Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Sue Bennett - On Live TV in Boston and New York

WBZ-TV in Boston, which was New England’s first commercial television station (it began operation in the summer of 1948), broadcast The Sue Bennett Show in 1954 and 1955.  The station was affiliated with NBC then.  It was an era of adventure and excitement on television, because it was still so new. 
Sue Bennett’s TV career started promisingly. She had appeared on the famous Your Hit Parade, sponsored by Lucky Strike, and on other shows in the heady, nerve-wracking days of live television. Soon, however, her career took a different turn, and by the time of Boston’s The Sue Bennett Show, was waning in the mid-1950s, mostly by her choice. 
She had moved from New York, where the big TV shows were produced, to Boston with her physician husband.  They raised two sons, and she occasionally hosted other local programs, or appeared as a guest on talk shows or took studio voice-over work for TV and radio commercials.  The career that now began to fade had started with the snap and sparkle of the Big Band Era and the promise of sudden stardom that TV gives.
The threads of her career, woven into the story of early live TV, is told by her son, Andrew Lee Fielding in his book The Lucky Strike Papers (Bear Manor Media: Albany, GE, 2007).  It’s a splendid book, sensitively written, that chronicles the phenomenon of live TV, and the musical variety type programs which are no longer with us.
He writes from his perspective as one who is taking a mental and emotional journey back to a time only just a handful of years before he was born--but it might as well have been a thousand years.  He is like an archeologist of popular history, as he examines artifacts of his mother’s career.  The book is filled with interviews of many of the figures of era, which he began interviewing in the late 1970s.  They include Dorothy Collins, Snooky Lanson, and Russell Arms of Your Hit Parade, as well as bandleader Kay Kyser, Merv Griffin, Jack Leonard, Freddy Martin, and many, many more.
We tread like explorers through the world of kinescope in the days when shows produced in New York could only reach Chicago and points west on a kinescope recording before there was a coaxial cable that far to broadcast live.  In the days when a new TV set cost over $900 in 1949 dollars. 
Technologically primitive by our standards, and cost prohibitive for purchasers of new sets, still the new media commanded such interest that theatre towns were shocked to discover that once TV came available to their areas, they experienced a drop in attendance.  Movies, too.  Hollywood was panicked.  For more than one reason.  We explore a world where Red Channels had the power to destroy careers.
Flitting through these images is Sue Bennett, a lovely young singer of great talent.  Her son grasps at her image, but never holds it for long because the evidence of her career is fragmented and time is getting away from him.  
Mr. Fielding manages to write a very personal memoir about a story that was not his own, and that is something wondrous.  I found the book quite moving in several passages.  I especially liked his references to the S.S. United States, a ship on which his mother and several of the Your Hit Parade cast performed in a special episode, a magnificent ship from the lavish days of transatlantic travel, whose fate the author follows to its lonely decay in a berth on the Delaware River.
For those interested in the days of early television, this book, filled with anecdotes and the details of excellent research, is a valuable asset.
For now, have a listen to Big Band singer Sue Bennett singing with the Kay Kyser orchestra on “Let’s Choo, Choo, Choo to Idaho”.  (Don't forget to scroll down to the bottom of the blog and mute the music so you can hear the YouTube audio.)


Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Connecticut River Valley Tobacco Growing

This sign showing a giant green splotch on the Connecticut River Valley, illustrates the extent of commercial tobacco growing in western New England.  From about Portland, Connecticut, following the river up to lower Vermont, we see a huge swath of land that more or less replicates the gouging of the glacier that once sat here.  Maybe its peeling back layers of earth as it retreated is the reason for this area’s having some of the most fertile growing land in New England.  Certainly left behind a lot of dinosaur footprints.
The first European settlers here were quick to notice, and quick to exploit, the fertile land, and started growing tobacco as early as the 1650s.  The native tribes hereabouts, however, had grown tobacco for their own use long before that.
Photo Luddy/Taylor Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum

The colonists smoked it in clay pipes then, and some was shipped back to the mother country, but it is said that Connecticut’s Revolutionary War hero (and French and Indian War) Israel Putnam, bringing tobacco seeds back from Cuba was the start of the growing of this special tobacco for rolling into cigars.  We visted his monument in this previous post.
Photo Luddy/Taylor Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum

Commercial tobacco growing, mainly on small family farms, took off in the 1800s, when cigar smoking among men became popular.  The kind grown here was called Broadleaf, the outer wrapper of the cigar.  Competition from Sumatra later in the century inspired growers hereabouts to turn over a new leaf, so to speak, in tobacco growing.  In the early 1900s they came up with the idea of erecting enormous light cloth tents over the tobacco fields, which by cutting direct sunlight and increasing the humidity of the atmosphere underneath the tenting, replicated the growing conditions in Sumatra.  This is called Shade tobacco, and it is considered the finest cigar wrapper.
The tobacco farms, not just small family farms anymore but also large commercial plantations (part of Westover Air Force Base in Chicopee, Massachusetts was once the site of the American Sumatra company plantation), was a huge influence on the economy of the Connecticut River Valley, and provided thousands of jobs.
Photo Luddy/Taylor Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum
Local folks, including many teens, found work here, but tobacco growing is such a labor-intensive project, with a lot of work done by hand, that workers were sought from other parts of the country to work here seasonally.  One of the first drives to bring in outside workers occurred during World War II, when of course a lot of local men were called into the service.  During these years, many young people arrived from the South. One of them a young Martin Luther King, Jr.
Religious services, Photo Luddy/Taylor Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum 
He arrived here in 1944, when he was just 15 years old.  He obtained a job on a tobacco farm in Simsbury, Connecticut that summer to earn money for college.  In The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (ed. Clayborne Carson, IPM, Time Warner, 1998), Dr. King recounts that he was surprised that he could attend a “white” church, and eat in any restaurant he wanted, because there were no segregation laws in the north.  “I had never thought that a person of my race could eat anywhere, but we ate in one of the finest restaurants in Hartford.”
He wrote home to his parents in June, 1944:
I am very sorry I am so long about writing but I have been working most of the time.  We are really having a fine time here and the work is very easy.  We have to get up every day at 6:00.  We have very good food.  And I am working kitchen so you see I get better food.
We have service here every Sunday about 8:00 and I am the religious leader we have a Boys choir here and we are going to sing on the air soon.  Sunday I went to church in Simsbury it was a white church…On our way here we saw some things I had never anticipated to see.  After we passed Washington there was no discrimination at all the white people here are very nice.  We go to any place we want to and sit any where we want to.
Tell everybody I said hello and I am still thinking of the church and reading my bible.  And I am not doing any thing I would not do in front of you…
Your Son...
The adult Dr. King continues in his autobiography, “After that summer in Connecticut, it was a bitter feeling going back to segregation…I could never adjust to the separate waiting rooms, separate eating places, separate rest rooms, partly because the separate was always unequal, and partly because the very idea of separation did something to my sense of dignity and self-respect.”
Obviously, not all learning experiences on the tobacco farms were quite as profound as this young man’s, and later decades came to know labor unrest, with conditions that were not always satisfactory in the larger work camps.  Waves of other newcomers came to the Valley as temporary tobacco workers and stayed to make a home here, from Jamaica, from Puerto Rico, as well as from Central America, Haiti, Mexico, and Africa.
 Choir, workers from Jamaica, Photo Luddy/Taylor Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum
The height of tobacco growing occurred in early 1920s when some 30,800 acres in Connecticut alone were devoted to this crop.  Today, there are only about 2,000 acres left.
This is due to a number of factors, in part to the value of real estate turning land over to industrial parks and shopping plazas, to the fact that cigarette smoking eclipsed the popularity of cigar smoking, and that younger generations have come to understand that smoking will kill you.

 Exhibit Luddy/Taylor Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum, photo JT Lynch
Two excellent sources of information on the history of tobacco growing in the Connecticut River Valley, used for this article, are the Connecticut Public Television documentary “Connecticut’s Tobacco Valley” (produced and directed by Frank Borres,  2001), and the Luddy/Taylor Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum.
Photo JT Lynch
This museum is comprised of a tobacco shed with machinery, implements, and tobacco, and a separate archives building containing many artifacts, exhibits, photos and books on this interesting aspect of western New England history.  It’s located in Windsor, Connecticut.  Have a look here at the website.
Another viewpoint of the story of tobacco farms in Connecticut will be discussed this Thursday on my Another Old Movie Blog when we take a look at “Parrish” (1961), which starred Troy Donahue, Connie Stevens, Claudette Colbert, and Karl Malden.  It’s a lavish, Hollywood version of tobacco growing, but a lot of it was filmed right here in Windsor, Connecticut.  I hope you can join us.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Returning next week...

And…we’re back.  I apologize for the longer than usual break in proceedings, but this is just to let you know that New England Travels will return next Tuesday, January 22nd.  We’ll start with a visit to the Luddy/Taylor Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum in Windsor, Connecticut to explore the history of broadleaf and shade tobacco agriculture in the Connecticut River Valley of Connecticut and western Massachusetts.

 Photo Luddy/Taylor Connecticut Valley Tobacco Museum
We’re tying in with my post that coming Thursday the 24th on my Another Old Movie Blog about the film “Parrish” (1961), which was filmed on location in Connecticut and offers us a lush look with a soap opera-type story about tobacco growing in this area.  Starring Troy Donahue in a stunning array of red sweaters and windbreakers, he is ably supported by Connie Stevens leading the bevy of females chasing him, along with Claudette Colbert as his mom, and Karl Malden as the boss/stepfather from hell.  This movie, and the novel by Mildred Savage on which it was based, are probably the most famous depictions in popular culture of commercial tobacco growing in the Connecticut River Valley.  I hope you can join us on both blogs next week.

Classic Films and the American Conscience, my eBook collection of essays from Another Old Movie Blog is now also available from Barnes&Noble.com for your Nook, and continues to be sold on Amazon.