Monday, June 27, 2011

Today in History: Route 66 Decertified

On June 27, 1985, the famous Route 66 was officially decertified as a U.S. highway.

Route 66

What the Oregon Trail was to the 19th century, Route 66 became for the 20th. Like its predecessor, Route 66 carried vast numbers of people westward. It also become a cultural icon memorialized in song, fiction, television, and pop culture.

During the early 1920s, Cyrus Avery of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and John Woodruff of Springfield, Missouri, provided an early impetus for creating a highway link between the Midwest and California. They understood that such a route would provide an economic boost to their home states along the route. Spurred by the burgeoning automotive industry, Congress initiated legislation for a comprehensive plan of public highways in 1916, with revisions in 1921, and a finalized plan in 1925.

Following extended wrangling, Avery's proposed road became Route 66 on November 26, 1925. The road would run from Jackson and Michigan Avenues in Chicago southwest through St. Louis, Missouri, on to Tulsa and Oklahoma City, then straight west though the Texas Panhandle, northern New Mexico, and Arizona, ending in Pacific Palisades Park, California, where Santa Monica Boulevard meets Ocean Boulevard. However, the trauma of the Great Depression held up completion. The entire road would not be paved until 1930.

During the early 1930s, an estimated 210,000 desperate people headed west on Route 66 to escape the Dust Bowl. John Steinbeck re-created this epic migration in 1939 in The Grapes of Wrath. Like countless other families, the Joads joined the migrant stream on Route 66, "the Mother Road." The novel, together with the film the following year, made Route 66 a living legend as the path to opportunity.

Among the host of travelers during the 1930s and 1940s was Robert William "Bobby" Troup, of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and his wife. He wrote a song about the route, "Get Your Kicks on Route 66." Crooner Nat King Cole recorded the song in 1946, and it became a huge, long-lasting hit. 

During the 1960s, however, CBS television would immortalize the road in the popular series Route 66. The program first aired on October 7, 1960, and ran for 116 episodes, until September 18, 1964. The real star of the show was a flashy Chevrolet Corvette convertible. [...] The thin, contrived plot led the [characters] on various implausible adventures along the fabled route. [...] However, producers shot much of the show on other highways that they believed better represented the true spirit (if not the reality) of Route 66.

Television could not save the road. By 1970 modern four-lane interstate highways had replaced most of the route. In October 1984 the last, poorly maintained stretch of U.S. Highway 66 gave way to Interstate 40 at Williams, Arizona. It took five interstates to replace the Mother Road: I-55, I-44, I-40, I-15 and I-10.

The death of the real road, however, spawned a legion of legendary supporters. Writer Michael Wallis, born near the road, published Route 66: The Mother Road in 1990 and issued a video documentary, Route 66 Revisited, four years later. In 1993 NBC launched another TV series in which two new heroes inherited a Corvette and drove off in further search of adventure. Since the mid-1990s, the Annual Mother Road Ride/Rally has drawn hordes of motorcyclists to tour down the historic route. The Albuquerque Convention and Visitors Bureau and the New Mexico Route 66 Association developed a number of events to celebrate the route's 75th anniversary during July 20–21, 2001. PBS television produced an hour-long documentary.

Museums and associations keep the road's memory alive. The National Route 66 Museum in Elk City, Oklahoma, uses a road motif to carry visitors through all eight states along the original road. Murals and vignettes depict various eras and places of the road. Another museum, the California Route 66 Museum in Victorville, also honors the route. The road has been designated a Historic Monument administered by the National Park Service. As author Michael Wallis observes, many who search out the route today still "find the time holy."

--Excerpt from "Route 66." American History. ABC-CLIO, 2011. Web. 27 June 2011.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Movies and the Real-Life Mob

When special agents of the Boston FBI reported that gangster James “Whitey” Bulger finally had been captured after 16 years in hiding, the story immediately became front page news across the country. Bulger, a former South Boston mob figure implicated in 19 murders and various other nefarious activities including drugs and prostitution, literally vanished just hours before he was supposed to be taken into custody by FBI agents in January, 1995. As it turned out, Bulger was tipped off that he was going to be arrested by one of the FBI’s own, former agent John J. Connolly, Jr., for whom Bulger was working as an informant while he was still involved in his hugely profitable criminal enterprise. Bulger finally made his way to Santa Monica, California, where the now 81-year-old fugitive was quietly taken into custody on June 22.

This provocative three-volume encyclopedia is a valuable resource for readers seeking an understanding of how movies have both reflected and helped engender America's political, economic, and social history.

It seems fitting that Bulger was finally found living in Santa Monica, just down the road from Hollywood, as his life played out much like a character in a gangster film. Indeed, once the news about Bulger’s arrest broke, the Internet lit up with stories about how Jack Nicholson’s character in the film The Departed was at least loosely based on Bulger. Made by Martin Scorsese, The Departed finally earned the renowned director his first Oscar for Best Direction. As the encyclopedia entry on Scorsese that appears in ABC-CLIO’s newly released Movies in American History points out, Scorsese grew up in different Italian-American neighborhoods in New York City, where “he experienced a stark contrast between authority figures—wise guys and Catholic priests. Interestingly, as he grew up, Scorsese, although drawn toward the wise-guys, thought seriously about becoming a priest. Though he obviously joined neither group, his fascination with both shines through in his movies.”

Scorsese was perfectly placed to direct The Departed, having already made other gangster films, such as Mean Streets, Goodfellas, and Casino. One of the things that have made Scorsese’s gangster movies different from others like those in The Godfather series is that he focuses on the lives of local, neighborhood mobsters—like Whitey Bulger. These distinctions are discussed in detail in Movies in American History, in which you’ll find in-depth pieces not only on particular movies, but also on the people and subjects that make film and its relationship to history so powerful. 

By Philip C. DiMare, Editor, Movies in American History: An Encyclopedia

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Sarah Palin, Paul Revere, and Wikipedia: A Teachable Moment?

News came early this week that supporters of Sarah Palin attempted to edit Wikipedia in order for its account of Paul Revere's famous ride to match Palin's version of the event. The incident provides yet another opportunity for educators and others to question the free online encyclopedia's status as the arbiter of all "facts."

Getting less attention than the kerfuffle over Palin's remarks and the Wikipedia "edit war" was the key primary source, an after-the-fact account by Revere himself of the stirring events of that April night in 1775:

I told (the British) …that I had alarmed the country all the way up, that their boats were caught aground, and I should have 500 men there soon. One of the (British) said they had 1500 coming; he seemed surprised and rode off into the road, and informed them who took me, they came down immediately on a full gallop. One of them… clapped his pistol to my head, and said he was going to ask me some questions, and if I did not tell the truth, he would blow my brains out.

The entire document—by the way—is featured in the ABC-CLIO online American History education solution. This database is enhanced and updated daily by a staff of three historian editors. It cannot have its "facts" changed or re-interpreted by political partisans to suit their agenda.

On the chance that the Revere-Palin-Wikipedia contretemps is yet another "teachable moment," we offer three possibilities:

  1. The "he said, she said" debate between Palin's followers and critics on Wikipedia casts doubt on the ubiquitous site's utility as an accurate custodian of American History, especially given that some educators and scholars now consider it a legitimate "first stop" for students beginning their research.
  2. Primary sources are (with proper context and sourcing) often far more interesting (and certainly more trustworthy) than the axe-grinding interpretations of politicians and their partisans.
  3. How relevant and exciting (and politically charged) American History remains. Palin couched her version of the famous ride to Lexington in the spirit of the (not-yet-contemplated) Second Amendment. Why? Perhaps in order to associate her own and her followers' views on gun rights with Revere. Palin's status as one of the standard bearers of the modern Tea Party Movement, and Revere's real-life participation in the "real" Tea Party (Boston Harbor, 1773) makes the story even sweeter.

For more on Palin, ABC-CLIO databases, and the Tea Party movements (original and modern), check out the links below!

--Vince Burns, VP Editorial, ABC-CLIO

Sarah Palin: A Biography
Jacob H. Huebert
This objective, well-researched biography tells the story of the woman whose meteoric rise to the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidacy made history.


From the explorers of the Americas to the issues of today's headlines, American History investigates the people, events, and stories of our nation's evolution.

Jacob H. Huebert

This thorough guide to the burgeoning Tea Party movement goes beyond the typical overheated political rhetoric to discuss where the party came from, what it's about, who's involved, and where it's headed.

Gregory Fremont-Barnes and Richard A. Ryerson, Volume Editors

This work is the most authoritative and wide-ranging encyclopedia on the American Revolution ever created for a student audience.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Happy Birthday, Marilyn Monroe

Norma Jean Mortenson, who became known to millions as Marilyn Monroe before her untimely death at the age of 36, was one of the most famous people the United States has ever produced. While her route to fame was through the films she starred in, her bombshell looks, breathy voice, and personal mystique caused her fame to soar far beyond her talents as an actress. Her typecasting as a dumb, sexy blonde contributed to her unhappiness—some sources report that the actress had an IQ of 160. Her suicide has come to serve as a symbol of the destruction that fame and beauty can wreak. ...

Monroe was born on June 1, 1926 in Los Angeles, California. Accounts of her childhood and early years are sketchy, but most agree that Monroe's mother had to be hospitalized for a mental condition when her daughter was very young and that the little girl was shuttled around to a dozen foster families. Monroe also seems to have lived in an orphanage at one point. She received a broken education at various public schools around Los Angeles, the last of which was Van Nuys High School. When she was 16, Monroe learned that her current foster family had to leave California. To avoid going into yet another foster situation, she accepted a proposal of marriage. Her husband soon left for the U.S. Merchant Marine, however, and their marriage did not survive much past the end of World War II. While he was gone, Monroe got a few jobs to bring in extra money, working as a parachute inspector and an aircraft paint sprayer.

The first job Monroe got that capitalized on her looks was as a photographer's model, which she started after attending a local charm school at another photographer's suggestion. By 1946, Monroe had appeared on the covers of several men's magazines and later admitted to posing for a calendar of nudes in 1949 to help pay the rent. Howard Hughes and Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation saw the photos and signed her to a one-year contract for $125 a week. It was at this point that a talent scout gave the budding actress her new name. Her first film appearance, in the movie Scudda Hoo, Scudda Hay, never made it to the theaters. No more roles were forthcoming, so the studio terminated her contract when it expired in 1947. Columbia Pictures gave her a contract for six months, during which time she played a small part in the film Ladies of the Chorus. Soon, however, Monroe was back on the streets looking for work.

Returning to freelancing as a photographer's model, Monroe also got a tiny part in a Marx Brothers movie. She made a favorable impression on director John Huston, who happened to catch her walk-on, and he signed her to play a prostitute in his 1950 film Asphalt Jungle. Although she was not even mentioned in the movie's screen credits, the actress received so much fan mail after the film that Twentieth Century-Fox executives asked her to come back to work for them. Monroe accepted and appeared in the hit film All about Eve. Her performance so pleased the studio that she got a new, seven-year contract with options up to $3,500 a week. ... Monroe's movies of this period include The Fireball, Let's Make It Legal, Love Nest, and As Young As You Feel. ...

By 1952, Monroe was starting to become a household name.  ... Several top film critics were describing Monroe as the "most promising actress" and the "most popular actress." At the end of 1953, she had earned more money for Twentieth Century-Fox than any other Hollywood star had earned for their studios. By the time she broke her contract with the studio at the end of 1954, Monroe had starred in such smash-hit films as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Seven-Year Itch, and There's No Business Like Show Business. Despite her skyrocketing popularity and some critical success for her comic timing, Monroe was increasingly unhappy that she could not seem to win any of the more serious roles she really wanted. The breakup of her 1953 marriage to baseball star Joe DiMaggio after nine months only made matters worse. She left Hollywood for New York to attend the Actors Studio.

In January 1955, Monroe announced that she had founded her own production company, Marilyn Monroe Productions. The next year, the company bought the rights to a play that it would later film under the name The Prince and the Show Girl. Meanwhile, Twentieth Century-Fox signed Monroe to do four films over seven years. The first of these, Bus Stop, came out in 1956 and showed off Monroe's natural talent as a comedienne. Prior to its release, she had married her third husband, playwright Arthur Miller, and immediately afterward, the couple flew to London to start filming of The Prince and the Show Girl. Revered British actor Sir Laurence Olivier was her costar and the film's director. Although it did not receive rave reviews, Monroe was once again complimented for her light comic touch. ...

For the next two years, Monroe lived quietly in New York and Connecticut with Miller and did not try to parlay her new success as a serious actress into other roles, although she did continue to study at the Actors Studio. In 1958, however, she returned to Hollywood amid a firestorm of publicity to star in Billy Wilder's film Some Like It Hot. The movie was released in 1959. Critics immediately hailed it as one of the funniest movies ever made and applauded Monroe especially for her "deliciously na├»ve quality." However, that ephemeral quality was starting to come at a higher and higher price. Monroe, who at this point had already been plagued for years by an obsessive perfectionism, began to worry about her future as an actress. Aware that her appeal as a star would probably not outlast her youthful beauty, she studied fanatically anything she thought would help her acting. Miller wrote a screenplay for her, The Misfits, a troubling movie in which she starred as a wandering beauty who falls in with some other drifters. ... She and Miller divorced shortly before the film's release in 1961. The Misfits was Monroe's last film.

Having become involved in drug and alcohol abuse toward the end of her life, Monroe's reputation as a difficult actress become even worse. Twentieth Century-Fox eventually canceled her contract when she was virtually unable to remember any lines or show up for shooting at all. She died of an overdose of sleeping pills at her home in Hollywood on August 5, 1962.

Excerpt from Pop Culture Universe
Harmon, Justin, et. al. "Marilyn Monroe." Pop Culture Universe: Icons, Idols, Ideas. ABC-CLIO, 2011. Web. 1 June 2011.


Additional Resources

Pop Culture Universe
An irresistible and authoritative digital database on popular culture in America and the world, both past and present—in a package as dynamic as the topic it covers.

Movies in American History: An Encyclopedia
By Philip C. DiMare, Editor Philip C. DiMare, Editor
This provocative three-volume encyclopedia is a valuable resource for readers seeking an understanding of how movies have both reflected and helped engender America's political, economic, and social history.