Thursday, July 30, 2009

Book Fair–Save the date...

Save the date...
Friends of the Duluth Public Library sponsor a Book Fair at the Duluth Barnes and Noble store on Sunday August 22. There's fun for all ages and proceeds go to the library. Click on the link above to get more info and print out your voucher. The event begins at 10 AM, with the book signings by local authors beginning at noon. I'll be signing my book, Cooler Near the Lake, from 2-3. Support books... and our library!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Hell's bells–they're no angels

By Jim Heffernan

Many upstanding, law-abiding, right-thinking, church-going citizens hereabouts (you know, the Duluth-Cloquet-Carlton triangle) are concerned about the rendezvous of Hells Angels this week with headquarters in Carlton.

But, in spite of concerns about possible outbreaks of unruly conduct on the parts of the motorcycle group, I think we can turn this into a learning experience for everyone, especially children and car dealers.

Let me explain. The rogue motorcycle group (you notice I don’t say “gang”) calls itself Hells Angels. That should be Hell’s Angels, as any eighth grade (or earlier) English teacher would point out. That is unless there are other hells we haven’t been told about in the Bible or by Dante and other thinkers, in which case it would be Hells’ Angels.

No, there’s just one as far as I’m concerned, and, I’m sure, any self-respecting Hells Angel would agree.

The Devil you say? Go ahead.

But we were discussing the Hells Angels’ careless misuse (non-use, actually) of the all-important apostrophe. In their case, were the apostrophe properly inserted in Hells, it would read Hell’s on the backs of their black leather vests, a valuable learning experience for our children.

Yes, our children and also automobile dealers who, in their newspaper ads, consistently abuse the use of the apostrophe in spite of my warning them about it in a newspaper column many moons ago. They continue to print things like, “Four Chevy’s in stock” or “Three Jeep’s on sale” or “Buick’s top customer satisfaction.”

As every seventh grader should know, there is no need for an apostrophe when you are merely expressing a plural. It’s Four Chevys, Three Jeeps, Two Buicks and a partridge in a pear tree (in season). Can you imagine the chaos at Christmas time if that most popular of carols, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” included such lines as “four calling bird’s,” “three French hen’s,” “two turtle dove’s,” not to mention “seven swan’s a-swimming.” An abomination for sure.

But you do need an apostrophe when you proclaim yourself an angel of hell. It means you are OF hell; that you represent hell, and maybe even that hell owns you. It is called a possessive, and it is expressed in English with the apostrophe: Hell’s Angel, God’s children (all of whom have got shoes), and so forth.

Speaking of Christmas, I wonder what Hells Angels members do on that most festive of holidays, its theme being “peace on Earth,” and all that. Do they decorate trees? Exchange gifts? Sing carols like “The Twelve Days of Christmas?” Oh well, that’s something for anthropologists to study.

Just for the record, the apostrophe is used also to represent a contraction, such is it’s for it is, and it’s important, but how long can I go on without risking the glazing of readers’ (when a plural word ends in s the apostrophe usually follows the s) eyes.

Hell’s bells…it’s time for lunch anyway.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Elvis Presley: Ol' Swivel Hips Wowed Them Then

We're nearing the 32nd anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley. Elvis was discovered dead on a bathroom floor in Graceland on August 16, 1977. Earlier that year, Elvis appeared in concert in Duluth at the DECC. His last concert appearance was in June in Indianapolis. I thought you'd enjoy a bit of nostalgia as I reprint a review I wrote in the Duluth News Tribune following that concert. It was the end of an era, about to occur.

Ol' Swivel Hips Still Wows Them
by Jim Heffernan

A somewhat subdued yet happy - almost giddy - Elvis Presley did what he does best again Friday night in the Duluth Arena. A capacity crowd got what it came for at $12 to $15 a head for a show that was identical in most ways to the one Elvis put on here in October. The side acts were the same, the introductory music was the same and even some of comedian Jackie Kahane's jokes were the same.

And despite reports that Elvis had ballooned up to 285 pounds and was ailing, he looked pretty good. There's no question that he's fighting the battle of the bulge like most 42-year old men. But his paunch was well contained in his white sequined suit and massive belt and he looked healthy enough, even at close range.

The Elvis magic was still intact. Women still scream and try to make it to the stage to be immortalized by a kiss. A few made it. The white scarves, fresh from his damp neck, were handed out to screaming fans. Police and ushers fought the crowd back and one young woman fell and broke her leg at the foot of the stage. Her only regret, as police and Gold Cross ambulance attendants worked on her backstage, was that she was missing the performance. "I wanna go back and see Elvis", she cried, her knee bulging as though a golf ball had been implanted in it. She left in an ambulance. And while this small drama was unfolding behind the scenes, Elvis continued at center stage, doing as much bantering with the audience as singing. The crowd at stage front surged some more, with many women trying to pass bouqets of flowers to their idol.

Just for the record, the 8PM concert got under way about 8.30 after the Elvis entourage had milked the audience dry selling posters, belt buckles, programs and other memorabilia at tables situated throughout the arena. Once again, Elvis' very fine male quartet opened the show, followed by the comedian. He worked in the names of Mayor Beaudin and County Atty. Keith Brownell as well as some popular references to Twig. "I knew there were a lot of people from Twig here, I saw their plows parked outside." Some day a comedian is going to come to Duluth and not mention Twig.

Kahane introduced the soul singing Sweet Inspirations, a female trio with a lot of bounce, and they took it to the intermission. It was 9.30. The half hour intermission gave fans one more opportunity to purchase Elvis souvenirs, relentlessly hawked by sales people festooned with buttons bearing the singer's likeness. They were for sale too.

At precisely 10 PM, wrist-watch time, Elvis' band struck up the now-familiar introduction - the "Space Odyssey" song- and the great man swaggered to the stage, blue spotlights playing on him and thousands of hand-held cameras popping flashbulbs. The crowd surged forward down the aisles despite the protestations of ushers and police and he was off and wriggling.

The star didn't wriggle quite as much as last time, and he seemed to be having trouble remembering the words to some of his own standards. I Can't Help Falling in Love with You received a lot of help from his backup singers. My Way and Bridge Over Troubled Waters, not songs generally associated with Elvis went better.

Still the crowd was pleased. After about an hour's work, Elvis left the Arena, bound for more glory and Duluth International Airport, three floors at the Radisson vacated to be sold to more ordinary customers who can come and go more freely, but don't make as much money.

It's becoming fashionable for reviewers to say that Elvis is slipping a bit, but it's never safe to underestimate the boy from Tupelo, Miss., whose impact on popular culture at mid-century and beyond is undisputed. As radio commentator Paul Harvey said in 1955: "The kid won't last a year."

Originally appeared in The Duluth News Tribune on Saturday April 30, 1977

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Now showing at a theatre near you: Commercials

Been to a movie lately? I have. I used to occasionally review movies in the newspaper, so today I will trek down that dark alley again in hopes that it will be enlightening, if not entertaining.

When I read a book, I read everything up front: the title page, the dedication, the publishing history, the introduction, the prologue, the author’s note, the ISBN number. Everything. Then I begin reading the book itself – “It was the best of times, it was the…” well, you know. Call me Ishmael.

So this review encompasses everything at the movie once the lights go down, the music volume goes up and the flickering of the silver screen fills a person with eager anticipation that this could be the start of something grand.

Let’s see, when it all started last Saturday night, a group of characters were running around in nothing but their jeans and something on top – in other words, the way 268 million Americans dress every day. The plot was hard to follow until, suddenly and without warning, the screen was filled with a single word, spelled out in large crimson letters: Levis.

Oh, Levis. So this isn’t the movie yet, it’s a commercial.

Next came a scene on a beach with a petulant-looking movie director, camel hair coat draped over his shoulders (I think), jodhpurs running down slender legs, looking for all the world as though he was getting ready for the Red Sea crossing scene in “The Ten Commandments.”

The plot was kind of hard to follow, though, until the end when atop a mountain a miracle occurs: a shiny new Toyota.

Oops, guess that wasn’t the movie either.

There followed an intricately plotted Pepsi – or was it Coke? – commercial, but by then my mind had wandered over to the fact that I had paid $12 for two geezer seats to this flick. What flick? So far, only commercials.

Turned out the commercials were better than the movie anyway, so forget about that. But still….paying for commercials seems like an imposition. They’re free on TV at home.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Saying it with flowers...

Today's NY Times runs a piece in its Sunday Styles section about the life of former Duluthian, Engwalls flower arranger and Denfeld graduate, Robert Isabell, who at the age of 57 was found dead last week in his Greenwich Village town home. The Times piece, "He Says it With Flowers," written by Christopher Mason, embellishes the life of this famous party designer.

Quoting from Mason...
"Whether strewing glitter at Studio 54 in the late ’70s; tossing flowers on the coffin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, whose funeral he coordinated in 1994; or herding boatloads of V.I.P.’s like Madonna and Henry Kissinger onto Liberty Island for the debut of Tina Brown’s Talk magazine in 1999, Mr. Isabell was the master of a unique brand of stagecraft, creating events that powerfully evoked their era."

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Story of Ruth Anna Aurora...

Today marks another day of congressional hearings related to the appointment of Sonja Sotomayor as a Supreme Court justice. While we are all interested in the political nature of what those hearings will mean to the future of our nation, we additionally see that there is more to this woman and her life story. Sotomayor frequently refers to her mother’s influence on her life. How her mother of Hispanic origin raised a very successful family as a single parent suggests a poignant and interesting life story. Everyone has a life story to tell and that is what makes life and people so interesting.

I’ve held such a story in my memory for years, thinking some day that I will write it in book form. The story is of my mother’s life and the book is yet unwritten. But today, July 16, on this anniversary of my deceased mother’s birth, I am writing a shortened version of her fascinating story. (More about her memory of the Cloquet fire is a column–What a Day to Remember–I included in my book, Cooler Near the Lake.) It’s a bit of family history that does not in any way include the heart of her life journey. But it is a beginning and worth the while to tell. It seemed appropriate to share this short version of her story on the very date she was born 110 years ago that also collided with two important world events: the date that the Atomic bomb was set off and the date Apollo 11 took off for the moon. It’s July 16 and a story of many life collisions is born.

The story of Ruth Anna Aurora…

Today, July 16, 2009, marks the 110th birthday anniversary of my mother, Ruth Anna Aurora Carlson (1899-1983). She shares that July date with a couple of momentous events in American history – both of which she lived to see.

The first atomic bomb was set off on July 16, 1945, in the New Mexico desert, marking the dawn of the nuclear age. On July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 embarked for the moon, landing astronauts there for the first time a few days later.

Ruth’s early life, beginning in the horse-and-buggy era, was quite dramatic as well. Her parents, Charles and Anna Carlson, were young Swedish immigrants who met in Duluth in the 1890s. Anna came to America in her teens and worked as a domestic servant in Duluth before her marriage at age 19. Charles held a variety of jobs from street railway conductor to grocery clerk.

Ruth was their first-born – in a house in Duluth’s West End that still stands, but has been moved about a block from where it was located on July 16, 1899. When she was very young, the family moved to Ellsworth, Wis., where Charles took possession of a farm. In Ellsworth the family started to grow, another daughter born three years after Ruth, and then a succession of additional daughters, all daughters, that numbered six girls by 1912.

Some of the daughters were born in Ellsworth, the younger ones in Duluth after the Carlsons moved back. Ruth always said that her mother didn’t want her daughters to grow up on a farm. Anna’s heart was in the city.

From an early age, Ruth showed a talent for music, having the ability to play the piano by ear without formal training. In Duluth, as she was growing up, she got formal training and was given many opportunities through their church – Bethany Swedish Lutheran Church in the West End – to hone her talent. Her training also encompassed the pipe organ, which she played as a teenager at Bethany under the tutelage of the regular organist.

At home, the family, living on Piedmont Avenue between Third and Fourth streets, was growing, but dark days loomed. In 1917, at the age of 38, Ruth’s mother Anna died, leaving Charles with six daughters, Ruth being the eldest, not yet 18.

At about the same time, America became involved in World War I, and the regular organist at Bethany Lutheran was called into the Army. Ruth, by then his assistant, took over as chief organist pending the return of the regular organist. He never returned. He was killed in action in France.

So, while still in her teens, Ruth found herself as organist at a sizeable Lutheran Church established 30 years before by Swedish immigrants who settled in the West End, and which by 1918 had grown to some 900 members.

There was more drama. The great 1918 Cloquet fire, which devastated the Duluth area, leveling outlying communities and part of Duluth with massive loss of life and property, threw Ruth, her father and younger sisters into agonizing fear as the blaze threatened to move into the West End where they lived.

Ruth and her recently widowed father stayed up all night watching fiery refuse sweep before the strong wind down Piedmont Avenue, and making ready to evacuate their small home and flee with the children to the waterfront, about a mile away. To their great relief, the wind turned overnight, driving the fire back. The family was safe.

But the following year, her father, Charles, also died. He was in his mid-40s. It left the still-teenaged Ruth as the head of the family – six girls, one of which had been born with severe disabilities involving epilepsy and retardation. Ruth and her oldest sisters kept the parentless family together, declining offers from people at their church to adopt the younger girls. Ruth was the paid organist at Bethany and earned the remainder of her living giving piano lessons. In those days, piano teachers went to the homes of the students for the lessons, just as doctors went to the homes of the sick to treat them. In time, her two oldest sisters found jobs and helped support the parentless family.

The high drama of her early life was largely over by 1920, when she turned 21. She continued to study the piano at Duluth’s Lachmond studios, mastering the classical repertoire, as she organized the music of the church, including providing accompaniment for countless weddings and funerals, and shepherding the growth of her youngest sisters with the help of her oldest siblings.

She didn’t marry until 1932, when she and my father, George H. Heffernan, started their lives together. They had two sons, Rodney, born in 1933, and this writer, born six years later.

She continued as Bethany organist and director of choirs throughout, finally retiring in 1976 at the age of 77. She died in 1983 at age 84 and is buried in Bethany Cemetery in Hermantown alongside George (1894-1971), and in the same plot grouping as her parents, Charles and Anna, and three of her sisters. Two other sisters are buried nearby. Ruth had outlived them all.

Cooler Near the Lake, the book

Cooler near the Lake, my book, is now for sale on line at, Adventure Publications, and Amazon. It's also for sale directly at all the local bookstores, including Fitgers Books, Northern Lights, and at our local Barnes and Noble. You can also find it at many shops and regional book sellers. Since I've gone solo with the book (bought back the rights from the publisher recently), I've run into some snags for on line sales that now seem squared away. So thought I'd pass the news on to you!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Bloody weekend with Dillinger, Salome and Duluth's Central Hillside

By Jim Heffernan

Let me tell you about my violent weekend.

First, I saw the movie “Public Enemies.” It’s interesting – all about the life and death of 1930s bank robber and killer John Dillinger.

Particularly interesting to me were the final scenes, when the FBI assassinated Dillinger as he left the Biograph Theater in Chicago after viewing a movie. On a visit when I was about 12, an uncle who lived in Chicago pointed the theater out to me as we drove past it. It made quite an impression on me, one that has lasted to this day.

The movie, starring Johnny Depp as Dillinger, portrays the outlaw’s demise very well, with the Biograph marquee looking like I remember it when I saw the theater some 17 years after Dillinger was killed there. Dillinger walks out of the theater with the two women who accompanied him, one of whom had betrayed him, moves down the street on a warm summer night, and a host of waiting FBI agents fills him full of lead.

They were as merciless as Dillinger and other members of his gang were portrayed as they roved around the Midwest robbing banks and breaking out of jails, sometimes killing innocent people in the process. There are a lot of dead bodies in “Public Enemies,” some of them crooks, some of them lawmen, some innocent bystanders. Violence galore. Blood galore.

And there’s torture to boot as the lawmen attempt to get captured crooks to reveal Dillinger’s whereabouts.

I have become increasingly disenchanted with so much violence in movies and on TV. One place you can usually avoid it is in church, which I attended the Sunday after seeing “Public Enemies” on Saturday night. But I was not to avoid more violence that weekend – not even in church.

The day’s gospel was from the New Testament book of Mark in which the story of the demise of John the Baptist – not to be confused with John the Dillinger -- is described in rather gory detail in the translation employed by the modern church.

It tells the tale of King Herod who marries his brother’s wife (well, ex-wife) and is criticized by John the Baptist for doing so. This inspires the enmity of Herod’s new wife, whose daughter Salome dances the dance of seven veils, which so inspires Herod he offers her half his kingdom or any other wish she might have. Salome discusses this with her mother, who tells her to ask for the severed head of John the Baptist on a platter.

So they decapitate John and deliver up his head, a scene portrayed in several movies – Rita Hayworth made a seductive Salome -- and even in opera.

Gruesome. So gruesome, in fact, that the minister apologized to the parents of young children in the congregation for preaching on this text. Of course, there’s as much violence in the Bible as there was in America 75-plus years ago (let’s not forget the St. Valentine’s Day massacre -- or maybe we should), and continues everywhere today.

Safe at home on Sunday night, we heard about a shooting in Duluth’s Central Hillside that we learned the next day resulted in the death of one man – bullet in the head – and injury to another – bullet in the thigh.

By then I was so inured to the weekend’s violence that I didn’t bat an eye.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

More about Enger Tower Birthday...

Refer to my post of June 16 when I wished Enger Tower a Happy Birthday. As you recall I was hiking around Enger Park by pure chance on the very day of Enger Tower's 70th anniversary. As I climbed the tower, I came across the commemorative plaque noting the tower's dedication 70 years ago that very day. Check out a recent post on the Perfect Duluth Day blog to see an old Enger Tower dedication button someone found. It pictures Crown Prince Olav V and Princess Martha of Norway who participated in the dedication festivities. Interesting connections to this 70 year old famous Duluth landmark!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Vacation rental horror stories...

We rented three adjoining cabins on a Wisconsin Lake with our adult kids and their families a couple of weeks ago. The lake was gorgeous and our accommodations were very nice. We had a wonderful summer week with all the family. A few years ago, my wife and I traveled to the Canadian Rockies by car and ended up with some very nice places to stay. One motel on the way, however, was a different story. While the surface looked great in a Canadian motel where we stopped for the night (it was one with a major brand name), the "under the surface" was bug infested, including the beds. We ended up calling the management before midnight, getting our money back and headed to a very clean and nice motel down the street. Vacation rentals can be iffy. Just to make you feel better, you can read a fun account of "Summer House Horrors: On a Private Lake in Maine, No One Can Hear You Scream" in yesterday's NY Times. Yikes!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Jim Heffernan on Facebook...

Hi everyone,
It's me again. I'm Jim's wife and loyal supporter, Voula. ('s not Blanche, really!) I help him with the technical part of his blog and he has all the fun writing in it. But once in a while I peep in to say hi and to keep you up to date with things. While Jim is not involved with Facebook, he has authorized my setting up a Fan Page on it for him. I succumbed to that social networking web system earlier this year when I wanted to see pictures of our nephew's new born child, born on the same day as our youngest grandchild. And the rest is history. In case you're one of those Facebook people too, please note the new button added to this blog on the sidebar to notify you and help you get connected to Jim Heffernan's Facebook Fan Page. For those of you not connected to Facebook, that's really OK; you're probably out there healthfully involved in real life!

Hope to see you on Saturday at Northern Lights Books in Duluth's Canal Park for Jim's book signing. I am going to watch Jim carefully that day to be sure he has worn more than his boxer shorts! (Refer to his most recent post explaining that comment.)
Voula Heffernan

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Book signing in boxer shorts is a dream event...

"I’m at the bookstore, seated at the signing table, wearing only my boxer shorts and...."

I’ll be at Duluth’s Northern Lights Books on Canal Park Drive signing copies of my book, Cooler Near the Lake: Fifty-two Favorites from Thirty-four Years of Deadlines from 2 to 3 p.m. Saturday (July 11), come rain or come shine.

So, come on down, rain or shine. I’ll be glad to personally inscribe a copy of the book for you.

Last month, well-known author David Sedaris signed books at Northern Lights and hundreds of people showed up – so many that, because it rained, those who couldn’t fit into the building were housed on buses in the parking lot and entertained by guitar-strumming performers.

Maybe reading news accounts of the Sedaris signing at Northern Lights prompted this dream the other night, late in a restless sleep:

I’m at the bookstore, seated at the signing table, wearing only my boxer shorts (as often happens in dreams). Outside a moose ambles by, chased by Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska who announced she will resign this month. Al Franken shows up with Mayor Don Ness and they do a soft-shoe routine on the sidewalk out front (after Palin and the moose pass by).

Because the day is “Cooler Near the Lake” (sorry), and it is shiveringly cold, a tent loaned by Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey is erected in the parking lot were overflow crowds are entertained by an elephant playing Brahms. Or was it Grieg? Dreams fade fast in the morning.

Author Sedaris thought he had a big response.

Unfortunately – no, actually fortunately – my Saturday signing will be a much quieter event than the one in the dream, or even Sedaris’ event. I’ll be there, fully clothed, with bells on. Not sure they’ll ring.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Minnesota's odd politics...

"In Minnesota, there is a kind of populist approach that is less progressive than a reflex, a notion that politics belongs to citizens, and politicians only rent their positions."
By David Carr (Independence Day: Al Franken and the Odd Politics of Minnesota, NY Times, published July 4, 2009)

Former Minnesotan and NY Times journalist, David Carr, highlights Al Franken's Independence Day as the new senator from Minnesota and spins a most interesting commentary on the odd politics of Minnesota. We in Minnesota have higher than average turnout at the voting polls and we don't elect just any ordinary politicians either.

No matter the color of your political persuasion, you'll enjoy Carr's commentary about our state's odd history of politics. Click HERE to read his writing appearing in today's NY Times.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Two degrees of separation from Jacko

by Jim Heffernan

Because I interviewed many celebrities in my years working at the Duluth newspaper, my degrees of separation from uncounted luminaries from show business to politics are very short.

But two degrees from Michael Jackson? I never expected that.

Interviewing the likes of Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale, on the political side, and Jack Benny and Gregory Peck on the showbiz side (among many, many others), leaves you with just a degree of separation or so from just about everybody anybody’s ever heard of, including presidents of the United States. I even had journalistic contact with one of The Flying Wallendas, from the circus world.

None of this is to drop names or boast. When you work for a newspaper – especially covering arts and entertainment – it comes with the territory.

I tend to think in terms of my degrees of separation from well-known people, especially when they die. Like, I wonder if Gregory Peck knew Gale Storm, who died this week. I wonder if anybody under 50 even knows OF Gale Storm. I can’t forge any definite degrees of separation with Gale Storm.

I learned shortly after he died, though, that I came a lot closer to Michael Jackson than I would have expected. The day after the entertainer died, National Public Radio interviewed a journalist named Brian Monroe who, it was said, conducted the last one-on-one interview Jackson ever gave.

Monroe interviewed Jackson over two days in 2007, and on the radio offered several interesting insights into the human side of Jackson – a side that didn’t show up much in the publicity surrounding the entertainer.

So where do I come in? Monroe, whom the moderator identified as former editorial director of Jet and Ebony magazines, is also a former news executive for the former Knight-Ridder, which formerly owned the Duluth News Tribune. (The older you get, the more the word “former” creeps into your lexicon.)

As a Knight-Ridder executive at its San Jose, Calif., headquarters, Monroe used to visit the Duluth newspaper two or three times a year. I spoke with him several times. When Knight-Ridder disbanded, he went to work for Jet/Ebony, and while there he interviewed Jackson.

So what’s that for me, two degrees of separation from Jackson? Of course, the concept of degrees of separation puts everyone on earth just six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon, the actor.

Wish I could say that about Canadian Bacon, the artery clogger.