Friday, February 8, 2013

My very dear Sarah,

At the onset of the Civil War when the men went off to fight letters to home came with frequency. Both sides figured the war would last a few months at most, not the four long years that it did. Men would write their wives and sweethearts about the harrows of battle to the serene beauty of places they had never seen. One letter that resonates through history is that of Sullivan Ballou.

Sullivan was born March 28, 1829. He was 32 when the south fired on Fort Sumter and starting the war. (While skirmishes like the slave uprising led by John Brown happened prior to Ft. Sumter, the attack is considered the season opener war) Sullivan was an educated man who dedicated his life to public service having been elected as clerk of the Rhode Island House of Representatives as well as passing the Rhode Island bar.

When the war started in 1861, Sullivan immediately enlisted to be part of the Union Cause.
He wrote a letter to his wife Sarah on July 14, 1861. Ballou's letter is filled with love and longing, pathos and fierce pride in his country.

"Sarah my love for you is deathless, it seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; and yet my love of Country come over me like a strong wind and bears me unresistibly on with all these chains to the battle field"

Ballou seemed to know his death was coming but I doubted he knew it was coming so quickly. Sullivan Ballou died at the first Battle of Bull Run July21, 1861. A mere 7 days after writing his letter to Sarah. He never had a chance to mail it. Sarah would ultimately receive the letter, along with other more upbeat ones, at a later date. This particular letter was among the personal affects Governor William Sprague, The Boy Governor of Rhode Island, traveled to Virginia to retrieve.

 "Oh Sarah! If the dead can come back to this earth and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you..."

In fact, Sullivan Ballou will be with us all forever more.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

He's here, the Phantom of the Opera...

When I was writing my short story "Casting Couch" I based one of my characters on the great Lon Chaney - loosely of course. (Be forewarned, it's a dirty like sex romp. You have been cautioned) Chaney was known as the Man of a Thousand Faces and was a pioneer in the field of movie make-up. However this blog isn't about him...per se. It is about Soundstage 28 on the Universal Studios Backlot. I know what you're thinking, why the heck did you mention Chaney if you're going to talk about a soundstage. Well, I'll tell you, my little blog loves. You see Soundstage 28 is where they filmed The Phantom of the Opera. The 1925 Lon Chaney version of the classic LeRoux tale.

The soundstage is still known as 28 but also carries the name The Phantom Stage mainly because the much of the 1925 set still resides inside....and so does the ghost of Lon Chaney.

Prior to the construction of soundstage 28, Hollywood soundstages basically consisted of a raised platform built outside with a muslin covering which could be pulled over the set to defuse glare. (Muslin is a semi-porous fabric that allows some light to shine through. It is used still for flats for theatrical and film productions because paint adheres well to it and it is relatively inexpensive to buy in bulk. I'm a nerdy theatre girl. Give me a break) The Phantom stage was truly one of the first of its kind and the precursor to the modern soundstage. (Not the green screen soundstages but I digress) When Universal announced The Phantom, the biggest problem they had was the building an entire replica of the Paris Opera house. So the construction department built the very first steel and concrete soundstage to house the thing. It has since been renovated for talkies.

The chandelier the Phantom drops on the unsuspecting audience was an exact replica of the one in Paris. It weighed 16,000 pounds and measure 40 feet in diameter. Universal executives were a little weary about something so expensive being brought to a crashing disaster (not to mention the 3000 extras seated below the monstrosity) so the cameraman, Charles Van Enger, had an idea to film the fixture being pulled back up to the ceiling and then reversing it in editing. Viola. The Phantom kills a bunch of people and the 1920s ladies swoon at the carnage...and Chaney's scarey Phantom make-up.

The chandelier stood on the soundstage until 1965 when Alfred Hitchcock had it taken down and placed in storage. (It was in the way of his filming 'Torn Curtain) It has since disappeared. Seriously a 16,000 pound light fixture vanished. It might have been lost in the fire that swept through the studio or perhaps it was cannibalized for parts. We'll never know. It's not like it is something you can slip in your pocket and sell on EBay without anyone knowing.

However, the seating of the Paris Opera house interior still stands as does the staircase that Lon Chaney appears on as the Red Death. Rumors abound that Chaney's ghost can be seen running through the catwalks high about the soundstage or even on the bus stop that used to stand just a few feet outside the doors. If Chaney is there it seems the best place for his spirit to call home as he immortalized the Phantom as no other actor has done.

Next time you take the backlot tour at Universal make sure to ask your guide about Soundstage 28. I've no doubt they'll be happy to share a ghost story or two about the historic building. And who knows...you might just catch a glimpse of the Phantom.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Skull that would be king...

So I know it has been awhile since I last blogged. I’ve been busy and I’m lazy. There. I said it. Sue me. Anyway, I’m back.
I’m going to take the first blog of 2013 to branch out a bit from the usual American History fare I’ve been feeding you all.  In fact for the rest of the year we will be bouncing around the globe with fun topics. Our first is Richard III.
I really want to talk about Richard III since he has playing a big part in the news lately. Or at least the nerd-ville news I read. You see Richard III, the main character in Shakespeare’s play of the same name, was the last English king to die in battle. He was also the only English king to die on English soil since Harold in 1066. (1066 being the Norman Invasion for those who are keeping score. That was the year William the Conqueror – or William the Bastard – claimed the English throne for his own. Side note, never refer to William as conqueror outside the Tower of London. This will cause your tour guide to threaten to get a beefeater and have you jailed. True story.) However, his body was never found. Until now.
In the last year a group of historians and archaeologists conducted a dig in Greyfriars, Leicester discovers a skeleton in a parking garage. No fooling, a parking garage.  At the time they only speculated that if could be Richard. The skull had a large fracture mark on the back of the head which would have been consistent with the battle wound record has having been sustained by Richard in the Battle of Bosworth Field as well as an arrow in the back.  The skeleton also suffered from severe scoliosis which coincides with claims that Richard was hunchbacked. Some historians don’t believe was actually hunchbacked like he is portrayed throughout history. They believe it was a rumor started by his enemies that has since been turned into fact. When Shakespeare writes it into a play then of course everyone will believe it. The original Elizabethan rumor mill.  
DNA testing has confirmed that the skeleton does in fact belong to Richard III. So, my dear blog readers, how will this change how we view the king looked on as evil by history? I’m not sure the find will really make that much different in how we see Richard as a historical figure. (I mean really. How many of you have heard of him outside of Shakespeare or The Goodbye Girl?) Americans equate him with “My horse, my horse, a kingdom for my horse” if we even think of him at all. (In my opinion at least) What I think it will change is how we see Richard portrayed on film and in the theatre. Shakespeare’s play makes him out to a villain on par with Iago or Aaron. He has become more real because now we can see his bones. The University of Leicester may very well take the skull and do that cool facial reconstruction so we can even see what Richard looked like. Then we can finally see  the man whose “And thus I clothe my naked villainy with odd, old ends stol'n out of holy writ, and seem a saint, when most I play the devil.” face and look into the eyes  of a king.
For more cool info go over to the University of Leicester’s website.  They have set up a whole page about the find with pictures of the bones and the skull and other cool stuff.