Of mice and men
Jan. 30, 1925-July 2, 2013
Early computer pioneer invented the first computer mouse
In 1950, Douglas Engelbart had a good career: He was employed by the NACA Ames Laboratory, the precursor to NASA, where he worked on wind tunnels and other feats of engineering. He liked to hike and dance and by 1951, he met the love of his life. But he wasn’t entirely happy.
“I realized that I didn’t have any more goals than a steady job, getting married and living happily ever after,” he recalled. He decided he wasn’t going to settle for less than leading a life in which he could give something back — something big — to the world to make it a better place. So he set a lofty goal for himself: He wanted to focus his life on using computer technology to augment human intelligence so people could more efficiently solve important problems facing the planet.
Engelbart set out to obtain his Ph. D., then founded the Augmentation Research Center at Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, which made it a mission to enhance the way people interacted with computers. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, the research center unveiled some truly earth-shattering technologies, such as hyptertext (which is what the “h” in HTML stands for), video teleconferencing, and a complex filing system for the storage and retrieval of electronic documents. These are all things we take for granted now, in this age of clouds and apps and Facetime chats, but at the time, Engelbart’s work was considered groundbreaking. So groundbreaking, in fact, that when he unveiled some of the projects the research center was perfecting, demonstrated via a 90-minute live teleconference with his staff members in 1968, some thought Engelbart was trying to pull off a futuristic hoax and scoffed at him.
Engelbart eventually faded into obscurity as technology adanced, and, in the end, it’s not his work on the early technology that made the Internet and video chatting possible that Engelbart is best known for. It’s another humble bit of wired technology he created for which people remember him best: the computer mouse. The prototype didn’t look visionary — in fact, it was very primitive, constructed from a block of wood, some wiring and a red pushbutton on top — but it (and Engelbart) changed modern computing forever.
As for the name of the device, Engelbart never could remember why they decided to call it after a rodent: “I don’t know why we call it a mouse,” Engelbart said. “It started that way and we never changed it.”
Engelbart died after a battle with kidney failure and Alzheimer’s disease. –Erin Sullivan
Oct. 28, 1925 - April 13, 2013
Trailblazing special effects expert’s tricks horrified audiences
Perhaps only the most engaged fans of horror and special effects noticed when movie wizard Marcel Vercoutere died this April in Burbank, Calif. Born a few nights before Halloween in Detroit in 1925, Marcel Vercoutere seems to have grown up quickly. The son of immigrant parents (his father from France, his mother from Belgium), he tried enlisting in the Navy at 16 and wound up spending three years in the Pacific theater before he even finished high school. Back stateside, working as a welder and carpenter for movie studios after the war, he found a niche as a stunt coordinator, designing car crashes, firefights and other special effects. In early 1973, he was an accomplished veteran in the field, having devised special effects for such major films as Deliverance. That year, he faced his most ambitious assignment yet: The Exorcist.
The film shocked audiences with its story of a child possessed by the devil, but especially given Vercoutere’s surprising special effects, which involved levitation, demonic transformations, flying objects, streams of vomit, demonic voices, protruding tongues, bulging eyes and violent contortions, including a girl’s head rotating 360 degrees to the sound of cracking bones.
This work was done over several strenuous months at studios on West 54th Street in New York, where the production crew re-created the Georgetown bedroom for the exorcism scenes. Director William Friedkin kept reporters away from the shooting, demanding total secrecy. The film itself was behind schedule, way over budget, all while a streak of accidents and sicknesses on the set seemed evidence of the devil’s handiwork to some. The first set was unsatisfactory and had to be torn apart and replaced. The second one burned down in a freak fire in the middle of the night. An expensive air conditioning system to keep the set chilly for the exorcism scenes often broke down, caused water damage, and left actors with colds that delayed shooting.
Months behind schedule and $6 million over budget, the film was a smash hit when it opened 40 years ago. Though many of the mechanical effects of Vercoutere’s day are now done through computer-generated imagery, the film has aged well. That chilling moment where the mechanical head, crafted from casts of Linda Blair’s face, turns around, is somehow more chilling, more real, than any of today’s gaudy computer-generated effects. Certainly, Vercoutere’s masterwork is still deeply unsettling in an age of CGI and Imax 3-D. –Michael Jackman
The joy of cooking
April 15, 1924-Sept. 29, 2013
Italian cookbook writer introduced American kitchens to the practical art of simple cooking
Almost everyone who’s ever stood in front of a stove has been slipped a recipe for The Sauce. Novice cooks are always amazed at how just three ingredients — a can of tomatoes, an onion, a stick of butter — meld in a miraculous example of kitchen alchemy into the silkiest, most luxurious yet fresh pasta topping. The author, for American audiences at least, of this practical magic was Italian cook Marcella Hazan.
Cook, not chef; despite being one of America’s best-selling cookbook authors for decades, Hazan never cooked commercially, never learned to cook from her mother, never really cared about cooking at all. She wasn’t interested in food, but she married a man who was, and who expected to be fed, so she figured it out. And in the first cooking class she took — one on Chinese cookery — she discovered her true talent: not cooking, but teaching. When the Chinese teacher had to leave one month into the course, her fellow students asked her to teach them to cook Italian instead. As she had done years earlier when confronted with a husband and a kitchen, Hazan shrugged and figured it out.
From these inauspicious beginnings, Marcella and Victor Hazan formed one of the most successful partnerships of the century. With Victor egging her on every step of the way, Marcella’s innate talent emerged; without him cajoling her to keep cooking, writing the headnotes, wining and dining the reporters and publishers, that talent would never have reached past their own kitchen. Instead, the Hazans introduced America to real Parmigiano-Reggiano (not that stinky dust in the green can), balsamic vinegar, tomato sauce that didn’t resemble ketchup. New York Times food writer Mark Bittman compared Hazan to Julia Child, another cookbook writer who introduced America to a classical European cuisine.
But unlike Child’s meticulously researched bible of gastronomy, Hazan’s first cookbook, The Classic Italian Cook Book: The Art of Italian Cooking and the Italian Art of Eating, presented not a list of formulae but a way of life. Each subsequent volume the Hazans published — just seven in all, between 1973 and 2008 — was a portrait of Italy and of themselves, food the center yet incidental. Like cooking The Sauce, reading a Hazan cookbook is a simple luxury. Hazan died in September in Longboat Key, where she and Victor retired several years ago. On the day before she died, according to the New York Times, they shared a meal he cooked: “trofie, the twisted Ligurian pasta, sauced with some pesto made with basil from the terrace garden.” –Jessica Bryce Young
His grass was blue
Oct., 21, 1921-Oct. 10, 2013
Legendary bluegrass fiddler who played with all the greats had a lasting impact on music
The story of how Jim Shumate was discovered sounds too precious to be true. But it’s part of his legend, and it goes something like this: In 1943, iconic bluegrass musician Bill Monroe was just passing through Hickory, N.C., on his way to Nashville, when he happened to tune into local radio station WHKY, hoping to catch some decent country music. Don Walker and the Blue Ridge Boys were playing a live show on the air, and something about the fiddler caught Monroe’s ear. Fortuitously, Monroe’s fiddler, Howard Forrester, had just given his notice, so as soon as he got back to Nashville, Monroe made a call to the 20-year-old fiddler he had heard on the air. His name was Jim Shumate, and he had been working as a furniture salesman.
“The telephone rang and a voice said, ‘This is Bill Monroe,’” Shumate later recalled, noting that all of his life he’d wanted to play the Grand Ole Opry, and Monroe was his bluegrass idol. “That shook me up, you know. He said, ‘Now you play the fiddle, don’t you? You’ve got Howdy Forrester, Tommy Magness and three or four others all mixed up together. If you play that type of fiddle, that’s what I want.’”
Shumate packed his bags and caught the next bus to Nashville, and the rest is history. The young fiddler played in Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys band every Saturday night at the Grand Ole Opry, and anywhere else they could get an out-of-town gig during the week. Shumate recalled once that he didn’t realize that the Blue Grass Boys were so influential on bluegrass music until it dawned on him while traveling with the band that other groups he saw playing live shows were imitating their style. “Every one of them would be trying to do the very same thing we had done on the Opry the night before,” he said. “I said, ‘Fellows, we’re making some kind of history, but I don’t know what it is.’”
Shumate quickly gained a reputation as an innovative player, and just a few years after he started playing with Monroe, he was asked to join to join Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs in their band, the Foggy Mountain Boys. Though he wasn’t a big fan of recording — he preferred to play live — he can be heard on the Foggy Mountain Boys’ legendary first albums. His playing today is considered innovative and Shumate became an icon himself in bluegrass history. But Shumate, a simple man, soon grew tired of being on the road and traveling with the band, so in 1949, he quietly returned to his modest job as a furniture salesman in Hickory. His contributions to bluegrass did not permit him to fade into obscurity, however. He was inducted into both the Bluegrass Hall of Fame and the Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame, and he was presented with the North Carolina Folk Heritage Award. He continued to write his own music and recorded a bit here and there over the years, but even after receiving awards and accolates, he never let his talent or his reputation go to his head. When asked once about his playing, he simply said, “I just thank God for the gift that I have in it. And everyday I live I can play it a little better than I could the day before. So that’s got to be a gift, you know.”
Shumate died at 91, after suffering from renal failure. –Erin Sullivan
April 2, 1923-March 17, 2013
Illustrator made a living creating iconic images that graced the covers of paperback books
If you come upon a trove of 1950s paperbacks in a resale shop, have a look. There’s a good chance that one of the covers was drawn by illustrator Mitchell Hooks, who died in March at 89.
Called “an iconic figure in the golden age of illustration,” Hooks seems to have been a natural aesthete. His only formal artistic training was from high school classes in Detroit, his hometown. After a stint in the Army during World War II, Hooks gravitated to the illustration world in New York, gaining work as a commercial artist and finding his chance for success. In the mid-1950s, sensing that the tired paperback industry was ready to embrace a new generation of illustration, he quit all commercial work and decided to try his hand at doing book covers that popped. In a 1960 interview with American Artist, Hooks said, “For the next couple of years, I did almost nothing but book covers, and my gamble began to pay off. I was able to make a living doing books and I had plenty of opportunities to work in a field that I liked.”
Soon, Hooks was designing covers for Avon, Bantam, Dell and Fawcett, among others. His loose, sketch-like, spontaneous-looking drawings belied the effort that went into them, often involving models, photography and dozens of painstaking sketches. Critic Jules Perel praised the book cover artist’s “energetic views of contemporary life and heroic reconstructions of historical periods.” Eventually, magazine readers would recognize Hooks’ familiar style and technique in the pages of Cosmopolitan, The Saturday Evening Post and other major magazines. The high points of his career would be his illustrations for movie posters, especially his poster for Dr. No, which presented the iconic James Bond holding a smoking pistol in one hand and a smoking cigarette in the other.
Reminiscing later, Hooks’ recollections were more circumspect. In a 1988 interview with editor and publisher Gary Lovisi, Hooks spoke of editors who paid $300 a cover, noting, “You had to hire models out of that, pay photography and pay for costumes. I sure never got rich doing covers, but it paid the rent.” –Michael Jackman
Aug. 13, 1918-Nov. 19, 2013
Two-time Nobel Prize winner in chemistry
It’s easy to overlook the quiet ones. The ones who do their own thing and keep to themselves — unless, that is, that quiet one is Frederick Sanger, the distinguished biochemist whose dedication to the laboratory earned him two Nobel Prizes in chemistry. He is the only person to achieve such a feat in the field, and one of only four two-time Nobel laureates (the others: Marie Curie, for physics and chemistry; Linus Pauling, for chemistry and peace; and John Bardeen, twice for physics).
Sanger’s first prize was awarded in 1958 for his work on the structure of proteins, insulin in particular; he was recognized again in 1980 for determining the base sequences in nucleic acids. It was his Sanger method of sequencing DNA that was digitized in 2003, allowing computer automation to lead scientists to crack the human genetic code. By that time, the Quaker-turned-agnostic Sanger had long since retired from the lab, devoting his time instead to gardening at his home, just outside Cambridge, England. The notoriously soft-spoken scientist would have been knighted for his groundbreaking work, except he declined the honor because, he said, he objected to the notion of being called “sir.”
Sanger, whose father was a physician, recognized early in adulthood that his calling was in active research. He did not delegate his tasks to assistants, preferring instead to pursue problems single-mindedly and as an individual. It was via his findings that scientists have since made important connections between genetics and pharmacology — meaning drugs, therapies and treatments are now more effective for patients with genetic disorders due to Sanger’s work. For those suffering from hepatitis B and C, certain cancers, arthritis, bone fractures and other ailments, his work elongated lives.
In the only autobiographical piece Sanger ever wrote, he explained his scientific approach modestly: “Of the three main activities involved in scientific research, thinking, talking and doing, I much prefer the last and am probably best at it,” he wrote. “I am all right at the thinking, but not much good at the talking.”
A humble man, whose obituary says that he claimed to be “academically not brilliant,” Sanger died in his sleep. It was a hushed exit for a hardworking man devoted to discovering truths, and never resting until he found proof. –Ashley Belanger
July 6, 1932-Oct. 24, 2013
Fashion photographer brought brooding realism to fashion shoots
Models, brooding, hunched over on a nighttime city street. Models with dark circles under their eyes, hair disheveled and a clothing obscured by tendrils of fog. Models, blank-faced, lined up gracelessly in a shower room like sides of beef hanging in a locker.
Photographer Deborah Turbeville shattered forever the wholesome, well-lit, ladylike propriety that, before her, reigned at American fashion magazines. Between them, she and her confréres Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin ushered in a new aesthetic, giving Vogue and the rest a shock to the system that’s still electric.
She got her start as a model, then worked as a fashion editor, but hated both jobs. She took a class in photography — just the one — from Richard Avedon. Ten years after picking up the camera, she published a photograph in 1975 that is one of the most famous fashion images of the 20th century. Showing five swimsuit-clad women leaning limply, bonelessly, against the walls of a condemned New York City bathhouse, the picture, today, seems tame, but it arrived like a thunderclap in an America that preferred its swimsuits gracing bright-n-sunny blondes with megawatt grins — Cheryl Tiegs, Farrah Fawcett. “People started talking about Auschwitz and lesbians and drugs,” Turbeville said in an interview collected in Martin Harrison’s book Appearances: Fashion Photography Since 1945. “All I was doing was trying to design five figures in space.”
Turbeville’s photographs looked like dreams, and not always nice ones — mist and fog; grainy, bleached color fields; peeling wallpaper and pitted silver mirrors. The models’ clothing and faces were sometimes obscured, but a sense of mystery, a suffusing emotionality, drifted off the page.
Eventually, sometime between the publication of Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency and photographer Corinne Day’s discovery of a skinny little Londoner named Kate Moss, the grunge aesthetic became an overused trope of fashion photography. But without Deborah Turbeville, we might still be trapped in a Pleasantville world of fresh-faced, corn-fed girls with nary a shadow in the corners, and wouldn’t that be the most boring thing ever? –Jessica Bryce Young
A feel for numbers
Oct. 16, 1918-Oct. 2, 2013
Blind scholar created a Braille system for mathematics
Typically, noted contributors to the progress of science are those who make some notable discovery. But Abraham Nemeth’s breakthrough was different: He allowed many who wouldn’t have pursued science to do so more easily.
Almost blind since his birth on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, this son of Polish Jewish immigrants was a bright boy who quickly learned Braille, the coded language consisting of groups of six dots raised on paper. He learned to play piano to Braille sheet music at a young age, and developed a remarkable memory for songs, jokes and stories.
His studies, however, did not satisfy the young scholar. At college, Nemeth was discouraged from studying science until, with the encouragement of his wife, he began studying mathematics in earnest at Brooklyn College. The ambitious student soon found Braille was ill-suited when it came to math. Correctly identifying this shortcoming as the reason people believed the visually impaired couldn’t do math, Nemeth set about devising his own Braille code for mathematics. By the late 1940s, after supporting himself by working at a foundation for the blind and playing piano in Brooklyn bars, Nemeth had devised his system of mathematical code for the blind. In the 1950s, it would be accepted by Braille authorities, and subsequently updated and finessed as the “Nemeth Braille.”
In 1955, Nemeth joined the faculty of the University of Detroit, and later received a doctorate in mathematics from Wayne State University in Detroit. He also studied computer science and started Wayne State’s program in the new discipline, even developing MathSpeak, a way to communicate mathematics orally.
Nemeth was a fundamentally decent person who struggled to ensure that nobody would face the hurdles he had. Speaking to the New York Times after his death, Illinois State University’s Dr. Cary Supalo, a blind professor passionate about making science and science laboratories accessible to the blind, said, “If I had to do what Dr. Nemeth did, to basically invent his own Braille system for doing mathematics, I probably wouldn’t have pursued a science career.” –Michael Jackman
Ada Louise Huxtable
March 14, 1921-Jan. 7, 2013
Architecture critic made it her crusade to consider the scale and impact of buildings on the streetscape
While Ada Louise Huxtable was often called the first architecture critic, that isn’t strictly true; other writers were covering new buildings in other newspapers before her. To award her with the vaunted “first” people seem to value so highly, we could say Huxtable was the first full-time architecture critic at an American newspaper, or point out that she won the first Pulitzer Prize awarded for criticism — and that, perhaps, is the crux of why Huxtable must be remembered and cherished. Criticism of architecture appeals to a fairly narrow segment of the world; readers who fall within this audience and are informed enough to compare the various critics in the field are a smaller-yet set. Huxtable’s genius lies in the fact that her writing — crisp, powerful, elegant; often blistering, but always graceful — is a joy to read, whether the reader understands every reference or not. Certainly, knowing the difference between Brutalist and Beaux-Arts or a pilaster from an entablature enriches the experience, but Huxtable’s clarity of language and singleness of purpose makes every column illuminating.
Until Huxtable’s tenure at the New York Times, coverage of architecture had mostly served as a way to flatter (or flatten) developers and city planners, a means of controlling relationships with powerful people through praise or brickbats. Obliterating lines like “Albert Speer would have approved … The building is a national tragedy. It is a cross between a concrete candy box and a marble sarcophagus in which the art of architecture lies buried” (from Huxtable’s 1971 review of the new Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, invoking the Nazis’ chief architect) made it clear her work would not take part in that cozy you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours relationship.
Huxtable’s ladylike crusade to always consider the scale and impact of a building on a streetscape — setting the experience of the pedestrian or resident above the ego of the architect, builder or bureaucrat — puts her in the company of Jane Jacobs and other visionary preservationists who wished to save the man-made environments in which we all live from the ineptitude and greed of money-making men. Her critique of the planned community of Celebration, Fla., was of a piece with her lifelong horror of the artificial. “Private preserves of theme park and supermall increasingly substitute for nature and the public realm, while nostalgia for what never was replaces the genuine urban survival,” she wrote in The Unreal America: Architecture and Illusion, an enemy of falsity and manufactured emotionality to the end. Huxtable was 91 at the time of her death, and wrote steadily for newspapers for 49 years. –Jessica Bryce Young
Testament to strength
April 1, 1923-Nov. 6, 2013
The founding father of bodybuilding
Despite a heart condition that led doctors to predict that he’d die by the age of 5, Dan Lurie built a career on his body. Though he had a heart murmur that prevented him from many athletic pursuits (and kept him out of the Army), the condition did not stop him from bulking up enough to earn the designation of America’s most muscular man four times in the 1940s. His chain of gyms was where other bodybuilding greats, including Sylvester Stallone, went to pump iron. And there wasn’t a man who made his name in muscle mass who didn’t look up to Lurie, who was not just a strongman, but also a small-screen star on the first-ever color TV show in the U.S., Sealtest’s Big Top Circus Variety Show, cast alongside Ed McMahon.
Lurie’s strength in life was, literally, his strength. He boasted an eye-widening ability to do 1,665 push-ups in 90 minutes, likely due to his early — albeit informal — training, working with his father’s moving company in New York, where he’d lug heavy loads upstairs and invent exercise routines for his trips back down.
His intensity wasn’t just physical — he had an equally strong mind for business, and he used it to publish magazines, train up-and-comers and found his own barbell company.
On Lurie’s website (danlurie.com), you’ll find more than 100 photos showcasing his impressive physique and feats of strengh, but don’t go thinking he had an immeasurably big head because of it. In the ’60s, he arm-wrestled Ronald Reagan and threw the match, which was awfully big of him, considering the competitive streak that comprised his life. –Ashley Belanger
The unlikely empress
José Julio Sarria
Dec. 12, 1922 – Aug. 19, 2013
First openly gay candidate for U.S. public office
Long before San Francisco legend Harvey Milk was “trying to recruit you” into accepting the growing political power of the LGBT community, a far more flamboyant political force was afoot in San Francisco — one who would go on to pave the way for a movement that had barely breathed its first public breath before 1961, the year that José Julio Sarria launched his campaign for city assemblyman.
Sarria was, at that time, a noted drag persona and hell-raiser in the days of sodomy-law enforcement and gay bar police raids. Rather than take the oppression as the slap across the makeup that it was, Sarria reportedly borrowed a suit (he was lacking in masculine formalwear, legend has it) and decided to run a legitimate political campaign as a legitimate member of society. He had, after all, earned it.
Prior to his run, Sarria served in active combat with the Army in World War II. Upon return to San Francisco, he had ambitions to become a teacher, a career path that was ultimately thwarted by a “morality” arrest in a public bathroom. Sarria took a job at the Black Cat Café, a noted gay bar in the city, and in an almost operatic sense — he was known for his opera drag, after all — became a de facto community leader. And, likewise, a target of the raids.
“I had a right to run for office,” Sarria told the Atlantic in a 2011 profile. “I was angry, and I did to prove a point: That I had a right to run for office and that I didn’t have to hide. I never hid anything.”
Sarria garnered more than 5,000 votes and, in doing so, solidified the position of gays in the political process. He would go on to launch numerous equal rights groups throughout the rest of his life while maintaining his dolled-up eccentricities. In 1965, he declared himself the “first Empress of San Francisco,” according to the New York Times, and created what would eventually become the gay International Court System, a 65-chapter equality group with a flair for the absurd. Sarria’s funeral, as he had requested, was attended largely by drag queens in heavy black veils. But his influence was no charade.
“From that day on,” Sarria told the Atlantic, referring to his 1961 race, “there’s never been a politician in San Francisco — not even a dog-catcher — that did not go and talk to the gay community. And we, from that day on, elected people. It was our vote that got ’em over the hump.” –Billy Manes
May 30, 1915 – Oct. 14, 2013
The head of Motown’s finishing school groomed up-and-comers into stars fit for a king
In its heyday, the Motown record label was a well-oiled machine that churned out hit after hit. Behind such iconic names as the Supremes, Marvin Gaye and Martha & the Vandellas, there was a veritable small army of songwriters, session musicians and back-up vocalists who never received the notoriety they deserved at the time. And yet, one woman may have single-handedly had more influence on the entire Motown brand than anyone else at the label, and she never wrote a song, played an instrument or sang a note. As head of Motown’s in-house finishing school, Maxine Powell polished Detroit’s young raw talent into the stylish ladies and gentlemen who would define the era. She died last year at age 98.
Born in Texas and raised in Chicago, Powell worked as an actress and model before moving to Detroit in 1945. She opened Detroit’s first black finishing school in 1951, where Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr.’s sisters ranked among her students. Powell and Gordy met when she placed an order at Gordy’s family’s print shop; with his sisters’ encouragement, he hired her to work for his record label’s new Artist Personal Development Department.
“She brought something to Motown that no other record company had,” Gordy said in a statement following her death. “She was a star in her own right — an original.” It is believed that Motown’s finishing school was the only in-house school of its type for any record label.
“She was not only smart, but very funny,” Gordy said. When her charges protested having to spend two hours a day with her, she replied with quips of her own, like, “I love you all, but don’t confuse me with your mother — she’s stuck with you, I’m not!” She encouraged her students to be sophisticated and refined, not coarse and crude. “Ladies, remember your gloves, walk with class like you were taught — and always remember, do not protrude the buttocks,” she would say, and “one day you will perform for the kings and queens of Europe” — which would prove to be prophetic, as Motown’s popularity spread around the world.
Her tenure at Motown was short — from 1964 to 1969 — but defined perhaps the epitome of the label’s look and sound. She parted ways with the label at the end of the ’60s as Motown relocated its operations to Los Angeles, and shortly after began a stint teaching personal development classes at Wayne County Community College.
Yet her influence had a lasting impact on those she taught. Proof came much later in life, when former Motown star Martha Reeves hired Powell to work as her personal assistant as she campaigned for and ultimately served on the Detroit City Council. Powell, then in her 90s, helped Reeves prepare speeches and served as her community liaison, as well as a confidante. Powell’s lessons didn’t end at the footlights; she encouraged those she taught to be the best version of themselves that they could be. –Lee DeVito
Feb. 10, 1947-Jan. 29, 2013
Jazz musician created his own variation on live-music performance
In 1985, Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris, composer and jazz musician, directed his first “conduction.” That term, shorthand for “conducted improvisation,” was one he sought and received a trademark for — a new musical, rather than thermal-energy, application.
You could initially reference Butch Morris as a uniquely voiced New York cornetist for Loft Jazz-era reedmen Frank Lowe and David Murray in the late 1970s. By the early 1980s, record collectors of this post-free-jazz scene started witnessing the Morris name out front as a conductor, starting with violinist Billy Bang’s Outline No. 12 record. A larger discipline was set in motion, taking listeners years to completely grasp.
This music-composition method Morris created, a way of presenting Morris’ own variation on a live music performance, he described as “an improvised duet for ensemble and conductor.” The Morris conduction combined the techniques of centuries-old European classical music and jazz with, consciously or unconsciously, the concepts of consumer electronics. Most notable was that for most of the three decades of conductions, there was no preconceived source material. Morris commandeered his musicians’ improvised gestures during each performance and directed them into set-long temporal compositions. No repeat performance, no greatest hits shows and no classic album tours.
1985’s Conduction No. 1 — provocatively titled “Current Trends in Racism in Modern America” — featured burgeoning New York downtown scenemakers including reedist John Zorn and turntablist Christian Marclay. No. 1, like most conductions, sounded far more like a new strain of modern classical music than jazz improvisation. The recorded outcomes of Morris’ numerically ascending conductions often float like the fantasias of the Renaissance era, imitative of voices while introducing various tempos and clashing harmonies.
Though he’s not widely remembered as an arranger, Morris, in effect, was a live mix editor, choosing which spontaneous figures would get mirrored, modified, discarded or saved for later usage by a series of baton and hand signals. Morris’ imitation of electronic memory (or sampling) was a gesture to the head and a number signal. A musician’s riff or an entire conducted section might get a number and return later in the performance as a repeat or counterpoint to another idea.
A little more than a year before his death from lung cancer, Morris visited the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach as a board member of their national council. Morris showed no outward signs of finality. He buoyantly described his happiness with his newest conduction music and their residency site — the pan-Asian-themed drag cabaret restaurant Lucky Cheng’s in midtown Manhattan. Like his works, the conversation was strictly about discovery and forward motion. –Matt Gorney
Woman of a thousand faces
June 26, 1922-Dec. 9, 2013
Actress who starred in The Sound of Music appreciated her anonymity
Best known as the purring baroness in The Sound of Music, Eleanor Parker was an award-winning Silver Screen actress who began her acting career at age 15. Despite the head start, Parker never quite made it to the A-list, in part because of her versatility and desire to avoid the siren-call of character acting. Instead of playing the same kind of character in every movie (take a hint, Jason Statham) she tackled each role a la Heath Ledger, losing herself in her roles.
Audiences of the day had a hard time identifying with her as a particular type of character, rather than a stream of disparate characters, so she never gained much momentum in the media. Parker embraced the anonymity and considered it a sign that she’d been successful. She was once quoted as saying, “When I'm spotted somewhere, it means that my characterizations haven't covered up Eleanor Parker the person. I prefer it the other way around.”
In an age where actors are part and parcel with the roles they play, even after they die, it’s nice to be reminded of a time when acting was treated as an art, rather than a platform to merchandise sales and solo albums. Parker succumbed to complications from pneumonia and passed away near her home in Palm Springs in early December, long before Carrie Underwood clomped onto the set of The Sound of Music Live! -Brendan O’Connor
What’s in a name?
June 9, 1951-Jan 1, 2013
Graphic artist came up with the names for revolutionary devices TiVo and Kindle
Today the names of our gadgets are as obvious and normal as the names of our children, but there was a time when there was no such thing as an iPhone or a TiVo or a Kindle. Somebody had to dream up the handles for those devices – something that would be as meaningful as it was unique, catchy without being campy, familiar without being cliché.
Blame Michael Patrick Cronan for introducing some of those names to our modern lexicon. Cronan, a graphic designer from San Francisco, was first asked in 1997 to come up with a name for a new device that would give people a way to record TV shows digitally – that device, which is now practically ubiquitous in most households with cable TV, was a digital video recorder (DVR), but at the time it was a foreign concept and needed a name that was “as close as possible to what people would find familiar,” Cronan later said. He came up with TiVo, a combination of “TV” and the Latin word “vo,” which means voice. He also came up with the adorable TiVo mascot, a little smiling TV with floppy antenna ears and big feet. According to an obituary in the New York Times, Cronan had hoped the mascot would be as recognizable as a Disney character, and it arguably was.
Cronan was also the guy charged with coming up with a name for Amazon’s revolutionary digital reading device. His wife, Karin Hibma, says he found it important to place some kind of cultural context on the names he created for objects, and when he was pondering the reading device, she said that he wanted to find something “small, humble, with no braggadocio,” she told the Times. He eventually came up with the name Kindle when he thought of the potential of the new e-reader as something that could eventually catch on and perhaps even start a fire. And whether you love or hate the Kindle as a concept, the name turned out to be prescient, as that’s exactly what it has done.
Cronan, who was also a founding member of the American Institute of Graphic Art, died after a bout with colon cancer.
Ms. Hibma said in an interview on Friday that in pondering a brand name, Mr. Cronan “wanted to create something small, humble, with no braggadocio,” while choosing an image that “was about starting something, giving birth to something.” He found the name, she said, by likening use of the new e-reader to “starting a fire.”– Erin Sullivan