Sunday, November 22, 2015

Historic Duluth Armory tied to Buddy Holly Winter Dance Party Lore

Historic Duluth Armory (2010) - source Wikipedia
Saturday's open house at the Historic Duluth Armory Arts & Music Center is part of a thrust to restore and revive this historic building. The Armory not only was the home of the Army National Guard but also one of the main performance venues in Duluth of the past. Today the 1959 performance of Buddy Holly and his Winter Dance Party, just before he and the other performers died in a tragic plane crash, serves as its more notable claim to fame. Today's Duluth News Tribune story (read HERE) recounts that Holly moment and the bright future ahead for preserving this history building.

Susan Beasy Latto, originally from Hibbing and a classmate and friend of Bob Zimmerman (now Bob Dylan), was there the night Holly played at the Armory. I was there also and have written about it in previous posts. My childhood friend, Lew Latto, a precocious teen who later became a prominent local radio entrepreneur, was the promoter and MC of this event. Latto later met Beasy Latto at UMD and they married, not knowing each other at the Winter Dance Party concert. Dylan was there that night too and he spoke of it–now quite famously–as he received a Grammy award in 1998. It was a coming together of music of the past present and the future and sparks lore that now centers on preserving those magic moments.

Of course many other famous people performed at the Armory... going as far back as Sergei Rachmaninoff, the great Russian pianist and composer. Johnny Cash, Liberace, Bob Hope, the Mamas and the Papas... and so many more followed.

For more about the Armory and the Winter Dance Party...
You can read more about the history of the Armory HERE on Wikipedia, at the News Tribune Attic HERE, on Zenith City Online and at the Historic Duluth Armory web site HERE.

One of my weekly columns for the Duluth News Tribune (originally appeared on August 5, 1987) is reprinted on my blog HERE: Three Days Before the Rock Stars Died. And... you can check out some of my previous writings about the Winter Dance party HERE

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Big names already lost to Millennial Generation...

By Jim Heffernan
"Millennials follow Generation X on the long road to the cemetery." 
I spent an hour in a college classroom full of Millennials recently, talking about my distinguished journalism career. I mean distinguished in the broader sense, like my profession as distinguished from, say, garbage man or rocket scientist.

That is, though, entirely beside the point. The point actually is that many people my age (pre-Boomer, believe it our not) simply aren’t tuned into the Millennial Generation yet. The Millennial Generation is kind of vague, but most analysts of things like generations (Lost, Pepsi) say it consists of anyone born from the early 1980s to the early 2000s.

Millennials follow Generation X on the long road to the cemetery.

I believe the students in the class I led were a year or two on either side of 20 – making their way through college this year as sophomores or juniors. Thus, I took a couple of things for granted in my presentation that I shouldn’t have before a class of students whose memories are probably 15 years long at most.

As part of my presentation, I was telling the students about how the media covered the Iron Range plane crash that claimed the life of Minnesota U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone 13 years ago this month. Explaining that this national news story happened right in the Northland, I was interrupted by the professor, who suggested that I might want to explain who Wellstone was.

I was quite surprised that would be necessary, but, OK, show of hands, how many know who Paul Wellstone was? Three or four hands went up among the 20-25 students in the room.

The tragic death of Paul Wellstone is so fresh in my mind it’s hard to believe it was in 2002. These students, though, were six or seven years old then. With all due respect to the late liberal lawmaker, Wellstone is already history to a large part of the U.S. population—its Millennials.

There was another such situation before this class, equally surprising to me. In a Q & A segment after my presentation, I was asked to describe a favorite, or memorable, interview I’d conducted in my working years. It didn’t take me long to recall that an interview I’d had with the actor Gregory Peck was quite memorable. He was such a huge Hollywood star at the time – the mid-1970s. Peck died in 2003.

Well, an audience that had never heard of Paul Wellstone could never be expected to know who Gregory Peck was. And none did, until I told them he was the actor who portrayed Atticus Finch in the movie “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Many of the students had seen that timeless movie and then knew to whom I was referring.

Finally, later in the week, I went in for a flu shot, only to be met by a friendly nurse I recognized immediately as a likely Millennial. As with all such appointments, they ask you to recite your birth date and year (to see how your memory is holding up?), and, as it happened, it was just a few days after my latest birthday.

Joking, I told her she had my birth information in front of her, so she could figure out my age, but I remarked that I’m at an age now where I don’t exactly tell people how old I am. Instead I say, “If you know how many trombones led the big parade in ‘The Music Man’ you have my age.”

The Millennial nurse looked at me quizzically. So I sang it: “Seventy-six trombones led the big parade…” and asked if she’d ever heard the song. No, she hadn’t (and indicated by her reaction that she wasn’t accustomed to being sung to while giving flu shots).

So “Seventy-six Trombones” is gone too to Millennials.

I didn’t mention it at the time, but I also know the next line of the song: “With 110 coronets close behind.”

I’m looking forward to telling the younger generation that’s my age when the time comes. That’ll be 2049. Just around the corner.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Infamous Thompson murder case had associations with Duluth...

By Jim Heffernan 
T. Eugene Thompson in 1963 (Source: CBS News, Minneapolis)

T. Eugene Thompson is dead. If that means anything to you, you are getting along in years. I am getting along in years.

I had a couple of unlikely run-ins with the case of the St. Paul attorney who was convicted of arranging the murder of his wife in 1963. I was reminded of the infamous murder case reading Sunday’s New York Times, which ran an extensive obit on Thompson, who died on Aug. 8, his 88th birthday. (Read story HERE.)

Thompson had been accused of arranging the murder of his wife, Carol, in their home in St. Paul’s Highland Park neighborhood. He had paid a college friend, Norman Mastrian, to do the job, but Mastrian sub-contracted the actual murder to another man, Dick W.C. Anderson, who botched the killing in the Thompson home. Mrs. Thompson escaped from Anderson after being bludgeoned and stabbed and ran into the neighborhood crying for help, but she died a few hours later in a hospital.

 The motive? Thompson had taken out a $1.1 million life insurance policy on his wife, which it was revealed he had planned to use to start a new life with a girlfriend, his secretary. Thompson started a new life, all right. He served nineteen years of a life sentence for first-degree murder in the state penitentiary at Stillwater before being paroled. Anderson and Mastrian were also convicted, the latter after a trial in Duluth under a change of venue from St. Paul due to the extensive publicity connected to the case.

The Mastrian trial resulted in one of my contacts with the case. The first involved an unexpected encounter with Thompson himself.

Taking last things first (the Thompson encounter), I should point out that all this was occurring right when I was starting my career as a reporter with the Duluth Herald and News Tribune in October 1963. By then the Thompson trial was going on in St. Paul, having no direct connection with Duluth.

However, Thompson had posted bail and was free during the trial. One night, heady with my newfound role as a journalist but knowing almost nothing about journalism, I stopped with a couple of friends at an all-night eatery after an evening on the town, and there sat T. Eugene Thompson, taking a weekend break in Duluth from his St. Paul trial. I’d seen his picture often.

Ohmygosh, I was thinking, here’s the biggest news story in the state, the Midwest, even the country, right here in my lap. Should I try to get an interview? What a feather in my cap that would be.

A seasoned journalist would have no such thoughts, and been content to let Thompson be. The accused murderer wouldn’t be inclined to give an interview under such conditions. Studying him from across the room, I hesitated, not knowing what to do.

Soon, I knew exactly what to do: Nothing. From out of the nearby restroom strode the publisher of the Duluth Herald and News Tribune, Eugene McGuckin Jr., my ultimate boss, who proceeded to join T. Eugene (that’s how everyone seemed to refer to him) at his table. The two of them chatted warmly as I sheepishly looked on from a booth some 20 feet away.

So much for my first “scoop,” a term reviled by seasoned journalists, who know there are almost no “stop the presses” moments outside of the movies. I found out later that McGuckin had met Thompson at a nightclub bar, struck up a conversation with him, and the two decided to join each other for coffee after their evening out.

My second contact with the case came a year or so later when Mastrian was brought to Duluth for his trial. Unlike Thompson, Mastrian had not posted bail and was still in custody when the trial was about to begin. At the newspaper, we’d been tipped that he was to be brought to Duluth by train and housed in the St. Louis County jail.

I was dispatched to the Union Depot, still in active use in 1964, to cover the arrival of Mastrian. Duluth police were there in force to assist whatever law enforcement personnel would have ridden the train with the defendant.

At the time, the Duluth Police Department had a large van known as a paddy wagon, capable of holding maybe 15 or 20 miscreants at a time. This time it was poised for just one, accompanied by a couple of cops, backed up to the curb at the track level of the depot.

In a matter of minutes after arrival, Mastrian was hustled from the train, an officer on each arm, and into the paddy wagon for the short trip to the downtown Duluth county jail. He was housed there throughout his trial, in which a Duluth jury also convicted him of complicity in the murder of Carol Thompson.

One more brief anecdote connected to this case: The jury returned a guilty verdict for Thompson on Dec. 6, 1963, just two weeks after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. On Nov. 22, the day of the assassination, the wire service United Press International (UPI) had been carrying an account of the Thompson trial on its national wire when it suddenly ended in mid-sentence with the words URGENT…URGENT and reported that shots had been fired at President Kennedy in a Dallas motorcade.

A bigger story than the T. Eugene Thompson trial had broken – one that did stop the presses. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

A different side of Justice Alan Page...

Photo source: Wikipedia, 2009
By Jim Heffernan

Much is being made this month of the retirement of Justice Alan Page from the Minnesota Supreme Court. By law he must retire at age 70, which he marks this month.

Does Page need further elaboration? Maybe to a few, but not many in Minnesota. Most people remember him as an all-pro lineman for the Minnesota Vikings in the 1970s, a player of such skill and power that he was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1988.

Even while still playing professional football, Page went to law school, and in 1992 was elected to the state Supreme Court, where he has served ever since.

This is all Google-able information that needs no further elaboration here. What follows is not on Google, because it is a personal recollection of mine of one brief encounter with Page in the 1970s, long before he became a high court justice, and was still playing for the Vikings.

Sooner or later just about every Minnesota luminary, especially in politics but in sports and the arts as well, finds himself or herself in the newsroom of the Duluth daily newspaper – The Duluth News Tribune. I worked there for 42 years, a decade of those years (most of the 1970s) as the entertainment and arts writer and editor. My end of the operation was located in a small, enclosed office with large windows just off the newsroom.

I had plastered the walls and windows with memorabilia reflecting my job, including large travel posters that came to me in the mail because I was also listed as the newspaper’s travel editor (who never traveled anywhere on their cuff). One of the posters on my wall, perhaps 18 by 24 inches, was a vivid color photograph of the inside of an Austrian cathedral showing massive organ pipes rising to a blue ceiling (looked a lot like heaven), with seraphim and cherubim floating alongside (proving it).

One day as I sat at my desk I saw a large man wearing casual but athletic style clothes walking in the direction of my office on his way to an exit. He stopped in his tracks when he saw my travel poster of the cathedral organ pipes and rococo adornments, and just stared, saying something like, “Wow.”

I greeted him and invited him in to take a closer look, which he did as we engaged in small talk about the poster. The encounter didn’t last more than a couple of minutes. Not a football fan, I didn’t know for sure who this visitor was, although I surmised it was someone of importance in the wide world of sports. Yes, of course it was Alan Page, I learned for sure by checking with the sports desk across the room where he had undergone an interview.

Some people you meet you never forget, and years later when he was on the state ballot for the Supreme Court I always recalled my encounter with him. I presume I voted for him. Who could be a better justice than someone representing a minority – African American – who had achieved greatness in his chosen athletic field, educated himself to join the legal profession and who appreciated 18th Century rococo cathedrals?

Page participated in an extended interview by Tom Weber on Minnesota Public Radio Tuesday morning that can be accessed HERE. It’s well worth listening to. A shorter interview by Tom Crann today on MPR's All Things Considered may by linked HERETo learn more about the Page Education Foundation, please link HERE.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Random thoughts: Cecil, Trump, Walker and other outrages...

By Jim Heffernan

Here are a few random thoughts about some recent stuff.

1. We all feel badly about the shooting of Cecil the lion, of course. Aside from the sadness of it all, though, I have been wondering why nobody has mentioned that Cecil’s name is the first name of Cecil Rhodes, the British founder of the African country of Rhodesia -- the former name of Zimbabwe, where Cecil was killed. What goes around, comes around.

2. I wonder why nobody else has mentioned that Donald Trump looks a bit like Cecil. At least as much as any prominent human I can think of. Growls a little like him too, at times. 

3. On the big Fox News debate of the 10 leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker stood right beside the leonine Mr. Trump, displaying tolerant smiles. Is Walker a little cross-eyed? He reminds me of Alfred E. “What, Me Worry?” Newman, of Mad Magazine. (Googling Newman to check on the spelling of his name, I noticed he once said, “Listening to opera is to entertainment what falling off the roof of a barn is to transportation.” No mention of attending a blues festival.)

4. With all of this talk about Cecil, it made me wonder whatever happened to Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion. Remember him from the movies? Not to be confused with Gladly the Cross-eyed Bear. You’ll be hearing more about him during the Walker campaign. 

5. I wonder if it’s politically incorrect to even mention cross-eyedness any more. I often force-cross my eyes when confronted with something outrageous, like the Republican debates.

6. We’ve all made mistakes in life, but you know you’ve screwed up if you’ve caused a worldwide outrage, like the Twin Cities dentist who murdered Cecil the lion. It’s not easy to cause a worldwide outrage, unless you are a prominent politician or a famous terrorist. Infamous dentist? Not so much.

This is my last post for a while. Vacation time.