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."

Friday, April 17, 2020

Detroit/Windsor Sock-Hop-Jock Robin Seymour

Robin Seymour at the height of his popularity.
Robin Henry Seymour began his career in radio as a child actor on The Lone Ranger show on WXYZ in Detroit. Eventually, he became one of the country's most popular disc-jockeys. During World War II, Seymour spent part of his enlistment as a DJ on Armed Forces Radio.

Seymour's civilian broadcasting career resumed in 1947 in Dearborn, Michigan at WKMH. The newly formed radio station played mainstream pop music with news, sports, and weather segments. Soon, Seymour became the station's top jock who appealed to many of Detroit and Windsor, Ontario listeners. Seymour championed early rock & roll artists and was one of America's first DJs to play doo-wop music and black rhythm & blues which was labeled race music in those days.

As his popularity grew, Seymour began live appearances with his "Original Rock-n-Roll Revue" at Detroit's legendary Fox Theater. Seymour's personal theme song "Boppin' with the Robin" was recorded in 1956 by a group popular at the time--The Four Lads. They were accompanied by the Percy Faith Orchestra.

Canadian broadcaster CKLW hired Seymour to host a television teen dance show in 1963 entitled Teen Town, modeled on Dick Clark's American Bandstand. Clark's show was broadcast nationally, but Seymour's regional show was wildly popular in the greater Detroit area.

With the help of rising Motown artists, the show gained popularity and was rebranded as Swingin' Time. Local teens would dance to Top 40 hits and two kids were chosen from the audience to rate new records with an "aye" or a "nay." National acts performing in Detroit or Windsor appeared on Swingin' Time to promote their live shows and records.

Seymour had the good fortune to feature virtually all the Motown artists--The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Little Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, and the list goes on. Many of them recorded on Gordy and Tamala records before the Motown label. Swingin' Time introduced white suburban teens to local black performers, helping bridge the racial divide in heavily segregated Detroit.

In addition to Motown artists, many local white rock group performers appeared on Seymour's show--people like Glenn Frey, Mitch Ryder, Ted Nugent, and Bob Seger. Because of technical limitations in those days, all of the performers lip-synced their records. The most frequently booked local group on his show was The Rationals--an Ann Arbor garage band. Seymour managed many of the early Detroit groups.


Robin Seymour today.
When CKLW changed ownership in 1968, Robin Seymour was replaced by Tom Shannon, another popular Detroit DJ. America was undergoing drastic political and social turmoil and the music reflected that change. Ever try to dance to psychedelic music? The show dropped in the ratings and ended its run in 1969.

Robin Seymour passed away today (April 17, 2020) at the age of ninety-four in San Antonio, Texas. He will be missed by thousands of Detroiters and Windsorites. Robin was working on an autobiography for the last several years which I hope will one day see the light of day.

Robin Seymour's "Boppin' with the Robin" theme song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uJFyQuvGG8g

Early Bob Seger performance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LMUrxXwL-NM

Sunday, April 12, 2020

2020 Alex Karras Film Fest

Although on the face of it, an Alex Karras film festival seems ludricrous, Alex Karras had a good career as a character actor and television personality. What better time to watch some of Alex Karras' film roles than during this pandemic?

The Alex Karras filmography lists 25 guest shots on popular television programs and made-for-television movies including Love, American Style; The Odd Couple; McMillan & Wife; M*A*S*H; and appearances on talk shows like The Mike Douglas Show and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Alex also co-starred with his wife Susan Clark and Emmanuel Lewis on Webster which ran on ABC for six years. Karras' feature film credits include 14 movies, six of which my wife and I watched over the last ten days. That's a substantial body of work.

***

In his first feature film Paper Lion, Karras played himself in a 1968 look behind the scenes of the Detroit Lions preseason training camp. He appeared alongside other Lion players, but Alex's personality jumped off the screen. He was the only player with acting ablity. Alex appeared in plays at Gary Emerson High School.

Karras caught the attention of Desilu executive producer Lucille Ball. Lucy phoned Karras and encouraged him to pursue acting after he retired from the gridiron. From then on, he was bitten by the acting bug. Lucille Ball was helpful in getting Karras established in Hollywood. They became lifelong friends.

***

In 1975, Karras hit box office gold with his portrayal of Mongo in Mel Brooks' riotous film Blazing Saddles. Amidst the craziness of the film, Mongo speaks eight words that encapsulate the dilemma of modern man, "Mongo a pawn in the game of life."


Karras plays a Looney Tune cartoonish, dull-witted brute who knocks out a horse with one punch and opens a Western-Union candygram that blows up in his face. Classic Warner Bros. slapstick comedy. Blazing Saddles is #6 on the American Film Institute's list of 100 Best Comedies.

***

The following year, Karras gave a nuanced performance as wrestler George Zaharias--the real-life husband of America's most celebrated female athlete Babe Didrikson. The TV movie Babe starred Susan Clark in the title role which earned her an Emmy award for Best Actress. Their onscreen chemistry was powerful and translated to real life. Karras and Clark met on this film, fell in love, and married five years later. His performance proved he could handle dramatic as well as comic roles.

***

Neither Sue nor I had ever seen Porky's before. It turned out to be literally a low brow, coming-of-age comedy. The biggest names in the movie were Susan Clark and Alex Karras. Now man and wife in real life, they took minor roles and never appeared on screen together in this film. Susan Clark plays stripper Cherry Forever and Karras plays County Sheriff Wallace. Giving a deadpan performance, Karras is convincing as a corrupt cop harassing the Angel Beach High School basketball team on a dark country road.


Porky's Lobby Card

Film critics Gene Siskel & Roger Eberts gave Porky's two thumbs down for its "degrading objectification of women and juvenile treatment of adolescent sexuality." They pronounced the movie "One of the worst films of 1981." The initial $5 million investment grossed over $136 million in the film's worldwide release, becoming the highest grossing comedy in Canadian history.

For me, Porky's has little redeeming value, but film historians credit it for spawning a new breed of film--the teen movie. Porky's influenced a generation of writers, most notibly John Hughes, who came to exemplify the genre throughout the 1980s with films like Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and The Breakfast Club--all of which had more heart and charm than their predecessor. 

***

In 1982's Blake Edwards' gender-bending extravaganza Victor Victoria, Alex Karras got a first-class supporting role as Squash Bernstein, the bodyguard of American gangster King Marchand, played by James Garner. Karras' comedic timing, deadpan facial expressions, and flawless line delivery make this performance the high point in his comedic career.


Alex Karras and Robert Preston

The movie's finale performance of "The Lady of Spain" with Robert Preston (The Music Man) as an aging, gay cabaret performer is not to be missed. Director Blake Edwards remembers that Preston did the routine in one take. Two takes might have killed him. That in itself is reason to see this film. Gay or straight, this movie is a laugh riot.

***

The most compelling role where Karras' range as an actor was on full display is 1984's Against All Odds--a remake of the 1947 film noir classic Out of the Past with Robert Mitchum. What makes his role of pro-football trainer Hank Sully more compelling is a football gambling syndicate that drives the plot of the film.

In another life, Alex Karras was suspended by the NFL for the 1963 season for gambling on football games which he openly admitted. This film benefits from Karras' real life experiences and problems with the NFL. Karras plays a football trainer in a role fundamental to the storyline.

Character Hank Sully is basically a good guy who compromises his integrity with a gambling syndicate. Though internally conflicted, Sully is hired to cover up a gambling scandal and recover a missing ledger book filled with incriminating information tied to names of important people.

Jeff Bridges and Alex Karras
Against All Odds benefits from solid performances by Jeff Bridges, as a washed up pro-football player declared "damaged goods" and thrown to the curb by his team; Australian Rachel Ward plays the femme fatale Bridges is paid to locate in Cozumel, Mexico; and James Woods is the underworld figure who wants his girlfriend, his ledger book, and his $50,000 back. Sue and I agree that Against All Odds is Alex Karras' best film performance.

Friday, April 10, 2020

The Detroit Area Salt Mine

Bulk salt waiting to be loaded for shipment

Twelve hundred feet below the surface of the state of Michigan lies the largest salt deposit in the world--seventy-one trillion cubic tons of salt deposits. Over four hundred million years ago, horizontal salt beds formed as the result of ancient oceans evaporating in what geologists have named The Michigan Basin--a circular pattern of sedimentary strata that began to sink over time.


 
This depression of Precambrian rock is 16,000' deep at its center and tapers to 4,000' at its edges. The basin extends throughout most of Lower Michigan. As the basin began to sink about a billion years ago, salt water repeatedly back-filled the depression and evaporated leaving the salt deposits behind.

This occurred during the Cambrian Period of the earth's development before the age of the dinosaurs. The only life on the planet were hard-shelled aquatic trilobites. These ancient salt beds were buried by the intrusion of heavier igneous rock from the earth's mantle--mainly basalt, and glacial activity from four ice ages.

***

Rock salt was discovered beneath Detroit in 1895. Eleven years later, work began on the first tunnel shaft--which was was completed in 1910--at the cost of many lives and the bankruptcy of the mine's original owners. In the early days of mine operation, mules were lowered in harnesses into the mine to live out their lives as beasts of burden. By 1914--due to the use of electric energy and advancements in mining technology--the mine was producing 8,000 tons of salt a month for the leather and food processing industries.



In 1922, a second, larger mine shaft was begun and finished in three years. The first shaft was now used to haul men and small materials. The new shaft was used to lower machinery used in the mine. Most equipment was massive and had to be disassembled on the surface--piece by piece--and reassembled in the machine shop below.

The mine has changed hands many times in its over 100 years of existence. International Salt closed the mine in 1983 because of falling prices, but its present operator--Detroit Salt Company--reopened the mine in 1998. Today, the only products the Detroit mine produces are deicing rock salt for roadways and bagged rock salt for consumer use. From the 1920s until the 1980s, guided public tours were allowed by the mine's management. Since the new owners took over, only rare private tours are given.

Salt Pillar
The room and pillar method of extraction is used to mine salt. The rooms vary in width from 30' to 60'--with a height of between 17' to 40'. For safety reasons, a minimum of 30% of any cavity must be pillared. During the day and afternoon shifts, miners undercut a solid wall surface at floor level with an industrial-sized chain saw device that bites out a channel ten or more feet deep. This first cut leaves a smooth floor for picking up the salt after blasting. Deep holes are drilled at strategic places along the face of the wall and loaded with explosives that are set off electronically after the work shift.

The next morning, heavy equipment loads the large salt pieces and takes them to massive crushers where they are loaded onto conveyor belts and hauled to the surface in buckets capable of lifting 100 tons. Once above ground, the salt is screened and sorted for size. Some of the salt is conveyed to individual storage bins to await packaging. The rest is loaded into railroad cars, semi-trucks, or river barges and sold as bulk salt.


Here are some factoids about the Detroit salt mine:
  • the tunnel's shafts are deeper than the height of the Empire State Building
  • the mine's temperature is a constant 56-60 degrees
  • the mine covers an area of over 1,500 acres
  • the mine head is in Southwest Detroit and the mine extends beneath the eastern portions of Dearborn, much of Melvindale, and the northern reaches of Allen Park
  • there are one hundred miles of roads cut through the salt beds
  • the underground streets are 60' wide to handle the heavy loading equipment
  • 100,000 cubic feet of fresh air is pumped into the mine per minute
  • no living thing exists in the mine except the miners
  • the mine shaft opening is at 12841 Sanders Street, Detroit, Michigan 48217.
In 1940, Detroit was the first major city in America to use rock salt for snow removal. The increased salt level buildup in the soil along Michigan roadsides has caused native roadside vegetation--like cattails--to be replaced with salt water tolerant plants--like sea grass. Over time, seeds from these invasive plants were inadvertently spread by transport trucks from ocean coastal areas to the Midwest. Now these plants have a foothold in Michigan soil.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Detroit's Movie Maven--Bill Kennedy


Bill Kennedy at the Movies with Sir Graves Ghastly. Sir Graves would riff on his monster movies and Bill would dish on Hollywood and the movie business.

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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q2l4bz1FT8U

Bill Kennedy's theme song Just In Time by Frank Sinatra. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RIcQ26arWAs