Thursday, June 09, 2005

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (6/09/05)


America's greatest grandpa? In Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, the tombstone of Capt. John Buckhout announces that he set what must be some sort of record. His age was 103, and "he left behind him when he died (April 10, 1785) 240 children and grandchildren." No extrapolation of the number of each generation is given, but the total is nevertheless prodigious for a time when life expectancy was low. John Buckhout was the husband of Mary Buckhout, who died in August of 1755, 30 years before her husband. Possibly of frustration in trying to compile a Christmas gift list?

Count yourself a genuine Ossining oldtimer if you know the location of Mount Murray. It's the hill on which the Scarborough Manor apartments were built in Sparta. Legend has it that in the early 1800s, Marcia Murray, "deserted by her fiance, in despondency and grief, cast herself into the river."

The more things change . . . When I was a college student majoring in geology, you couldn't get a university job teaching the subject if you espoused Alfred Wegener's radical theory of continental drift. Today, you can't get a university job teaching geology if you don't subscribe to the theory of plate tectonics, a variant of Wegener's theory.

Wegener proposed that all the continents were previously one large continent that later broke apart, the individual continents drifting across the ocean floor to their present locations. He found support for his theory in the distribution of similar fossils in Africa and Brazil. Wegener's findings were published in his book The Origin of the Continents and Oceans. Wegener's theory was so unpopular in his home country, Germany, that he had to move to Austria to find a university teaching job.

Two mid-20th century discoveries eventually confirmed Wegener's theory: paleomagnetism and oceanography. In molten igneous rocks, the magnetic particles align themselves with the Earth's magnetic field. This alignment is stored within the rocks when they cool. The deviation in alignment of such particles from the current direction of the Earth's magnetic field prove that the continents have moved.

Similarly, oceanographic studies of the floor of the Atlantic Ocean showed that new oceanic crust was forming on either side of the mid-Atlantic Ridge, as the two halves of the Atlantic move apart.

From these observations it was a short step to today's accepted theory of plate tectonics, which posits that the surface of the Earth is a series of relatively thin, rigid plates in constant motion, We now know that much of the Earth's volcanic and seismic activity occurs at the boundaries of adjoining plates, recently demonstrated by the earthquake off Sumatra's northwest coast that caused a devastating tsunami and killed hundreds of thousands. In science, yesterday's heresy is often today's dogma.

No profiteering. In 1813, Ossining became the first village chartered in Westchester County after the Revolution. In an unusual provision, its trustees were empowered to prohibit bakers from selling bread at higher prices than the price of the same quality bread in New York City.

Almost famous. Alert Broadway theatergoers occasional spot a familiar name in a play's printed program: George Spelvin. Over a span of 75 years, he's an actor who has appeared in 67 plays and revivals. But before you start wondering why he has never received a lifetime achievement award, you should know that George Spelvin is a fictitious name adopted by actors for various reasons.

"George Spelvin" may be doubling in another role in the play--sometimes even playing more than two roles. Or "George Spelvin" may be an actor who wants to conceal his identity. In four of the 67 plays the name has appeared as George Spelvin, Jr. In the program for the play In Any Language that opened in the Cort Theatre on Oct. 7, 1952, and starred Walter Matthau and Eileen Heckart, Matthau is listed as Giorgio Spelvino.

George Spelvin has a female counterpart, Georgette Spelvin. That name enjoyed a brief popularity between 1932, in the play Riddle Me This, starring Thomas Mitchell, and the first 1934 production of Dodsworth, based on Sinclair Lewis's novel and starring Walter Huston. Adult film actress Georgina Spelvin, born Michelle Graham in Texas in 1936, used the name Georgina Spelvin from 1957 until she retired in 1982 at age 47.

Hollywood has used the name George Spelvin sparingly to conceal the identity of an actor--in only seven films between 1926 (Just Suppose) and 1999 (Kiss Toledo Goodbye). The most recognizable George Spelvin: Robin Williams, who was billed by that name in the 1996 film The Secret Agent. The George Spelvin name also appears on the screen credits of directors, writers, cinematographers, composers, editors, art directors, and production designers.

The most popular identity-hiding name used in Hollywood is not George Spelvin but director Alan Smithee, first employed in 1969. The film in question was Death of a Gunfighter, starring Richard Widmark and Lena Horne, helmed by director Richard Totten. Halfway through the film, Totten was replaced as director because of "artistic differences" between him and the male lead. Multi-talented Don Siegel, already recognized for his 1956 classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, was hired to take over.

With filming concluded, Siegel, uneasy because Totten had actually directed more of the film than he had, refused to take screen credit. Instead he suggested the director be shown as Al Smith. After the Directors Guild of America discovered that there already was a listed director of that name, Siegel suggested a compromise--the name Alan Smithee. A precedent was set for directors who did not want their names on a film.

Eighteen years and 34 Alan Smithee-directed films later, director Arthur Hiller's cut of his 1997 film about the movie colony was rejected by the production company that had bankrolled it. An unhappy Hiller suggested that his name be removed from An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn. It would be the last film to bear that all-purpose director's name: The Directors Guild put an end to the name game by delisting the fictitious Alan Smithee as a director.

What are they doing to my army of the Epirus? You may recall the name of Army Reserve Brigadier General Janis Karpinski. She commanded the 800th Military Police Brigade, some of whose members were involved in the rampant abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The U.S. Army has now demoted her to colonel for dereliction of duty and an undisclosed 2002 arrest for shoplifting a $22 bottle of facial cream at the PX at McDill Air Force Base in Florida while she was a colonel. She denies the shoplifting arrest, claiming it was the result of a misunderstanding. After graduating from Rahway High School in New Jersey in 1971, she attended Kean College in Union, New Jersey, a commuter college specializing in training teachers. Her B.A. degree was in English/secondary education. Some high school's loss of a teacher can hardly be called the Army's gain.


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