Priority One Alert: Prince 1958-2016

Thursday’s post was supposed to be about China’s Cultural revolution, which would have tied into the inevitable post on the Tiananmen Square Massacre. But, instead of writing that post, I’ve been reflecting on the big cultural news of the day: the death of Prince.

It’s been no secret that 2016 has been an awful, awful year for famous people dying, especially in entertainment. It seems like everyone has mourned the death of a beloved entertainer, with David Bowie, Sir George Martin, and Garry Shandling being the most widely known and loved. And now, we’ve lost Prince.

I can’t even begin to adequately describe just how huge Prince was in the ’80s. The only people even close to him in the music world were Madonna and Michael Jackson (who, let’s face it, was the most famous and liked person on the planet in those days). Be it solo, or with The Revolution and later The New Power Generation, Prince kept making great music. It oozed sex in a way no one had before (or since), with Prince himself re-writing the book on what it meant to be masculine just as Bowie did in the ’70s. He made some of the best dance songs of the era (it’s 2016 and “1999” is still a party staple) and was an incredible musician, especially on the guitar. And he was a fairly decent actor, too, and (as Chappelle’s Show infamously chronicled) a bit of a baller.

Oh, and he had a thing for the color purple.

Moreover, in a decade teeming with talent female artists, Prince did his best to promote female acts, as well as various minority acts in general (his greatest collaborators being R&B superproducers and songwriters Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis). The “Minneapolis sound” Prince fostered was the sound of the ’80s, and is still a major influence in dance and techno. And, perhaps more significantly, he was politically active, with his most recent cause being in support of Black Lives Matter, and specifically the death of Freddie Gray. Prince was also the canary in the mine surrounding the major record labels: his widely-mocked name change to a symbol was in direct protest of Warner Bros. (On the other side of the ledger, Prince was rather notorious for his copyright challenges to YouTube videos.)

Prince left a huge legacy. And, as with most deceased artists, that’s simply not going away. But losing someone like him, at the age of 57, is difficult to imagine. But honestly, as someone who was there for Prince’s biggest years, the idea of never having had him is even more unthinkable.

Next week, it’s back to talking about Star Trek, and one of the show’s more important, yet less-discussed, producers.

Assignment: 1966: Bombings, Flag Burning, And Elections: Updates From The Vietnam War

It’s the week of April 8th-14th, 1966, and quite a bit is going on. Let’s list them, shall we?

On Friday the 8th:

  • Leonid Brezhnev, having served as First Secretary of the Communist Party since 1964, is unanimously voted party leader, and his post renamed General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Additionally, the Presidium was renamed the Politburo, and the membership whittled down to 11 members from 12.
  • Time publishes its notorious “Is God Dead?” issue, just in time for Good Friday.
  • Fatah causes its first death in Israel when a farmer stepped on a land mine. (We’ll discuss this a bit more in June.)
  • Mississippi’s poll tax is outlawed by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, officially putting an end to the practice in the US.
  • Robin Wright is born in Dallas.

On the 9th:

  • The UN Security Council votes unanimously, 10-0 (with five abstentions, including France and the Soviet Union), to allow the UK to use military force to uphold an embargo on Southern Rhodesia. (This is one of those instances where I defer to The TARDIS Eruditorum, since Philip Sandifer covered the Rhodesia mess far better than I ever could.)

On the 10th:

  • In China, the Central Committee of the Communist Party passed an order that effectively outlawed all literature and art created since the People’s Republic had been formed. As such, every writer and artist in the country immediately became a criminal. (This tale did not end well. At. ALL.)
  • New Jersey creates the very first Public Defender’s Office in the US.
  • The march to Sacramento by the striking Delano grape workers discussed here concludes, with César Chávez announcing that a favorable contract had been reached with Schenley Industries.

On the 11th:

  • Emmett Ashford becomes the first African-American umpire in Major League Baseball, serving as the third base umpire at D.C. Stadium as the Washington Nationals hosted the Cleveland Indians in the season opener.
  • Sandoz Pharmaceuticals discontinues all further sales of LSD in America, effectively making purchase of the drug illegal.

On the 12th:

  • Jan Berry of Jan & Dean was severely injured when his Corvette crashed into a parked truck, ironically close to the notorious “Dead Man’s Curve” on Sunset Boulevard that was the inspiration for Jan & Dean’s hit song (which had nearly claimed the life of Mel Blanc in 1961). Berry, who had pushed hard for the song’s tragic finish, would be permanently paralyzed, but defied odds by being able to walk and sing again.

And, lastly, on the 13th:

  • President Johnson the Uniform Time Act, standardizing the start and finish of Daylight Savings Time (for the states that observe it, obviously).

But, as with most weeks at this point in history, the Vietnam War looms in the background. Or, this week, the foreground, because some key moments happened. On the 11th, U.S. News and World Report became the first American newsmagazine to declare the war a stalemate. What makes this particularly amazing is that U.S. News and World Report was and is a conservative publication, and then, as now, most hawks are conservative. Then, the next day, bombing strikes on the infamous “Hồ Chí Minh trail” supply chain used by the North Vietnamese stepped up, with B-52 bombers being used for the first time. They targeted the Mụ Giạ Pass with 585 tons of explosives with the intent of causing a landslide, only for reconnaissance the next day to reveal that the road had been successfully repaired, and that supply trucks were already crossing the trail without trouble. The same day, President Johnson informed President de Gaulle of France that the US would not comply with the ultimatum to pull out of Vietnam by April Fool’s Day of 1967, and the first recorded instance of flag burning by Americans in protest of the war took place in a theater in New York as part of an antiwar skit titled LBJ. Finally, on Thursday the 14th, Nguyễn Văn Thiệu finally relented and signed a decree declaring that a free and fair election would be held in South Vietnam by September 15th.

The common thread here is that the war effort was escalating precipitously while antiwar sentiment was becoming more mainstream, but also much more militant and angry. Looking back, it’s obvious why those sentiments were so vehement: if the North Vietnamese were so determined and able to repair the damage from a massive bombing strike in a day, then the war truly was a lost cause. But with the hawks being fully energized as well (as evidenced by the popularity of “The Ballad of the Green Berets”, of which I’ve already said my peace), things like flag burning simply meant that the fight over ending the unjust, foolish Vietnam War was about to get uglier and more divisive. For conservatives, burning the US flag is one of those things that you can be assured will send them into a frenzy, to this very day. In the ’90s, there was even a push for an Amendment to the Constitution proposed (which crashed and burned) just to stop this one form of protest. But, frankly, protestors of the era didn’t care, and it was but the first of many self-destructive acts that generation undertook (which flowered in my lifetime with the election of Ronald Reagan and the selling out of the working class).

And Văn Thiệu’s promise? What a joke. He ended up President of South Vietnam until the bitter end, and then escaped the country with US help, and he lived in exile in America until his death. And like so many of our anti-communist allies, he was a brutal dictator who only increased the inevitability of the US’s loss in Vietnam. So, yes, his gesture was a pathetic joke, just like the entire war and a great deal of the anti-war movement.

Next time, we’ll take a look at one of the most horrific and brutal chapters in modern Chinese history.

Guardians of Forever: Stan Robertson

In the world of film and television, there are lots of people who go uncredited for their work, for a variety of reasons. And while many of these are scandalous in nature (the long list of writers and directors who have been fired, quit, and/or used a pseudonym, for instance) or simply a matter of logistics (all those film extras who never receive credit) or in order to keep a secret (basically used only for cameo, and especially surprise cameo, appearances), there’s a much more mundane reason in TV: they probably work for the network that aired the show and not the show itself. These include the network censors, marketing people, and the show’s Production Manager.

A Production Manager is the person a network hires for the simple task of making sure that the show is actually being made, and that it’s the show the network bought, and not a porno or something utterly bizarre like dogs playing poker for an hour. It’s actually a rather important position, and a toxic relationship between a show’s creator and the production manager can turn out to be disastrous. Knowing all of this, and being given some amount of say in the selection process, Gene Roddenberry met with and approved Stan Robertson as his NBC-appointed production manager.

On its face, Robertson seemed like the perfect person for Roddenberry to work with. Besides being one of the first minorities in an executive position at any of the three networks, Robertson was well-read, driven, and extremely intelligent. And his life story is at least as interesting as anyone else associated with the original Star Trek. That’s because Stan Robertson was born partially blind, and had over a dozen surgeries to try and correct it by the time he was 20. Despite the difficulty, Robertson enjoyed reading and writing immensely and took a post with The Los Angeles Sentinel (at the time the largest African-American newspaper in the region) after graduating from LA City College in 1949. This led to a job at Ebony as an associate editor, though by 1954 he went back to school (this time to USC) to study telecommunications. In 1957, Robertson went to NBC, and despite being a college graduate two times over, he had to work his way up from being a lowly page, eventually landing in the music clearance department before becoming a production manager right as Star Trek was approved to become a series.

If you’re at all familiar with Gene Roddenberry or Star Trek, you know that he spent most of his later years complaining about the network “suits” who interfered with his show, and outside of a couple of incidents with Jean Messerschmidt at Broadcast Standards and Practices, Gene was almost always speaking about Stan Robertson. There’s a valid argument that this is due to Gene’s rather notorious ego and his rich antiestablishment tendencies, but it’s not going to be quite that simple, or as simple as Gene tried to make it out to be.

Next time, it’s time for a peek back into the ugliness of the Vietnam War.

Guardians of Forever: DeForest Kelley

“I’m a doctor, not an escalator!”-Dr. McCoy in “Friday’s Child”

Regardless of the impression this blog or anything else gives, casting for TV shows and movies is hard. With few exceptions (Tom Selleck and Sean Young’s audition for Raiders of the Lost Ark, Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly in Back to the Future, and Riff Regan as Willow in the infamously bad unaired Buffy the Vampire Slayer pilot among them), audiences just don’t get to see the casting process. So, really, it’s no shocker if people think that great casting is the easiest movie magic of all. (It’s why I’ve linked to the Buffy pilot, in fact, because with all due respect to Riff Regan, the show isn’t still ongoing in comics and I’m probably not the last of the Willow/Xander shippers on Earth if she had not been replaced by Alyson Hannigan.)

However, Star Trek fans got probably the best public look into the difficulties of casting with the role of the Enterprise‘s chief medical officer. At this point in the blog, there have been two pilots shot, and two different doctors, with a third in the cards for the series proper. John Hoyt’s Dr. Boyce was too old and crusty while Paul Fix’s Dr. Piper was too mild for what Roddenberry envisioned: a sounding board for the captain who would be unafraid to challenge him while still being someone that viewers could like and trust. The irony, though, is that Gene Roddenberry had already suggested and fought for the right man for the role while making both pilots, only to be swayed by each episode’s director.

DeForrest Kelley was born on January 20th, 1920 in Atlanta as the son of a Baptist minister, and got his first taste of show business by singing in the church choir. Following a trip to California to visit his uncle, Kelley was determined to break into show business, acting on the stage and studying film at the Long Beach Cinema Club. By 1941, he had auditioned (and lost) a role in This Gun for Hire and met Carolyn Dowling while acting in a production of Skylark when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Kelley enlisted with the Army Air Corps, eventually was transferred to the First Motion Picture Unit, meeting and becoming friends with George Reeves as they appeared together in numerous short films and Armed Forces radio broadcasts. It was one of these appearances, Time to Kill, that inspired Bill Meiklejohn at Paramount (who had passed him over for the role in This Gun for Hire) to offer Kelley a seven year contract, just as the war was ending and he requested his discharge after marrying Carolyn.

The contract was a great deal at first, but by the end of the decade the studios were re-thinking their way of doing business and Kelley was a free agent. By then, however, television was in full swing, and eventually DeForest Kelley became known for playing villains, with a role as Ike Clanton in an episode of CBS’ historical “news” program You Are There leading to two big movie roles: Tension at Table Rock and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (the latter as Morgan Earp thanks to a conflict with the former film). This led to more and more guest roles on TV, and eventually a pilot named 333 Montgomery Street as a fictionalized version of lawyer Jake Ehrlich, the inspiration for iconic TV lawyer Perry Mason. The pilot was unsuccessful, but it marked the first time Kelley worked with Gene Roddenberry. And while Roddenberry was unable to convince pretty much anyone that famed screen villain DeForest Kelley could be the Enterprise‘s doctor, he was able to get him cast as a coroner in his Police Story pilot. NBC saw that pilot, and while they didn’t pick up the series, they were convinced once and for all that Kelley was right for the role of Dr. McCoy.

Next time, it’s time to discuss one of the primary candidates for the role of “the villain” of Star Trek Debriefed.

Assignment: 1966: The Delano Grape Strike And The 1966 NCAA Men’s Basketball Final

It’s the weeks of March 17th and March 24th, 1966. The #1 song both weeks is a rather noxious (and infamous) pro-war song, “The Ballad of the Green Berets”, which actually ended up as the top single for the entire year, in no small part because it was co-written and sung by Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler, who tended to perform the song on television is full dress uniform. Thankfully, the Top 10 had two heavy hitters: “California Dreamin'” by The Mamas & the Papas (which would actually tie “Green Berets” as the top single of the year in some charts) and Nancy Sinatra’s iconic “These Boots Are Made For Walkin'” (which solidified Sinatra not only as one of the biggest sex symbols of the decade, but as a feminist icon). Also in the Top 10 were Simon & Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound” and lesser hits by the Beatles and Rolling Stones, and debuting on the charts were Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass’ signature “Spanish Flea”, “Shapes of Things” by The Yardbirds, Johnny Rivers’  “Secret Agent Man”, the US theme to the British spy show Danger Man (which aired here as Secret Agent), and “Caroline, No” by Brian Wilson, in anticipation of The Beach Boys’ upcoming album (which we’ll most certainly be discussing in the near future). So, while the top song in the country makes me wretch, there was a ton of incredible music out there to listen to.

Also in the news: On the 11th, former Harvard Professor Timothy Leary was convicted under the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 for smuggling marijuana into the US, with a sentence of 30 years and a fine of $30,000 (which is north of $219,000 in today’s dollars). On the 16th, the Gemini 8 docked with the unmanned Agena target vehicle in orbit, the first such maneuver in space. Two days later, in a gruesome incident not revealed until after German reunification a quarter century later, two East German boys, Jörg Hartmann and Lothar Schleusener, were shot and killed when they snuck around near the Berlin Wall after dark. And lastly, on the 19th, an exhibition game between the Houston Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Astrodome saw the first test of AstroTurf, an artificial grass substitute that allowed for domed stadiums like the Astrodome to host pro sporting events.

I’ve posted about the Civil Rights Movement, but the focus was mostly on the South and the plight of African Americans. However, out West, there was another massive fight against racism. Then, as now, a substantial portion of the labor force in this part of the country is Hispanic, particularly in the areas of agriculture and manual labor. Additionally, Filipino Americans also comprise a substantial (if far less discussed) portion of the labor force in these industries out West. Not shockingly, both ethnic groups were not only exploited, but they were pitted against each other in order to destabilize their efforts. (Typically, it was Hispanic labor that was used to break up the efforts of Filipino American labor efforts, often using migrant workers from Mexico under the Bracero Program, a nasty bit of business designed largely to keep Mexico from turning Communist from 1942 to 1964.)

By the early ’60s, there were two unions in play: the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, which was a Filipino American organization founded by Larry Itliong that was chartered by the AFL-CIO, and the National Farm Workers Association, which was Hispanic in makeup and led by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta. The separate groups were just that-separate-until the Delano grape strike. The strike, which started on September 8th, 1965, was joined by the NFWA eight days later (on Mexican Independence Day, no less), but Chávez truly took the lead on the issue on March 17th when he marched from Delano to Sacramento (which was 340 miles away). The march garnered a ton of attention for the cause of the two unions, who shortly after merged to become the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee.

However beneficial the march was for civil and labor rights for Hispanic immigrants, it also signaled the death knell for the influence of the Filipino interests. The Hispanic American community was just too large for any other result to happen, and Larry Itliong left the UFW in the early ’70s, eventually dying in 1977 (cementing his obscurity). Chávez, meanwhile, stayed well known, and lived until 1993 (and he is rightly an icon among Hispanic Americans), and Delores Huerta is still alive and active.

The problem is that the above is rather idealized. Huerta, in joining the massive parade of figures in the ’60s labor and civil rights campaigns to support Hillary Clinton, has said some generally rather offensive (and outright false) things about Bernie Sanders and his supporters. (Full disclosure: I support Senator Sanders.) That’s an entirely separate rant, but Huerta, like Chávez, took a dim view on illegal immigrants in the ’60s and ’70s. Obviously, things were different: illegal immigrants were using to bust the unions. Now, illegal immigrants are as much the victims as legal immigrants, as NAFTA devastated the Mexican agriculture industry (corn, a major staple crop in Mexico, is super cheap here in the US thanks to heavy government subsidies). But it doesn’t change the fact that their tactics (which included reporting strike-breakers to the INS) would be right at home in today’s Republican Party. And worse, Chávez tried to curry favor with Filipino members of the UFW in the late ’70s by supporting Ferdinand Marcos. It’s one of the great ironies of the Civil Rights Movement: the people who survived the ’60s didn’t become giants like those who died. They became human. And in a frightfully tragic way, that’s a fate even worse than death.

And now for something completely different.

It’s no secret that the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament has become big business (and the Women’s Tournament is become quite popular, too), what with all the games being broadcast, and the brackets, and all of that. However, before 1969, a whopping zero games from the tournament were televised, and even then, it would be a long time before the NCAA allowed more than one school per conference to qualify for the tournament. (And then there’s the whole issue of the NIT, which was still considered to be a viable alternative to the NCAA tourney.) However, this wasn’t even the worst barrier to widespread acceptance: the biggest traditional power in the game, the University of Kentucky Wildcats, was coached by Adolph Rupp.

And despite what anyone says about his skill as a coach, Rupp was one of the most vile and disgusting racists the sport of basketball has ever seen.

While Kansas, the University of San Francisco, and UCLA had embraced integration (with the Dons and the Bruins being the top two programs on the West coast), Rupp had only begun to offer scholarships to black players in 1964, and his team was, by the 1965-1966 season, one of the last holdouts in the country. Despite Rupp’s increasingly outmoded way of thinking, the Wildcats were enormously successful, being led by SEC Player of the Year (and guy we’ll be discussing more in the future) Pat Riley and Louie Dampier despite being known as “Rupp’s Runts” because no player on the team was taller than 6’5″. So it wasn’t a huge shock when Kentucky made it to the championship game, nor was it when they were dubbed to be the favorites. Their opponents, however, had a substantially different path.

The Texas Western Miners, under the leadership of coach Don Haskins, were an up-and-coming program. Their starting five was also comprised entirely of African Americans. This was completely unheard of at the time, as even the NBA’s Boston Celtics, the most integrated pro basketball team of the era (ironically playing in, at the time, the most racially divided city in the North) usually had at least one white starter (it must be noted that this was not a slight by the man who singlehandedly integrated the NBA-Auerbach was fielding his best team each night regardless of race). And with the Celtics by far and away the best basketball team on the planet, there was no logical argument against integration (in fact, the argument was clearly for it). However, the last bastion of racist thought in basketball centered on the position of point guard (just as the thinking persisted with catchers in baseball, quarterbacks in football, and goalies in hockey), a position that, since it required quick thinking as much as athletic prowess, was “too complex” for African Americans. Ignoring for a moment that K.C. Jones had become the Celtics’ starting point guard following the retirement of Bob Cousy and the team had continued its historic winning ways, the train of thought was so horrendously couched in stereotypical thought as to seem comical today.

Owing in large part to their all-black starting lineup, the Miners faced a longer, harder climb to the championship. Owing in part to a loss to Seattle in their final regular season game (in which the refs called no fouls at all against Seattle, even though they committed a clear flagrant foul during the game), Texas Western had to play one more game than Kentucky (the NCAA Tournament had an unbalanced, 22-team bracket at the time) and were forced into overtime against Cincinnati in the second round and then double overtime against #4 Kansas in the regional finals. However, despite the obstacles, the Miners took the lead partway through the first half and never relinquished it. And while Haskins didn’t set out to do it, he only used the team’s black players in the victory.

I wish I could say that things were all puppies and kittens for Texas Western after the game. The players were leveled with accusations of being thugs and lacking class (even though the Texas Western team graduation rate far outstripped that of Kentucky’s), and no one even set up ladders for the traditional cutting of the net. They weren’t even invited onto The Ed Sullivan Show, which was the custom at the time. James A. Michener, in the year before he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, spent considerable time in his non-fiction book Sports in America ripping the team to shreds. Rupp, who had never before lost an NCAA title game, was haunted by the loss for the rest of his life, and contributed to the pigeon-holing of the Texas Western team, even though the entire South (save Kentucky) integrated by the following fall. Haskins, while he ran a successful program at Texas Western (and, as it came to be known, the University of Texas at El Paso, or UTEP) never again reached the Final Four, though he mentored Nolan Richardson, who was one of the most successful (and outspoken) black head coaches in college basketball during the ’80s and ’90s at Tulsa and Arkansas.

Next time, it’s time to discuss the second new Star Trek cast member to come aboard for the series.