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Lily Tomlin is 84 years old today
Lily Tomlin in her Ernestine character
Photo by Jack Robinson
Lily Tomlin is 84 years old today.
An actress, comedian, writer and producer, Tomlin has been a major force in American comedy since the late 1960s when she began a career as a stand up comedian and became a featured performer on television's Laugh-in.
Her career has spanned television, comedy recordings, Broadway and motion pictures, enjoying acclaimed success in each medium. Tomlin's humor is often sharp and insightful in the traditions of standup comedians, but also frequently endearing, slightly wacky and "family friendly" in the tradition of television comediennes such as Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett and Eve Arden.
Tomlin continues to work. She stars opposite Jane Fonda, Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston in the Netflix original series, Grace and Frankie. She plays Frankie Bergstein, recently separated from her husband of forty years (Waterston), while Fonda plays Grace Hanson, recently separated from her husband (Sheen).
Grace and Frankie become reluctant friends after learning their husbands are leaving them to be with one another.
Here is Tomlin as Ernestine, a nosy, condescending telephone operator who generally treated customers with little sympathy. Ernestine often snorted when she let loose a barbed response or heard something salacious; she also wore her hair in a 1940s hairstyle with a hair net, although the character was contemporary.
Ernestine was almost always at her switchboard taking calls in the sketches. She occasionally called her boyfriend, Vito, a telephone repair man, or her pal Phoenicia, another operator.
Here, Ernestine calls General Motors.
Conway Twitty was born 90 years ago today.
Born as Harold Lloyd Jenkins, Twitty was a country music artist, who also had success in early rock and roll, R&B and pop music. He held the record for the most #1 singles of any act. He had forty #1 Billboard country hits until George Strait broke the record in 2006.
From 1971 through 1976, Twitty received a string of Country Music Association awards for duets with Loretta Lynn.
He was never a member of the Grand Ole Opry, but was inducted into both the Country Music and Rockabilly Halls of Fame.
Born in Friars Point, Mississippi, he was named by his great uncle, after his favorite silent movie actor, Harold Lloyd.
The Jenkins family moved to Helena, Arkansas when Harold was ten years old. In Helena, Harold formed his first singing group, the Phillips County Ramblers. Two years later, Harold had his own local radio show every Saturday morning. He also played baseball, his second passion.
He received an offer to play with the Philadelphia Phillies after high school (Smiths Station High), but he was drafted into the Army. He served in the Far East and organized a group called The Cimmerons to entertain fellow GIs.
Wayne Hause, a neighbor, suggested that Harold could make it in the music industry. Soon after hearing Elvis Presley's song "Mystery Train,” Harold began writing rock and roll material. He went to the Sun Studios in Memphis and worked with Sam Phillips, the owner and founder, to get the "right" sound.
Accounts of how Harold Jenkins acquired his stage name of Conway Twitty vary. Allegedly, in 1957, Jenkins decided that his real name wasn't marketable and sought a better show business name.
In "The Billboard Book of #1 Hits," Fred Bronson states that the singer was looking at a road map when he spotted Conway, Arkansas and Twitty, Texas and chose the name Conway Twitty.
Another account says that Jenkins met a Richmond, Virginia man named W. Conway Twitty Jr. through Jenkins' manager in a New York City restaurant. The manager served in the Army with the real Conway Twitty. Later, the manager suggested to Jenkins that he take the name as his stage name because it had a ring to it.
In the mid-1960s, W. Conway Twitty subsequently recorded the song "What's in a Name but Trouble,” lamenting the loss of his name to Harold Jenkins. Using his new stage name, Conway Twitty's fortunes improved in 1958, while he was with MGM Records.
For a brief period, some believed he was Elvis Presley recording under a different name. In 1960, he appeared in three feature films: College Confidential, Sex Kittens Go to College and Platinum High School.
Twitty became ill while performing in Branson, Missouri, and was in pain while he was on the tour bus. He died in Springfield, Missouri, at Cox South Hospital from an abdominal aortic aneurysm, two months before the release of what would be his final studio album.
He was 59 years old.
Here, Twitty performs “I See The Want To In Your Eyes.”
Archie Bell and the Drells
Archie Bell, solo singer and former lead singer of Archie Bell & the Drells, is 79 years old today.
Born in Henderson, Texas, Bell was born to Langston and Ruthie Bell. He is the second oldest of seven brothers, and the brother of USC and NFL football player, Ricky Bell, and former world karate champion and singer, Jerry Bell. He also is related to the record producer, Thom Bell.
Bell was singing in Houston night clubs at age ten, and credits seeing the performances of Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke as influencing him to become a singer. He formed the Drells in 1966 while in high school. They became known for the hit, "Tighten Up."
Since the breakup of the Drells in 1980, Archie Bell has pursued a solo career. He later released one solo album, I Never Had It So Good, in 1981 on Beckett Records and continued to perform with The Drells off and on for the next twenty years.
In more recent times, Bell has been diversifying his repertoire to include blues, and has recorded a blues album. He also has recorded some country music, having professed a love for that genre.
Country producer and former member of Bob Wills' Texas Playboys, Tommy Allsup, recruited Bell to sing "Warm Red Wine," which appeared on an album with songs from Glen Campbell, Tanya Tucker and Roy Clark.
Here, Archie Bell and the Drells perform “Everybody Have a Good Time” in 1976.
Boxcar Willie, also known as Lecil Travis Martin, was born 92 years ago today.
A country music singer who sang in the old-time hobo music style complete with dirty face, overalls and a floppy hat,” Boxcar Willie" was originally a character in a ballad he wrote, but he later adopted it as his own stage name.
Born in Sterratt, Texas, Martin joined the United States Air Force in 1949, and served as a pilot and flight engineer for the B-29 Super Fortress during the Korean War in the early 1950s.
In Lincoln, Nebraska, he was once sitting at a railroad crossing and a fellow that closely resembled his chief boom operator, Willie Wilson, passed by sitting in a boxcar. He said, "There goes Willie." This inspired him to pull over his car and write a song titled, "Boxcar Willie.”
In San Jose, California, Martin attended a talent show as "Boxcar Willie" and performed under that name in public for the first time. He won first place, a $150 prize and a stage name that he would use for the rest of his life. That was his part-time vocation, however. He was still in the Air Force and had been flying daily missions.
He later became a Flight Engineer on KC-97L aircraft in the 136th ARW in the Texas Air National Guard, including air refueling flights around the USA and overseas in Germany. In 1976, Martin left the Air Force and became a full-time performer. One of his first national appearances was a win on the Chuck Barris television program, The Gong Show.
He entered American mainstream pop culture consciousness due to a series of television commercials for record compilations of artists who were obscure in the United States, yet had large international followings, such as Slim Whitman and Gheorghe Zamfir.
He went on to become a star in country music, selling more than 100 million records, tapes and CDs worldwide. In 1981, Martin achieved a professional landmark by being inducted into the Grand Ole Opry as its 60th member.
In 1985, Martin moved to Branson, Missouri and purchased a theater on Highway 76, or 76 Country Music Boulevard. In addition to the Boxcar Willie Theater, he opened a museum and eventually had two motels, both bearing his name.
Boxcar Willie was one of the first big stars to open a show in Branson, paving the way for the other nationally-known names that followed. He performed at his theater in Branson until he died.
Diagnosed with leukemia in 1996, Martin died on April 12, 1999 in Branson at age 67.
Here is Boxcar Willie doing “Train Medley” at his theatre in Branson, Missouri.
P.T. Barnum and Jenny Lind
The iconic American huckster, showman and circus entrepreneur P.T. Barnum is not often associated with high culture. His speciality was circus acts, like Siamese twins and various human oddities such as "Zip the Pinhead" and the "Man-monkey."
But it was P.T. Barnum who brought the greatest opera performer in the world from Europe to the United States in the mid-19th century for a triumphant national tour.
The performances produced by Barnum set astonishing box office records and fanned the flames of a widespread opera craze in 1850’s America.
The opera star was Jenny Lind — "The Swedish Nightingale" — a singer of uncommon talent and great renown whose arrival in New York City on this day in 1850 — 173 years ago.
She was greeted with a mania not unlike that which would greet the British musical invasion more than a century later.
Depending on which of two conflicting birth dates one accepts as accurate, Jenny Lind was either 29 or 39 years old in 1849, when she first came to the attention of P.T. Barnum.
Barnum was touring Europe at the time with the act that effectively launched his eventual showbiz empire: the two-foot-eleven-inch Tom Thumb, whom Barnum molded into a singer/dancer/comedian after discovering him in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
While in England with Thumb, Barnum was told about Lind and proceeded to propose a North American tour to her without ever hearing her sing a note.
Her once-in-a-lifetime voice, it seems, was of interest to Barnum only insofar as it helped explain the piece of information that most impressed him: that Lind had recently drawn sellout crowd after sellout crowd during a recent tour of Britain and Ireland.
On the basis of her proven box-office pull, Barnum sent an offer to Lind that was unheard of for the time. It consisted of 150-date tour of the United States and Canada with a guaranteed payment of $1,000 per performance.
After negotiating certain payments by Barnum to charities of her choosing, the philanthropy-minded Lind agree to the tour and disembarked Liverpool for the United States in August, 1850.
From the moment of her arrival in New York, Lind was a sensation. By applying his trademark gifts in the area of promotion (including not only a massive advertising campaign but also many bought-and-paid-for reviews in regional newspapers), Barnum had seen to it that this would be the case.
But it was Lind's voice and her genuine connection with audiences that made the tour the smash success that it was — a fact even Barnum acknowledged when he renegotiated her contract upward following her first handful of performances.
All told, Jenny Lind's tour is believed to have netted Barnum close to a half-million dollars, an astonishing sum in 1850.
But its most lasting legacy may have been the way in which it helped make opera a democratic sensation in America in the decades that followed.
Edgar Rice Burroughs with Glenn Morris, the 1936 Olympic decathlon champion who played Tarzan in a 1937 movie
Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan, was born 148 years ago today.
Burroughs was writer also known for the the heroic Mars adventurer, John Carter, although he produced works in many genres.
Born in Chicago, Burroughs was educated at a number of local schools. During the Chicago influenza epidemic in 1891, he spent a half year at his brother's ranch on the Raft River in Idaho. He then attended the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and later the Michigan Military Academy.
Graduating in 1895, and failing the entrance exam for the United States Military Academy in West Point, he ended up as an enlisted soldier with the 7th U.S. Cavalry in Fort Grant, Arizona Territory. After being diagnosed with a heart problem and thus ineligible to serve, he was discharged in 1897.
After his discharge, Burroughs worked a number of different jobs. By 1911, after seven years of low wages, he was working as a pencil sharpener wholesaler and began to write fiction. He had copious spare time and he began reading many pulp fiction magazines. In his life, he wrote almost 80 novels.
Aiming his work at the pulps, Burroughs had his first story, Under the Moons of Mars, serialized by Frank Munsey in the February to July, 1912 issues of The All-Story — under the name "Norman Bean" to protect his reputation. Under the Moons of Mars inaugurated the Barsoom series and earned Burroughs $400 ($9,775 today). It was first published as a book by A. C. McClurg of Chicago in 1917, entitled, A Princess of Mars.
This came after three Barsoom sequels had appeared as serials, and McClurg had published the first four serial Tarzan novels as books.
Burroughs soon took up writing full-time and by the time the run of Under the Moons of Mars had finished, he had completed two novels, including Tarzan of the Apes, published from October, 1912. It became one of his most successful series.
Burroughs also wrote popular science fiction and fantasy stories involving Earthly adventurers transported to various planets, lost islands and into the interior of the hollow earth in his Pellucidar stories. He also wrote westerns and historical romances. Along with All-Story, many of Burroughs’ stories were published in The Argosy magazine.
Tarzan was a cultural sensation when introduced. Burroughs was determined to capitalize on Tarzan's popularity in every way possible. He planned to exploit Tarzan through several different media including a syndicated Tarzan comic strip, movies and merchandise. Experts in the field advised against this course of action, stating that the different media would just end up competing against each other.
Burroughs went ahead, however, and proved the experts wrong — the public wanted Tarzan in whatever fashion he was offered. Tarzan remains one of the most successful fictional characters to this day and is a cultural icon.
In either 1915 or 1919, Burroughs purchased a large ranch north of Los Angeles which he named "Tarzana." The citizens of the community that sprang up around the ranch voted to adopt that name when their community, Tarzana, California was formed in 1927.
Also, the unincorporated community of Tarzan, Texas, was formally named in 1927 when the U.S. Postal Service accepted the name, reputedly coming from the popularity of the first (silent) Tarzan of the Apes film, starring Elmo Lincoln, and an early "Tarzan" comic strip.
In 1923, Burroughs set up his own company, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., and began printing his own books through the 1930s. Burroughs was in his late 60s and a resident of Hawaii at the time of attack on Pearl Harbor.
Despite his age, he applied for and received permission to become a war correspondent, becoming one of the oldest U.S. war correspondents during World War II, and is mentioned in William Brinkley's novel, Don't Go Near the Water. After the war ended, Burroughs moved back to Encino, California, where, after many health problems, he died of a heart attack on March 19, 1950.
In a Paris Review interview, Ray Bradbury said of Burroughs that "Edgar Rice Burroughs never would have looked upon himself as a social mover and shaker with social obligations. But as it turns out — and I love to say it because it upsets everyone terribly — Burroughs is probably the most influential writer in the entire history of the world."
Bradbury continued that "By giving romance and adventure to a whole generation of boys, Burroughs caused them to go out and decide to become special."
James Cagney practices dancing on the set of Something to Sing About, 1937