (22) there was a dead kid down there. Deck investigated and immediately phoned the Ypsilanti police. Chief Ralph Southard was the first to arrive, followed shortly by Washtenaw County Deputy Sheriff Richard Klavitter, and his brother Sergeant Ernest Klavitter of the Ypsilanti police.

Scene under the footbridge where Streicher's body was discovered.
By the time police arrived, a crowd of curious bystanders had trampled any footprint evidence left in the overnight snow. To further complicate matters, a bucket of sand was spread on the snow to make it safer for investigators to climb down the slope to view the body. The shovel used to spread the sand was used to pry Richard Streicher from the cement ledge he was frozen onto. Then the body was taken to the Moore Funeral Home in Ypsilanti to thaw. Richard Streicher's stiff clothes were cut from his body and burned at the request of his parents. More potential evidence was destroyed.

The autopsy was done at the funeral home rather than a medical facility. Of fourteen knife wounds, three punctured the wall of the heart causing his death. A good-faith police investigation--by Depression era standards--was conducted. Seven months later, Richard Streicher's body was exhumed, with a second autopsy performed by the county coroner's office.

On September 27, 1937, a one-man grand jury was conducted by State Attorney General Raymond W. Starr. He took another look into the case and interviewed close to forty people, but no new evidence was disclosed. The result--nobody charged--nobody indicted. The case remains unsolved over eighty years later.

Richard Streicher, Jr. was buried in Highland Cemetery (Section 16 - Lot 66), but nobody in living memory can say if his grave site ever had a marker or headstone. It has been unmarked for decades. Perhaps someone misplaced the headstone when Richard's body was exhumed. More likely--someone removed it for a macabre souvenir. Nobody knows.

Five years ago, an article about Richard Streicher Jr. by John Counts for MLive (December 27, 2015) moved John Sisk Jr. to start a Go Fund Me page to raise money for a gravestone. With the help of Robison-Bahnmiller Funeral Home in Saline, Michigan, Tina Atkinson-Kalusha of Highland Cemetery, and private donations, a monument was designed to honor the memory of Richard Streicher Jr., who deserved better than he got. A nineteenth-century sled is engraved in the granite headstone. Richard was last seen alive sledding with friends. A graveside memorial service was held on Saturday, October 15, 2016.

John Count's MLive  Richard Streicher article: http://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/index.ssf/2015/12/ypsilanti_boys_murder_80_years.html  

Richard Streicher Jr. paperback and ebook reduced in price. 

Friday, June 19, 2020

The Mackinac Bridge--Michigan's Most Valuable Asset


If people needed to cross the four mile Straits of Mackinac between Michigan's Lower and Upper Peninsulas before 1957, they went either by boat or chartered plane. In 1923, the state legislature instituted ferry boat services for cars and trucks. The phenomenal popularity of the automobile outpaced the capacity of the ferry boats to handle the vacation traffic during the summer and the deer hunting season during the winter. It wasn't unusal for cars to line up for five to eight miles out of Mackinaw City waiting to board a ferry for the nine-mile, forty-five minute crossing to the St. Ignace docks.


The Mackinaw Bridge Citizen's Committee was formed during the 1920s to determine the feasibility of building a bridge with a 4,600 foot span and 150 feet above the water, so it wouldn't obstruct commercial freighter traffic between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. Three world famous bridge engineers were hired to determine if such a long span was viable from a mechanical standpoint. All of these experts had design experience with nearly every big bridge project in the world. Once they established that a bridge could be built on the site, the next requirement of the committee was securing adequate funding estimated to be $50,000,000.

No business connection to G. Mennen Williams

The bridge's highest profile supporter was G. Mennen Williams--Michigan's Democrat governor. Williams' mother was the daughter of Gerhard Heinrich Mennen--founder of the Mennen brand of men's personal care products. Williams' Mug Shaving Soap--no relation--was a well-known men's product. Some political wag conflated the two and dubbed Governor Williams "Soapy." The Mackinaw Bridge project soon became known among Michigan Republicans as "Soapy's Folly." Rather than chaff at the nickname, Williams embraced it and used it in his campaign literature. Governor Williams believed the bridge would open up a new trade route and provide opportunities to bolster Michigan's financially distressed Upper Peninsula.

Michigan Governor G. Mennen Williams in his signature green bow tie.

By 1953, costs rose from the original $75,000,000 estimate to a proposed $90,000,000. The chairman of the Mackinac Bridge Authority reported that New York City investment firm B.J. Ingen, would sell bonds to finance construction. The financing would be handled entirely with private capital, without state funds involved with the project.

But bonds would only be issued on one condition. The Michigan legislature needed to approve $400,000 anually in highway funds for maintainance of the bridge. The revenue measure was a deal breaker until supporters pointed out that Michigan subsidized the straits ferry fleet to the tune of $650,000 annually. $400,000 for bridge maintainance was a bargain by comparison and the measure passed overwhelmingly.


Because of a soft bond market, sales of bridge bonds were postponed for two months. Mackinac Bridge Authority Chairman Prentiss M. Brown told the press "we regret this decision because we lose the entire construction season." The completion date was postponed one year to November 1, 1957, at which time existing ferry service would be retired.

Once all the contracts were signed, the ground-breaking ceremonies were scheduled for May 7, 1954 in Mackinaw City and repeated on May 8th in St. Ignace. The Mackinaw City celebration began with a fly-over by six F-86 jet fighters. A three-mile long gala parade lead by the American Legion Drum and Bugle Corps of Detroit was followed by 75 floats and 40 marching bands and drill teams. They converged at Michilimackinac Park for speeches by bridge authorities and state politicians. During the ground breaking ceremony, the Bresser Chorus of Alpena sang the Star Spangled Banner. Later that evening, a fireworks display lit up the sky.

Construction began on May 7, 1954. The Merritt-Chapman and Scott Corporation was awarded the contract to build the substructure of the bridge, while the American Bridge Division of United States Steel Corporation was contracted to build the bridge's superstructure. U.S. Steel produced and fabricated all the steel used in the bridge's construction which took four years to complete.

On June 6, 1956, the Consumer Power Company began laying four underwater electrical lines across the straits to provide the first electrical power linking the lower and upper peninsulas. A tug-powered barge carrying four reels of cable began work on a clear, calm day and laid the cables beside Michigan Bell and Western Union telephone lines already in place.

The day before the inaugural opening on November 1, 1957, the Traverse City Record-Eagle ran an editorial lauding the new bridge: "Tomorrow will mark the beginning of a new era for Michigan history.... This bridge will make the Upper Peninsula an actual part of Michigan instead of a poor relation. The Mackinac Bridge will be a firm tie between the two peninsulas where only a loose connection existed previously. The opening of this bridge will be one of the most important days in Michigan history."

The original toll was a flat rate of $3.25 per car; the current toll is $2.00 per axle or $4.00 per car. Motor Homes and commercial vehicles are charged $5.00 per axle. The last of the Mackinac Bridge bonds was retired July 1, 1986, and the current fare revenues are used to operate and maintain the bridge.

The tradition of the Mackinac Bridge Walk on Labor Day began in 1958 with Governor Williams and state dignitaries leading the pack, but pedestrian traffic is only allowed on that day. Bicycles are not allowed on the bridge either. For a $5.00 fee, someone from the Bridge Authority will take cyclists and their bikes across the bridge.

Some people have a fear of crossing bridges (gephyrophobia). The Authority has a Driver's Assistance Program that can be scheduled in advance or arranged at the toll booth. More than a thousand people a year would rather have someone drive them and their vehicle across the Straits.

Despite the remoteness of the bridge, the traffic flow averages 4.5 million vehicle crossings per year or 12,000 per day. After sixty-three years of hard use and winter's abuse, the Mighty Mac remains Michigan's most valuable and photographed asset.

Detroit Salt Mine 

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Michigan Outdoors with Mort Neff

Mort Nell armed with a 16mm camera.
One of the most beloved programs in early Detroit television was Michigan Outdoors hosted and produced by Mort Neff. The original outdoor show debuted in 1951 specializing in hunting and fishing segments. It ran for twenty-three straight years and 1,196 shows before it was cancelled in 1977. Michigan Outdoors has the distinction of being the longest-running outdoor and sportsman show in American television history.

Mort Neff graduated from the University of Michigan with a double major in journalism and electrical engineering. Upon graduation in 1927, Neff began writing an outdoor sports column for a small newspaper in Detroit. In 1942, the Michigan Conservation Department asked Neff if he would be interested in doing a recorded radio show. At first, he did his recording from a small studio, but Neff drew upon his background in electronics to devise a battery pack to power a wire recorder for remote reporting from the fields and streams of lower Michigan.

In 1946, Neff learned to fly and used his single engine Piper Apache to cover outdoor stories all over Michigan including the Upper Penisula, which at that time was accessible only by slow-moving ferry boats that took hours of waiting in your car before boarding. Neff surprised ice fishermen by landing his plane on frozen lakes and interviewing the anglers with his battery-powered wire recorder.

Mort Neff and his Piper Tri-Pacer on Brighton Lake with ice fisherman.
By 1951, Neff ran an advertising agency specializing in outdoor films for the commercial and industrial market when he was approached to produce a show called Michigan Outdoors. Neff recalled, "Fran Congdon--ad manager for Altes Golden Ale Brewing Company--asked me to produce a TV show. Two weeks before the show debuted, the chosen host had a conflict of interest and was dropped from the program. Fran insisted I do it."

Neff's only experience was behind the camera. Of his early days in television, Neff said, "I was awful. Who had any idea how to do a television show? Nobody!" But despite his lack of experience as on-air talent, the show became an immediate Thursday night hit and one of the most popular programs on Detroit television. 

Mort Neff soon became a local television personality and a much sought-after luncheon and banquet speaker around Detroit. Michigan Outdoors brought out the ham in Neff. He enjoyed his new-found celebrity and soon sold his ad agency. Mort had discovered his life's work.

Neff and his various cohorts over the years filmed segments on sportsmanship, hunting, and fishing, as well as wildlife and habitat conservation. Michigan Outdoors prided itself on giving accurate, up-to-date information on current hunting and fishing conditions in Michigan. The Catch of the Week feature was one of the most popular segments of the show.


If Neff mentioned on his Thursday night show an area where hunting was good or a lake where the fish were biting, 200 to 300 Detroit area sportsmen could be expected for the weekend trek up north, which sometimes caused problems for local residents. Often county roads were not adequate to handle the onrush of city traffic. Getting "Neffed" was not always welcomed by county officials. After some negative publicity, the show developed a policy of not reporting specific hotspots in favor of regional locations.

When Mort worked for the Michigan Conservation Department decades earlier, he learned that the South American country of Chile imported rainbow trout eggs from them in 1918. The eggs were hatched and the fry released into the Chilean mountain river system. Neff always wondered what happened with that forty-year-old project. Now, he was in a position to find out. He organized a two-week expedition with a film crew and a few friends to report on the original project and catch some rainbow trout.

Mort and his cohorts discovered that Chilean rainbow trout grew larger and faster than their Michigan cousins. "On average," Neff said, "a two-pound rainbow would reach six pounds in Chile. When we cleaned our first catch, their bellies were full of crabs the size of half-dollars found only on the river beds of the Andres Mountains. My fishing friend Buck Newton from Traverse City caught a rainbow over 21 pounds. It sounds like a fish story, but we have film and the photos to prove it."

On the strength of his successful Chilean fishing trip, Neff was recruited as an outdoor correspondent for ABC's American Sportsman hosted by Curt Gowdy. ABC producers financed Neff and a film crew for several more South American fishing trips which were featured on the network show giving Neff national exposure.


In 1971, Michigan Outdoors moved from WWJ-TV (channel 4) to WXYZ-TV (channel 7). As the 1970s wore on, American attitudes about hunting changed. Sportsmanship and conservation were always central to Neff's outdoor narrative, but his audience was aging and younger viewers were not tuning in.

In response to this new trend, Neff told reporters, "I think the hysteria over ecology has been overdone. Sportsmen and conservationists were working on the environment long before it became fashionable. I do think it is good that more people are aware and interested in preserving our natural resources and protecting the environment." Michigan Outdoors continued to lose audience market share until it was cancelled on January 7, 1977.

Neff wasn't bitter. He told the Detroit Free Press that "My wife Maureen and I decided twenty-three years was long enough to support the tremendous burden of a weekly television program, and we're ready to move on. I've been lucky. I've had one of the most golden careers ever." The Neff's retired and built a beautiful summer home just north of Harbor Springs.


Mort Neff passed away from a stroke at the age of eighty-six on Wednesday, August 15, 1990 at Northern Michigan Hospital in Petosky. Ten years before he died, Mort selected the tree to make his coffin, had it sawed into planks, and asked his neighbor Bill Glass to build it. Bill kept telling Mort it wasn't time yet. Mort brought the subject up one last time two weeks before his death. Bill Glass began building the pine box on Thursday for Friday's private funeral service at Harbor Springs Presbyterian. Mort was laid to rest in the coffin lined with cedar boughs cut by his family members.

World Adventure Series hosted by George Pierrot 

Friday, May 22, 2020

World Traveler George F. Pierrot

Detroiters who grew up watching television in the 1950s and 1960s are no doubt familiar with George F. Pierrot, the gravelly-voiced, rotund host of the World Adventure Series on WXYZ (channel seven) which debuted in 1948 and George Pierrot Presents on WWJ-TV (channel four) which debuted in 1953. Pierrot holds the distinction as the only Detroit television personality to host shows on two local stations concurently. Pierrot instilled the desire to travel in many of its younger viewers.

From the point of view of the audience, Pierrot's job seemed easy enough. He introduced his guest travelers who showed and narrated their 16 mm films of the Western United States and exotic world location with speakers like Don Cooper, Stan Midgley, Dennis Glen Cooper, and Lowell Thomas. Behind the scenes, Pierrot booked the speakers, viewed and edited their films for content, and handled all negotiations and background arrangements.

"I demand a good reporting job," Pierrot said. "Sure, I want good films, but the speaker must have his facts straight. Viewers want indepth lectures and documentaries on what it is like in different countries." Like Pierrot himself, all of the commentators on his shows belonged to the Circumnavigator's Club whose headquarters was in New York City. The show was sponsored by Edward Brink of The Mutual of Omaha insurance company.

World traveler, author, and raconteur, Pierrot was born in Chicago on January 11, 1898, but his family moved to Seattle where his father practiced medicine and introduced his son to globetrotting. George studied journalism at the University of Washington before becoming the editor of the Washington Daily, but he left to write for a national magazine based in Detroit called The American Boy in the early 1920s. Pierrot became a regular luncheon and banquet speaker at service organizations and non-profits all over the city making him a much sought-after personality in Detroit.

When The American Boy went out of business in 1934, Pierrot pitched the idea of a weekly travelogue program to the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) to boost the museum's poor attendance during the Great Depression. In those days, world traveling was a much bigger deal than it is now. Travel was impossible for the average person. Pierrot became the director of the World Adventure Series. For a yearly membership fee of one dollar or a charge of ten cents per lecture, the public could attend the Sunday afternoon travelogues. The programs were a big hit and set Pierrot up with his life's work. The DIA series ran in the Longfellow auditorium until 1979.

With the start of World War II in Europe, Pierrot complained in October 1939 that "It's hard enough under normal circumstances to assemble world celebrities for lecture programs, but now the war is disrupting every travelogue series in the country. However, we do have the war to thank for our first feature of the season. A motion picture newsman returning from Poland will show two of his films this Sunday. 'Poland Under Fire' at 3:30 pm and the 'Defense of Poland' at 8:30 pm."

The DIA suspended The World Adventure Series in October of 1942 because of gas rationing and the curtailment of public transit on Sundays when the programs were held. Gas stations were closed and drivers were asked to stay home in an effort to save gas for the war effort. Forty-five percent of the program's audience came from the suburbs, so the museum shut the program down. The DIA resumed its Sunday World Adventure Series the following year when the ban on Sunday travel was eased. Rather than travelogues, documentary films from the battlefronts where Americans were fighting and dying dominated the lecture program until the war ended.

One-millionth USO serviceman winning a day on the town. Saturday, April 24,1943.
Pierrot did his part for the war effort by becoming the director of the Detroit Branch of the United Service Organization (USO) in 1942. He ran one of the most extensive and successful programs in the country. Activities for American soldiers and sailors included weekly dance parties and an entertainment unit that showed free motion pictures with special features like Movietone News and cartoons. Pierrot reported to the Defense Department that the Detroit USO entertained 40,000 G.I.s a month.


Three years after the war ended, Pierrot took his World Adventure Series to the new medium of television. For twenty-eight years--1948 until 1976--he brought the world of travel to Detroiters in their living rooms. In 1979, the DIA's World Adventure Series went dark after forty-two years.

Pierrot lead the way for television travelogue hosts like Rick Steves and Anthony Bourdain. In addition to travel, George was known for his love of food, drink, and off-color limericks. On February 16, 1980, George F. Pierrot suffered a heart attack at his Indian Village home and died forty-five minutes later in Henry Ford Hospital. He is buried at Elwood Cemetery in Wayne County.

World Adventure Series with George Pierrot circa 1960 

Michigan Outdoors with Mort Neff 

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Detroit's Historic Fort Wayne Namesake--"Mad" Anthony Wayne

Protrait of Anthony Wayne painted by Thomas Pauley
Throughout the Midwestern states of Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan the name Mad Anthony Wayne resonates in communities far and wide. Scores of towns, cities, counties, schools, parks, hospitals, streets, and businesses have been named after this Revolutionary War general.

General Anthony Wayne led his soldiers in essentially rear guard actions harassing the British behind their lines. In several successful skirmishes with the enemy, he ordered surprise "bayonet only" attacks at night that inflicted many casualties. He was known as a courageous general--decisive and quick to act.

The legend behind the sobriquet "Mad" Anthony Wayne owes little to the general's military achievements. It has more to do with a drunk and disorderly colonist--known as Jemmy, the Rover--who the general sometimes used as a spy. A constable arrested the man who began to drop the general's name. When the general heard this, he threatened Jemmy with "twenty-nine lashes well-laid-on if this happens again."

In disbelief, the now sober Jemmy replied, "He must be mad or else he would help me. Mad Anthony, that's what he is. Mad Anthony Wayne." The story made its way around town and became a favorite among the troops. The general's nickname had a rhythm and bravado that was repeated in the ranks until it stuck.

President George Washington called Major-General Wayne out of retirement to command the newly formed Legion of the United States. Wayne established the first basic training facility to prepare  regular army recruits into professional soldiers.

Wayne mustered and trained a fighting force of 1,350 American soldiers and led them to the Northwest Territory (Ohio and Michigan) where they won a decisive victory against British forces and the Indian Confederacy at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, just south of modern-day Toledo, Ohio. The war ended and Major-General Wayne negotiated the Treaty of Greenville between the tribal confederacy and the United States signed on August 3, 1795.

While returning to Pennsylvania after the conflict, Wayne died from complications of gout on December 15, 1796. He was buried at Fort Presque Isle. His body was disinterred in 1809 at the request of his family to be buried in a family plot. His bones make the journey to Radnor, Pennsylvania in saddlebags. For that grisly bit of history, consult the link below.

***

Aerial View of Old Fort Wayne.

The star-shaped fort in Detroit, Michigan--which bears Anthony Wayne's name--began construction in 1842 at the Detroit River's narrowest point with Canada. Fear of a territorial war with British Canada prompted the fort's building. It was named to honor Major-General Wayne's defeat of the British at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. The victory resulted in the United States occupation of the Northwest Territories. Diplomats were able to settle territorial disputes, and the war with Canada never materialized. The new fort never fired a shot.

***

Fort Wayne was first used by Michigan troops in 1861 at the outbreak of the Civil War. It became the primary induction center for Michigan troops for every field of American combat from the Civil War through Vietnam.

During World War II, every truck, Jeep, tank, tire, spare part, or war ordinance manufactured in Detroit went through the docks of Fort Wayne to the battlefronts. Also, Italian prisoners of war from the North Africa Campaign were housed at the fort. After Italy's surrender, Italian POWs were given the chance to return home. Many chose to settle in Detroit where there was an established Italian-American community and greater opportunities awaiting them.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Fort Wayne's grounds were open to assist and house homeless families. During the Cold War of the 1950s, Nike-Ajax missiles were installed to prepare for a nuclear war that never came. And during the Detroit riots in 1967, the fort was again used to house displaced families, the last families leaving in 1971.

Today, the Detroit Recreation Department operates the fort with the help of the Historic Fort Wayne Coalition, the Friends of Fort Wayne, and the Detroit Historical Society. The grounds are the home of the Tuskegee Airmen Museum, the Great Lakes Indian Museum, and historic Civil War reenactments. Special events are held throughout the year.

Fort Wayne was designated a Michigan State Historic Site in 1958 and entered into the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. The State of Michigan wants to upgrade the property into a multi-use facility while maintaining the fort's historical significance. Once the new International Transport Bridge is built in old Delray, the United States customs plaza will be located near the historic site. More information on restoration plans can be found in the Detroit News link below.

*** 


Bruce Wayne--Millionaire Industrialist
While researching, I discovered that Batman's alter ego--Bruce Wayne--was named after Scottish patriot Robert Bruce and Mad Anthony Wayne. In DC Comics, Bruce Wayne is said to be General Wayne's direct descendant, and stately Wayne Manor is built on ground given to General Wayne for his Revolutionary War service.

Another little known fact is that in 1930, stunt man and young actor Marion Michael Morrison was originally given the stage name of Anthony Wayne by director Raoul Walsh. Fox Studios changed his name to John Wayne because Anthony sounded too Italian.


***

For more information on preservation plans for Historic Fort Wayne:
The story of General Anthony Wayne's exhumation may be more noteworthy than his military achievements. For more details, check out this link: http://www.americanrevolution.org/wayne.php

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Docu-Artist DeVon Cunningham--a Detroit Art Treasure

DeVon Cunningham
Born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama on February 21, 1935, DeVon Cunningham began his art training at the tender age of eleven when he won a scholarship to the John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis, Indiana. Part of his training was a two-week, all expenses paid seminar to study in Italy.

He continued his art training at the Detroit Center for Creative Studies and the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center. Cunningham went on to complete a bachelor's degree from the Detroit Institute of Technology and a master's degree from Wayne State University.

When he wasn't working as a marketing executive for Detroit Edison, DeVon was painting. Over his long career, DeVon's paintings have appeared in many galleries including eleven one-man shows, and his work hangs in many private and public art collections--the most notable being the Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institute.

In 1969, DeVon Cunningham achieved national recognition when he painted the mural of the Black Christ on the dome of St. Cecelia Catholic church at Livernois and Burlingame in Detroit. This work featured a twenty-four-foot, brown-skinned image of Jesus with six multiethnic angels beside him serving high mass. The church's parishioners were mostly African Americans from the neighborhood. The mural was a welcomed addition to this French Romanesque church built in 1930 before the ethnicity of the neighborhood changed.


A national controversy erupted when the mural appeared on the cover of Ebony magazine in March 1969. Twenty-five years later on December 25th, 1994, the mural once again became the topic of controversy when the New York Times featured the church mural on Christmas Day. Reverend Raymond Ellis, rector of St. Cecelia's, responded to the criticism in a Detroit Free Press interview.

"Black parishioners have a legitmate complaint when they walk into a church to worship and everything is white. Christianity forces people to accept Western European culture.

"The historical Christ was Hebrew, a Jew from the Middle East. He might have had dark skin; he might have been fair. But Christ is the head of the church, he is God, and he is any color people want him to be."

Cunningham's commissioned portraits of prominent Detroit community leaders include Martha Jean "The Queen" Steinberg, a WCHB radio personality active in Detroit's African American community; Coleman Young, the city's first black mayor; Abe Burnstein, Detroit's reputed Purple Gang boss during Prohibition; and many others.

The most mysterious portrait Cunningham has painted is of Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. It was unveiled at Gordy's Boston-Edison mansion as a birthday present from his sister Anna Gordy Gaye--the wife of singer Marvin Gaye. Berry was quite moved and lauded the painting of him dressed up like Napoleon. Somewhere along the line, someone suggested that it might not be a compliment to be compared to Napoleon, and the painting disappeared. (More on that story appears in the link at the end of this post.)

Cunningham's portraits gave way to what he calls docu-art that informs, instructs, and involves the viewer. His work combines symbolism with cultural iconography that leaves the viewer with a montage of images to ponder. DeVon's art not only appeals to the eye but also to the mind.

DeVon's jazz musician series typifies much his later work. Historically, Detroit was instrumental in the 1920s through the 1950s for providing African American jazz and blues musicians venues to perform and make a living through their music. To document the historic relationship of Jews and African Americans, Cunningham painted legendary performers like Theolonius Monk, Louie Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Miles Davis, who performed in Detroit's legendary nightclubs owned by Jewish empresarios who hired black acts when other venue bookers wouldn't.

Billie Holiday docu-art
At the age of eighty-five, DeVon Cunningham continues to produce significant art that remains relevant in our changing times. He has a distinguished body of work and presently is working on a commission for the international Spill the Honey foundation, a group that emphasizes the shared legacy of Jewish people and African Americans seeking historical truth and social justice through educational and artistic programs.

With over fifty years of artistic achievement, ask people in the contemporary Detroit art world who DeVon Cunningham is and the likely response will be "Who?" What a shame.

Berry Gordy's Lost Portrait

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Billy Martin Fight Night in Detroit

Many Detroiters remember Billy Martin when he managed the Detroit Tigers from 1971-1973. He took an aging team of veterans and guided them to their first American League Eastern Division Championship in 1972. Better known to some fans may be the fistfight Billy Martin had with his star pitcher Dave Boswell at the Lindell AC sports bar when Martin managed the Minnesota Twins. Who better to tell that story than Mel Butsicaris, who was tending bar that night.

"I called him Uncle Billy. Billy Martin and my Uncle Jimmy (Butsicaris) were close friends. Martin was best man at my uncle's wedding. He was Uncle Billy to me.

Anyway, Billy Martin was managing the Minnesota Twins in 1969 when he told his players to take a lap around the field before heading to the locker room--a common routine for any sports team. His star pitcher Dave Boswell refused and Uncle Billy said you will if you want to play on my team. Boswell refused a second time and was benched. When the Twins came to Detroit to play the Tigers, Boswell was supposed to start the first game, but Martin benched him.

After the game, the whole team came to the Lindell AC sports bar as usual. Normally, coaches don't go to the same watering hole as their players, but Uncle Jimmy and Billy were close friends. They were sitting at the end of the bar quietly talking. The team was sitting at tables in a large group. Dave Boswell had a few drinks and started bad-mouthing Martin. The more he drank, the louder and more vulgar he got. He started yelling at Martin about his heritage and his mother's character if you know what I mean.


Billy Martin hard at work in a Yankee uniform.

Uncle Billy ignored him. Boswell got so obnoxious his roommate on the road Bobby Allison, a big, strong, power-hitting center fielder, was trying to get Boswell to leave the bar and sleep it off. Boswell got louder and more abusive. Allison kept blocking him until Boswell sucker punched Allison in the face. Bobby went down bleeding. Like a bench-emptying baseball brawl, the team jumped up to get between Boswell and Martin while getting Allison off the floor.

Up until then, Martin kept out of the situation. He told Boswell, 'I don't care what you say about me, but now you're beating up the team. Enough, everyone back to the hotel, curfew in ten minutes and bed check in fifteen.' The hotel was near the sports bar. The players started to march out forcing Boswell out with them. He breaks away from the pack and throws a wild punch at Martin, who ducks. Boswell takes another swing at Martin which he blocks.

Telling Boswell, 'You're all out of warnings,' Martin took him to school. Despite being six inches shorter and weighing many pounds less than his ace pitcher, Martin grew up a tough kid in Berkley, California and pound-for-pound the best boxer I have ever seen in or out of the ring. His fists were moving so fast it looked like a Popeye cartoon. It lasted for only six seconds but Martin landed about twenty punches to Boswell's stomach and face. Power-hitter Bobby Allison picked Boswell off the barroom floor and took him to the hospital.

The sports writers from Minnesota and the Detroit newspapers were there, but they agreed not to write about the story because it would only make the situation worse. It was not good for major league baseball. A couple of days after the brawl, a young reporter who was not a witness to the fight broke the story.

Because of  growing publicity concerns, Dave Boswell called a news conference when he was released from the hospital. Boswell stepped-up and said he was drinking and out-of-line. The fight was his fault. The Twins front office did not care. They fired Martin and the Tigers hired him the following season. To all those people over the years who said they saw Billy Martin challenge Dave Boswell to go outside and fight--you are busted."

Billy Martin died on Christmas Day, 1989, at the age of sixty-one in Johnson City, New York. His pickup truck was driven by longtime Detroit friend William Reedy (53). The truck skidded off a patch of icy pavement and plummeted 300 feet down an embankment. Neither Martin nor Reedy were wearing seat belts. Billy Martin was pronounceed dead of severe head and internal injuries. Reedy survived with a broken hip and ribs.

Billy Martin was born Alfred Manuel Martin. His Italian grandmother called him "Belli" [pretty] as a child and the nickname "Billy" stuck. As a major league baseball manager, Billy Martin built a reputation as one of the game's all-time best. He was known to work wonders with difficult ball clubs and not take crap from players, managers, or umpires. He could shape up a team and get the best from his players.

Unfortunately, Billy Martin had a self-destructive side which followed him throughout his career. Notice the baseball card at the top of this post. Martin is giving the finger to the photographer. By his own admission, "I'm a very bad loser."