Saturday, December 26, 2015

Happy New Year 2016--Why January First?

New Year's Eve in Kiev, Ukraine.
Historians have charted the origins of our New Year's celebrations to the ancient Babylonians four millennium ago. They marked the new year as the first full moon after the vernal (spring) equinox--sometime in March of our calendar.

Traditionally, the Roman calendar attempted to follow the lunar cycle which frequently fell out of phase with the seasons. After consulting Sosigenes, an Alexandrian astronomer, Julius Caesar was advised to discard the lunar calendar and adopt the solar calendar, like the Egyptians had.

In 46 B.C., two years before his political assassination, Caesar added sixty-seven extra days to realign the Roman calendar with the sun. A year was calculated to be 365 and 1/4 days long.
Caesar decreed that every four years an extra day be added to February. He named the first month of the new calendar after Janus--the Roman god of beginnings. His two faces could look back at the past and forward to the future.  While Caesar was at it, he also renamed the Roman month Quintilis to July, after himself. 

The Julian calendar was replaced in 1582 when Pope Gregory XIII commissioned Jesuit astronomer Christopher Clavius to devise a more accurate calendar. There was an eleven minute error per year in the Julian calendar. The revised Gregorian calendar was implemented throughout Christendom and is the one we use today. Pope Gregory designated January 1st as the first day of the new year.

New Year's Eve in Sydney, Australia.
New Year's Eve is celebrated the last day of the Gregorian calendar--December 31st. Common traditions through much of the world include huge public gatherings, private parties, making resolutions, and fireworks displays. In English-speaking countries, "Auld Lang Syne" is sung at the stroke of midnight. The Robert Burn's song is based on a traditional Scottish phrase which is loosely translated as "long, long, ago" or "for old times."

A tradition in America since 1907 is the giant ball drop in Times Square. The original ball weighed 700 pounds and was made of iron and wood. Today, the orb is 12 feet across and weighs 2,000 pounds. It is electrified with many thousands of LED lights producing millions of colors and billions of patterns.

One thing has not changed over the years. New Year's Eve lights the beacon to the future with hopes for a better year than the last.

Happy New Year, Everyone.

History Channel's short history of New Year's:

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Detroit's Movie Maven--Bill Kennedy

Detroit Free Press TV Channel Guide print advertisement from the 1970s.

Every Baby-Boomer from Detroit and Windsor remembers who gave us our extensive Hollywood movie education--Bill Kennedy. Bill started announcing on the radio professionally in the 1930s at WWJ - The Detroit News station. His deep voice resonated over the air waves.

In 1940, he embarked on a movie career and signed a contract with Warner Brothers Studios where he worked from 1941 until 1955. Bill had the voice but not the face. He didn't emote well on screen, so he was relegated to a series of flat supporting roles. He played mainly cops, bad guys, radio announcers (no stretch for Bill), newspaper men, and swindlers. In all, Bill Kennedy has 103 film credits.

In the post World War Two era, Kennedy appeared on numerous B-Western television shows including The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid, and The Gene Autry Show. Kennedy always spoke kindly of Gene Autry. Bill was over six feet tall and many of Hollywood's leading men were short and didn't like doing fight scenes with him. Gene Autry was short, but always had a job for Bill when he needed it. Autry told him once, "I like beating up bad guys on screen who are bigger than me."

Bill Kennedy playing a newscaster in a Superman episode.

What many of us in Detroit know that most people don't is Bill's was the voice behind the opening credits of  The Adventures of Superman--one of the most iconic introductions in television history. Bill received a one-time check for $350. He regretted not asking for screen credit which might have benefited his career. The show has been continuously running in syndication since 1952. A link to the Superman program opening is below.

In 1956, Bill Kennedy returned to the Detroit area to host an afternoon movie program called Bill Kennedy's Showtime, for CKLW-TV across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario. The show became a big hit. Bill talked about his jaded experiences in Hollywood's heyday and how he worked with many of the top stars. His deadpan delivery and sarcastic wit won the loyalty of viewers. He had an avuncular, self-deprecating manner--especially if talking about a film he was in. If the movie was bad, he would tell his audience.

The show opened with a tight shot on a picture of a woman smoking a cigarette with Bill's theme song Just in Time playing in the background. The photograph was from a magazine. I can see the model in my mind's eye with her elbows on a table and a smoldering cigarette in her right hand. Bill chose Just In Time for his theme song because his professional life was at a low point when he got the job with CKLW.

Bill wearing a hat to cover up his hair transplant surgery.
In 1969, Bill took his show to WKBD which broadcast out of Southfield, Michigan. The show remained essentially the same with a title change to Bill Kennedy at the Movies. Bill would interview celebrities when they were in Detroit and he took on-air phone calls which were sometimes more interesting than the movies. I enjoyed the live TV commercial pitches of Abe Schroe for his furniture upholstery business.

Abe and Bill always had lively repartee like they knew each other well outside of work. These two got along so well on air that it strikes me Bill was probably part-owner or an investor in Artistic Upholstery. Bill would take a break and Abe would go into his pitch. Nobody else made live commercials on Bill's show--not Ollie Fretter--not even Mr. Belvedere (Detroit inside joke).

In 1983, Bill retired to Palm Beach, Florida. He died of emphysema on January 27, 1997, at the age of eighty-eight. Rest in peace "young, old-timer."

The Adventures of Superman introduction:

Bill Kennedy's theme song Just In Time by Frank Sinatra.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Henry Ford's Tough Guy--Harry Bennett

Harry Bennett
Harry Herbert Bennett was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan on January 17, 1892. At the age of seventeen, he joined the United States Navy where he learned the pugilistic arts and became a champion lightweight boxer fighting under the name of Sailor Reese.

Legend has it that sometime in 1916, New York newspaper columnist Arthur Brisbane introduced the twenty-four year-old Bennett to Henry Ford. Brisbane witnessed a street brawl where Bennett came to the defense of a fellow sailor under attack by some local thugs. The naval boxing champion acquitted himself well. When the police arrived, they were going to arrest Bennett, but the newspaper man vouched for the young sailor and he was released.

Brisbane told the young tough he had someone he wanted him to meet. Brisbane was writing an article about Henry Ford for the Hearst newspaper chain while Ford was in New York. They met in Ford's hotel room. Kidnapping wealthy people was on the rise in America and Henry Ford was concerned for the safety of his family. Ford was fascinated hearing about the street brawl Bennett was just in. He asked Bennett if he could handle a gun. He could. Upon the young sailor's discharge from the Navy, Bennett was hired at the Highland Park Ford plant in the art department.

Red-haired Harry Bennett was five feet, six inches tall--built like a fire hydrant and just as strong. He cultivated his tough guy image by wearing a fedora, a hand gun, and a bow tie. People who knew him said he was fearless. With no background in engineering or the automobile business, Bennett rose in five years to become head of Ford's infamous Service Department. He was known within the company as the old man's hatchet man. 

Battle of the Overpass reaching flash point.
The Battle of the Overpass outside the Ford Rouge plant was a defining moment for Harry Bennett and the United Auto Workers (UAW). On May 26, 1937, Walter Reuther, Richard Frankensteen, among other union organizers, were beaten by Ford Service men and dragged and kicked down two flights of steel and concrete stairs. The attack was captured by a Detroit News staff photographer. The next day, newspapers around the world ran the photographs and the story. Overnight, Walter Reuther became the most recognized labor leader in America.

Walter Reuther and Richard Frankensteen

At a National Labor Relations Board hearing held in the summer of 1937, UAW field-organizer Frankensteen testified how Ford's security force assaulted him and Walter Reuther. The labor board found the Ford Service Department had underworld connections with the local Black Hand--a Sicilian gang, and the Dearborn police stood by while the labor demonstrators were beaten. No charges were ever filed.

In 1941, the four-year bloody conflict resulted in the Ford Motor Company (FoMoCo) recognizing the UAW and negotiating their first contract. The Ford executive to sign the contract--Harry Bennett. But this was the beginning of the end of Bennett's tenure with the automotive giant. Henry Ford's wife Clara had as much to do with the contract settlement as anyone. Ford family history notes she threatened to divorce her husband if the labor violence wasn't ended and the contract settled.

Henry Ford II
By 1945, the old man's health and mental state were declining as Bennett maneuvered to gain control of the company. Clara and her son Edsel's widow--Eleanor Clay-Ford--insisted the company remain under family control. Eleanor threatened to sell her stock if her son was not made president. On September 20th, Henry Ford I officially resigned the presidency and nominated his grandson Henry Ford II to replace him. The Board of Directors rubber-stamped the recommendation. Twenty-eight-year-old Henry Ford II was discharged from active duty with the United States Navy to man the helm of his grand sire's company.

Henry's first official act was to fire Harry Bennett. He drove to the Ford Administration Building on Schaefer Road and walked down to the secluded basement office of his late father's nemesis. But Bennett could see the writing on the wall. It was written in dark blue and read Ford.

The former boxer could not resist giving the young Ford a parting shot. "You're taking over a billion dollar organization here that you haven't contributed a thing to?" The rest of the afternoon, the basement was filled with smoke as Bennett burned his records--almost thirty years of company history--the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Henry Ford I
Later that evening, Henry II drove to his grandfather's estate and told him he fired Bennett. The elder Ford's reaction was understated. He simply remarked, "Now Harry is back where he started." 

After his loss of power, Bennett retired to an 800 acre wilderness area outside Desert Springs, California. His last moment in the public spotlight came when he was called to testify in the Kefauver Senate Crime Investigation Committee Hearings in 1951. 

In 1973, Bennett suffered a stroke. In 1975, he entered the Beverly Manor Nursing Home in Los Gatos, California. On January 4, 1979, he died. His death went unreported for a week--the cause was never released to the public.