Exit, Stage Right: Notable Transitions

It is strange how such things happen.  Less than two weeks ago, I made reference to Ozzie and Harriet Nelson and their two sons, David and Ricky.  The occasion was the anniversary of Ricky Nelson’s death in an airplane crash on December 31, 1985.

When I wrote about my memories of the Nelson family, and Ricky in particular, David was the only family member still alive.  This morning it was announced that David Nelson passed away at his home in Los Angeles from colon cancer.

David Nelson was the last surviving member of America’s postwar model family.  In many ways his death marks the end of an era in American popular culture.  The stage is empty; the curtain is down; and the lights in the theater have been turned off.  Only the memories remain, and they are the memories of a generation—the “Baby Boomers”—that is itself passing away.

Also among today’s obituaries is Margaret Whiting, who passed away Monday at age eighty-six.  Ms. Whiting was one of the truly great female singers of the 1940s and 1950s.  She is best remembered for her recordings of “That Old Black Magic,”  “Moonlight in Vermont,” and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”  Her recording of “Time After Time” (1947) was featured in the 2009 Hollywood success, “Julie & Julia.”  Her father, Richard Whiting, was a song writer who wrote Shirley Temple’s trademark song “On the Good Ship Lollipop.” 

Among those notable personalities who died during the month of January in years gone by are two presidents, Calvin Coolidge (January 6, 1933) and Lyndon Baines Johnson (January 22, 1973.

Calvin Coolidge never lost an election.  When asked by a lady in Washington, DC what his hobby was, Coolidge replied, “Holding office.”  Coolidge’s sober personality was often made fun of by comedians of the day, like Will Rogers.  He was not a great speaker.  He said very little, but when he did, they were words of wisdom.  “When more and more people are thrown out of work,” said Coolidge on one occasion, “unemployment results.”  On another occasion he observed:  “More and more of our imports come from overseas.”  Not until George W. Bush would the nation be led by one so wise.

Lyndon Johnson, or “LBJ” as he was commonly called, wanted to be another Franklin Roosevelt.  He declared war on poverty, but it was his commitment to the Vietnam War that destroyed his dream of a Great Society and will forever cloud his legacy. 

Another well-known personality who passed away in January was Al Capone, or “Scarface,” as he was known during the height of his criminal influence in the Chicago underworld of the 1930s.  He was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1899, the son of Italian immigrants.  Alfonso Caponi, his real name, was a thug from early childhood. 

As a sixth grader, Al beat up his teacher. The school’s principal then beat up Al, ending Capone’s educational career.  Considering the American Dream to be a fraud, Al Capone turned to a life of crime for fame and fortune.  The coming of prohibition gave him an opportunity.  He moved to Chicago to escape a murder charge in New York and soon became the most powerful gangster of the 1930s, and, perhaps, the most brutal.

Despite his criminal record, Americans turned him into a kind of folk hero.  We Americans seem to admire anyone who challenges authority, especially if he/she comes from the ranks of the under privileged and his/her criminal career can be portrayed as a struggle for social justice in a laissez-faire world where the “have-nots” are forever at the mercy of the “haves.” 

Al Capone as an American folk hero got a boost in April, 2009, when a love song written by him while imprisoned at Alcatraz was re-discovered by Rich Larson from the official Capone Fan Club.  The song, “Madonna Mia,” was given by Al Capone to Vincent Casey as a Christmas present.  Casey was studying for the priesthood at the time and visited Capone in Alcatraz regularly. 

It is thought that Capone wrote the song as a valentine for his wife, Mae.  Often referred to as “a beautiful Italian love song,” it was recorded and released in April, 2009.

My father had a small meat packing business in Freeport, Illinois during the early 1930s.  Among his customers were Capone’s speakeasies in Chicago.  Although he never saw Capone, or had any contact with bootleggers and gangsters, other than to knock on a door and deliver sausages, my father liked to talk about the bootleggers of the prohibition era in Chicago.  One thing he liked to recall was that he went to see a movie at the Biograph Theater in Chicago on the night before the G-Men gunned John Dillinger down on the sidewalk out front of the theater.

The bard, Will Shakespeare, once said that the world is a stage, and we must all play a part.  Among other well-known personalities who exited the stage in January were the poet Robert Frost (1963), the father of modern India, Mohandas Gandhi (1948), and Johnny Weissmuller (1984), also known as “Tarzan.”  Weissmuller was an athlete who won 5 Olympic gold medals and set 67 world records during the 1920s.  I will always remember him as Tarzan, King of the Jungle, “a howling jungle Superman in loincloth,” and hero of 20 action-packed movies.  I saw many of those movies along with my father and brothers.  My dad loved movies about gangsters, Tarzan, and Jungle Jim, also played by Johnny Weissmuller.

Enough nostalgia, I must get on with life as it is, however boring.

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2 responses to “Exit, Stage Right: Notable Transitions

  1. Thanks for explaining the significance of Ozzy and Harriet and Al Capone. I had often wondered and never really took the time to look into it further. Now I know what everybody is talking about. Are any of LBJs ideas for the war on poverty being implemented today that you know of?

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    • Good question. I do not have any specifics to offer, but one often hears of a link between FDR’s New Deal, LBJ’s Great Society, and Obama’s pollicies. I think that is valid. In fact I would add the vision of the “Great Commoner,” William Jennings Bryan. I like to think of a tradtion of reform in Ameican history streaching from Thomas Jefferson through the Populists, Progressives, New Deal, Great Society, to Obama. I am not sure how valid that would be, but it would be an interesting idea to investigate. Thanks for reading my blog. Stay alive; keep thinking.

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