At the Birth of a Legend, Part 2

In the blink of an eye, just over 57 years ago, James Dean went from being one of the brightest young stars in Hollywood, to another tragic traffic fatality. Today, as tribute to our friend Ron Nelson, who passed away on August 7 at the age of 94, I am posting the second of a two-part article that I wrote in 2009 on Ron and his partner Ernie Tripke (who died in 2010) who were the CHP officers who investigated Dean’s crash in 1955.


“There was also another traffic fatality that I investigated that night,” said Tripke. “It was a young man in the military who was killed, but that was quickly forgotten due to the James Dean crash.”

“By the time we got back to the station,” Nelson remembered, “the phone was ringing off the hook. And it didn’t seem to stop for months.”

Tripke also remembers the constant stream of phone calls he got about the crash until he was promoted to sergeant and transferred to Eureka a few months later.

“I was sorry to see him go,” laughs Nelson, “because that meant that all the phone calls fell to me.”

Tripke and Nelson viewed Dean’s body after the crash at the funeral home, and Tripke, who spoke German in his home as a child, was later asked to help translate for German-native Wutherich in the hospital. An inquest was held a few days later in a much larger arena than usual due to Dean’s fame. The coroner’s jury found neither driver to be at fault for the accident.

Tripke transferred several times before retiring as a captain from San Luis Obispo in 1976. Nelson had retired two years earlier, having moved several times around the state, and attaining the rank of lieutenant. Both men settled in the San Luis Obispo area.

The families of the two men spent much of their retirement years traveling together throughout the west in identical RVs. And the friendship that Nelson and Tripke have maintained has extended to each others’ families. Tripke’s wife Harriett and Nelson’s wife Genece have been close friends for decades, and Tripke’s daughter Julie and Nelson’s daughter Jenell, are also best friends.

Both men agree that the James Dean crash was the biggest event of their careers. They have often been paired together and asked to recall their memories of the accident for numerous newspapers, television stations, and documentaries. The interest in James Dean followed them into retirement.

“I was told that I could expect to hear about James Dean until 2005, which was the fiftieth-anniversary of his death, and that was the truth,” said Tripke. “It seems like after the fiftieth, the calls stopped like someone had turned off a spigot.” 

Recently, the two men were again the subject of James Dean interest when I went with Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society President Alan Pollack, and Leon Worden of SCVTV in Newhall, to interview them near the site of Dean’s crash. We met in a restaurant called the Jack Ranch Café. In 1955, it was the site of Paul Moreno’s repair shop.

It was to the repair shop that Dean’s Porsche, as well as Turnupseed’s Ford, were brought after the crash. There is a picture in the restaurant of the two smashed vehicles sitting side-by-side in the garage in 1955.

Both Tripke and Nelson are very friendly and in remarkably good health with crisp minds that can recall details from a half-century ago without pause. They look decades younger than their ages, and both are blessed to have been married to the same women for more than 60 years, and to live close to other members of their family. 

The two men spent much of our time together dispelling myths that have taken on a life of their own about Dean’s crash.

“I read a couple of years ago about Dean’s “fiery crash” and there wasn’t a spark to be found,” Tripke said. “I also heard that some people believe that Wutherich was actually driving. This wasn’t the case because Dean’s feet were tangled up in the clutch and brake pedals, so I knew he had been driving.”

It is known that Dean had been speeding earlier in the day because CHP Officer Otie Hunter had cited him for going 65 in a 55 mile per hour zone south of Bakersfield. (We met Hunter, now 94, on the same day we interviewed Tripke and Nelson. He took us to the very spot where he wrote Dean his ticket in 1955.) But Nelson discounts the notion that Dean was speeding at the intersection.

“My investigation of the skid marks indicated that Dean was going no more than 55 miles per hour through the intersection, which was the legal speed. I’ve heard people say that he was going 90 miles per hour. If he had been, there wouldn’t have been anything left of the car.”

Another myth about the Dean crash that both men deny was that Dean had been drinking earlier and that his body was so drained of blood by the crash that to test his body for alcohol would have been impossible.

“That was just not the case,” said Tripke. “He was not bloody at all and we had no indication that alcohol was involved in the crash. It was customary for a blood test to be performed on all deceased drivers, and Dean’s blood came up negative for alcohol.”

Since it was still daylight at the time of the crash, and excessive speed and alcohol weren’t involved, I asked Officer Nelson what he believes to be the cause of the crash that claimed James Dean’s life.

“Because there were no lights on his car,” he said. “If James Dean’s Porsche would have had its lights on, Turnupseed would have seen him and not pulled into his lane.”

It may seem anticlimactic for some to learn that the crash that created the James Dean “rebel” legend could have been prevented by simply turning on headlights, and was not caused by recklessness, excessive speed, or alcohol. And sometimes the true facts of a story get lost in the re-telling. That’s why it’s so important to capture the stories from the people who were actually there.

And from Ernie Tripke and Ron Nelson, we can learn about what really happened on the day James Dean died – and even more about friendship.

Ernie Tripke – 1922 – 2010

Ron Nelson – 1918 – 2012

Click here to watch an interview I conducted with Ron and Ernie for SCVTV in 2009.

At the Birth of a Legend

A couple of months back, I received word that our friend Ron Nelson had passed away. Ron and his partner Ernie Tripke were the two CHP officers who investigated James Dean’s fatal crash in 1955. This past Sunday was the 57th anniversary of the accident. As tribute to Ron, I am reposting the first of a two-part article that I wrote in 2009 on Ron and Ernie (who passed away in 2010) describing their experiences being on hand at the moment the James Dean legend was born.


Former CHP officers Ernie Tripke and Ron Nelson have been friends for longer than many of us have been alive. Through three-decade long careers with the Highway Patrol, and a similar amount of time in retirement from the force, the two men have remained close friends and frequent companions.

“We’ve had disagreements from time-to-time, but no big arguments in almost 60 years,” said Tripke.

Their friendship was forged as young patrol partners in the CHP in the 1950s. It continued during the two officers’ lengthy careers – ones in which they stopped thousands of speeders and investigated hundreds of car accidents.

It was during the investigation of what was thought to be a routine crash in 1955 that their names were forever linked to a Hollywood legend named James Dean.

Tripke and Nelson’s lives have run in parallel almost since birth. Tripke, the younger of the two by four years, was born in Cleveland in 1922, but moved with his family to Oakland when he was only five-months old. He spent World War II in the navy as a member of the Naval Air Corps.

Nelson was born in North Dakota 90 years ago. He left the upper-Midwest winters for good on the day he finished high school and later also ended up in the navy.

While serving in 1941, Nelson was stationed at Pearl Harbor aboard the repair ship USS Vestal which was moored alongside the battleship USS Arizona. On the morning of Sunday, December 7, Nelson was at the base playing tennis when Japanese fighter pilots attacked without warning. He barely missed being strafed by a Japanese plane when its bullets struck the tennis court. He escaped with only minor injuries.

Back aboard ship, some of his crewmates were not so lucky. Japanese torpedoes passed below the Vestal and struck the Arizona, sending it to the bottom. Two bombs landed aboard the Vestal and a fire, which started from the ruptured fuel tanks on the Arizona, spread to the ship. In all, seven of Nelson’s fellow crewmembers died in the attack, but his ship survived to fight another day. Although it was severely damaged, Comdr. Cassin Young of the Vestal was able to beach the ship to keep it from sinking – an act for which he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Shortly after leaving the navy, both Tripke and Nelson joined a group of 18,000 men who each applied for one of only 1,000 jobs that were up for grabs with the California Highway Patrol. Both men passed the examination and were initially assigned to work the highways in Los Angeles. Tripke transferred a few months later to Paso Robles and Nelson followed in 1953. It was there that they first met.

“Our office was in San Luis Obispo, but we often worked out of the police department in Paso Robles at the time,” says Tripke. “Ron and I were often partnered together when we worked the night shift from 6 PM to 2 AM. That’s how we became friends.”

It was during one of these shifts in 1955 that the two men became part of a morbid chapter in Hollywood’s history and were personally on-hand to witness the birth of a tragic legend. 

The date was Friday, September 30, and the two men had just reported for work when they got a call about a car crash which had just occurred 30 miles east of Paso Robles. Two cars had struck nearly head-on at the intersection of California 41 and 466 (now California 46). One driver suffered only minor injuries, but the other driver was near death. His name, they would quickly learn, was James Dean.

24-year-old Hollywood actor James Dean had been traveling westbound on the 466 driving a Porsche 550 Spyder convertible that he was planning to race in Salinas the following day. His mechanic, 29-year-old Rolf Wutherich, was riding shotgun. A Cal Poly San Luis Obispo student named Donald Turnupseed was approaching the “Y” intersection of the 41 and the 466 from the west. He failed to see the hip-high silver Porsche’s approach in the late afternoon light and crossed into Dean’s lane to turn northbound onto the 41. Dean tried to maneuver his car around Turnupseed’s Ford, but the impact caught the smaller, lighter Porsche full-force, and hurled Wutherich from the vehicle.

“We got the call about the crash from Paul Moreno,” Tripke recalls. “Paul ran a repair shop and operated an ambulance in Cholame, about a mile from the crash site. I responded first and was the lead investigator, and Ron followed behind in another car and secured the site and took the pictures.”

When Tripke arrived at the scene, he found Dean’s smashed Porsche at rest along a fence on the north side of the “Y” intersection. Dean was still in the car slumped over the passenger side door.

“He was still alive at the time, but he obviously had a broken neck. But he was not bloody or mangled like I have read. He looked to be in fairly normal shape, except for a few abrasions, and of course, the broken neck,” says Tripke.

By the time Nelson arrived on the scene, Dean had been placed on a gurney and was being loaded into the ambulance.

“I didn’t get a good look at him, but I could hear him, and he was breathing hard. I speculated that his head had actually made contact with the front of Turnupseed’s car, and that he had suffered severe brain damage,” recalls Nelson.

It was a Friday night, and the road had more than normal traffic flow with drivers heading westbound to the race and high school football fans traveling eastbound to a game in Bakersfield. It didn’t take long for the dying driver to be identified as James Dean, but Dean, who had only one major film credit at the time of his death, was not universally known.

“I was told that the victim was James Dean,” recalled Tripke, “but the only James Dean I knew about was Jimmy Dean, the sausage maker. But I could see that the driver wasn’t him. It wasn’t until later when we went to the funeral home in Paso Robles that the funeral director’s wife, who had just read an article in The Saturday Evening Post about James Dean, clued me in to who he was.”

Tripke remembered that Dean was actually involved in two traffic accidents that day.

“The ambulance that Paul Moreno was driving, which had Dean and Wutherich in the back, was involved in a minor traffic accident on the way to Paso Robles. It was nothing big. The drivers just exchanged information and Moreno drove on to the hospital. It was there that Dean was pronounced dead-on-arrival.”

(Look for “Part 2” tomorrow.)

A New Birth of Freedom

(Today marks the 150th anniversary of what I believe to be the finest law passed in our nation’s history – one that never should have been needed in the first place, if we were a nicer species. Here’s to Lincoln’s finest moment.)

There are some ugly realities littering American history that I just can’t wrap my mind around – one being that less than 100 years before I was born, certain people could legally own other people.

That’s why I find it curious that September 22 isn’t a national holiday, because it was on this day in 1862 that President Abraham Lincoln signed the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation that began the official process of freeing America’s four million slaves.

When the nation was founded roughly “four-score and seven years” earlier, the Declaration of Independence stated that “all men are created equal,” but the economic and prejudicial forces of the time kept these words from applying to the African-Americans that were toiling in forced servitude in the country. The Civil War came about in the 1860s largely to decide whether or not slavery would remain on the North American continent.

The Executive Order that Lincoln signed on this date was more symbolic than binding, as it only freed slaves in areas outside of Federal control. The wording of the document gave the Confederacy a way to re-enter the Union without losing their “peculiar institution.” It was a shrewd move for Lincoln, because he knew the South would never go for it, and by their refusal, he could change the purpose of the war in the eyes of the world. It also set the framework for the official proclamation that was signed by Lincoln 100 days later on January 1, 1863.

The proclamation was largely unpopular in the North where most soldiers were fighting to restore the Union rather than to end the practice of slavery. But internationally, the move doomed the Confederacy’s chance to gain badly needed international recognition.

The advancing Union armies freed more and more slaves after the Proclamation was put into effect, and 200,000 former slaves eventually served in the Union forces.

The shameful practice of slavery was officially ended in America with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865, which came seven months after Lincoln’s assassination.

M*A*S*H Today

(Since today is the 40th anniversary of the debut of M*A*S*H, I thought I would dust off an old post from August, 2010.)

If there happens to be any Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) unit sites left in Korean from the days of the Korean War, I would imagine they look a lot like the site of the M*A*S*H television series set in the Santa Monica Mountains.

The Korean War (1950-53) is often called “the forgotten war,” but the movie M*A*S*H (1970), and the television dramedy that it spawned are anything but.

The series, which followed the lives of battlefield surgeons in MASH unit #4077, starred Alan Alda, Wayne Rogers, Mike Farrell, McLean Stevenson, Larry Linville, Loretta Swit, Jamie Farr, David Ogden Stiers, and Gary Burghoff. It debuted on September 17, 1972, and lasted nearly four-times longer than the war it was based on. Its run ended on February 28, 1983, with a 2 ½-hour send-off that was the most watched show in American broadcasting history with nearly 106 million viewers. (Super Bowl XLIV earlier this year finally broke the record with 106.5 million watchers.)

I recently led a group of five teenaged family members to the site of the exterior set that appeared in all 256 episodes of the series. It is located in what is now Malibu Creek State Park (formerly 20th Century Fox’s Film Ranch), and is a dusty

2 ½-mile walk in from the campground. (Next to the campground is the house used in the 1948 comedy Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, which starred Cary Grant and Myrna Loy.) It was blisteringly hot that day, but I felt the hike was worth it. I’m not so sure that my young companions felt the same way, not having grown up with talk of “the swamp,” “Hot Lips,” “Ferret Face,” Grape Nehi, and the Toledo Mud Hens.

The site contains the rusting hulks of an army jeep and ambulance as well as a tin shed which contains pictures taken from the show. Over the past few years, volunteers have cleared the area of brush and staked out the former locations of the camp’s tents. The famous directional sign which stood near the mess hall has been re-created and is displayed on weekends. The flattened area that was used as the helipad in the series is still located above the camp.

Apart from the vehicles, nothing remains on site from the actual show, but the “swamp,” which served as Hawkeye’s tent, can still be seen at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. Radar’s teddy bear is still around and was recently sold at auction for nearly $12,000. (An interesting bit of trivia: Sesame Street’s Big Bird has a teddy bear named Radar.)

Since it went off the air, M*A*S*H has lived on in syndication and unlike the Korean War, will never be forgotten. (Luckily, there don’t seem to be any AfterMASH reruns out there, so we can all collectively forget that sorry piece of post-partum depression.)

The Shy Stooge

(I was only 15 when Elvis Presley died in 1977, and I remember everyone going on about what a tragedy it was for The King to have passed so young at age 42. At that time 42 seemed like a lot of years to be alive, and I didn’t see anything particularly tragic about someone so “old” dying.

Man have times changed!

I’ll turn 50 on the 4th of July this year, which means that I’ve outlasted Elvis by a solid eight years so far, and from where I stand, 50 ain’t old! Not one bit.

It also means that I’ve been circling with the earth for a couple of years longer than Jerome “Curly” Howard got on this side of the ground. Curly died sixty years ago this week, as a “youngster” of only 48.)

When the cameras weren’t rolling, Jerome “Curly Howard" Horwitz was very different from the hyper-manic slapstick “stooge” that he played on screen in nearly 100 shorts with Larry Fine and his brother Moe.

Curly, who died 60 years ago this coming Friday, was known as Jerry to his friends and Babe to his family. He was the youngest of the five Horwitz brothers, which included future Stooges Moe and Shemp.

A shy, unassuming boy, young Jerry did poorly in school, but excelled as a basketball player (!), ballroom dancer, and singer. He walked with a slight limp that resulted from an accidental gunshot wound he sustained as a child. (He would later develop his famous “Curly Shuffle” in part to hide his affliction.)

Jerry joined the Stooges in 1932 after his brother Shemp left the act to pursue a solo career. Comedian Ted Healy led the team at the time, and initially rejected him because he didn’t like his full-head of auburn hair. Jerry, needing the job, reappeared a few minutes later with a shaved head and was immediately hired and given the ironic nickname “Curly.”

Curly became the most popular Stooge out of the gate when the team began making shorts for Columbia two years later. A self-trained comic, Curly created most of his most famous routines on the spot. Often times, directors would give him the barest of plot outlines and simply turn on the camera and watch him create.

The Stooges kept up a grueling filming schedule for many years with Columbia head Harry Cohn demanding eight shorts a year from the team. When not filming, the Stooges toured non-stop, giving live performances. Curly, who felt more comfortable with dogs than people, would often spend his downtime on tour finding homes for strays.

When not on stage, Curly would morph back into the introverted Jerry, who was insecure around women because of his shaved head, and could only open up to strangers when intoxicated. This became an increasingly constant condition.

His health, both physically and mentally, declined drastically during the 1940s, as he suffered through a string of bad marriages and hypertension brought on by obesity. After he had a stroke in 1946 (Perhaps brought on by too many head slaps administered by brother Moe?), Shemp rejoined the team and Curly was sent to live out the remainder of his life in hospitals. He eventually died from a major stroke in a sanitarium in San Gabriel on January 18, 1952. He was only 48.

Curly was interred in East L.A.’s Home of Peace Cemetery where he would later be joined by brother Shemp, who died three years later. The cemetery houses the mortal remains of many Hollywood luminaries, including studio moguls Louis B. Mayer and the Warner brothers.

But by far, the most visited grave on the grounds belongs to a shy kid named Jerry, who – lucky for us – hid his introversion behind a persona with a shaved head, a high-pitched staccato Brooklyn accent, and a host of memorable catch-phrases and physical gags.

The grave is a bit tough to find, but you’ll know it when you see it. It’s the one with “Nyuk, Nyuk, Nyuk” written out in front in pennies.

(And in Deadwrite’s Dailies news: We passed 100,000 all-time hits just after New Year’s. Thanks everyone for stopping by.)

Occupy Chuck

(It’s customary in the media (and I guess a blog is technically part of the “media,” isn’t it?) to add our own “Auld Lang Syne” item to the list of things that went away during Millennium 2.011. Here’s a bubbly-raising post dedicated to an underappreciated television show that wrapped for good a couple of weeks ago.)

Imagine growing up loving – and I mean lovingGilligan’s Island. (Knowing no better, this was an affliction that many of us in Indiana once succumbed to, having spent countless after- school hours watching WGN reruns.)

Now imagine what it would have been like to have spent part of your working days as a “fly on the wall” on the show; hanging out on the sets, chatting up the cast and crew, occasionally dipping your toe into the lagoon.

Welcome to our world, sort of, or at least a portion of it, anyway.

For the past several months, both Kimi and I have seen our own worlds collide with the fictional setting of our all-time favorite television show, Chuck.

We both work on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank where I give tours and she works in the studio protection group. Both of our roles call for us to interact directly with the shows on a regular basis. I lead three tours a day through the sets and Kimi works with the productions during filming as part of her set watch duties.

We can’t call ourselves long-term fans of Chuck. As a matter of fact, we had never even seen it until a few months ago when I started this tour-giving gig. I thought I’d better sample some of the programs made on the lot to know what I was showing off to the paying customers and borrowed the first season on DVD from a friend. After the first few moments of the pilot episode, Kimi and I uttered a collective “dammit,” knowing that until we had powered through every season, our sleep would be sacrificed nightly to feed our newfound “just-one-more-episode-of-Chuck” habit. We were hooked.

The humor, quirkiness, and infectious joy that Zachary Levi – the loveable nerd-turned-spy Chuck – and the rest of the cast brought to the screen immediately won us over. Although our addiction was new, it was strong.

The following mornings I would get to lead tours to the set of Chuck’s apartment on Stage 4, the fantastic “Buy More” set on Stage 17, and every so often to “the Castle” set on Stage 10.

A visit to the apartment set provided the added benefit of me getting to say hello to WB’s smallest celebrity: a cat named Smokey, who lived in the courtyard fountain when the stage wasn’t in use. (Smokey has another home next door on the set of Ellen and occasionally appears on the show.)

Sometimes, when the touring crowds were slight, I would stage sit at Chuck’s apartment for a few hours at a time, taking in the details of the sets. Someone must have taught Smokey how to high-five, because I was able to bond with the near-feral feline to the point that she would sometimes go paw-a-mano with me.

One thing you learn quickly in Hollywood is that if the star of the show is nice, niceness will permeate the entire production. (Sadly, the alternative is equally true.)

Since Zac Levi is the friendliest guy in Hollywood, the sets of Chuck were the most approachable on the entire lot. Comparable, in our experience, to the former sets of The West Wing, which because of the kindness and warmth of Martin Sheen, were congenial throughout.

I was never a Chuck insider – far from it. Smokey was the only member of the cast or crew with whom I was on a first-name basis.

Much of my interaction with the cast took place when I was leading a tram full of tour guests. We encountered Zac on several occasions, often atop a skateboard, wheeling himself from one soundstage to another between scenes. He would always say hello and offer a wave, no matter how busy he was. During one of these meetings he introduced himself to our tour group, apologizing because WB’s lot didn’t have 3D gorillas or thrill rides like Universal Studios, instead only having “schmucks like me.”

There were other Chuck cast moments, like the time I watched Joshua Gomez, who plays Chuck’s hapless best friend Morgan, practice karate moves on the apartment set. A couple of days later I got a shy wave and Australian-accented hello from Yvonne Strahovski. Another time, I turned the corner to see the entire cast walk by in bathrobes.

Kimi’s encounters with the cast were more substantial since she spent many hours with them during tapings over the past season. On once such night, the show was taping inside the parking structure just across from the lot on Forest Lawn Drive. It was the final night of shooting for an episode that Zac was directing. During a break, she asked him if he was having fun being the boss.

“Well …?” he replied with a knotted face suggesting that “fun” wasn’t the word he would have used. Then he smiled and commented that it was pretty stressful, but that he had a lot of support. Later that evening, he surprised everyone by personally renting two gourmet food trucks, which were made available to everyone on the crew, including Kimi. A sign was placed on both of the trucks which read, “Thanks for all your hard work. It’s gonna be great! – Zac.”

Despite having a rabid core of fans, the show never reached higher than #65 for a season, since for most of its run it was up against Monday Night Football. This season it was relegated to Friday night, which is where shows go to die, so everyone knew that it would soon be coming to an end.

In the weeks leading up to the final days of shooting, a visit to the sets was like seeing a friend who was terminally ill with no chance of recovery. Towards the end, even Smokey seemed to sense something was up and could often be found camped out on Chuck’s bed in an “Occupy Chuck” movement of one.

I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to the cast because they were out on location for most of their final week. But Kimi did. She was walking past Zac’s trailer on their last day on the lot when he stepped outside. She extended her hand, telling him he would truly be missed at Warner Bros., and that it had been an honor working with him. She added that what he had brought to us was nothing short of magic.

Instead of simply shaking her hand, he embraced her, thanked her … and fought back tears. He apologized and explained that she had caught him at an emotional moment. When Kimi joined him in tears, they both laughed, and he wished her “a beautiful day.”

According to a young friend of ours at WB who spoke recently to Zac about his plans, his next stop is Broadway. NY’s gain is LA’s loss, most likely a temporary one, since anyone who has watched Chuck over the past five seasons, or has had the honor to meet Zac personally, champions this guy and hopes he makes it to his rightful place at the top of the Hollywood food chain.

I’m sure the rest of the cast will be okay too. Adam Baldwin consistently finds himself in fantastic, albeit short-lived shows (Firefly); and sweet and shapely Yvonne Strahovski, who recently appeared on the cover of a Maxim magazine, will have no trouble making rent.

The lot is quickly moving on. These days I pass by Stages 4, 10 and 17 and see the dumpsters outside filled with former Chuck sets. Three times a day I still see one of the Nerd Herders parked in the Transportation Museum and Smokey has moved back in full-time with Ellen.

A few months ago we were down in Studio City at the studio where Gilligan’s Island was filmed. The lagoon had been drained years earlier and replaced with a parking lot.

I know something will soon occupy Chuck’s former digs, and I imagine one day guests on my tours will see a line added to the brass plaques that don the sides of its former stages that reads “Chuck 2007 – 2011.”

Kimi and I will miss the cast and crew of Chuck, but we’ll be forever grateful to have been a “fly on the wall” on the show; hanging out on the sets, chatting up the cast and crew, and occasionally dipping our toes into the proverbial lagoon.

Kimi and I would like to thank the 86,511 “Deadwrite’s Dailies” readers who stopped by for a visit in 2011.

Happy New Year, everyone!


This past week, there was another palindrome granted to us by the calendar gods (Do geese see god?)

Barring the creation of the immortality pill (Will you please get on this, Eli Lilly!), this will likely be the last 11-11-11 we will experience in our lifetimes. (Of course, at the rate I’m going, if I do happen to make it to November 11, 2111, I’ll just about be finished with my degree and the back yard).

This type of timekeeping symmetry is just what I needed to rouse me back to the keyboard to share updates on some of the “DD” posts for the non-palindromic past.

I promise you’ll hear from me again before 12-12-12.


I’m giving tours at Warner Bros. these days. One of the places I like to point out (especially if I have a graying group along for the ride), is the intersection between the Mill building and Stage 16. This was the place where Pink Floyd’s iconic 1975 Wish You Were Here album cover was taken over 35 years ago.

As part of a new Why Pink Floyd? marketing campaign, last week EMI re-released WYWH as both a 5-disc “Immersion” edition and in a 2-disc “Experience” format.

Speaking of Pink Floyd, 1973’s Dark Side of the Moon passed a major cultural milestone this past June when it charted on Billboard for the 1000th week!


Speaking of milestones, Deadwrite’s Dailies will pass 75,000 views for the year sometime in the next day or so. Thanks to everyone who has stopped by for a peek.


It’s a bit after the fact, but October 12 was the 40th anniversary of the passing of rockabilly legend Gene Vincent, who is buried in Newhall’s Eternal Valley Cemetery. My family and I pass by this cemetery a couple of times a day driving on the Antelope Freeway and often call out a “personal Hi Gene” to the late legend.

I learned an interesting fact around the time of the anniversary. I had always thought that Gene had died at the Henry Mayo Hospital in Newhall back in 1971. It turns out, that hospital hadn’t been built yet, and thanks to some great investigative work from my friends Chris Bouyer and Tony Newhall, the real location was found to be what was then the Inter-Valley Community Hospital at 21704 Golden Triangle Road in Saugus. The place is known today at the Hillside Professional Center (and it looks kinda creepy).


I don’t know if you caught this or not, but President Obama recently authorized the deployment of a small contingent of troops to Uganda to help fight a brutal guerrilla force known as the Lord’s Resistance Army. The LRA, under the leadership of Joseph Kony, has been carrying out a campaign or murder, dismemberment, and kidnapping in central Africa for decades.

This was welcome news to African activists all over the world, including our friend The West Wing actress Melissa Fitzgerald, who has been campaigning for the citizens of Uganda for years. Well done.


BTW – Congrats to the late, great cowboy hero Roy Rogers, who would have turned 100 on November 5.

Twenty years ago on November 7, Magic Johnson made the stunning announcement that he had the HIV virus. Magic, glad you’re still with us and going strong!

So long to the Western Black Rhino, which was due to poaching, was declared extinct last week. (When are we actually going to learn to live on this planet?)

On a personal note, my second book will hit the shelves tomorrow. It’s called Griffith Park and was co-authored with Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker. The book covers the story of L.A.’s “Central Park,” with tons of photos of some of the hundreds of films that have been shot there. Keep watch for details of upcoming lectures and book signings.

Post-“Modern Times”

As you may have noticed, “Deadwrite’s Dailies” has been something of a misnomer of late.

I’ve not taken a dirt nap or anything, it’s just that the summer got crazy busy. During the last couple of months, I got deluged finishing up my second book (with co-writer Marc Wanamaker), co-hosting a new local television show, as well as leading tours and teaching classes on film history in the Santa Clarita Valley. On top of it all, Kimi and I started back on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank doing “real jobs.”

That being said, I found myself with a day off today and wanted to use the time to say “hello” and to congratulate everyone for being alive to celebrate the palindromic date of 11/02/2011.

Today, I would like to update everyone on our efforts to memorialize the spot of the final scene from Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times.” This article was originally posted on August 30, 2010.


Seventy-five years ago today, the Silent Era ended.

The ending came with little fanfare on Sierra Highway near Agua Dulce, California. The only people on-site to witness the finale were the stars and crew of the film Modern Times, who were there to film the iconic final scene.

Silent films had been on life-support for nearly a decade by the time that Charlie Chaplin, one of the greatest of the Silent Era clowns, chose to make Modern Times – a film about the dehumanizing effects of big business on workers. Sound first appeared in a Hollywood feature in 1926’s Don Juan, which had a backing orchestra and sound effects synced to the film. Talkies debuted a year later with The Jazz Singer, and the days of the silent film were officially numbered.

The change was a traumatic one for Hollywood, and hundreds of careers ended abruptly. Chaplin had built a tremendously successful career with a pantomime character called The Little Tramp and was in no hurry to have him talk. By 1935, he was the last person in Hollywood with the resources to ignore the transition to sound, but he realized the time had at last come to have the character speak.

Modern Times is a transitional film in that almost all of the dialogue is silent, yet there are occasional spoken voices and sound effects. The Little Tramp remains silent for most of the film, but when it comes time for him to talk, Chaplin actually has him sing.

On August 30, 1935, when the cast and crew shot the final scene where Chaplin and his co-star Paulette Goddard walk off into the sunset, (figuratively at least, the scene was set at dawn) they must have sensed they were at the end of an era; it was unlikely that even the great Charlie Chaplin could pull off another silent film. What remained to be seen was whether or not the Little Tramp character would continue.

The answer was no. Chaplin felt the magic of the character disappeared once his voice was heard and chose to retire him.

(A similar character did appear in Chaplin’s next film, The Great Dictator, but the Tramp was transformed into a European Jewish barber for this film. After that, the character never again appeared on screen.)

Modern Times was Chaplin’s biggest gamble and turned out to be one of his greatest successes. Recently, the American Film Institute voted it onto its top 100 American Films list at #81.

I am currently working with Los Angeles County and Santa Clarita city officials to erect a commemorative plaque at the site of the final scene next February to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the film’s release.

Stay tuned for updates on our progress!


THIS JUST IN: In February 2011 Kimi and I helped create and host the first annual ChaplinFest in Newhall, California. During that festival, Tippi Hedren and Leonard Maltin helped us unveil a beautiful black marble monument commemorating the final scene of “Modern Times.” The monument was created by the wonderful couple of Charles and Maria Sotelo of High Desert Monuments in Hesperia, California. These kind and patient people believed so strongly in our project that they created the monument for us without asking for a dime up front. I am very happy to report that after several months of fundraising, the Sotelos are now paid in full! We thank everyone who contributed to this worthy cause. (We will still need to raise funds for the base and other associated costs.)

The next phase of the project calls for us to get the monument placed at the site of the final scene (which looks much the same today as it did in 1935). We are hoping to place it during the week of August 30, 2012, the 77th anniversary of the filming of the scene. We’ll keep you in the loop on how our plans progress.

The Day Movies Learned to Speak

A quick glance at the calendar will reveal that I’m a bit late in pulling the “Welcome to August” trigger, but better late than September.

So let me be the last to welcome you to the eighth month of the year. (And as the eighth month, shouldn’t it be called Octo-ber? The answer is yes. It would have been had a couple of megalomaniac Roman emperors named Julius and Augustus not inserted months named after themselves into the middle of the summer, thereby messing up the calendar forever.)

There are dozens of Deadwrite’s Dailies anniversaries worthy of a blog post during the first half of this month, including: August 1 – Concert for Bangladesh (1971); MTV’s debuts (1981); August 2 – Wild Bill Hickok gunned down (1876); August 3 – Wings formed (1971); August 4 – President Obama’s 50th birthday; August 9 – Jesse Owens wins four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics (1936) …

Lucille Ball would have turned 100 on the 6th of August, something a good chunk of the world (and Google) seemed to remember. But also on that date back in 1926, a little remembered film debuted that changed the world. Today’s post is about that.

On August 6, 1926, Warner Bros. taught movies to “speak.”

On that day, WB first brought sound to movie audiences with the premiere of Don Juan. Before that night, filmmakers had essentially ignored the sense of hearing, relying on live accompaniment for their presentations.

Don Juan, starring John Barrymore, premiered at the Warners’ Theatre in Manhattan to a packed house that paid the record-setting price of $11 per ticket for the night’s entertainment.

Don Juan’s sound came from a 16” phonograph that was synchronized to the film in a complicated process called “Vitaphone.”

Vitaphone was the brainchild of Sam Warner, the second youngest of the four Warner brothers. Sam felt that the studio he and his brothers created would never rise to the highest rung of the Hollywood ladder unless they took a bold step. That bold step was sound.

Sam loved tinkering with technology and had previously worked alongside Western Electric technicians setting up WB’s radio station KFWB on their Sunset Boulevard studio lot. It was here that he learned of a process Western Electric had developed to synch sound to movies. Sam talked his brothers into purchasing the system which was named Vitaphone to capitalize on WB’s recent purchase of Vitagraph Studios.

Don Juan was still essentially a silent film with all the dialogue written on cards. What is most notable about the movie is that it added the sound of an orchestra (along with some special effects), which removed the need for live musicians.

In spite of its huge opening night receipts, Don Juan couldn’t recoup its budget and WB was left seriously in debt. But Sam Warner pressed on in the development of sound, much to the chagrin of his brother Harry – the keeper of the company’s accounts.

Don Juan would prove to be the warning shot fired across the bow of silent films. The genre would be effectively killed fourteen months later by WB’s release of the first “talkie,” Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer.

Sadly, Sam Warner wouldn’t live to see its release. The stress of overseeing its production ruined his health, and he died 24 hours before The Jazz Singer’s premiere from a cerebral hemorrhage.

Vitaphone itself would pass away by 1930 (the process anyway, the name would survive until 1959) when improved sound-on-film technology replaced it.

The huge profits that WB reaped from their pioneering efforts into sound gave them the funds to purchase the First National Studios in Burbank in the late 1920’s, which remains their headquarters to this day.

(And if you want to see the place, stop by the studio this summer and I may be the one giving you a tour!


July Stories

(Before July 2011 passes into the history books, I want to highlight some of the “Deadwrite’s Dailies” type of anniversaries that take place over the last half of the month.)

Ginger Rogers – b. 7/16/1911

Happy 100th birthday to the late, dancing great Ginger Rogers. Born Virginia McMath in Independence, Missouri, she was said to be able to dance before she could walk. She teamed up for the first of nearly a dozen films with Fred Astaire in 1933’s Flying Down to Rio. In death they’re still partnered: both are buried in Oakwood Memorial Cemetery in Chatsworth.

Ty Cobb – d. July 17, 1961

Hell got a bit more crowded 50 years ago this month when Ty Cobb died. Cobb – one of America’s greatest baseballers and most rabid haters – was also the game’s first millionaire. He tried to use some of his fortune to rehabilitate his reputation before his death, but it just didn’t take.

Bobby Fuller d. July 18,1966

23-year-old musical sensation Bobby Fuller (I Fought the Law) was found dead in his car in Los Angeles 45 years ago on this date. His death was ruled a suicide, but questions remain. some have speculated that Fuller was murdered by the LAPD and possibly even by Charles Manson.

Lizzie Borden b. July 19, 1860

We all know the gruesome rhyme about hatchet-wielding Lizzie Borden’s naughty night when she delivered 40 whacks to her father and 41 to her mother. (In truth, the number was 11 and 19, respectively.) Lizzie may not actually have been the “whacker.” Some have speculated that she took the fall for a younger sister. Another theory claims that Lizzie did the deed, but was unaware of it as she was in a PMS-induced “fugue.” BTW, the house where the killings took place in Fall River, Massachusetts is now a bed-and-breakfast.

(An additional shout out to our pals Martin Sheen and Melissa Fitzgerald, who were in Washington on the 19th to rally in support of Drug Courts, which focuses on rehabilitation rather than incarceration for drug-addicted offenders.)

Bruce Lee d. July 20, 1973

32-year-old martial arts movie master Bruce Lee died suddenly on this date in 1973, just six days before the release of Enter the Dragon, a worldwide box office hit. His son Brandon would follow him into films and a premature death when he was killed on the set of The Crow nearly twenty years later.

Basil Rathbone d. July 21, 1967

Most famous for his series of Sherlock Holmes films in the 30s and 40s, Basil Rathbone served as a British intelligence officer in WWI and later put his proficiency in fencing to work in swashbucklers like The Adventures of Robin Hood.

John Dillinger d. July 22, 1934

Depression-era bad guy John Dillinger was gunned down by G-men on this date in 1934 outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago. Famous for his numerous breakouts, he once got out of the Crown Point (Indiana) jail with a wooden gun that was smuggled in by his attorney. Dillinger was buried in Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis, near the grave of Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley, who also died on July 22nd, eighteen years previously.

U.S. Grant/D.W. Griffith/Vic Morrow d. July 23

Savior of the Union and two-time president Ulysses S. Grant died on this date in 1885, having finished his memoirs just a few days earlier. Film pioneer D.W. Griffith passed away on this date in 1948, and screen actor Vic Morrow was tragically killed on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie on this date in 1982.

Peter Sellers d. July 24, 1980

Eccentric funny guy Peter Sellers died on this date in 1980 at the age of 54. July 24th also marks the 65th anniversary of the creation of the popular comic team of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin in 1946. Ten years to the day later, they would split up.

Harry Warner d. July 25, 1958

One-quarter of the four brothers who founded the media empire where Kimi and I are currently employed, Harry Warner was for decades the president of Warner Bros. until losing control of the company to his brother Jack. The inter-familial shenanigans caused Harry to have a stroke, which eventually killed him on this date in 1958.

Robert Todd Lincoln d. July 26, 1926

Son of President Abraham Lincoln, Robert had the misfortune of having a father assassinated and then being nearby when two other American presidents were murdered. He lived long enough be present at the dedication of the Lincoln Monument – a tribute to his dad.

Bob Hope d. July 27, 2003

Comedian Bob Hope triumphed in every medium available to him – film, television, radio, theater – and had an amazing run at longevity as well, living past 100. July 27th also marks the 15th anniversary of the bombing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

Jackie O b. July 28, 1929

Former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was born on this date in 1929. July 28th is also the anniversary of the founding of the city of Miami in 1896 when it was incorporated with a population of 300 – roughly the same average attendance figure for Florida Marlins games.

Cass Elliot d. July 29, 1974

Yes, singer “Mama” Cass Elliot died on this date in 1974. And no, it wasn’t because she choked on a ham sandwich (it was a heart attack). Born Ellen Naomi Cohen in Baltimore in 1941, Cass was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 along with the rest of The Mamas and the Papas.

Claudette Colbert d. July 30, 1996

Saturday marks the 15th anniversary of the passing of French-born actress Claudette Colbert. After a 60-plus year career, which included a Best Actress Oscar for 1934’s It Happened One Night, Colbert passed away at the age of 92 at her retirement home on the island of Barbados.

Andrew Johnson d. July 31, 1875

Andrew Johnson was the first man to ascend to the presidency because of an assassin’s bullet, and the first to be impeached. He was also the first man (presumably) to be sworn in as Vice-President while falling-down drunk.

(See you in August!)