Saturday, October 30, 2010

Duluth MN, October 1976: Elvis sang...and they just loved him

by Jim Heffernan
The following review originally appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on October 17, 1976

(Note: Thirty-four years ago this month, Elvis made his first appearance in Duluth. He entertained Duluthians one more time the following April, just prior to his death in August of 1977. The following review was my first of two reviews of Elvis in concert in Duluth for the Duluth News Tribune. This concert–reviewed below–took place in the Duluth Arena on October 16, 1976. I reprinted my second review of his April 29, 1977 Duluth appearance in honor of the anniversary of his death on this blog last year– Click HERE . Those of you who are true Elvis fans may also want to check out a  memory piece I included in my book, Cooler Near the Lake, about Elvis in Duluth titled "Elvis Didn't Look Like a God During Duluth Visit." That writing first appeared in my Duluth News Tribune column on Sunday, January 30, 1994. Elvis lives...)

Elvis Presley delivered. He kept a full Duluth Arena waiting for more than an hour Saturday night while his "people" performed, but when he came on, he delivered. And the crowd went wild. Women screamed, flashbulbs - thousands of them - popped, fans tried to climb the stage and were repelled by police, and Elvis sang.

The more he sang, the more they loved him. They loved him most when he began passing perspiration-soaked silk scarves from around his neck to the few adoring fans who made it to the edge of the stage.
He performed for exactly one hour, then he was gone, a good $100,000 richer - before expenses and taxes.

At 41, Presley is amazingly well preserved. He's a little huskier now, but still trim. His white suit trimmed in gold brocaide makes him look like something not of this earth, and in some ways, he isn't. One of the few entertainers who has managed to stay popular long enough to take advantage of his own nostalgia, Elvis drew a mixed crowd of young, older and even oldish. Mainly, though, the crowd consisted of people now in their 30s who were his fans when Heartbreak Hotel forever changed the course of popular music.

He didn't sing Heartbreak Hotel Saturday night, but he managed to get in just about every other hit that's made him a millionaire several times over. But Elvis Presley is more than just Elvis Presley. He's a dozen-piece orchestra, 10 backup singers, and who knows how many people backstage, pilot fish for this unique person who somehow has managed to capture the dreams of so many people.

Soft-spoken when he addressed the audience, he mainly just introduced his music and his people and sang Love Me (Treat Me Like a Fool), Jailhouse Rock, All Shook Up, Teddy Bear, Don't Be Cruel, Hound Dog, even Blue Christmas, probably put in the act after he saw snowflakes from the window of one of the three floors of hotel rooms he's rented at the Radisson.

The show began promptly at 8.30 but not with Elvis. First his band played. Then his gospel quartet sang. Then his comedian entertained (with some pretty funny material). Then his female trio, not unlike the Supremes, sang. That took an hour, and then came intermission. After a good 15 minutes of opportunity for fans to buy Elvis memorabilia, the lights went down again and to the stirring strains of Richard Strauss' "Also Sparch Zarathustra," sometimes known as the "Space Odyssey Song," Elvis materialized in a blaze of light.

His voice is very much intact. A little raspy at first, it mellowed as he went on, soaking his vocal chords every few minutes with drinks of water provided by an on stage valet who also provided the scarves he threw into the audience. The drama of his act - his gyrations and rubbery leg movements that are his trademark - set the audience to screaming whenever he moved.

And after an hour during which he killed at least 10 minutes introducing each member of his troupe and giving them chance to solo, he led into his final number. I Just Can't Help Loving You are the lead words, if not the title, he said "If you want us back, just ask for us." The crowd again went wild with screaming, applauding and stomping and Elvis passed out a few more scarves, bowed to all four sides of his audience (the seats behind the stage were filled too), and left.

That was it. As the audience filed from its seats, a voice on the public address system said "Elvis has left the Arena." That's all there was, there wasn't any more.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Son of Tarzan: Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye....

By Jim Heffernan
Johnny Sheffield
as Bomba the Jungle Boy
Former jungle boy dies in fall from palm tree...
Not too many people think of Johnny Sheffield as a household name. You even wonder if he was a household name in his own household.

But he has always been a household name around my house. Johnny Sheffield had quite a career in the movies, first as Tarzan’s son, whose name was simply “Boy,” and later as “Bomba the Jungle Boy.”

Sheffield died Oct. 15 in California at the age of 79. Seventy-nine. Think of it. Boy at 79. Here’s some of the back story, a mix of information in his obituary in the Los Angeles Times and my own memory.

When the powers that were at MGM in the late 1930s thought they needed to beef up the Tarzan franchise (as if movies with Johnny Weissmuller as the star needed beefing up), they decided to present Tarzan and wife Jane with a son. Young Sheffield got the part.

The boy was not the issue of Tarzan and Jane, though. He was found in the jungle after surviving a plane crash that killed his parents. Luckier than Tarzan, who was raised by apes after being washed ashore in Africa following a shipwreck that claimed the lives of his parents, Boy was rescued by humans who lived in a really neat tree house in the back-lot jungle at MGM.

By naming him Boy it started a Hollywood trend that led eventually to Audrey Hepburn naming her cat “Cat” in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

Unfortunately, by the end of the 1940s, Weissmuller got fat and Boy grew up. Jane, played originally by Maureen O’Sullivan, had moved on to her biggest role: The real-life mother of Mia Farrow.

Oh, but I’m going way deeper into this than I intended to.

I just wanted to recall the last time I saw Johnny Sheffield in a movie. It was September 1970 in the maternity ward at St. Mary’s Hospital in Duluth. I had been kicked out of the labor room where my wife was laboring, and told to go to a smoking lounge to wait while she was wheeled into the delivery room. (Smoking lounge – how about that. And no hubbies in the delivery room in those days.)

I did what I was told, and lo and behold, a TV in the smoking lounge was tuned to an old movie, “Bomba the Jungle Boy” with Johnny Sheffield in the title role. So I settled in to watch Bomba swing through the jungle Tarzan-like combating greedy bad guys who – here’s a surprise – were after illicit gold. Imagine that.

Then, right in the middle of an exciting part (pygmies with poison darts had appeared on the scene), a nurse came and told me my wife had given birth to a healthy girl, our first child. Joy all around, of course, as I was escorted into still another room to meet the new baby. That child turned 40 last month.

But for 40 years I’ve wondered how that Bomba movie came out. And now Johnny Sheffield is dead, and I’m not feeling that great myself. (I’m fine; I just stole that line from somebody who said it about Elvis when he died.)

Post mortem: The L.A. Times reported that Sheffield died after falling out of a palm tree. You always hope that when you go it will be without irony. Doesn’t always work out that way though.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Wellstone left Big Shoes to Fill...

Today -- Oct. 25 -- is the eighth anniversary of the day Sen. Paul Wellstone, members of his family and aides were killed when their plane crashed on the Iron Range. Later that day, Wellstone was scheduled to meet with the Duluth News Tribune editorial board, of which I was a member. When we were informed of the tragedy, I sat down and wrote this column (below), which appeared in the next morning's News Tribune. -- Jim

Wellstone Leaves Big Shoes to Fill
by Jim Heffernan
(Originally appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on Saturday, October 26, 2002 and reprinted in my book, Cooler Near the Lake, published in 2008.)

Paul Wellstone gone? Someone so full of life, of exuberance, of zest, of desire to do good by his fellow man–gone in an instant on a drizzly day right here in the Northland? Can't be, you think. But it's all too true.

I knew Wellstone the way a home-state journalist is likely to know a U.S. Senator. Since he was elected to the Senate, we saw him a couple of times a year. He'd come through for a visit with the editorial board, updating us on what was going on in Washington.

Always upbeat, often passionate about what he believed in, the interviews–chats, really–with Wellstone were something we looked forward to. Politics aside, I liked him personally. I admired his resolve to stand up for what he believed in.

I first met Wellstone in 1982 when he ran for Minnesota state auditor–and lost. Aching to be a major player in the liberal political traditions of his adopted state, the then political science professor at Carleton College in Northfield ran for a state constitutional office, probably seeing it as a stepping stone for bigger and better things to come.

I don't think he'd have made much of a state auditor, although he'd have worked at it. The job would have bored him. Wellstone had bigger things churning in that brain–a passion for helping people who need help and a conviction that government should do what it can to make people's lives better. In short, he was a liberal.

The word liberal has become a pejorative in some (conservative) circles. Those who disliked what Wellstone stood for know he was, perhaps, the most liberal member of the Senate. Wellstone wore that label proudly, unashamedly.

On the occasion of another of our editorial board meetings, after he'd been elected to the Senate, the subject of health care came up. Wellstone felt strongly that America's health care system was broken, and of course he was right. It still isn't fixed. In our conversation–four of us around a table–he became so impassioned about the subject that he began to tear up.

The rest of us, all male, became uncomfortable at his emotional display, but I never forgot it. And, reflecting on it, I could see that was what was best about Wellstone. He really felt what he believed in. He truly was a “bleeding-heart liberal” in the finest sense of that often cynical description. The world needs bleeding-heart liberals, and Wellstone filled that bill almost better than anyone else in a position to help shape American policy.

Finally, on another visit with us, I went to the newspaper's lobby to greet him and guide him to our meeting room, and as we walked up the stairs I noticed that his shoes–loafers–were shot. I mean shot. Hobos heating bean cans over fires in railroad yards had better shoes. Long cracks across the top, exposing his socks beneath, shabby soles.

I kidded him about it, saying something like, “A United States senator can't afford decent shoes?”

Wellstone wasn't a bit abashed. He muttered something about not having time to worry about shoes–too much to do and too little time to do it in. I later wrote a column about the senator's shabby shoes, but I never heard from him about it. Still too busy.

We had another editorial board meeting scheduled with Wellstone, this one Friday afternoon, to talk about the newspaper's endorsement in the Senate race this year. An airplane crash intervened. He was dead, along with his wife and daughter and others on the plane.

As the gray day wore on Friday, and details kept pouring in, for some reason my mind kept going back to those tattered shoes. Who will fill them?

No one quite like Paul Wellstone, whose unlikely life journey took him to the place where his death could affect the balance of the U.S. Senate at a time when the nation appears to be poised for a war he opposed, and when so many other issues remain unresolved that need a committed liberal voice.

Life goes on, but for the time being we'd better put it on hold for a truly good man who was more concerned about providing shoes for those who couldn't afford them than what he wore himself.

Monday, October 18, 2010

The History of Pizza in Duluth as I know it...

By Jim Heffernan
My life in pizza actually began in Chicago, when I was 12 years old.....Some of those restaurants featured “pizza,” a word I had never seen before, and I had to ask what it was. An Italian pie, my Chicago relatives said, but they didn’t eat it. They were Scandinavian, and in those days – the very early 1950s – things Italian and things Scandinavian didn’t mix that well, in food and in church.
Sammy's Pizza
It might come as a surprise to today’s generations that there are still people alive – me, for instance – who remember when there was almost no pizza available in Duluth.

Pizza didn’t become widely available in Duluth until about the mid-50s, or maybe just before that. I am aware of only one Duluth restaurant that served pizza among many other Italian dishes on its menu before that time. That restaurant was the Gopher Grill when it was located downtown on the second floor of a long-gone building on the north side of Superior Street between Fourth and Fifth avenues West, with a stairway entrance on Superior Street.

I only found out about the Gopher Grill’s pizza after other pizza outlets had opened, especially Sammy’s on First Street at First Avenue West.

Why all this now? Because I realized recently that never a week goes by that I don’t eat pizza in some form – fresh, frozen, reheated, bake your self. Sometimes pizza enters my life more than once a week. I almost always welcome it, but, of course, not all pizza is created equal.

These pizza thoughts prompted me to recall the first time I tasted pizza, and then the pizza memories began to flow.

My life in pizza actually began in Chicago, when I was 12 years old. We were visiting relatives and they lived in a neighborhood – Halsted Street not too far from the Loop – where several restaurants and bars were located. Some of those restaurants featured “pizza,” a word I had never seen before, and I had to ask what it was. An Italian pie, my Chicago relatives said, but they didn’t eat it. They were Scandinavian, and in those days – the very early 1950s – things Italian and things Scandinavian didn’t mix that well, in food and in church.

Then, toward the mid-1950s, a place called the “Pizzaria” opened on First Street in downtown Duluth, probably around First or Second avenues East, which is where I first tasted pizza. I was wary of it, sampled it, and didn’t like it one bit. Too spicy. I’m half Scandinavian and the rest northern European, and the cuisine served in my home was fairly bland, although my Swedish mother served a tasty spaghetti we all enjoyed.

By then I was in high school, prowling around Duluth with my friends in our family Ford, a lifestyle that opened many new horizons, including eating different foods I was not used to such as Coney Islands.

In 1955, when I turned 16, I went to work at the Duluth Herald & News Tribune as a Saturday night laborer in the mailing room. It was the worst job I have ever had, toiling to put together the various sections of the Sunday newspaper as they ran off the press, and pushing them out the alley door onto the trucks that transported the news throughout the region, from Ironwood, Mich., to International Falls, Minn., with Duluth-Superior in between. I hated it.

But one night, at our 9:30 p.m. “lunch” break (our shift ran from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m. if the press didn’t break down0, one of the workers showed up carrying a paper-wrapped pizza pie he’d picked up at newly opened Sammy’s Pizza. He sat on a stack of newspapers holding the cardboard disc the carry-out pizza came on and offered me a piece. I knew I wouldn’t like it because of my experience at the Pizzaria (which the arrival of Sammy’s from Hibbing apparently put out of business), but instead it was a revelation. The pepperoni, the cheese, the tomato sauce -- I was hooked after one square piece. Sammy’s has always insisted on cutting its pies in squares instead of the wedges most pizza restaurants feature.

The rest is history. Sammy’s reigned supreme in Duluth for several years, opening outlets in West Duluth and Superior and other places, but as the ‘50s became the ‘60s other pizza outlets began to compete – Shakey’s, Pizza Hut, several other local pizza “palaces” (for some unknown reason pizza restaurants were often referred to as palaces, which none of them were) like Frank’s and Dave’s. At the same time, home-baked package pizza meals like Chef Boyardee became available and frozen pizza, followed more recently by “bake it yourself”, flooded the supermarkets and strip malls.

Pizza is everywhere, here and throughout America and Canada and Europe, where it all began but in vastly different form. Once, visiting Paris, France, I ordered pizza in a Champs Elysses restaurant and it came with a poached egg in the middle. Very good, though. I like poached eggs too.

The worst pizza I ever ate was not in a restaurant, but at the family cabin many, many years ago when a friend and I, craving pizza, brought a Chef Boyaree ingredient box along only to realize the cabin didn’t have a pizza pan to bake it on. Employing ingenuity only Americans can muster, we scrubbed the garbage can cover clean in the lake and made our pizza in that. I’ll say this for it: It was round.

There’s undoubtedly much more to the history of pizza in Duluth, and I’ve probably left out some prominent pizza palaces, but this is how I recall it. Maybe you have different memories. Go ahead and put them on the blog or Facebook.

Hmmm. Getting kind of hungry for lunch. Maybe there’s some left over pizza in the fridge from or visit to Sammy’s West Duluth the other night.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Election autumn in Minnesota, winter in Norway and Lapland...

By Jim Heffernan

I want to thank the Minnesota Republican Party (well, maybe not the whole party but its leader) for introducing Vidkun Quisling to the political conversation this election season.

There had been concerns in some quarters – mine, for instance -- that the name of Mr. Quisling, who was Nazi Germany’s supreme leader of Norway during World War II, had disappeared from the lexicon. Even the Associated Press called the reference to Quisling (or quisling, as it has become) “arcane.”

Oh but we need background here. Much background. As the 2010 election campaign has “progressed” (not to be confused with “progressive”) in Minnesota (and the rest of the country, for that matter) things have been getting meaner and meaner, nastier and nastier.

This week, the news that many prominent Gopher State Republicans are supporting Independence Party candidate Tom Horner (no relation to Little Jack Horner, who sat in a corner, etc.) rather than the Republican-endorsed hopeful, Tom Emmer (not to be confused with Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son, who stole a pig, etc.) prompted Tony “The Tiger” Sutton, the state GOP chief, to call Republicans who support Horner “quislings.”

As noted above, there are two ways to refer to the nasty Nazi Norwegian who led Norway during World War II for Germany (Springtime for Hitler and Germany, winter for Norway and Lapland): You can either write Quisling or quisling. It’s easier in conversation, where you don’t have to differentiate between capital letters (or capital punishment, for that matter, read on.)

Vini vidi vici Vidkun was such a bad guy that immediately after the war he was taken out and shot, and, what is worse, the case was forever lowered on his last name. Now he resides in every dictionary as quisling, a synonym for traitor.

Years ago, when I was a newspaper columnist in Duluth, emphasizing humorous articles about traitors and rats, I wrote about Quisling (the traitor) quite often in connection with research on the Norwegian rat. But since then, Quisling – even quisling – seems to have disappeared.

Now, thanks to the Minnesota GOP’s Sutton, he is back in the news, albeit in the lower case. Sutton claims he didn’t mean to associate the Horner turncoats (my usage) with those nasty Nazis, but rather only to brand them as traitors, “like saying someone’s a Benedict Arnold.”

All good Norwegians (and they’re all good, ask one) should always remember Vidkun Quisling just as all right-thinking Americans (not all are right-thinking, some are left-thinking) should remember Benedict Arnold, whose heinous deeds during the Revolutionary War are too, well, too heinous to detail here. Besides, I can’t remember exactly what he did. Off hand.

Sutten’s entire quisling-loaded quote was, “There’s a special place in hell for these quislings.”

So Republicans who support little Tom Horner are not only like Norwegian traitors, but have a special place in hell reserved for them. Seems like Republicans always have special places reserved for them.