Today, marks the anniversary of when Agatha Christie's play The Mousetrap opened on London's West End. That was on November 25, 1952 -- 71 years ago today. It's still running, after over 28,000 performances.
By way of comparison, not long ago Phantom of the Opera closed as the longest-ever running production in Broadway history. It ran for 13,981 performances, over the course of 35 years. If it hadn't close and played for another 35 years…it still would be short of The Mousetrap. And that's if The Mousetrap closed tomorrow.
Even the longest-running show in New York, off-Broadway's musical The Fantasticks, which had a remarkable run of 42 years and 17,162 performances fell far short, just over half as long. And again, The Mousetrap is still running.
I have a theory about that. At some point long ago, it stopped by just a long-running play and instead become a tourist attraction, a stop to make when in London.
As a kidling, I saw The Mousetrap on a family trip to Europe in 1966, the play's 14th year. A couple years later on another family trip, I picked up a poster which I have up on my walls.
At the time, I was a little sorry that the poster had as many years as "16." Little did I know how paltry that number would be.
When I saw the play in 1966, I went with my older brother. (Our folks went to a different play that day.) I was very excited about going, since I liked Agatha Christie mysteries and had heard so much about this monumentally long-running play. I'd read the novella beforehand, so I knew whodunnit -- but at intermission I asked my brother who he thought the killer was. (Don't worry, I won't give it away.) He kept changing his guess -- "No, wait, don't tell me, I think it's..." -- and I just politely sat there smiling at him. (Fun fact: He didn't guess it.)
I do remember after the play, when we waited for our parents to leave the theater next door -- it was a matinee -- the cast eventually left the Ambassadors, and we spoke with one of the actors, and I still have the program he signed. I didn't know who he was, and while he might have done a lot in London theater after that, he didn't become known in the U.S. But it was fun. And I still have the program. (Sorry, "programme.")
The Mousetrap has never played on Broadway, though there are plans to finally do so. In fact, they were trying for this year, but clearly that scheduling didn't pan out.
That said, if you've seen the 2022 movie See How They Run with Sam Rockwell, Saoirse Ronan and Adrien Brody, it's a fun, comic-murder mystery that's centered around a murder that occurs backstage during the early days of The Mousetrap. The story is totally fictional, but real details are mixed in -- including Richard Attenborough being a character in the film (having starred in the original production, as is the show's producer John Woolf (who won an Oscar for production the movie musical Oliver!), it taking place at the Ambassador Theatre and a few other matters, as well as Agatha Christie taking part in the film, as well.
And speaking of film, the most fascinating story surrounding The Mousetrap is that when movie producers signed a contract with Agatha Christie to make a movie of the play, it was with the one stipulation that no movie could be made until…the play closed! That was 71 years ago.
In another odd twist, somewhat similar to that of the movie rights, Christie requested that the short story not be published in the United Kingdom as long as the play was running in London's West End. When I read about that, I couldn't figure out how I was able to have read it. But it turns out that the story was allowed to be published in the United States and appeared in the collection Three Blind Mice and Other Stories.
I've still kept my copy all these years. A whopping 45-cents. And the original title is duly noted on the cover.
And of course, as old as my copy of the book is, it doesn't compare to how old the play is and has been running.
And Ol' Man, Mousetrap, it just keeps rolling along...
Back in 1997, I drove down to San Diego to see a pre-Broadway premiere tryout of a new musical called Harmony, which had music by Barry Manilow and a book and lyrics by his longtime writing partner Bruce Sussman. The show told the story of the real-life, German comedy/music group, the Comedian Harmonists, a mixed-religion group in the 1930s who were phenomenally popular internationally, but disbanded with the rise of Hitler.
The show was very good, though flawed, being a first-run tryout. I’ve written about it over the years, as it’s come close to getting a Broadway production several times, always falling through. Most notably, I wrote a long piece about it in 2012, remembering the show and not wanting it to full through the cracks into the dustbin of history. As it happened, the next year, much to my surprise – and pleasure -- a revival of the show was to be mounted in Atlanta by the well-regarded Alliance Theatre, moving next to the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles.
Somewhat out of the blue, I got contacted by the show’s PR representative, who’d seen my article and asked if I’d like to interview Manilow and Sussman when the show came to Los Angeles. I did, and we had a long phone interview, of which I posted the resulting article.
As a side note, there was a story related to the interview which I didn’t include in the article, but only alluded to. When I was asked later about what that story was, I wrote about it in a separate article --
As I mention in the initial article, the interview came about as the result of a long, detailed appreciation I’d written a year earlier about Harmony -- a piece I did before I had the slightest idea that they were reviving the show. What’s funny is that it turned out Barry Manilow didn’t realize that history when we spoke.
Manilow had read that first, glowing article about Harmony -- the PR person for the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta gave him a copy at the time. (I was pretty sure he had seen it, but just to confirm, since it was a year ago, and I wanted to be on solid footing, I asked, "Oh, so you know about the article?" He replied lightheartedly, but bluntly -- "I know everything about this show.") But what he thought and reasonably assumed is that I had written it after I knew Harmony was being done again, thinking that that's what had prompted me. Why else, I’m sure he thought, would someone write such an article about a failed, pre-Broadway tryout 15 years earlier? I corrected him, explaining that, no, I had been completely unaware about the Alliance production, and in a stunned voice he almost cut me off, “Wait, you didn’t know we were doing the show???!!” I answered, “No, I wrote it before I had any idea you were reviving it. I just thought the show was wonderful and wanted to write about it.” And that's when he said --
“Robert, I love you even more than I did before!”
(Which would have made a great line in a Barry Manilow-Bruce Sussman song…)
Anyway, I kept periodically writing about the show, posting occasional videos of one of the songs he included in his act, a wonderful ballad “Every Single Day,” as well as other videos related to the show.
Eventually, in 2022 -- and wonderfully -- the musical got a production in New York. Off-Broadway, yes, but at the highly-regarded National Yiddish Theatre Folksbienne (which only the year before had mounted an acclaimed version of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish, directed by Joel Grey). The show was set for only a limited run, but got respectable reviews and was very successful. It also won the Off-Broadway League Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Musical, and won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Book of a Musical (and got two other Drama Desk nominations – for Best Musical and Best Leading Actor in a Musical).
And then…thanks to the success of its run – the show, finally, after 26 years, announced it would at least have its Broadway premiere. Which will be this coming Monday, November 13.
I’m thrilled. After 26 years yammering about a show, it’s so wonderful to see I wasn’t totally off-based. And I’m thrilled for the writers who stuck with it for over a quarter of a century. I have no idea how it will do. It’s certainly timely – and has been at the various times it’s been mounted, but especially now. It’s a very good show, not “great” but thoughtful, interesting, funny, tragic and with an extremely good, evocative music score.
And because of all those years of yammering, writing and interviewing, I feel a certain kindred spirit to the musical. As such, I’ll be posting several items about Harmony, including a CBS Sunday Morning piece on it that recently aired, several of the songs, and starting here today, I thought I’d repost the interview that I did with Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman in 2014. It includes a link to the original article that brought about the conversation.
(What I also didn’t mention in the article at the time is the one challenge I had doing it. I don’t take shorthand. So, it was hell trying to write down accurately what the two of them were saying. Sitting with someone, they can see you’re writing, but over the phone…it’s just conversation. There was one trick I was able to manage – as I would ask my next question, I would stretch it out just a bit with some background and specifics for clarity…but the actual point was to delay their answer until I finished writing down what they’d just said. Writing on the one hand, while also talking at the same time. It was a convoluted effort, but happily it worked out.)
Finally in Harmony Again
February 24, 2014
A year ago, I wrote here about a wonderful musical I’d seen 16 years earlier in its 1997 world premiere tryout at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego. The show, Harmony, was written by Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman, and took on a challenging, fascinating subject. It concerned the real-life Comedian Harmonistes, a hugely popular close-harmony singing and comedy group of mixed religion in Germany during the 1920s into the 1930s, whose existence was threatened as Nazi rule was taking over the country. Not without flaws, understandable for a first tryout, the musical was nonetheless terrific, with a thoughtful, involving book and lyrics, and rich, evocative music score, and looked to have a big life ahead. But things don’t always happen the way we expect, and Harmony never made it to Broadway, or even had subsequent productions. I didn’t know why, but felt that something that good deserved to be at least be known, so I wrote about it.
To my huge surprise, a few months after writing my article, I was contacted by the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta (a Tony Award-winner for Best Regional Theater) to say that they were reviving Harmony. And that it was doing so in conjunction with the highly-regarded Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles.
The finally-revived Harmony had a very successful re-opening. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution headlined its review, “Manilow’s Harmony is a glorious work of art.” Critic Wendell Brock wrote that, “In the end, ‘Harmony’ is a nearly flawless work of art that almost manages to cloak the harrowing underside of history in a bubble of elegance, sophistication and wit. At the end of the night, the waltz fades away, but the stars never dim.” I must admit, it was nice to have my memory vindicated, as well as effort to bring attention to something so good which I’d been telling people about to skeptical looks for almost two decades. It really was that good.
Next stop for Harmony, then, would be Los Angeles, and the show opens there on March 4.
The result of all this is that I had the chance to talk with the show’s creators, Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman. What interested me most was the show from the perspective of having seen it – its history and artistic construction. And how it may have changed in the intervening years. In short, how in the world it got from there to here in just, at this point now, 17 years.
Photo credit: Greg Mooney
And that begins with a simple, nagging thought since that day long ago in San Diego. Their never having written a stage musical before, and in the midst of a hugely successful pop music partnership – how in the world did they come across this unlikely story – one inherently filled with singing and comedy, and even romance, but also much harrowing darkness against the bleakest of backdrops, and what was it that cried out that this, with all its challenges, was the one to do?
“Bruce saw a documentary on the Comedian Harmonists,” Barry Manilow recalls, “and he was out of his mind about it. We’d been looking for something all these years. And he was so excited about it. He said to me, ‘Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah’ (and yes, that’s how Manilow laughingly describes his writing partner’s explosive, bubbling enthusiasm. His amusing point coming across that when you work with someone and they are that enthused about something, the enthusiasm is sometimes all you need.) “And I said, ‘Okay.’”
As big a leap as it might seem, to go from pop music into writing for Broadway, it turns out that it really wasn’t. In fact, it was that very interest that initially drew the two together years ago.
“When we first met in the Calvin Coolidge administration,” Bruce Sussman jokes about their long-term collaboration, it wasn’t to do pop music at all – “we wanted to write musicals.”
“I always wanted to get into writing musicals,” Manilow reiterates. “I thought that that was what I would do, write shows. Conduct musicals, be in the theater. I thought I was a theater writer.”
Manilow’s interest didn’t immediately translate with Sussman. It was one thing to appreciate the field, but taking the next step was something else entirely. “I didn’t know about writing this. The first time he asked me, I actually said, ‘No.’ I didn’t know how.”
What changed is that in 1970, the musical Company by Stephen Sondheim with a book by George Furth opened. It was different from the type of show Broadway was used to – in its edgy score, pointed and episodic book, and inventive staging. And it galvanized the two writers.
“Both of us had seen Company,” Sussman recalls. “Everyone around us saw Company. Everything stopped. We all went, ‘Okay, we have to do this.’”
The problem though was one of time – and more surprisingly, of unexpected success. Much as the two now wanted to write a musical, and knew precisely the sort of material they now wanted write, “It takes a lot of time to write a musical,” Manilow relates. “It can take five years. Because my career exploded, though, I just never had the time. I didn’t have time until 1992.” To be clear, not writing a show was never for lack of interest or even opportunity. “ People offered us shows to do,” he continues, “but they never spoke to us. Steven Sondheim told me that if you’re going to write a musical and spend all that time, it has to be something you love, that you want to spend all that time with.”
“And nothing interested us enough,” Sussman adds. “So, we just waited. And then this project came along.”
Among the things that stood out about seeing Harmony back in San Diego is that the songs did not sound like a “Barry Manilow score.” Most composers have their “sound.” Listen to any show by Rodgers and Hammerstein, even an ethnic period piece like The King and I, and you can nonetheless hear Richard Rodgers in it. Something like Cabaret has the flair of John Kander. But listening to Harmony, if someone asked who you thought composed the music, it’s unlikely that you would single out Barry Manilow. Rather than sounding like a jukebox pop show, the score instead evokes the era, as Manilow put aside his comfort zone for the sake of serving the story and its time.
As much as that might seem, though, like a specific artistic decision to have avoided what was familiar and comfortable to him, “I did not consciously set out to not write in my comfort area,” he answers – and then pauses a moment to give the suggestion more thought, and continues with a surprising explanation.
“Actually, this is my comfort area. Theater. My comfort area is not writing a pop song. With pop songs all you have to go on is ‘I love you, I miss you.’ That’s the whole blank page.
“But this was easy. It’s not easy to write a musical, I don’t mean that, but the songs in a musical have a story they fit in, a context. If you put a chair in front of me, I could write a song about what that chair is. But to write a pop song, and find a new way to say, ‘I love you, I miss you’ – that’s torture.”
Though the two men finally had found the story they wanted to tell, and were filled with enthusiasm for it, there still was that whole issue of time. Not about finding the time, but taking the time to get things right.
“I did three years of research before I even started to write the show,” Sussman states. “And Barry came back from a tour, and he had all these suitcases full of material, songs from the 1930s he’d collected. We did a great deal of research.”
It didn’t occur to them to work any other way, since it’s how they always worked. “If I was to write a song about China,” Manilow says, “I would have studied it and researched it.”
What they ended up with was a score for Harmony that stands separate and unique from the Manilow-Sussman collection, and for many years Manilow wouldn’t even perform any of its songs in his concerts. They weren’t “Barry Manilow songs,” they were Harmony. As the years passed, he finally did record an album with several of the songs from both Harmony and his other musical with Sussman, Copacabana. And one song from Harmony at last made it into his concerts, the beautiful, “Every Single Day.”
(Although now a part of the concert opus -- though this performance below is from a PBS special on Broadway -- you can tell Manilow’s affection to the song. More than just singing it, he almost throws himself into the number, as if acting it from the show.)
Clearly, his concert performance of the song does sound like it belongs in that pop world. Oddly, though, when seeing Harmony back in 1997, even “Every Single Day,” with a totally different, subtle, resonant arrangement, sounded nothing like a song for a Manilow concert. It fit the moment of the show and the character perfectly. So, I was curious how audiences of the musical react when what is now “The Big Hit Song” starts up.
“We don’t ‘pop’ up the arrangement of ‘Every Single Day,’ explains Manilow. “In fact, we do some interesting things with it, and at first the audience doesn’t even realize it’s That Song. People are so engrossed in the show, in what’s going on in the scene. And it sneaks up on them before they recognize it. By the time the song is over, though, audiences have been going wild.”
Which brings us to today. And how these two writers got their show back on stage after a mere 17 years. And how they’ve revisited it themselves.
My recollection from long ago was that the first act of that original production was very strong and tight and rich with story, extremely involving, while the second act, though quite good, was trying to find focus. I was curious if that had been their perception, as well.
“That’s interesting what you say about focus,” Sussman laughs. “The first act was an hour and 45 minutes. But even running that long, we never got complaints about length. None. However, we always felt it could be stream-lined, and now it’s only an hour and four minutes.”
“In that first production,” adds Manilow, “we threw everything up on stage. We were just trying to find out what worked. We didn’t even think anyone would come down to San Diego to see the show! We just wanted to get it onstage, and work on it.”
In the intervening years, though, they two have been able to step back and look at the production with a dispassionate eye, and have indeed kept working on the show. From what they said, it seems that most of the effort has been with the second act – although “We did add major new element in the last scene of the first act,” Sussman explains. “It’s a theatrical device that’s thrilling. In the new second act, though, three songs have been removed, two new songs were added, and we even removed one character.”
Because the show is so centered on this group of six men and the powerful, dramatic turns their lives go through, they take up the bulk of the stage time. However, there are still two wonderful roles for women, who the men get involved with. (When I saw it in San Diego, one of those roles was played by Rebecca Luker, then at the start of her already-burgeoning Broadway career. She’s since been nominated for three Tony Awards. Interestingly, also in the cast was Danny Burstein, and the two subsequently married.) I was curious if the limitation of female roles was ever a concern for the writers, to try and expand those stories – or did they feel more compelled to stick to the core story and however the women developed from it.)
“The women have been better developed than in the original production,” Sussman acknowledges but then laughs self-effacingly. “You should have seen the original script, though. There were eight women in it. You needed a scorecard to keep track! I even put one of the character’s mother in it. I felt he needed a female relationship to his story.” Needless-to-say, all that got dropped.
One of the hurdles that was most intriguing about staging the show is that the real-life Comedian Harmonists were utterly remarkable in their vocal gymnastics. (A recent German film on the group uses recordings of the real group.) So, it seemed like that would be a huge challenge to mounting this musical. The actual Harmonists trained for years to be as pitch-perfect and intricate as they were, not just in their singing, but also comic timing. So, how do you find performers who – while not duplicating the artistry of what the originals did – would be able to sing close harmony so well and have such impeccable stagecraft that audiences would believe and accept that these six men on stage are truly that otherworldly good?
“This is a very complicated score for actors to do,” Manilow admits. “On the other hand, it might be a dream come true for them. It’s what they studied their whole lives – singing, dancing, acting, doing harmony, timing, everything -- and they get to do all of it in the show. But you do have to be a real actor-musician. They’re not just singing melody, they’re all singing harmony.”
All of which begs the overriding question: how in the world did Manilow and Sussman get here? After 17 years wandering in the desert, what happened?? Not only “what happened” in what had been blocking them – but how were they able to get over that hump that had been in their way for almost two decades.
It’s a question that the two men have lived with for a long time. “Every Broadway musical has a big mountain to climb,” Manilow says in a voice dripping with experience. “The issue was never the show. People always loved the show. The problems were always investors, producers, financiers, and we’d be stuck for three years. I don’t want to get into specifics, but when you sign a contract with a producer, it’s for three years. There’s nothing you can do. We spent years going from producer to producer, and it just took so much time.”
Eventually, the two men decided to regroup and simply “put the show in the drawer” as Sussman says, for the time being. To not press the issue, but wait until they could get it right. Then last year, taking matters into their own hands, they did something vibrantly uncommon. Without lawyers involved, without agents, without anyone else involved, they themselves alone picked up the phone and called the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, which they were aware had a very good reputation. Yet it’s far more odd than that. This wasn’t a case of just calling the Alliance Theatre on their own, cutting through all the red tape and going straight to the top through one of their many connections, but rather –
“We called the main number of the theatre,” Sussman laughs. “We just called the lobby.” They didn’t know anyone at the Alliance. They just thought it would be a good theatre. Needless-to-say, the operator at the front desk was a bit surprised by the call. (One can only imagine the conversation, “I have Barry Manilow on Line 2…No, really.”) But she eventually was convinced who it was she was talking with and connected the two men with Susan Booth, the artistic director who heads up the theatre. It turns out that the reputation of the show over the years preceded the call, and Ms. Booth was not only aware of the musical, but hopeful. “The first thing she said was, ‘Please tell me it’s about Harmony.’”
Booth asked for some time to think about the show, needing to decide what she wanted to do with it, and how the musical might fit in with the Alliance. Given that Manilow and Sussman had waited almost 17 years at that point, waiting a while longer wasn’t a problem. What they didn’t expect was how incredibly short they would have to wait. “One hour later she called back to say they wanted to do it,” Sussman says, his voice still not quite believing it – or quite believing what came next. “And she also gave us a start date.”
After roadblocks of 17 years, just picking up the phone and calling the front desk did the trick. In a single hour they not only had an acceptance, but a green light to go ahead. Yet success breeds success, because things only got better. “Six weeks later,” Manilow adds, “we then got a call from the Ahmanson. They’d heard about us working with Alliance, and they wanted to get involved, too.”
Photo credit: Greg Mooney
As difficult and long as the journey has been with Harmony, Bruce Sussman makes clear that they even consider themselves lucky. “The truth is that if it wasn’t for the spotlight of Barry, we never would have gotten this far. The theater is full of people who struggle for years to get their shows on. We know a dozen people with shows who have been trying this long.”
There’s absolutely no scintilla of bitterness or regret or even disappointment in their voices as they talk about the two-decade gestation of their show, and getting it staged at the Alliance, and now the Ahmanson. Only palpable enthusiasm and excitement. “Even though it’s been a rough road, it was something we believed in,” Manilow makes very clear. “That’s why we’ve stuck with it for all these years. We believe in this show. We love it.” And that’s why they went about it now they way they have. Not a huge commercial house on Broadway, but regional theater.
“Regional theater is the only way to do it the way you want it done,” he continues, his exuberance and admiration building. “Neither Alliance or the Ahmanson have ever asked us about profits or anything like that. That would never happen in the commercial theater. But we’ve had the chance to do the show the way we want it, to get it right. We’re doing the Harmony we wanted to be.”
But what about that Harmony and what they’ve always envisioned? Surely there’s a larger goal ahead. You don’t stick with something this long without having that great end in sight – do you?? Other regional theaters, touring, and…perhaps Broadway? I’d read the two men discount having such thoughts, how that wasn’t in their minds. I admit to being skeptical – how could you not be thinking about what’s next?! – but hearing Manilow enthuse about what they have, right now – and the love of the work they’re doing, right now – he actually makes it all makes sense. It is so clear how much he and Sussman dearly love this show, the show that they’ve worked on for two decades, and are just bursting with pride for what it is. Getting on stage in two such prestigious venues. Not for what it might be, possibly, maybe, one day, perhaps.
“If there’s a future to it, great,” Barry Manilow says emphatically. “If people see it and want to take it further, great. But we are not thinking about the future. We are only thinking about this show and getting it right. We’ve had the best time with it. It’s been a thrilling experience. And if it doesn’t get any further, that’s fine. We’ve just had the best time.”
Harmony has its second life, re-opening at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles on March 4. What happens next is in the hands of others. What happens now is in good and appreciative hands.
It's Halloween, so we turn these pages over to the day. Those waiting for the next edition of the Elisberg International Film Festival will just have to wait an extra day. Some things have priority.
I told this story six years ago (almost to the day, but definitely to the occasion), but it bears repeating. My favorite Halloween memory came about 20 years ago. And it involved a Staples office supply store. No, really.
In the late afternoon, I parked in the lot of my local West L.A. Staples and headed towards the building. And coming outside at that moment was Ray Bradbury.
Now, mind you, that alone would have been good enough. I've always loved Ray Bradbury's writing, and the first book of his I'd read was his classic Something Wicked This Way Comes, which centers around Halloween. But then, so did many of his works. He wrote a collection of stories, The October Country. One of his creepy stories is "The October Game". He wrote a short novel, The Halloween Tree. And much more.
Side note: years after I read the book, Disney Studios made a movie out of Something Wicked This Way Comes. A friend at the studio got me a copy of the screenplay and poster, both personally signed to me by Ray Bradbury. Which I still have. So, the author, book, and the connection to Halloween has long been strong with me.
And then there was Ray Bradbury. On Halloween.
I tend not to go up to celebrities. And Ray Bradbury was clearly not in the best of health, helped by a caregiver. But...this was Ray Bradbury. And it was Halloween, for goodness sake. You don't ignore that and expect to have any self-respect. It would almost like avoiding Santa on Christmas. Sure, Ray Bradbury busy because he's the patron saint of the holiday, but he more than almost anyone in the world is celebrating the day to its fullest. And wants the day celebrated to the fullest.
So, I walked over, simply said how much I enjoyed his writing and expected to leave it at that. But he was charming, and engaged me in conversation, helped in part by him finding out that I grew up near where he did, in Waukegan, Illinois. (Glencoe, where I'm from, is about 25 miles directly south.) I don't recall a great many specifics about the conversation, though I do remember his saying how Halloween was his favorite holiday. (Gee, no kidding!)
Which is why it came as a thrill -- and is my favorite Halloween memory -- when, as we parted, Ray Bradbury wished me, "Happy Halloween."
As readers of these pages know by now, I go out of my way to praise the fine line of homecare products from Sensitive Home, invented by my friend Dr. Gregory van Buskirk, better known as Dr. Buzz.
Well, today it's not just me praising them. That's because for the third time in their third year of existence, Sensitive Home has been named a Safer Choice Partner of the Year by the EPA! Only 30 companies were so-named, including Apple and Seventh Generation.
In fact, Sensitive Home was listed *above* the far-better known (so far...) Seventh Generation. Oh sure, some might say that that's because the list is alphabetical. But I say the list being alphabetical was kismet and God's way of bringing proper attention to what's right.
Very sorry to see the passing of Dick Butkus, the Hall of Fame middle linebacker of the Chicago Bears. He was pure Chicago -- he played his entire career in Illinois. He grew up on the Chicago South Side, went to Chicago Vocational High School, attended college at the University of Illinois. And then played for the Chicago Bears.
When the Bears had Butkus and Gale Sayers (picked #3 & #4 in the very same 1965 draft! Man, what a draft that was...), the team was usually awful -- yet they were as great to watch as any Bear team...because of watching just those two. In fact, even with Sayers -- as graceful, remarkable and entertaining a runner to watch as I've seen -- Butkus is the only defensive player who's made me look forward to seeing the Bears (or any) team *without* the ball.
The quintessential Butkus play, that I saw often growing up was a runner getting the back, sweeping left with two blockers in front of him leading the way -- and then you'd see Butkus's body come flying in, knocking the two blockers aside, bursting through them and not only tackling the runner, but causing a fumble and recovering the ball.
Here's how great Butkus was: in 1969, the Chicago Bears only won one game, they ended the season 1-13. They were terrible. Yet Butkus won the NFL Award for best Defensive Player of the Year.
When ESPN did a special countdown on the 100 greatest NFL players of all-time during the NFL's 100th season, they named Dick Butkus #10. Despite playing on only two winning teams in his nine-year career (cut short by bad knees.) That's how great Butkus was.
It should be noted, too, that when college football gives out their Linebacker of the Year award, it's called the Butkus Award. That, too, is how great Dick Butkus was.
Here's the video evidence. But stick around for a bonus video -- a short, but glorious clip of my favorite play ever with Dick Butkus, that I remember as a kid and happily found.
Yet for all his renown as a spectacular defensive player, my favorite play with Butkus that I remember when growing up had nothing to do with defense!
When the Bears would kick extra points and field goals, they would use Butkus to block for the kicker, because he was so tough. Late in one game in 1972 (the video says "1971," but that's incorrect), the Bears lined up to kick an important extra point against the Philadelphia Eagles. But the snap was bad, and the ball got away from the holder -- who happened to also be the team's quarterback, Bobby Douglas.
Meanwhile, as Douglas scrambled around to gather up the loose ball, Dick Butkus had the presence of mind (even as a defensive player) to realize that he was of no value in the backfield, and instead sneaked his way into the end zone.
Now, I can assure you, at no time during the Philadelphia Eagles' game preparation was the question ever brought up -- "Okay, now, who will be covering Butkus?" And so, there Butkus was, almost literally just standing in the end zone all alone, no one close to him. Because who in the world would think of covering Dick Butkus. And when Bobby Douglas finally was able to control the ball, he ran around to his left -- happily being a left-handed thrower, and happily Butkus (perhaps knowing this and in part, too, because he was lined up on the left) had run out to the left side -- and so Douglas, being a quarterback, spotted Butkus entirely by himself in the end zone. And threw him the ball, which Butkus simply stood there and caught, for the extra point.
But that's not the best thing about the play. What happened next made the play special -- all the more so when compared to this era of player celebrations and choreographed team dances when they do something good. When Butkus caught the extra point, he didn't celebrate, he didn't dance, he didn't spike the ball -- instead, he just turned to the Eagles' defender who was rushing towards him, but too late...and politely, and utterly sardonically held out the ball for him. In perhaps the most gracious, "in your face" move you will ever see. At which point the frustrated Eagles player just thwacked the ball away.
And best of all, as proof, here's that video!
We take a point of personal privilege today, and in doing so also take a blessed, momentary respite from the woes that is Trump.
I’m mentioned in the past my cousin Diana Leviton Gondek, who’s a very talented artist back in Chicago. (Actually, she’s a very talented artist wherever she is…) I’ve noted her getting a commission from the City of Chicago to make several large, wonderful horse sculptures to honor fallen Chicago police officers that were placed around the city, including the lobby outside the mayor’s office, when Rahm Emanuel was His Honor.
She also was commissioned to design the 50th anniversary poster for the Special Olympics (which I never knew until then began in Chicago). And just received a grant from the State of Illinois.
I bring up these few items of many to make clear it’s not just my bias saying what a very talented artist she is. But rather my honesty…
Diana is now involved with a project on behalf of epilepsy, the Hidden Truths Project, which is dedicated to engaging and empowering those with epilepsy through the arts. (Founded in 2012, they've raised over $500,000 for epilepsy research. You can read more about the organization here.) And on behalf of that, she was interviewed by the local CBS television station that did a piece on the exhibit.
You’ll see her with a painting she had in the show – her new style is one I particularly like. And happily, she sold it, and proceeds will go to the charity. You can see more of her work here.
And so, using Squatter's Rights on my own website, here's the two-minute video.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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