Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Victorian Theater and The Limelight

In the Victorian period, the expression in the limelight meant the most desirable acting area on the stage, front and center. Today, the expression simply means someone is getting public recognition and acclaim.

The limelight effect was discovered by Goldsmith Gurney in the 1820s based on his work with an oxy-hydrogen blowpipe. Scottish inventor, Thomas Drummond (1797-1840), built a working model of the calcium light in 1826 for use in the surveying profession.

The calcium light was created by super heating a cylinder of quicklime (calcium oxide) with an oxy-hydrogen flame that gives off a bright light with a greenish tint.

Eleven years later, the term limelight was coined to describe a form of stage illumination first used in 1837 for a public performance at the Covent Garden Theatre in London. 

By the 1860s, this new technology of stage lighting was in wide use in theaters and dance halls around the world. It was a great improvement over the previous method of stage lighting, candle powered footlights placed along the stage apron. 

Limelight lanterns could also be placed along the front of the lower balcony for general stage illumination providing more natural light than footlights alone. 

A lighthouse-like lens (Fresnel lens) was developed that could direct and focus concentrated light on the stage to spotlight a solo performance. Actors and performers must have felt they were living in the heyday of the theater.

The term green room has been used since the Victoria period to describe the waiting area performers use before going on stage. Theater lore has it that actors would sit in a room lit by limelight to allow their eyes to adjust to the harsh stage lighting, preventing squinting during their stage entrances.

Although the electric light replaced limelight in theaters by the end of the nineteenth century, the term limelight still exists in show business, as does the term green room.

Today, the green room is used by celebrities before they appear on talk shows, but it is not usually painted green. The room still performs a similar function as in the Victorian age--to prepare a performer to go on stage.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Alex Karras' NFL Gambling Suspension--Part Three of Three

Late one December night in 1963 just before closing, Johnny Butsicaris was tending bar while Alex Karras was sitting in a booth counting money and doing some bookkeeping. Celebrated Detroit defense lawyer Joseph Louisell came in and ordered a triple shot of bourbon, took off his overcoat and scarf, and sat across from Karras.

Defense lawyer Joseph Louisell

Louisell was a popular customer at the Lindell AC. He was a heavy set, jovial man who was well-read and an avid sports fan. Louisell was known for winning some of Detroit's most notorious cases. He earned respect for bringing acquittals or reduced sentences for many local crime figures. He lived in the same Grosse Pointe Park neighborhood with many of Detroit's top-ranking mob figures. Their kids even went to school together.

"I want to talk with you about your suspension, Alex. The NFL meets in Miami next month. Have you made any plans regarding your reinstatement?"

"No, Rozelle wants me to drop my interest in the bar and I can't afford to do that."

"I've thoroughly checked out your bar activities.... You're as clean as snow."

"Tell that to Rozelle!"

"Give me the okay and I'll represent you."

"I can't afford you, Joe."

Over 65% of Joseph Louisell's law practice was devoted to civil and corporate law. That's how he and partner Ivan Baris made their money, but that bored Louisell. Joe would take some cases pro bono (free) if they interested him. Winning several high-profile defense cases helped build his reputation. Louisell was a diehard Lions fan, as were other interested parties who wanted to see Karras back in a Lions uniform, but they preferred to remain anonymous not wanting to prejudice the case against him.

"I'll take your case pro bono. I want to see you back on the gridiron, Alex. Here's my argument."

Louisell cited a provision in Michigan liquor licensing that states if your name appears on a Michigan liquor license, you can't sell your business for one year--by law. That includes taverns and liquor stores.

"What does that mean for me?"

"Were you to sell your interest in the bar business, you can 't get another liquor license for three years. We can sue them for lost wages if they force you to sell your stake in the Lindell, and they don't reinstate you."

Louisell told Alex to quit working at the bar, return to his family in Clinton, Iowa, maintain a low profile, and most of all, do not speak with the press. "Wait for my phone call," Louisell emphasized. In late January, Louisell made sure Karras' formal reinstatement appeal was on Commissioner Pete Rozelle's desk.

NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle

In early March, Louisell and Karras went to meet with Commissioner Rozelle at his New York offices. After waiting for almost an hour in a reception room, the two men were led into the commissioner's office where Rozelle on the phone ignored them for some minutes. With Karras about to storm out of the office in frustration, Louisell calmed him down and told Rozelle to get off the phone, "This man's life is important."

Cutting short his phone call, Rozelle said, "Okay, Mr. Louisell, I'm listening."

Louisell explained that gambling is as intrinsic to professional football as the two-pointed pigskin, and Rozelle knew it. NFL football gambling existed on every level of American society and occurred weekly in office and factory pools, in Las Vegas sports betting parlors, and with private wagers made by John Q. Public--most of it innocent enough.

"You've unjustly punished Alex Karras for a year. My advice to you is make a decision within a week. If it's negative, I will tear the NFL apart." Louisell and Karras rose promptly from their seats and left the commissioner to think it over.

Rozelle knew any bad publicity with a headline-hungry press was not good for the league. He also knew that Louisell was not some ambulance-chasing shyster. His client list included many of Detroit's most notorious power-players including Jimmy Hoffa and the Giacoloni brothers. The last thing the NFL wanted was a media circus broadcast nationwide.

On March 16, 1964, both Green Bay Packer Paul Horning and Detroit Lion Alex Karras were reinstated. The NFL issued a statement saying both men bet on football games but never against their own teams, and there was no evidence either man performed less than his best in any football game.

"After personal discussions with each man, the commissioner is satisified that they have a clear understanding of the seriousness of their offenses," said an NFL spokesman. Nothing was mentioned about Karras' co-ownership of the Lindell AC sports bar.


In a 1969 interview with Sport magazine writer Lou Proto, Karras was led into the subject of his 1963 suspension. "It is my understanding," said Proto, "that you had to sell your interest in the Lindell AC when ordered by Pete Rozelle."

"I kept it for five more years."

"How did you manage that?"

"It was a verbal thing. If Rozelle would have claimed something illegal was going on at the Lindell, he would have been slapped with a lawsuit."

"Then, you were lying when you told Rozelle in 1964 that you sold your interests in the bar?"

"Lying to whom? The guy who was trying to screw me?"

Karras was outspoken but not altogether candid in the interview. He didn't care; he knew the end of his football career was near, and he had already shifted his career trajectory into show business by signing a contract with Hannah-Barbera Productions--already appearing in the TV series Daniel Boone with Fess Parker and a western named The Hard Case with Clint Walker.

William Clay Ford

Recently, Mel Butsicaris revealed to me what really happened. His father Johnny went to see Lions owner William (Bill) Clay Ford. He told Bill Ford if he ever wanted to see Karras in a Lions' uniform again, he needed to lend him and his brother Jimmy the money to buy out Karras' share of the Lindell. They put up their sports bar as security, cut a deal, and Ford had his lawyers write up the promissory note. It took the Butsicaris brothers five years to pay off the loan.

"My dad paid the last installment to Bill Ford personally and took the promisory note, twisted it up, and set one end on fire to light his cigar."

Although I can appreciate the symbolic gesture, the researcher in me regrets that this piece of documentation when up in smoke.

More background on Joseph Louisell

Karras NFL Suspension--Part One 

Karras NFL Suspension--Part Two

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Alex Karras' NFL Gambling Suspension--Part Two of Three

Anthony Giacalone - Vito Giacalone - Odus Tincher

On August 18, 1962, Detroit crime figures Tony and Vito Giacalone and a few of their friends--including Jimmy and Johnny Butsicaris--went to Cleveland in their private bus to see the Lions play the Browns in an exhibition game. Jimmy and Johnny shared the driving chores. After the game, Jimmy invited Alex Karras and his teammate John Gordy to return to Detroit on the luxury bus instead of uncomfortable team-provided transportation. As team protocol required, they asked Lion's head coach George Wilson for approval, which he gave.

Karras and Gordy entered Vito Giacalone's renovated Detroit Street Railways (DRS) bus. The exterior was painted in the Detroit Lion's team colors of silver and Honolulu blue. The inside of the former municipal bus was gutted and refurbished with two comfortable couches set across from each other between the bus's doors. A rectangular table could be lowered between the couches from the ceiling for eating or playing cards. A compact bar and a curtained platform with a double bed was situated in the back of the bus. Giacalone was permitted to park the bus behind the Lindell AC when not in use. In return, Jimmy and Johnny occasionally borrowed the bus for family vacations. It was a simple handshake agreement among friends.

Bus layout sketch by Mel Butsicaris.

The football players were welcomed aboard with a chilled beer before settling in to play cards for the return trip to the Lindell AC, with an FBI cruiser tailing them all the way back to Detroit. The next morning, Lions' general manager Andy Anderson summoned Karras into his office.

"The FBI reported to Police Commissioner Edwards that you and John Gordy rode back from yesterday's game in a 'party bus' with undesirable elements who do not belong in a professional football player's life. Your bar partners--known gamblers--were also on the bus."

"So what?"

"We've had this conversation before, Karras. Drop your interest in the Lindell AC. That's final!"

"Mr. Anderson, do me a favor."


"Trade me!"

Alex Karras--Just a pawn in a world he didn't understand?

On January 9, 1963, The Detroit News broke the story of the "hoodlum-operated party bus." The next day, NBC News wanted to interview Karras about the bus ride and the gambling charges that they discovered the NFL was investigating.

The Butsicaris brothers counseled Alex against granting the interview, but he was characteristically headstrong. Karras was guileless and expected everyone else to be that way. With the conviction of the righteous, Karras agreed to the NBC interview which was taped on January 13th. Towards the end of the thirty-minute interview, Karras was asked if he ever bet on sporting events. He glibly answered, "Yes, I do, with my brothers for a cigar or a pack of cigarettes."

When the interview was edited for broadcast, all that anybody heard was the sound bite of Karras answering "Yes, I do" coming from his own mouth. From there, the quote went to the wire services and was distributed nationwide to newspaper, radio, and television outlets. Alex was blindsided by NBC News.

With the end of the regular season, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, a league attorney, and a stenographer held a meeting with Karras. Alex believed gambling was a part of Greek ethnic character. From the age of fifteeen, he hung out with his older brothers in the Fifth Avenue Pool Room in Gary, Indiana. He bet on pool and played cards for entertainment. Everyone he knew did. "I never thought it was sinful and never attempted to hide it or felt the need to do so," he explained to Rozelle.

"Did you ever gamble on NFL games?"

"Never more than $50 a game and never against the Lions. I haven't thrown any football games, and I don't have ties with gangsters. This whole incident is being blown out of proportion."

Even after offering to take a lie-detector test, Karras was suspended for the 1963 football season and fined $2,000 for betting on the Green Bay Packers/New York Giants championship game. The Detroit Lions were fined $4,000 for minimizing information concerning "undesirable associations" and allowing questionable people to sit on the Lions' bench during games.

The Lions' fine was aimed directly at Jimmy Butsicaris, who was often seen on the bench. In addition to being a tavern owner, Jimmy had a weekly radio sports show in Detroit called Sportstalk on WXYZ-AM radio. He had a press pass authorizing him to have team and field access.

Karras told a Detroit Free Press reporter on January 18, 1963, "I must be the most naive guy in the world. How could I get myself in a mess like this when I know I didn't do anything wrong?" In the meantime, Karras settled into his suspension and learned the bar business from the ground up.

End of Part Two

Karras Gambling Suspension Part One 

Karras Gambling Suspension Part Three

Thursday, September 17, 2020

The Seven Deadly Sins: Then and Now

Parishoner receiving the sacrament of Confession.
Western Catholicism has always had trouble explaining the problem of evil in a world created by a benevolent god. Medieval theologians personified sin in the guise of Satan, an angel who rebelled against God and was cast from Heaven. It was Satan who unleashed sin upon the earth and poisoned men's minds. The struggle between obedience to God and a human beings' free will became the battleground for man's immortal soul. The stakes couldn't be higher--salvation or perdition.

Though not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, the Seven Deadly Sins became fundamental to Roman Catholic doctrinal and confessional practices in Medieval Europe. The Catholic church promoted the concept of the Seven Deadly Sins in church sermons and religious artwork encouraging the faithful to curb their sinful ways.
The origin of the Seven Deadly Sins is linked to the works of fourth-century Greek monk Evagrius Ponticus. One of his disciples--John Cassian--brought these categories to Europe and translated them into Latin--the common language of the Roman Catholic Church. The sins were Pride, Greed, Gluttony, Wrath, Envy, Sloth, and Lust.

Medieval priests studied the Seven Deadly Sins in penitential manuals training them to hear confessions. After a parishioner's admission of sin, priests assigned prayers for penance usually involving the recitation of Hail Marys and Our Fathers and an Act of Contrition before the priest would absolve your sins. Sometimes wealthy patrons made contributions to the church hoping to buy their way into heaven.

The Seven Deadly Sins were given popular expression during the Renaissance in Dante's Inferno (1320 AD), an anonymous writer's The Summoning of Everyman (1510), and Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus (1604). Each fictional treatment was a cautionary, morality tale.

Dante envisioned the nine circles of Hell in his Inferno. The lustful are condemned to the 2nd circle; the gluttonous are grouped in the 3rd circle; the greedy inhabit the 4th circle; and the wrathful are imprisoned in the 5th circle. Four of the nine circles are dedicated to the Seven Deadly Sins. Though Hell is never mentioned explicitly in the Bible, Dante and the clergy did not mind scaring it out of people.

After a lifetime of sinning, the main character in The Summoning of Everyman must make an accounting of his life which is sorely wanting. Everyman's eternal soul is not in a state of grace. Death summons Everyman, but Everyman is unprepared to face his judgement and tries to delay his fate. To make amends, he confesses his sins to a priest, does his penance, and is administered the Last Rites. All his worldly goods, his friends, and family give him no comfort in his time of greatest need. Only his Good Deeds follow Everyman to the grave. The moral, of course, is prepare in this life for the next.

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus is the most subversive play of the period. Faustus is a heretical priest who dares to study the forbidden secrets of necromacy (conjuring demons). His excessive pride prompts him to brag that he has studied every subject and finds them all wanting. He denounces Logic as merely a tool for arguing; he proclaims that Medicine is useless unless it can conjure up the dead; he feels that the Law is mercenary and beneath him; and that Divinity is useless, which is blasphemy against God.

Corrupted by practicing the black arts, Faustus creates a magic circle and attempts to summon Satan. Instead, the devil Mephistophilis (sic) appears and strikes a deal with Faustus giving him magical powers for twenty-four years until he must surrender his soul. Faustus is introduced to the Seven Deadly Sins and lives a self-indulgent life until it is time to pay for his devil's bargain. His corrupted soul is drawn to the everlasting bonfire of Hell.


In our more secular age, the Seven Deadly Sins have lost their power to shock or discourage many wayward sinners, but they haven't lost their power to captivate the popular imagination and produce box office gold for filmmakers. Though many twentieth-century films clearly deal with the concept of sin and morality, the theme is often implied rather than expressed.
One of the earliest Hollywood morality tales was the 1931 horror film Dracula, about a vampire who attacks godfearing humans and robs them of their souls. Lust and sacrilege are the movie's subtext as Dracula is hunted down and destroyed
with a wooden stake driven through to his heart while in his coffin. This film made an international sex symbol of Hungarian Bela Lagosi, and it started the era of the Universal Pictures costume monsters.
Released nine months later, Frankenstein was another 1931 monster movie that left its mark on the moviegoing public. The film is about an ambitious scientist who dares to emulate God by creating a human life. Pride in his achievement is a direct affront to God. Dr. Frankenstein's transgression creates a monster that unleashes murder and mayhem upon the countyside.
This film helped promote the Hollywood cliche of the mad scientist. For his pursuit of the mysteries of life and death, Dr. Frankenstein goes insane. Costume monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein lost their power to scare audiences in the 1950s after Hollywood entered the post World War II era of the psychological thriller.
The movie that changed the horror genre forever was 1960's Psycho directed by Alfred Hitchcock. The film was groundbreaking for its unprecendented depiction of sex and violence which set a new standard of acceptability for feature films. The movie ended with a psychologist's evaluation of the killer's motivation and mental state. No attempt was made to provide any religious context for the audience, although the deadly sins of greed, lust, and wrath run throughout the film.
Janet Leigh in Psycho

Psycho viewers enjoyed the rush of jumping out of their seats screaming--especially during the famous shower scene. To offer guidance to their parishioners, the Catholic Legion of Decency gave the film a B rating for being "morally objectionable," but the public loved the film and long lines formed wherever it was shown. For a modest capital investment of $806,947, Psycho made $50 million dollars becoming one of the most profitable movies of its era.

The most explicit treatment of the Seven Deadly Sins in a modern movie is the film Seven--a psychological thriller starring Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Kevin Spacey. Serial killer John Doe drops clues at five murder sites, each resembling a different deadly sin. Two detectives frantically pursue the unknown serial killer before he acts on the final two deadly sins.

By committing horrific murders linked to the deadly sins, a religious zealot wants to incite the public to repent for their sins. John Doe wants to be known as a martyr in service to God's will, despite committing the mortal sin of murder repeatedly. This film had a $33 million dollar budget and earned $327.3 million dollars worldwide making it the fifth most popular American film of 1995. What the movie did for church attendance is unknown.

Today, the problem of evil with its enduring themes of sin and transgression are the stock in trade of writers and movie producers. Rather than morality lessons that lead people to God, these modern films are popular for their ability to thrill and entertain mass audiences.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

MAD Magazine Pulls the Plug on Alfred E. Neuman

Alfred E. Neuman

On the occasion of MAD magazine's final issue, the New York Times wrote that Mad was the "Irreverant Baby Boomer's Humor Bible." The publication had a glorious sixty-six-year run with 550 issues serving up a mixture of adolescent humor and social satire of pop culture, advertising, politics, and entertainment. MAD has been called the "class clown of American publishing."

Generations of kids loved MAD, much to the dismay of their parents. Television shows like The Simpsons, Monte Python and Saturday Night Live owe much to MAD and its legion of talented writers and artists, known collectively as "Our Usual Gang of Idiots." People like Mort Drucker, Don Martin, Frank Jacobs, Norman Mingo, Al Jaffee, and hundreds of other talented people over the magazine's long history.

People like Robert Crumb, creator of Zap Comix, standup comedian Jerry Seinfeld, film critic Roger Ebert, and musical satirist Weird Al Yankovic all were influenced by MAD. Upon learning of the magazine's demise, Weird Al tweeted, "I can't begin to describe the impact MAD magazine had on me as a young kid."

MAD originally launched as a comic book in 1952 and became a magazine in 1955. The format was changed in response to the United States Senate hearing to investigate the menace of comic books. The hysteria was based on the research of psychologist Fredric Wertham's best-selling book with the lurid title The Seduction of the Innocent, which purported that comic books contributed to "children's maladjustment." Comic books were banned and burned in some communities.

Look familiar?
The Comics Magazine Association of America was formed in 1954 by the comic book industry to avoid threatened government regulation, despite being a censorship First Amendment issue. The CEOs ran scared and formed the self-governing Comic Code Authority (CCA) and set up a series of standards before they would grant their Seal of Approval on a comic's front cover if it met the Authority's standards. Scenes of graphic violence, gore, sexual innuendo, and disrespect of police, government officials, politicians, celebrities, and respected institutions were banned. Satire, free speech, and political dissent were endangered.

MAD publisher William Gaines and editor Harvey Kurtzman were having none of it. They recreated their satiric comic book into a large format magazine in 1955 and avoided the CCA constraints which were limited specifically to comic books. MAD survived the comic book purges and protected its independence. By not accepting any advertising, the magazine was also freed from any conflicts of interest.

The new format allowed for larger, more complex illustrations, filmlike sequences, and expanded text. Recurring features like movie and television show parodies, "Spy vs. Spy," the fold-in on the back cover, "The Lighter Side," and MAD Libs were popular. Full page faux advertising appeared on the inside and rear covers mimicking ads found in upscale slick magazines. MAD became a runaway success and the second most successful magazine of the 1950s, second only to Hugh Hefner's Playboy magazine.

Original postcard image of the Idiot Kid.
Alfred E. Neuman's original likeness was found by editor Harvey Kurtzman in 1954 on an old postcard with the caption "ME WORRY?". The image of the "idiot kid" and his never-may care attitude stuck with Kurtzman. He asked master artist Norman Mingo to punch up the artwork with some minor details. Kurtzman also decided to change the motto slightly. Now it read "What, Me Worry?" Being a parody magazine made the blatant plagiarism less onerous one supposes.

Alfred E. Neuman's official cover debut was in 1956 as a write-in candidate for president. In the interest of full disclosure, Dwight David Eisenhower won that race, but Neuman became MAD's mascot and official trademark. The idiot kid with a head shaped like home plate, misaligned eyes, big ears, and gap-toothed smile was so iconic that once a letter bearing only Neuman's image without an address was delivered to MAD's offices on Madison Avenue in Manhattan.

MAD magazine shut down in April 2018. Times have changed and the magazine lost its audience to more modern forms of media entertainment. I'm gonna miss that idiot kid.

Ten Things the Comics Code Authority Banned