Thursday, April 25, 2019

Connie Kalitta "The Bounty Hunter" vs. Shirley "Cha-Cha" Muldowney


Baby Boomers who grew up in the Detroit area and listened to Windsor radio station CKLW were familiar with advertisements for the Detroit Dragway located at Sibley and Dix. The ads always began with "Saturday, SATURDAY NIGHT, at the DETROIT DRAGWAY." Then the card for the automotive duels would be hyped. If you don't remember or aren't old enough to know what I'm talking about, I have a link to an audio at the end of this post.

Connie Kalitta with top fuel dragster in 1967.
Two of the most popular drag racers of the 1970s and 1980s were Connie Kalitta "The Bounty Hunter" and Shirley "Cha-Cha" Muldowney. Connie was from Mount Clemens, Michigan, and Shirley was from Schenectady, New York. They shared a professional and personal relationship from 1972-1977. Connie gave Shirley a Funny Car he no longer raced and acted as her crew chief for many of her early races. In those days, Shirley was known as "The Huntress." 

Kalitta began drag racing when he was a sixteen-year-old student at Mount Clemens High School. He worked himself up the ranks of the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) to become one of the sport's top drivers. Known as The Bounty Hunter, Kalitta was the first driver to reach 200 mph in a sanctioned NHRA event. In 1989 at the Winter Nationals, Kalitta was the first driver to break the 290 mph barrier with a 291.54 mph qualifying run.

In all, Kalitta won ten national titles and was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1992. The NHRA compiled a list of the Top 50 Drivers for their fiftieth-anniversary in 2001. Kalitta ranked 21st on the all-time list, and in 2016, he became the first recipient of the NHRA's Lifetime Achievement Award.

Kalitta's first NHRA win came in 1964 in Bakersfield, California. In 1967, he won his first NHRA title. With the prize money, he bought his first airplane--a Cessna 310--and started his company Kalitta Air at the Willow Run Airport shipping freight for the Ford Motor Company (FoMoCo)--his racing sponsor. 

Kalitta Air and Kalitta Motorsports company photograph.
For a time, Kalitta retired from racing and directed his attention toward building up his air freight business. Now he has a fleet of about 100 planes, many of them 747s. In addition to a bread-and-butter FoMoCo parts distribution contract, Kalitta Air provides charter flights for Medical Flight Services, Air Ambulance Specialists, the Shriners' Children's Hospital and the United States Department of Defense, to name a few. It is not generally known that Kalitta Air keeps a 747 on standby to work with the military to return fallen service men and women to their homes.

Kalitta no longer races, but he is the CEO of Kalitta Motorsports in Ypsilanti, Michigan which sponsors four cars and drivers. His love of racing became a lifelong pursuit and a way of life.

***

Shirley Muldowney
Connie Katilla first met Shirley Muldowney in 1966 at Raceway Park in Illinois when she was racing a dragster with her husband as her mechanic. In 1972, Shirley divorced Jack Muldowney when she wanted to advance to top fuel funny cars, and he refused to live the life of a Gypsy to compete on the NHRA circuit. Doubtless, there were other personal issues as Shirley moved in with Kalitta in 1972. Kalitta was The Bounty Hunter and Muldowney became The Huntress. Connie soon tagged Shirley with the nickname "Cha-Cha" which she never liked, but it became part of her NHRA branding.

After her split from Kalitta, Shirley went on to make a name for herself in this macho male sport. At first, she had trouble attracting sponsors and finding a crew that would work with a woman. But when Shirley "Cha-Cha" Muldowney showed up at the track with her hot pink car, cowboy boots, and crash helmet, she started filling the grandstands. Even her pit crew wore hot pink team shirts.

Muldowney defied traditional gender stereotypes head-on and challenged sexism in the racing culture like Billie Jean King had for tennis in 1973's Battle of the Sexes against Bobby Riggs. Both ladies proved women can compete in a man's world.

Shirley Muldowney was the first woman to receive a NHRA license to drive top fuel dragsters. She was the first person--man or woman--to win three NHRA national events in a row. In 1980, Shirley won the World Finals by beating her nemesis Connie Kalitta, and in 1982, she won an unprecedented third NHRA Top Fuel Championship.

Muldowney's achievements were not lost on Hollywood. She got the big screen treatment in 1983's Heart Like a Wheel starring Bonnie Bedelia as Muldowney and Beau Bridges as Connie Kalitta. Muldowney has said the film didn't capture her real life very well but was good for the sport.

On the heels of her celebrity, Muldowney was faced with her biggest challenge. In June of 1984, her dragster crashed at over 250 mph at Sanair Speedway near Montreal, Canada. A front tire shredded and got twisted up in a wheel causing the car to lose control for 600 feet before crashing. Shirley was left with broken legs, crushed hands, a shattered pelvis, and a severed thumb. Determined to race again, she undertook two years of grueling physical therapy and recovery. Her first race back was against "Big Daddy" Don Garlits--a personal friend of hers. She lost.

Because of trouble attracting sponsors, Shirley retired from racing in 2003. During her career, she won eighteen NHRA National events and was ranked 5th on NHRA's 2001 list of its Top 50 Drivers earning her the title of "First Lady of Drag Racing." Her memoir Shirley Muldowney: Tales from the Track was released in 2005 depicting her drag racing life. The same year, Muldowney was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.

***
CKLW radio commercial for the Detroit Dragway from 1966: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BbrdImfvFmQ

1982 U.S. Nationals Championship drag race between Kalitta and Muldowney: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2-Q8f6bsfI0  

Muldowney on the Johnny Carson Show in 1986 after her 1984 catastrophic car crash: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1FeaqiczHzI

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Detroit's Beloved Weatherman Sonny Eliot

Sonny Eliot and friend.
Weatherman Sonny Eliot was well-known to generations of Detroiters. He began his career in 1947 at the very beginning of television broadcasting in Detroit and spent thirty-five years at WWJ (now WDIV), which included seventeen years hosting "At the Zoo." For many years, he was the Master of Ceremonies for Detroit's J.L. Hudson's Thanksgiving Day Parade. In 2010, Eliot retired from broadcasting.

Sonny Eliot was a cultural icon for Baby Boomers and their parents. Once called the Ernie Harwell (Detroit Tiger sportscaster) of weather, Eliot had an unprecedented 50% share of Detroit's television market during his weather segment. Perhaps he is best described as a borscht-belt comic weatherman and best known for his hybrid blending of weather conditions like "snog" for snow/fog, "cloggy" for cloudy/foggy, and "droudy" for dreary/cloudy. In addition to his television career, he was the author of four children's books. Eliot had a wonderful sense of humor and loved to make people laugh.

Marvin Schlossberg was born on Hastings Street December 5, 1920. He was the youngest child of Latvian Jewish parents. His mother nicknamed him "Sonny." He credits his mother for his sense of humor. His parents owned and ran a hardware store on Detroit's East Side. As he grew up, Sonny developed a passion for flying.


B-24 Liberator bomber
"During World War II, he was a B-24 bomber pilot who was shot down over Germany. Flak tore into his plane in February of 1944. He held the bomber as steady as he could while his crew parachuted before he jumped. Sonny was apprehended by a German farmer armed with a pitchfork and spent eighteen months in Stalagluft I until the end of the war. The POW camp was located near Barth, Germany. It was liberated the night of April 30, 1945, by Russian troops. The American prisoners were soon evacuated by American aircraft in "Operation Revival" and returned home.

Mel Butsicaris, son of Johnny Butsicaris and nephew of Jimmy Butsicaris, the Lindell AC bar owners, gave me permission to share his Facebook post on the Sonny Eliot he knew.

"Sonny was an incredible man and many stories have been told and written about his life. He lived, worked, and played in Detroit, so people felt like they knew him because he would take the time to acknowledge them. Uncle Sonny is what I called him. He was a unique man and a joy to be around: funny, smart, adventurous, generous, and fun-loving. He fit in with anybody he was with.

"People would see Uncle Sonny hanging out at the Lindell AC (Athletic Club) sports bar during the week. My dad even gave him an office on the second floor of our building. But on the weekends he focused on his two loves--his wife Annette and flying with my dad in an airplane they co-owned. Flying was their shared addiction.

"Uncle Sonny made everyone feel like a friend, so people naturally felt like they knew him. I have lost track of how many times people have come up to me and say they saw Sonny Eliot drunk at the Lindell feeling no pain, or Sonny was so funny after he had a few drinks. Newsflash! Sonny Eliot did not drink alcohol.

"To all the people that bought Uncle Sonny a drink in the Lindell, I am sorry for overcharging you, but you insisted I make him a drink. I would give him his usual glass of soda water with a splash of ginger ale for some color and a lemon twist. I would put my finger over the pour spout so it only looked like he was getting whiskey. His drinking was an act, but his wit, fun-loving personality, and his genuine kindness were real."


Marvin (Sonny Eliot) Schlossberg died peacefully among family and friends in his Farmington Hills home on November 16, 2012, at the age of ninety-one. Sonny Eliot led a remarkable life touching the lives of millions of Detroiters and leaving us better for the experience.

WWJ video tribute to Sonny Eliot--https://youtu.be/Y0iVuyfDUjM

Sonny Eliot news story: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lZD-gKG5-g8

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Willie O'Ree--National Hockey League Pioneer

Willie and his family with Canadian Prime Mister Justin Trudeau.

I can not express how happy I am that my friend Willie O'Ree was inducted into the National Hockey League Hall of Fame in 2018. As if that wasn't enough, Willie was also awarded the Order of Canada medal by Prime Minister Trudeau. And now, a documentary about him is premiering April 29th at the 2019 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto. An article and the trailer for the documentary is linked below.


Commemorative Hockey Puck
Willie and I met not on the ice but through our wives who were friends. Willie's wife is from Duncan, British Columbia; he is from Fredericton, New Brunswick; my wife is from Tucson, Arizona; and I'm from Detroit, Michigan. How we came together in time and space is one of those happy coincidences that seldom occur in life. When Sue and I married, Willie and Deljeet stood up for us at our ceremony along with my daughter Nicole and Sue's father Frank.

September 2007
Willie told me that when he was a kid, his baseball team won a Canadian Little League championship and he got to meet Jackie Robinson. Robinson shook Willie's hand in a "meet and greet" in New York City. Robinson asked him if baseball was his favorite sport.

Souvenir from Willie O'Ree Night at recent San Diego Gulls game.
Willie said, "No, it's hockey."

Robinson was surprised and replied, "Black people don't play hockey."

Willie responded, "We do in Canada." 

As an adult, Willie and Robinson met again in a celebrity pro/am golf tournament and Jackie remembered Willie as a kid. Since 1998, Willie has been the NHL Diversity Ambassador. The impression Willie leaves with people who meet him is they are in the presence of an unforgettable, outstanding human being.

Willie O'Ree documentary trailer

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Detroit’s Lindell AC - The Nation’s First Sports Bar



Johnny in front of the original Lindell Bar

In 1949, Greek immigrant Meleti Butsicaris with his sons—Johnny and Jimmy—leased the ground floor of the run-down Lindell Hotel and opened their bar on Cass and Bagley avenues. At first, they couldn’t afford to have a sign made with a different name, so they went with the hotel’s signage and called their tavern the Lindell Bar and the name stuck. The bar was near Briggs Stadium, where the Tigers and Lions played, and the Olympia arena, home of the Detroit Red Wings.

Legend has it that a young New York Yankee second baseman—Billy Martin—suggested to the brothers they change the drab atmosphere of the bar with an athletic theme. That would not be difficult. In addition to being co-owner of the bar, Johnny Butsicaris was also the official photographer for the Olympia. He had plenty of original sports photographs he could use. It was not long before sports memorabilia adorned the walls with autographed photos of Detroit sports stars, signed team jerseys, bats, and hockey sticks--even a jock strap belonging to Wayne Walker, a Detroit Lion linebacker. The new look helped define the bar’s clientele.

Jimmy with Andre the Giant.
The Lindell soon became a hangout for Detroit sports figures and players from visiting teams. It wasn’t long before local sports writers and celebrities performing in Detroit found a home at the Lindell. National celebrities like Milton Berle and Jayne Mansfield would stop in. Local celebrities like Detroit’s favorite weatherman Sonny Eliot and Detroit News sports columnist Doc Greene were regulars. Even the Beatles and their entourage went to the bar after their Olympia concert.

The most notorious event in the history of the original Lindell Bar was a publicity stunt for a wrestling match between Detroit Lion defensive tackle Alex Karras and wrestler Dick the Bruiser. Karras needed the cash since he was no longer drawing his NFL salary. The week before, Karras was suspended from the NFL for the 1963 season for admitting he bet on football games.

Karras and the Bruiser in publicity still.
Karras was a friend of Dick the Bruiser from Karras's one season as a pro-wrestler. The Bruiser wanted to help his friend in need. The original idea was born in the mind of Dick the Bruiser. He proposed a publicity stunt in the Lindell Bar to increase the gate at the Olympia match. What began as a publicity stunt became a full-blown bar brawl. In the process, the Bruiser wrecked the bar. The scheduled wrestling match the following Saturday night earned Karras $30,000. [See the link below for more information on that incident]

The Butsicaris brothers took Karras on as a business partner with his $30,000 from the wrestling match. After the bar brawl, the three partners moved the location of the bar to Michigan and Cass avenues. They had no choice. The Lindell Hotel was condemned and scheduled for demolition.

Detroit News sports reporter Doc Greene suggested adding AC (Athletic Club) after the new bar’s name as a sly reference to the Detroit Athletic Club, an exclusive members-only club. Only the city’s business elite and socialites were members. Even famous sports figures could not enter the club without a special guest invitation from a member.

Doc Greene got many of his exclusive sports stories sitting at the original Lindell Bar. He did not want his bosses to know how much time he spent there getting his exclusive stories. In his Detroit News sports articles, he would write he was interviewing this or that athlete at the Athletic Club. It became an inside joke at the bar. Greene would call his wife and say he would be home soon when he was finished at the Athletic Club. As a tribute to Doc Greene, the reincarnated Lindell Bar became the Lindell AC.

Johnny’s son Mel Butsicaris remembers working the night an elephant was brought into the sports bar.

Sonny Eliot behind the bar at the Lindell AC. Photo courtesy of Mel Butsicaris.

“The most talked about photograph in the bar was not of an athlete or celebrity. Back in the 1970s, Bell Telephone and the Yellow Pages had a slogan about an elephant never forgetting, but you have the Yellow Pages for help. They were making a commercial across the street with a baby elephant.

Sonny Eliot
"You don’t see an elephant in downtown Detroit too often, so my dad and I walked over to watch. My dad told the film crew to come over to the bar and he’d buy everyone a drink. As a joke, my dad said while petting the elephant, ‘Bring your friend along.’ About an hour later, the front door opened with this guy pushing this beast through the door. We still can’t believe it, but the elephant fit through. We worried if the floor could handle the weight. Everyone had a good laugh when Sonny Eliot started giving the elephant Coca-Cola to drink. Shortly after, the Coke acted as a laxative for the animal. We used snow shovels to clean up the mess.”

Alex Karras and Curtis Yates
In 1980, CBS filmed a made-for-television movie in the Lindell AC bar called Jimmy B. and Andres. It was based on the true story of Jimmy Butsicaris, who wanted to adopt an African-American boy. Alex Karras starred with his wife Sharon Clark, and as the young boy, Curtis Yates. The bar was sanitized as a restaurant for the movie. The spin off became the ABC sitcom Webster with Emmanuel Lewis playing the child’s role.

Jimmy Butsicaris died in 1996, and his brother Johnny died in 2011. The Lindell AC sports bar, said to be the first in the nation, closed its doors in 2002. The building was scheduled for demolition to make way for the Rosa Parks Transit Center.

More information on the Alex Karras/Dick the Bruiser bar brawl: