It’s the time of year when all the news magazines and papers and other media publish their “Best of” articles on the ending year, along with the usual lists of notable people who passed on. While they devote space to the Christopher Lees, Yogi Berras, E.L. Doctorows, B.B. Kings, and Leonard Nimoys of the world, there are still plenty of people who have left their mark on history and culture who get overlooked.
Maybe they contributed to an obscure field. Maybe they were only locally famous. Maybe their time in the limelight was too short. Maybe we just plain forgot. But they still deserve a proper farewell.
A few worthy of honor, in no particular order….
Darryl Dawkins (1957-2015):
Born in a poor neighborhood in Orlando, he was drafted into the NBA right out of Evans High. From 1976 through 1989, he drew fans wherever he went for his powerful play, friendliness, and awesome backboard-shattering dunking skills:
“His physicality was just unheard of at that point in time,” said Bill Buchalter, of the Orlando Sentinel. “He was just a freak of nature.” His career, which was plagued with injuries, probably would have been better served had he gone to college. But he felt his family needed the money he could bring them. “I had seen my mother and grandmother work their fingers to the bone,” he once said. “I could end that.”
He took to naming his dunks: the “Look Out Below”, the “Yo Mama”, and “The Chocolate-Thunder-Flying, Robinzine-Crying, Teeth-Shaking, Glass-Breaking, Rump-Roasting, Bun-Toasting, Wham-Bam, Glass-Breaker-I-Am-Jam.”
“If you were a writer, he was a delight because everything that came out of his mouth was shocking or entertaining. Win or lose, every night I could barely get to my locker.” – Former teammate Jim Spanarkel
After his playing years ended, he would still travel all over the world on behalf of the NBA and basketball.
“Most things with Darryl were about fun, but if you had a good cause, Darryl was serious. Whenever the NBA needed an ambassador for one of its junkets, whether it be China or Africa, Darryl was there. Whenever a member of the Kennedy family called him to help with the Special Olympics, Darryl was there.” – Mark Perner, Phillynews.com
“Darryl Dawkins is the father of power dunking. I’m just one of his sons.” – Shaquille O’Neal
Julian Bond (1940 – 2015):
He burst into the national consciousness after helping to start the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, where he rubbed shoulders with committee leaders Stokely Carmichael and John Lewis. As the committee grew into one of the Civil Rights movement’s most important groups, Bond dropped out of Morehouse College in Atlanta to serve as communications director. He later returned and completed his degree in 1971.
Bond was often at the forefront of protests against segregation. In 1960, he helped organize a sit-in involving Atlanta college students at the city hall cafeteria. “We never thought that he really would participate and be arrested because he was always so laid back and cool, but he joined in with us,” recalled Carolyn Long Banks.
Bond was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 1965 but fellow lawmakers, many of them white, refused to let him take his seat because of his anti-war stance on Vietnam. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor. Bond finally took office in 1967.
He served in the Georgia House until 1975 and then served six terms in the Georgia Senate until 1986. Bond was elected board chairman of the NAACP in 1998 and served for 10 years. After leading the NAACP, Bond stayed active in Democratic politics. He also made regular appearances on the lecture circuit and on television and taught at several universities.
“He started when he was about 17 and he went to 75. And I don’t know a single time when he was not involved in some phase of the civil rights movement.” – Former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young
“If this was another movement, they would call him the PR man, because he was the one who wrote the best, who framed the issues the best. He was called upon time and again to write it, to express it.” – Eleanor Holmes Norton, Bond’s colleague on the SNCC.
“Everybody is not going to be out there in the street with their hands up or shouting. There’ve got to be people like Julian who participate and observe and combine those two things for action and change that make a difference.” – Charlayne Hunter-Gault
Stan Freberg (1926 – 2015):
The son of a Baptist minister, his sense of humor blossomed early. He won a student election in high school with a promise to install a huge picture window in the girls’ locker room and turn the principal’s office into an automatic car wash.
He planned to attend Stanford University on a speech scholarship, but the summer before he was to enroll, he decided to visit Hollywood on a lark to see if he might have a chance in show business.
He recalled taking a bus to Hollywood Boulevard and walking into the first office building he saw, one housing a talent agency called “Stars of Tomorrow”. On the strength of his impressions of famous people, and his distinctive booming voice, the agency sent him to Warner Bros.’ cartoon division, where he was hired the next day.
From there it was a natural next step to comedy records. His 1953 spoof of Jack Webb’s “Dragnet,” called “St. George and the Dragonet,” sold a million copies in three weeks, making it the fastest selling single to that date.
More parodies followed, and he got tapped to make TV and radio spots. After a TV series tanked in 1957, he concentrated on his ad work. He formed his own company, “Freberg Ltd. (but not very)”, whose motto was “Ars gratia pecuniae” (“Art for money’s sake”).
Talk show appearances, voice acting, and guest tv/movie spots would continue well into the 2000’s.
“There has been nothing comparable to Freberg’s ability to seize on a pop fad and, while it was still hot, capitalize on it.” – Gerald Nachman, Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s.
“[Freberg’s spoofs] were the true forerunners of the satirical style of National Lampoon and ‘Saturday Night Live.'” – Dr. Demento (Barry Hansen)
“No one label fits Stan Freberg. But the Father of the Funny Commercial seems a fitting epithet.” – Advertising Age
“A legend, an inspiration, and a friend.” – “Weird” Al Yankovic
“Hey, folks, this is pizza we’re selling, not the Holy Grail.” – Stan Freberg on his advertising philosophy
Some of Stan’s commercials:
Maya Plisetskaya (1925 – 2015):
Born in Moscow in a Jewish family who were prominent in the performing arts, she went to study at the Bolshoi Academy at the age of nine. Two years later, she made her first appearance with the Bolshoi Theater, and at the age of 14, became a full-time dancer with them. Upon graduation at the age of 18, she immediately joined the Bolshoi Ballet.
Afraid that she might defect (especially considering that her father was killed in one of Stalin’s purges and her mother sent to the gulag) , Soviet authorities forbade her from traveling abroad until Khrushchev gave in to international demand in 1959.
She quickly became an international superstar, amazing audiences with her signature performance, the “Dying Swan” from Swan Lake.
She continued to perform around the world well into the 1990s. One of her most famous performances was a dance to Ravel’s “Bolero” in 1975:
“What makes the piece so compelling is that although Plisetskaya may be accompanied by dozens of other dancers mirroring her movement, the first and only focus is on the prima ballerina herself. Her continual rocking and swaying at certain points, rhythmically timed to the syncopation of the orchestra, create a mesmerizing effect that demonstrated an absolute control over every nuance of her body, from the smallest toe to her fingertips, to the top of her head.” – “The Artful Blogger”
She stayed with the Bolshoi until her retirement in 1990, but still continued to teach, direct, and even occasionally dance well into her 80s.
“One of the greatest dancers of our time” – Mikhail Baryshnikov
A “diva of dance who has given all her life to ballet”. – French culture minister Fleur Pellerin
“She began by creating her own style and ended up creating her own theater.” – Dance critic and historian Vadim Gaevsky
“She was, and still is, a star, ballet’s monstre sacre, the final statement about theatrical glamour, a flaring, flaming beacon in a world of dimly twinkling talents, a beauty in the world of prettiness.” – Clement Crisp, Financial Times
Blaze Starr (1938-2015):
Born Fannie Belle Fleming in Wilsondale, West Virginia, she was one of eleven children. At the age of fifteen, she was working as a waitress at a donut shop in Washington, D.C., when someone offered her work as a stripper. Her first job was near a Marine base.
She came up with a number, based, she later said, on an “erotic dream,” in which she pressed a hidden button to activate a smoke machine under a couch she sprawled on, while taking off her clothes. There was a 1954 feature about her in Esquire (“B-Belles of Burlesque: You Get Strip Tease With Your Beer in Baltimore”, with photographs by Diane Arbus). She wrote a song about her own body. (“Thirty-eight Double-D.”) She also had routines involving roses and rose petals, balanced in unexpected ways.
While working at the Sho-Bar in New Orleans in her early 20s, she started an affair with Governor Earl Long. That affair became a 1989 movie, Blaze. But she was much more closely tied to Baltimore. She debuted at the Two O’Clock Club in 1950. She quickly earned enough money to buy the place.
During the height of her popularity, she led parades, cheered for the Orioles, Colts and Bullets, presided over bicycle races and parades, and gave disabled Vietnam veterans a free show at her club. The American Legion gave her awards for humanitarianism. She even appeared in an advertising campaign for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.
She stopped performing in the 1970s when nudity on stage became commonplace – she didn’t want to do that, nor did she want any of her girls doing it. Eventually, she picked up gem cutting and jewelry making, and opened a shop in a Carroll County mall. She’d personally sign all the gift boxes for her customers.
“She was always a lady who had a flair for show business. She had a lot of kindness in her heart, especially for veterans. We would go down to the 2 O’Clock Club, and I would give her the key to the city. I caught a lot of hell for it but it was a good time.” – Thomas J. D’Alesandro III, former mayor.
“I felt like she fell in love every Friday night and had her heart broken every Monday morning. And yet she never had any ill will for the savory or unsavory guys she was hanging out with. She had a great view of the world.” – Ron Shelton, director of Blaze
“She was smart and she knew how to conduct herself. She took stripping and turned it into a satire. She was equally appealing to people in Roland Park as she was to her clientele from Highlandtown. They all loved her.” – J. Stanley Heuisler, former Baltimore Magazine editor.
Orestes “Minnie” Minoso (1922? – 2015):
Born in El Perico, Cuba, sometime in the early 1920s, he grew up working in the sugar cane fields, and learned the game in the sandlots. He moved up quickly in Cuban baseball, and got noticed by the Negro Leagues. He signed with the New York Cubans in 1945. He was picked up by the Cleveland Indians in 1948, and after a couple of years in the minor leagues (with a cup of coffee in the bigs in 1949), he was traded to the Chicago White Sox.
He debuted there in 1951, beginning an 11-year stretch over which Minoso hit .305 with an average of 16 homers and 18 steals per year. He was a constant presence on AL leaderboards in that span, ranking in the top 10 in batting average eight times, in on-base percentage nine times (five in the top five), and in slugging percentage six times. That OBP was helped along by his tendency to crowd the plate and take one for the team, which he did en route to leading the league a record 10 times in hit-by-pitches. He led the AL in steals and triples three times each, and was named to the All-Star team seven times. He earned three Gold Gloves for his outfield defense, and would have undoubtedly collected more if the award had been around when he started playing.
After his active years ended, he spent time as a player-manager in the Mexican League, and would return to the White Sox as a coach in 1976. A few novelty appearances as a pinch-hitter made him one of the oldest players to get a base hit. His last appearance as a player was with the independent St Paul Saints in 2003 – he drew a walk.
“When I watched Minnie Minoso play, I always thought I was looking at a Hall of Fame player. I never understood why Minnie wasn’t elected. He did everything. He could run, he could field, he could hit with power, he could bunt and steal bases. He was one of the most exciting players I have ever seen.” – White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf
“Orestes Minoso was the Jackie Robinson for all Latinos; the first star who opened doors for all Latin American players. He was everybody’s hero. I wanted to be Minoso. [Roberto] Clemente wanted to be Minoso.” – Orlando Cepeda
“To talk about Minnie Minoso, I need five to six hours to talk about what he means to us… He’s an encyclopedia of knowledge. He opened the door for all of us. We always have him in our hearts, and we’re always thinking about him.” – Alexei Ramirez, Chicago White Sox
“When we talk about these great ones, Mr. Minnie Minoso was one of the ones that paved the way for Latin players, to not only be recruited, but you’re talking about an All-Star.” – Omar Minaya
“Every young player in Cuba wanted to be like Minnie Minoso and I was one of them.” – Tony Perez
“My father and my mother taught me there was a way to pay somebody back, if they tried to break your arm or break your face: Pay them back on the field with a smile on your face. I used to keep my teeth clean all the time, just to make sure that’s how I gave it back to them that way all the time.” – Minnie Minoso
Isaac Heller (1926-2015):
While serving as an electronics tech in the Navy in WWII, Heller put his skills good use. When not repairing all manner of equipment, he used his free time to turn miscellaneous parts into toys for the children of his shipmates. After the war, he decided to go professional. In 1949, he and his cousin Saul Robbins bought up a crapload of military surplus electronics and founded the Remco (for “remote control”) Toy Company.
With items like the “Dick Tracy Wrist Radio”, the “Whirlybird Helicopter”, and the “Bulldog Tank”, Remco easily became one of the country’s top toy manufacturers. “Every boy wants a Remco toy,” said the tagline on their TV spots. In the 1960s, they branched out into “action figures” and “caricature dolls” (think bobbleheads without the bobble) and became an officially licensed manufacturer of Star Trek toys.
Heller sold his interest in the company in 1965, and started a second career as an industrial park developer in New Jersey.
“While the snow fell on Monday morning, paralyzing the city, an intrepid little boy climbed into Santa Claus’s lap and piped, ‘I want a Fighting Lady battleship by Remco.’ “
” ‘Nobody asked me for a sled or for ice skates,’ Santa sighed. ‘These days it’s all brand-name merchandise that they’ve seen advertised on TV.’ ” – NY Times, 12/15/1960
Chuck Bednarik (1925 – 2015):
Born in Bethlehem PA to Slovak immigrants, he flew 30 missions over Germany as a World War II waist gunner on B-24s. “That was pressure. . . . All that anti-aircraft fire they threw at us and being a 19-year-old kid. That gave me some toughness. So when I survived the war and came home and went out on a football field, I figured, ‘Shoot, this is easy.’ ” He went to Penn after the war on the GI Bill, and became a three-time All-American as a center and linebacker, and was the first overall pick in the 1949 draft.
He wore number 60 for the Philadelphia Eagles, and that number told you how many minutes of a game he would play. Center on offense, linebacker on defense. He acquired the nickname “Concrete Charlie” not from his toughness on the gridiron, but because he sold concrete in the off season. It fit him anyway; in 14 seasons he missed only three games.
His moments of glory came in 1960. The Eagles (5-1-1) faced the Giants (6-1) in a crucial late-season game. With the Eagles down 17-10 late in the game, Frank Gifford caught a pass and tried to run out of bounds. Instead, he ran into Bednarik. A tough hit knocked Gifford down, causing a fumble. There’s a famous photo showing Bednarik apparently gloating over a prostrate Gifford; he was really celebrating the Eagles’ recovery of the fumble. Gifford has always called it a clean hit; the fact that he was knocked into 1962 by “The Tackle” is more likely the result of the way he actually hit the ground coupled with a career filled with lots of little nagging injuries.
In the NFL Championship Game (this was before the Super Bowl) against the Packers that December, the Eagles were ahead 17-13 as the game wound down. The Packers moved the ball to the Eagles’ 22 in the final minute of play. Bart Starr tossed a short pass to Jim Taylor, who had a clear shot at the end zone – except for Bednarik. Bednarik grabbed Taylor at the 10, dragged him down, and basically sat on him as time ran out.
”Everybody reminds me of it and I’m happy they remind me of it,” Bednarik once said. ”I’m proud and delighted to have played in that game.”
He was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967, the College Football Hall of Fame in 1969, and the NFL’s 75th Anniversary Team.
Gary Dahl (1936-2015):
He was working as an ad executive in California in 1975 when he had a conversation with a friend at a bar about the problems with caring for pets. Dahl joked that his pet caused him no such trouble, saying, “I have a pet rock.” He took the idea and ran with it, getting the Pet Rock out onto the shelves just in time for the holiday season.
“At the time, the Vietnam War was winding down; Watergate has just started up,” Dahl told the Toledo Blade in 1999. “There was a whole lot of bad news going on. People were down. It wasn’t a real good time for the national psyche. I think the Pet Rock was just a good giggle. Everybody needed a good laugh and the media ate it up.” Each rock came in a cardboard box – with air holes and a straw “nest” – and a 20 page manual covering its care and feeding, and instructions for teaching it simple tricks.
The rocks themselves cost Dahl a penny each; Pet Rocks sold for $3.95. At the peak of the fad, he was selling close to 100,000 a day. By the time the fad ended, he’d sold over 1.5 million. He received endless calls from inventors who were trying to mimic the success of the Pet Rock. “They’re all bad.” By 1988, Dahl told The Associated Press he had avoided interviews for years because of what he called “a bunch of wackos” appearing out of nowhere with threats and lawsuits.
Of the little rock that became a household word, he said, “Sometimes I look back and wonder if my life wouldn’t have been simpler if I hadn’t done it.”
Mario Cuomo (1932-2015):
Cuomo was a highly regarded prospect with the Pittsburgh Pirates – until he got beaned. The concussion was bad enough to require him to leave baseball. He went into law instead. But it’s worth noting, if only for the humor value, that he got a bigger signing bonus than Mickey Mantle.
His scouting report: “A below average hitter with plus power. He uppercuts and needs instruction…Potentially the best prospect on the club and in my opinion could go all the way…He is aggressive and plays hard. He is intelligent…Not an easy chap to get close to but is very well liked by those who succeed in penetrating his exterior shell. He is another who will run you over if you get in his way.”
As an New York City attorney, he gained local prominence working on behalf of homeowners who were fighting the building of a high school that would have kicked them out of their homes. He entered politics in the mid 70s, and was elected governor in 1982. He would serve three terms.
In July 1984, he delivered the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, a barnburner that amounted to a rebuttal of President Ronald Reagan’s stirring vision of America as a “shining city on a hill.”
Facing a packed arena in San Francisco, and a national television audience, Cuomo said, “This nation is more a ‘Tale of Two Cities.’ … A shining city is perhaps all the President sees from the portico of the White House and the veranda of his ranch, where everyone seems to be doing well… There’s another part of the city, the part where people can’t pay their mortgages … and middle-class parents watch the dreams they hold for their children evaporate.”
Two months later, Cuomo delivered a second spellbinder, an address at Notre Dame University in Indiana on abortion, religion and politics. The two addresses, which would be ranked among the top speeches of the 20th century, vaulted Cuomo into the ranks of potential presidential contenders.
Cuomo toyed with the idea of a White House run, first in 1988 and then in 1992, solidifying his nickname, Hamlet on the Hudson. He decided not to enter the ’92 race at the last minute, saying that a budget crisis in New York was more important to deal with.
“He was probably during his time the most eloquent public official in the nation. … He certainly carried the torch for progressive ideas.” – Political consultant George Arzt
Hermann Zapf (1918-2015):
Zapf Dingabts. ITC Zapf Chancery – whose Medium Italic form is part of all Mac computers for a very simple reason: Steve Jobs liked it. It was the only calligraphy-inspired font Jobs chose to be part of the operating system. Optima – which is used by Estée Lauder as their official corporate font., and on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC. Palatino – which is used by Abercrombie & Fitch in their logo….
Zapf started tooling with font-making as a child. At 12, he invented a special alphabet so he could exchange secret messages with his brother and hide their boyhood antics and mischief from their parents.
“They were some kind of cross between Germanic runes and Cyrillic, and could only be deciphered if you knew the code. My despairing mother could not make head nor tail of them.” Zapf wrote in his autobiography. He designed his first font, Gilgengart, when he was 20.
He served as a cartographer for the German army during WWII, drawing maps of Spain. At the end of the war, he was imprisoned by the French but said he was treated well. “They had a great deal of respect for me as an ‘artiste’” he wrote. “I think the French still have this respect today.”
After the war, he became a teacher of calligraphy and worked on type design. When computers came into use in the 1960s, he switched to working on computer typography. In 1976, the Rochester Institute of Technology offered Zapf a professorship in typographic computer programming, the first of its type in the world. He taught there from 1977 to 1987, flying between his home in Darmstadt and Rochester. Zapf invented a typesetting program called Hz-program, which was influential in the development of the desktop publishing software Adobe InDesign.
In 1998, he released the Zapfino typeface, a calligraphic font with a huge number of ligatures and variations. It was reworked and expanded into Zapfino Extra in 2003.
V.A. “Vinnie” Musetto (1941-2015):
Vincent Albert Musetto Jr. was born in May 1941, grew up in Boonton, NJ, and earned a bachelor’s degree from Fairleigh Dickinson University in the same state. He worked at the New York Post for four decades, finally retiring in 2011. He liked the ballet, and loved film, and became a movie reviewer for the Post in his later days there. In the 1980s, he was the assistant managing editor. His responsibilities included creating headlines for the front page.
On the night of April 14, 1983, Charles Dingle argued with Herbert Cummings at the Queens bar Cummings owned and shot him dead. He then took several women hostage, raping one and forcing another to cut off the corpse’s head. (Dingle got 25 years to life. He died in an upstate New York prison in 2012.) A police bulletin announcing the discovery of the body came in over the Post’s teletype machine. The location was known to be a bar, but Musetto suspected there was more to it than that. The headline had already taken form in his mind. He had to get confirmation.
A reporter, Maralyn Matlick, was dispatched to the scene to find out. At first, she told the city editor, Dick Belsky, that the bar was locked tight and there was no indication on the sign outside that it was a topless bar.
“I asked her if she could see inside,” Belsky recalled later. “She said she’d try. She somehow was able to pull herself up and peek into a window of the bar. That’s when she saw it. A sign inside that said: ‘Topless Dancing.'”
The next day, the front page blared:
Other famous headlines included “Khadafy Goes Daffy” and “I Slept With a Trumpet” (from Roxane Pulitzer’s divorce trial). Musetto’s favorite, though, referred to the execution of a North Carolina serial killer in 1984: “Granny Executed in her Pink Pajamas”.