WELCOME HOME: March 5 in downtown Pomona


They Made It to 2016!

Welcome to 2016!

As has become my annual custom, it’s time for my 2016 “They Made it to ____” post. This post is meant to recognize the careers of three entertainers who are still with us but, because of advanced age or the passage of time, are kind of forgotten. Think of it as a chance to think “I didn’t know s/he was still alive” before you read their obituary.

There are a good many “former honorees” who are still with us. Happily, we can celebrate the fact that Carol Channing, Little Richard, and former Lollipop Guild member (and last surviving Munchkin) Jerry Maren are still with us. We can add them to the following Hollywood stars:

Abe Vigoda (1921-)
That’s right! Fish is still alive! Perhaps best known for his portrayal of Sal Tessio in the classic 1972 film The Godfather, Abe Vigoda was a supporting star of scores of other films as well. He got his start on stage in his late teens and made a career of it as a “working actor” before achieving some fame in his later years via the silver screen. After The Godfather, Vigoda was a part of the ensemble cast of TV’s Barney Miller, where he playing the character Det. Phil Fish. The character paid off for Vigoda, who got his own turn as the star of the comedy’s only spin-off, “Fish.” He is a most-apt honoree for this list because Vigoda has battles numerous pre-internet rumors of his death. In appearances on the old Conan O’Brien Late Night show this was even a running gag. Vigoda will turn 95 years old this February 24.

Olivia de Havilland (1932-)
One of the stars of the legendary film Gone With the Wind (1939), Olivia de Havilland was a bonafide Hollywood star. She won two Oscars for Best Actress–for To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949)–and starred in such classics as Captain Blood (1935) (with Errol Flynn, whom she starred with eight times), Santa Fe Trail (1940), and the campy disaster classic Airport ’77 (1977). She was even best friends with Betty Davis! Miss de Havilland will turn 100 this July 1.

Hal Holbrook (1925-)
Hal Holbrook was in so many movies I don’t have time to count them. What’s so surprising about this is that his first credited movie role didn’t come until he was about 40 years old! I have no idea at all what he did between birth and his successful acting career, other than playing Mark Twain on stage in his (now legendary) one-man show. That Twain performance is perhaps his most enduring contribution to the arts, but I will always know him for his roles in greats like All the President’s Men (1976)–he was Deep Throat!!–and Magnum Force (1973). He also did well on TV, having a recurring role on two CBS sitcoms–“Designing Women” and “Evening Shade”–and a memorable recurring guest role on the “West Wing.” Holbrook will turn 91 on February 17.

Happy 2016!

I’m at CSU San Bernardino today

I’m happy to be visiting the students at California State University San Bernardino on Tuesday, November 3, to talk about history and movements.


If you’re a part of that community I hope to see you later today!

The Function of Racism

On May 30, 1975, Toni Morrison spoke at Portland State University, as part of a conference on Black Studies.  Her address was titled “A Humanist View.”

After presenting the audience with a litany of racist remarks from major historical figures in the US past, remarks against African Americans, Asians, Mexicans, and Native Americans, she analyzes their role and purpose:

Racism was never, ever the issue.  Profit and money always was.

And all of those quotations––from William Byrd to Benjamin Franklin to Andrew Jackson to the New York Tribune––the threat was always jobs, land, or money.  And when you really want to take away, to oppress, and to prevent, you have to have a reason for despising your victim.

Where racism exists as an idea it was always a confidence game that sucked all the strength of the victim. It really is the red flag that the toreador dances before the head of a bull. It’s purpose is only to distract, to keep the bull’s mind away from his power and his energy, to keep his mind focused on anything but his own business. It’s hoped for consequence was to define black people as reactions to white presence.

Nobody really thought that black people were inferior, not Benjamin Franklin not Mr. Byrd and not Theodore Roosevelt. They only hoped that they would behave that way.  They only hoped that black people would hear “coon” songs, disparaging things, and would weep or kill or resign––or become one!  They never thought black people were lazy––ever––not only because they did all the work. But they certainly hoped that they would never try to fulfill their ambitions.

And they never, ever thought we were inhuman.  You don’t give your children over to the care of people who you believe to be inhuman, for your children are all the immortality you can expect. Your children are the reason you work, or plot or steal, and racists were never afraid of sexual power or switch blades. They were only and simply and now interested in the acquisition of wealth and the status quo of the poor.

Everybody knows that if the price is high enough the racist will give you whatever you want. It’s important, therefore, to know who the real enemy is and to know the function, the very serious function of racism which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work.

It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, so you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.

You can listen to the full audio of her remarks at Portland State University or directly from their Soundcloud.

“The People and the Police: Oakland” (1974)

This documentary originally aired in 1974. It was produced by KRON as part of their “Assignment Four” series. It’s narrated by Paul Ryan and was written, produced, and directed by Ira Eisenberg.

“On Two Fronts: Latinos & Vietnam”

“On Two Fronts: Latinos & Vietnam” is a new documentary examining the impact of the Vietnam War on Latino families.  Directed by Mylène Moreno, “On Two Fronts” premiered on PBS last week.

As a historian who is currently at work on a book on the same topic, and as a Chicano who is the son of a Vietnam veteran, I was honored to be interviewed for the film. My work also contributed to the education materials they produced to make the film useful to K-12 classrooms.

You can access all the classroom resources–which are aligned to the Common Core standards–by visiting the main website for the film.)

For the next month, you can watch the film in its entirety online at PBS. I hope you check it out and share it with friends and family.

The King is Dead; Long Live the King!

Thirty-eight years ago today, on August 16, 1977, Elvis Presley died.

The more time that passes, I think the less people remember what an amazingly talented performer he was. But strip away the commercial superficialities, and all of the tragedy of drugs and excess, and you do have an amazing voice. Just amazing.

The “Mark in the Morning” radio show, here in L.A., offered a nice reminder of that talent this past Friday (it should be in the “Audio Clips” feature here). They played audio from Elvis’ recording session at American Sound Studio, in Memphis, likely on January 23, 1969. On that day he was about a week into recording the album that would become From Elvis in Memphis, his post-“’68 Comeback Special” release, that stands as his best studio album (although Elvis is not really known for his albums as much as his singles).

Below is the King’s sixth take of the song “Suspicious Minds,” the take that became the single released later that fall. This “raw” track is awfully complete compared to how hit singles are made today.  It lacks the full instrumentation and background vocals that are part of the final release but it is one complete take of a song, the singer and the band playing together, with the singer’s amazing (non-computer-enhanced) voice on display.

“Suspicious Minds” would be Elvis’ last #1 single before his death.