If you’re into U.S. history and sweeping shots of sepia-toned still photographs
, be sure to leave some space on your DVR Sunday night for the first episode of “Prohibition
,” the latest film in Ken Burns’ quest to document the entirety of American culture in his distinctive, polarizing style. I’m excited for the project because the PBS mainstay “exchanged ideas, research, and sources” with Daniel Okrent, author of the insightful and entertaining 2010 book Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition
. As dedicated readers of the blog know, I devoured Okrent’s tome this spring and wrote a series of posts exploring a few of the choice, quirky anecdotes he reported but did not have the space or inclination to write about at length. If Burns tells a similarly engaging tale, it should make for worthwhile viewing.
To wet your whistles for the six-hour documentary, I thought I’d repost my work below. If you haven’t read the pieces yet, or don’t remember anything about them, I hope you’ll click through.Did Walgreens' Milkshakes Bring the Boys to the Yard?
: On the explosive growth of Walgreens and the chain’s (possible) connection to bootlegging.The Killer D's
: On Anastassoff Sreben, a Bulgarian-born and Chicago-based scientist who made a fortune during the dry years “redistilling” industrial alcohol.Daddy Du Pont
: On the weird family life of chemical magnate and influential repeal advocate Pierre du Pont.Was Prohibition All Bad?
: On the modest benefits of the 18th Amendment.
Next summer, fans of New York City’s intimate and historic Big Apple Circus will bid adieu
to Barry Lubin and his iconic alter ego, Grandma. In her hallmark
black sneakers and gaudy pearls, the androgynous clown has headlined the Lincoln Center spectacle for 30 seasons, charming circus-goers with a combination of “feistiness, mousiness, acrobatic grace, [and] prankishness.” Lubin isn’t retiring the character; he’s planning to take Grandma across the pond and unleash her anarchic streak in front of more adventurous (and savvy) European audiences. It’s a bold, albeit understandable move for a 59-year-old performer
hoping to stretch his creative limits and broaden his fan base during the twilight of his storied career, which already includes induction into the International Clown Hall of Fame
, one of just 67 clowns to receive that honor.
Lubin (class of 1974) honed his craft at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College
, an influential institution with a badly misunderstood popular reputation. When I think of “clown college,” my mind digs up images
of the classic "Homie the Clown"
episode of “The Simpsons,” in which Homer enrolls in Krusty’s makeshift training program and subsequently losses his polka dot pants riding a tiny bicycle. On the contrary, Ringling's Florida-based enterprise was one of the most selective and intense performing arts schools in the nation.
The college opened in the late 1960s after Irvin Feld, the entrepreneurial owner and producer of Ringling Brothers, realized that his cast of jesters was aging rapidly. Instead of spending resources scouring the country for new talent, he decided to train a fresh generation right in his own backyard. The sessions spanned 13 weeks initially and tuition (roughly $10,000 per student) was entirely free. Not surprisingly, the competition for entry was fierce; psychologists and admissions officers waded through extensive personality questionnaires -- “What has given you pleasure during the past year?” -- and auditions to identify a small group of performers with the most promise. In just the second year, 500 would-be clowns applied for 29 spots. By 1989, the ringmasters received 2,100 CVs for just 56 open slots, a matriculation rate (2.67 percent) on par with most Ivy League universities.
The coursework was just as intense as the admissions process. One graduate, speaking to the Jerusalem Post
in 1989, described it as “a gruelling round-the-clock regimen of juggling, stilt-walking, pie-throwing, clown psychology, makeup, and lessons in how to spit water and deal with crowds.” Unicycling, improvisation, and daring acrobatics were also central to the curriculum. And meticulous instructors like Glen Little
reinforced a strict clown code of honor, an unwritten pact that ensured clowns were always dressed in full costume in a professional setting and did not engage in any “un-clownlike behavior.” “It’s not like summer camp, I can guarantee you,” the school’s director, Steve Smith, told the Chicago Tribune
in 1989. “We’ll put 56 people in a pressure cooker ... so we don`t need any prima donnas.”
Of the Ringling students who survived, a select number of graduates were offered one-year contracts with the troupe. These jobs were equally prestigious and grinding; for a tiny salary, clowns crisscrossed the country on trains, performing 13 shows each week for 11 straight months. Other alumni entered different entertainment venues entirely. Penn Jillette, actor David Strathairn (best known for his portrayal of Edward Murrow in Goodnight and Good Luck
), and “Jackass” veteran Steve-O all earned diplomas from the American Mecca of clowning. All saw value in the professional skills many of their friends and family wrote off as foolish or childish. From a 1979 Washington Post
piece:“Joining the circus is not as far-fetched as some people think," [clown college hopeful Jack Tobin] said. Tobin drives a forklift for a brick company sometimes. During his one-semester stint in school he spent his time in the library reading magic books. "It's the same as trying to become a chemist or anything else," he said. People say to me, 'what are you gonna fall back on? What are you gonna do if it doesn't work?'" He shrugged and laughed a little. "I don't know. What the heck? What is anyone gonna do if whatever else they've got falls through?"
After training 1,5000 students and spawning replica schools across the nation, Ringling’s clown college officially closed its doors in 1998, just shy of its 30th anniversary. When it was shuttered, a spokesperson for the circus told the Las Vegas Review Journal
that “the number of college programs and workshops nationwide that teach clowning basics have rendered the original Clown College unnecessary.” These days, entertainers who want a job with the Greatest Show on Earth need only send
a portfolio, head shots, and a performance DVD to company headquarters for consideration. To get a call back, though, they still need to be damn funny.
While in Minneapolis for a quick weekend getaway, we drove past the Twin Cities’ brand new Remembrance Garden
, a series of 13 blue-lit pillars overlooking the Mississippi River. The structure commemorates the victims of the 2007 Interstate 35W Bridge collapse
, a tragedy that rarely factors into the national discourse now, eclipsed by the Great Recession, revolutions
abroad, and deadlier
disasters around the globe. Four years ago, though, domestic media outlets covered the accident intensely, and with good reason: the death toll was high, there was dramatic video footage, it occurred during a month when the news cycle typically grinds to a halt, and major bridge wrecks are exceedingly rare. From 1968 through 2008, the National Transportation Safety Board investigated
24 collapses, and just five resulted from structural flaws. Considering how many cars traverse the roads each day, that’s pretty damn infrequent.
We owe civil engineers a debt of gratitude for perfecting the design of strong and secure overpasses, as well as regulators and inspectors who bird-dog contractors and governments that don’t follow safety standards
established to protect travelers. Americans weren’t always so lucky. Four decades ago, along the banks of the Ohio River, a tiny and preventable maintenance problem led to one of the most gruesome transportation calamities of the automobile era.
The Silver Bridge
, named for its aluminum paint job, was a 2,235-foot structure built in 1928 to link Columbus, Ohio with Charleston, West Virginia. The so-called “Gateway to the South” stood, without incident, for 40 years. But time and neglect took its toll on the suspension apparatus. On December 15, 1967 at about 5:00 p.m., local residents within earshot of the river heard a massive bang, like someone had fired a shotgun. (“I thought some nuts were dusting ducks under the bridge,” an 18-year-old gas attendant told Time
.) The noise was the fracturing
of one of the Silver’s eyebars, the load-bearing bars that run perpendicular to the ground. When the eyebar cracked, the entire bridge went down with it. In just 60 seconds, all 31 vehicles stuck on top tumbled into the freezing water, killing 46 and injuring nine more. On the 40th anniversary of the accident, one of the survivors -- a woman pregnant with twins at the time -- recounted
the cinematic horror she endured:"As I was approaching the bridge, the light changed. When it went to green, I started over the bridge and there was a terrible shaking of the bridge. My father was a riverboat captain and had talked about barges hitting the bridge and the pier, so when I heard that, I automatically put my car in reverse." Her car stalled, and "by the time I got my car stopped, mine was on the very edge where it broke off," she said. Because she was pregnant, she tried to keep her cool. She remembered looking around and seeing wires dangling. And she remembered a state patrolman and Rimmey coming to the door of her car and walking her out. "You could hear (people) screaming. It was terrible," she said. "By the time I went to the end of the bridge, I had gone into shock."
that “the modern history of bridge inspection" began with the Silver Bridge Collapse. Immediately after the travesty, President Johnson convened three separate task forces to evaluate the effectiveness of existing regulatory practices. From these deliberations, the U.S. Congress established National Bridge Inspection Standards, which mandated an increase in both the frequency of inspections and the number of personnel trained to carry out those probes. And the country’s safety record, save I-35W and a few other altercations, has been pretty solid ever since.
These days, the work of those important bureaucrats is getting more and more difficult. Almost one-quarter
of all American bridges are considered either “structurally deficient” or “functionally obsolete,” and the majority party in the U.S. House is not so keen on making infrastructure investments to fix them up. It might be a matter of time before another skyway accident supplants Silver as the most infamous in U.S. history.
Actual things I said to customers leaving the restaurant
I now work at, during my first full shift on the floor:
-- “Enjoy the rest of your dinner.”
-- “If you can’t hail a cab, come back in and grab me.
-- “Have a great day!” (It was 9:45 p.m.)
- “Y’all come back REALLLLLL SOOOON!”*
Speaking of the new gig, I hope that my responsibilities over there won’t cut too much into my (already sporadic) posting schedule here, but it might be a little slower than normal for a week or two as I get my bearings. Apologies in advance.
*I did not actually say this.
In my latest effort
to complicate Robert Putnam’s theory about America’s social capital crisis, a few friends and I are trying to organize a monthly poker game here in Chicago. Though it’s been a while since I played regularly, I’m excited to sidle up to the table. The odds of taking home a big pot aren’t fantastic, but neither are the chances that my fantasy football
team will break .500 this season. And a big hand could give this freelancer some modest financial flexibility.
If we lived in the Old West and frequented establishments like Al Swearengen’s Gem Theater
, our game of choice wouldn’t be Texas Hold-Em or Seven-card Stud. Instead, we’d play faro
, a French creation that found fans in New Orleans and was eventually championed by riverboat gamblers on the Mississippi and new inhabitants of the American frontier. Lost to history now, faro was considered our national card game in the late 19th century, occupying what two historians once called
“the summit of professional gambling.” Its appeal was obvious; faro is fast, simple to learn, and can be played by as many card sharks as can squeeze into a gambling hall.
Here’s how it works. Images of one full suit -- Ace through King -- are painted on a felt table, otherwise known as the Faro Bank. Similar to roulette, players place bets on any of the 13 cards available, trying to predict which cards will appear in a given round. After burning the lead card, the dealer flips over the second card in his deck, known as the “banker’s card,” and places it on the right side of the table. Next, he flips over the third card in the deck and tosses it to the left. This is the “player's card.” If the face value of the banker’s card matches the card a gambler bet on, he forfeits his wager to the house. If the player’s card matches it, he wins even money. And if the banker’s card and player’s card are equal, the house wins half the chips that are placed on that corresponding value. That’s essentially the entire game
Aside from the splits, a faro banker has no consistent advantage over the players he lures to his table. Honest faro, in other words, makes virtually no money for the house in the long run. To compensate, Western casino owners and their dealers employed any number of tricks to swindle eager customers. Crooked dealing boxes were common, as were specially-designed cards. John R. Sanders described some of these inventions in his 1996 piece
for Wild West
:“Sanded” cards, roughened on one side, would cling together, and were used with “two-card” boxes that allowed the dealer to slide out more than one card at a time. “Strippers” were narrower on one end, or had curved sides, so a dealer could manipulate them during the shuffle to 'put up' splits. Since splits occurred naturally only about three times in two deals, there was an obvious house advantage in increasing the number dealt. [...]Crooked games were called brace games, defined by Indiana gambler Mason Long as those “in which a man has no chance of winning unless the dealer breaks his finger, and that he never does.” Brace houses sprang up nationwide, where “cappers” posed as players and “steerers” lured in unwary “gulls.” Such organized and widespread cheating led reformed gambler Jonathan Green to write in 1853, “A man would act more rationally and correctly to burn his money than to bet it on faro.”
By the time Nevada legalized gambling
in 1931, faro had lost much of its popularity, tainted by rampant cheating and eclipsed by table games (craps, roulette) that offered both larger payouts and better house odds. In 2000, one former dealer tried to launch a revival
in Reno, but it didn’t take hold. The best faro enthusiasts can do now is play the game online
And who knows? Now that Congress is cracking down
on poker websites, an Internet comeback may just be in the cards.
It’s getting harder and harder to watch football with a clear conscience
*, but I sure love fantasy football. Below are a few lessons I gleaned from the eighth annual Members Only draft. (Ed. note: All advice should be taken with a grain of salt, as my career regular season record is 45-45-1. I am the definition of mediocrity.)
-- Drafting immediately after making an intercontinental flight is ill advised. Poor Ethan literally fell asleep at his computer during Round 17.
-- I haven’t used Google+ at all since I signed up for it a few months ago, but the “Google Hangouts
” function is actually pretty rad. Just don’t log on too many computers from the same room -- it creates some screechy, ghost-like echo noises.
-- If you desperately want Antonio Gates and have the second open selection (after keepers), do not build your entire draft strategy around the assumption that the owner with the first selection will pass on Antonio Gates.
-- Do not ask a fellow owner to reschedule birthday plans with his girlfriend to accommodate your draft, no matter how difficult it is to find a time when 10 gentlemen with wildly variable schedules in four different areas codes can get to a computer for three hours.
-- Start email threads analyzing the draft IMMEDIATELY after the draft ends. We like “Defend Your Draft,” which gives everyone a chance to justify their odd selections, as well as “Best/Worst,” in which each owner chooses his favorite and least favorite teams and picks of the night.
-- If the surname of the league’s new owner is “Selzer,” call him “Seltzer” or “Bubbles.” Do this repeatedly. It is funny every time.
After enjoying the World Cup last summer and catching a particularly exciting
Sunday afternoon match from a hotel in Dublin, I started watching English football* in earnest about a year ago, and it was one of the best decisions I made in 2010. For an American with a cable hookup, it’s incredibly easy to fit the Premiere League into one’s weekly routine; the “fixtures” air on Saturday and Sunday mornings and last just under two hours each, perfect for satisfying a sports fix before the day gets away from you. And the league itself features some insane athleticism and emotion. Like the Sports Guy
did in 2006, I did loads of background research before choosing a club to root for, eventually landing on Fulham, a London-based side that’s established itself as an EPL mainstay and features Clint Dempsey, quite possibly the coolest
American ever to play the game. Twelve months in and I’m already recording games and gorging on football blogs. It’s fantastic.
I played soccer all the way through high school, so I didn’t need to be schooled on the rules or customs of the sport. What I did need was a crash course in European lingo, especially when that lingo described front-office mechanics that differ from the free agent system under which major American leagues operate. Across the pond, it turns out, football federations swap players using what’s called a “transfer
” process. Essentially, when either management or a footballer become dissatisfied with the other, the club can write up a transfer offer for the rights
to that player. Interested suitors then bid
on a transfer fee, which is a flat rate akin to a (expensive) move-in fee on an apartment. This summer, for example, cash-rich Manchester City paid Spanish side Atlético Madrid £38 million for the registration of skilled striker Sergio Aguero. Once the “transfer” went through, Man City had to negotiate an actual contract with the Argentine. (They settled
on a five-year package that pays out nearly £200,000 per week. It’s good work if you can get it.)
It didn’t always work this way. For the first half of the 20th century, if a player turned down a contract offer, a team could let the existing deal lapse and then withhold his playing registration indefinitely by refusing all transfer requests. In effect, owners forced players to make a choice: accept less money from us or sit out for good, without pay. The policy was known as “retain and transfer
,” and the player’s union equated it with slavery, though a forgiving form of indentured servitude is a more accurate comparison.
It was inevitable that some crusading player would challenge the restrictive status quo, and the task fell to an English midfielder
named George Eastham
. What I love about his story is the banality of it. After a successful 1959 campaign, Eastham expressed frustration with his club, Newcastle United, because he didn’t like the house they provided for him in the country’s northeast corner nor the side job they arranged for him to earn extra money during the season.** A director told the press that Eastham would “shovel coal” before Newcastle would release him, and Eastham essentially took his boss up on the offer, securing a job selling cork in London instead of suiting up for the Magpies. After a seven-month strike, Newcastle eventually worked out a deal to dispense Eastham to Arsenal, but not before he filed suit in Britain’s courts, much like legend Curt Flood would do nine years later to dispute
Major League Baseball’s reserve clause in the States. And in 1963, England’s Chancery Division determined that owners were abusing the retention system by requiring a transfer payment for players they had literally no intention of keeping on their squad. Calling it “a relic of the Middle Ages” and an unjustifiable restraint of trade, the court struck down the rule, and the Football Association quickly modified its system so that players could move without a transfer fee if their current club failed to offer a contract that at least equaled their previous deal.
Eastham may have transformed working conditions in European football, but he didn’t make a fortune in the process. Three years ago, he decided to auction some of his most prized memorabilia, including the kit he wore as a member of his nation’s victorious 1966 World Cup team. "I'm a pensioner and the cost of living is going up all the time,” he told
the Daily Mail
. “The money may come in handy and, if not, it will be shared among my family.” This Labor Day, Dempsey and the other Americans playing abroad should give Eastham some dap. Without him, they might be contracting black lung in some dirty coal mine instead of playing the world’s most popular game.
*Yeah, I’m one of those guys now.
** Of course, in a free market, a worker should be allowed to switch jobs for any silly reason she wants.