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.