Robert L. Ripley 1893 – 1949: Born on Christmas Day, Believe it or Not

He was one of those journalists who learned the craft on the job, and never mind about some fancy degree.  He was a jock more than a scholar, a high school drop-out (there was a time when a high school diploma meant rather more in America than it does now), and despite his lack of credentials, managed to segue from minor league baseball into writing sports for the New York papers.

He also liked to draw.  On a whim on a slow day, he did a nine panel cartoon showing some oddball sports (backward running contest) which hit a chord.  It also hit the attentio0n of William Randolph Hearst who knew a good thing when he saw it. Thus was born Ripley’s Believe it or Not!. Continue reading

Isabella Andreini, 1562-1604: An Actor’s Life For Me

Cineasts may remember the film Stage Beauty all about Nell Gwynne convincing Charles II to keep Edward Kynaston from playing female roles that could be better served by first female actress Margaret Hewes (1645-1719).

Behind the times as usual.  By the time Ms Hewes was born, the Italians had already buried and praised Isabella Andreini, as one of the finest exponents of Commedia dell’Arte.

Rather modern in concept, was Commedia dell’Arte, performance art by  stock characters  – Pulcinello, Arlecchino –  often with stock masks (a throwback to Roman stage craft) and very loose scripts if scripts there were at all. Think An Evening At The Improv,  with a touch of audience participation.  You had to be quick to take on that kind of job. Continue reading

Praskovia Kovalyova, 1768-1803 : Power of Love

Sentimental Americans like to point to Harriet Beecher Stowe as the conscience of the abolitionist movement.  The little lady who started the Civil War, as Lincoln put it.

What about the Russians?  The serf system, effectively slavery, was something a parallel.  Of course the  gentry were fine with it, the church was okay with it (they had a whole lot of land and the souls that went with it  – yet the whole thing was outlawed in 1861,  two years before the Emancipation Proclamation, four years before the Thirteenth Amendment.

Another case of cherchez la femme, it is said, in this case, not a novelist, but a singer, a diva even, Praskovia Kovalyova. Continue reading

Wilson Mizner, 1873-1934: “God help those who do not help themselves.”

America really has degenerated as a breeding ground for Class A scoundrels.  Bernie MadoffKen LayCharles Keating? Small men in both ethics and actions, but mostly in their lack of style.  Put them up against a Wilson Mizner and they shrink to the D list specimens they are.

Mizner was old school.  He was the youngest son of an old line California family from  Russian Hill.  A beautiful place, but it was not for him.  Money and comfort were all well enough, but Wilson was man of restless intelligence and a need of excitement, and there was little of that where his parents lived.  His preferred venues were the dives and hells of the Barbary Coast where there was always something interesting going on.  At six foot four and over two hundred pounds, he was able to handle himself.  With a little help and guidance from some of the area’s shadier people, he was soon able to handle others as well.

He worked as a saloon singer despite a terrible voice (women didn’t mind; but then, they weren’t really listening so much as watching), played the shill to a patent medicine salesman, and organized illegal prize fights.  When gold was discovered in Alaska (1897), he and two of his brothers followed the call of the wild.  It didn’t take him too long to realize, like Levi Strauss, that the real money, the easy money, was not in the river beds, but  in the miners’ pockets.

Unfortunately for the miners, Mizner had fewer ethics than Strauss. Continue reading

Ida Ehre, 1900-1988: Tradition

Ida Ehra leading actress and Grand Dame of the German stage.  Born the daughter of a cantor in Vienna and a student of the the Academy for Music and Theater in Vienna, she moved to Berlin in 1933.  In 1933 she was barred from the stage by order of the Nazi party and worked instead as the assistant to her husband Dr. Bernhard Heyde (1899-1977), a prominent gynaecologist.  They and their daughter planned to leave the country after Kristallnacht, but the outbreak of the war made this impossible.  She was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 and taken to Fühlsbüttel concentration camp, a first step on the road to Buchenwald.  She avoided this fate only because her (non-Jewish) husband was able to arrange her release by writing a personal appeal to an old school mate, Heinrich Himmler.

Continue reading

LaMarcus Adna Thompson, 1848-1911: Over the Boardwalk

An Ohio boy who first apprenticed as a carpenter,  Thompson worked as a grocer, then designed a machine to create stockings and founded the Eagle Knitting Company at Elkhart, Indiana.  Hard work impaired his health, a prescribed trip out west was supposed to improve it.  En route, he saw the Mauch Chunk  Switchback Gravity Railroad, a coal carrying freight train which,  in the slow season, took on thrill seeking passengers for a quick rush down the side of the mountain.

Gravity trains for pleasure, so-called Russian Mountains, had been build in Russia and France as far back as 1790, but Thompson took the concept to the big time.  In 1884, after three years of tinkering, he opened the Gravity Pleasure Switchback Railway at Coney Island.   For five cents you could climb a tower, get on the train, and thrill to the six miles an hour rush to the second tower.

Success was immediate, and the L.A. Thompson Scenic Railway Company (and the inevitable copycats) was soon making others in America and Europe.   Oval tracks, painted scenery, tunnels, all sorts of improvements and patents followed.   The craze made him a millionaire, proving yet again that, pace Scott Fitzgerald, there are plenty of second acts in America.