Archive for the ‘Arts’ Category

On August 5, 1926, Harry Houdini successfully performed a variation the Buried Alive stunt that had nearly killed him 11 years earlier.  Houdini was locked inside a coffin and lowered below the waters of the swimming pool at the Shelton Hotel in New York City where he remained submerged for an hour and a half.  The stunt was performed in response to Rahman Bey’s claim to have channeled supernatural powers in order to survive in a sealed casket for one hour.  Having survived the stunt himself, Houdini attributed his own success to controlled breathing. Houdini performed the stunt once more in the summer of 1926 and had planned to incorporate a stage version into his 1927 performance season.  Unfortunately, Houdini died of a ruptured appendix on October 31, 1926.

Harry Houdini, 1926. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

You can find more images of Houdini and other American performers at Opening History.


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On August 1, 1779, Francis Scott Key was born on his family’s plantation in Maryland.  He studied law at St. John’s College, and it was in his capacity as lawyer that he witnessed the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812.  Key had been aboard a British ship negotiating the release of American prisoners when the British initiated their attack on Fort McHenry on September 13, 1814.  He was retained on board and witnessed the bombardment from the HMS Tonnant where he remained watchful throughout the night for signs that the American flag was still flying over Fort McHenry.  At dawn he reported to the prisoners below deck that the flag was still there.

Painting of Francis Scott Key, oil on canvas by DeWitt Clinton Peters, 1902. Image courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society via Maryland Digital Cultural Heritage.

Six days later, Key published a poem called “Defence of Fort McHenry” in the Patriot, which he had composed on his return to journey to Baltimore. The poem with written to correspond with the tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven”.  Once set to music and renamed “The Star-Spangled Banner”, Key’s patriotic song gained popularity throughout the United States.  Key continued to practice law and write occasional poetry until the end of his life in 1843.  It wasn’t until 1931, however, that “The Star-Spangled Banner” was adopted as the American national anthem through a Congressional resolution signed by President Herbert Hoover.

Printed broadside of the Defence [sic] of Fort M’Henry [sic], 1814. First printed version of “The Star-Spangled Banner”, the song by Francis Scott Key. Image courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society via Maryland Digital Cultural Heritage.

You can learn more about the War of 1812 through Opening History, which includes such collections as the Paul Hamilton Papers from the University of South Carolina, the War of 1812 collection from the Maryland Historical Society, and the War of 1812 collection from the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.

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On July 29, 1869, Booth Tarkington was born in Indianapolis, Indiana.  Today, Tarkington is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novels, The Magnificent Ambersons and Alice Adams. Though most of his works have fallen out of favor with contemporary readers, he was one of the most popular American novelists of his time.  His novels were humorous, satirical depictions of the American class system, usually set in or around his hometown, where he maintained a residence until his death in 1946.

Booth Tarkington. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

You can find more primary sources relating to Pulitzer Prize winners and other American novelists at Opening History.

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On this day in 1906, Josephine Baker was born in St. Louis, Missouri and christened Freda Josephine McDonald by her mother, Carrie McDonald.  Homeless at the age of 12, she was discovered dancing on a street corner three years later and recruited to join the St. Louis Chorus.  She is perhaps best remembered for her performances at the Folies Bergères in Paris throughout the 1920s where she danced in her iconic banana skirt and often appeared on stage with her pet cheetah, Chiquita.  Through the 1930s, she rose to fame as a singer, dancer, and actress.  In 1937 she became a French citizen, and as World War II progressed, she shifted her focus toward supporting the underground resistance movement.  After the war, she often returned to the United States where she was active in the American Civil Right Movement, speaking at the 1963 March on Washington and famously refusing to perform before segregated audiences.

Josephine Baker with the Nobel Prize winning political scientist, Ralph J. Bunche, ca. 1960. Image courtesy of the UCLA Special Collections via Calisphere, the Online Archive of California.

You can find more primary sources about activists and entertainers of the twentieth century through Opening History.

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On May 3, 1903, Harry Lillis Crosby was born to Harry Lincoln and Catherine Helen Crosby in Tacoma, Washington, the fourth of seven children. At the age of six, he earned the nickname “Bingo from Bingville.”  Shortened to “Bing,” the name stayed with him throughout his career.  Crosby performed with several bands throughout the 1920s and made his radio debut in 1931. Within a year he had performed in 10 of the top 50 songs on the radio. Throughout the 1940s his acting career proved as successful as his musical career, and today he is widely regarded as one of the most popular and successful performers of the twentieth century.  Crosby continued to perform until his death at the age of 74 in 1977.

Bing Crosby with Phil Harris and Bob Littler listening to record player, Seattle, 1956. Image courtesy of the Museum of History and Industry via King County Snapshots.

You can find primary source documents relating to Bing Crosby and the history of film and radio broadcasting at Opening History.

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Norman Rockwell was born on this day in 1894.  Rockwell was an American illustrator best known for the cover artwork that he created for The Saturday Evening Post from 1916 to 1963.  Though often criticized for his sentimental portrayal of American culture, his work earned him the affection of the American public and such prestigious honors as the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which was awarded to him in 1977, just one year before his death at the age of 84.

An undated photograph of Norman Rockwell from the George Grantham Bain Collection. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

You can find more Rockwell images through Opening History, including his paintings from the renowned Four Freedoms series.  Depicting Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s four principles for universal freedom and used to promote war bonds, they are among the items digitized by the University of Minnesota as part of it’s Summons to Comradeship: World War I and II Posters collection.

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On December 15, 1939, Gone with the Wind premiered at Loew’s Grand Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia.  For the three days leading up to the premiere, the city of Atlanta celebrated with parades, parties, and a costume ball.  The occasion was further marked when the governor, Eurith D. Rivers, declared the day of the premiere a state holiday.

View of the crowd of people outside Loew's Grand Theater for the premiere of the movie, Gone With the Wind in Atlanta, Georgia. Image courtesy of the Atlanta History Center Album.

In the midst of the celebrity gatherings and celebrations, there were some notable absences in the crowd.  No black actors from the film were allowed to attend due to Georgia’s Jim Crow laws.  Clark Gable threatened to boycott the premiere until Hattie McDaniel, the actress who played Mammy in the film, urged him to attend.  McDaniel did, however, attend the Hollywood premiere, and she was the first African-American to win an Academy Award for her role in the film.

View of author Margaret Mitchell arriving at the premiere of the movie Gone With the Wind outside the Loew's Grand Theater on Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta, Georgia. Image courtesy of the Atlanta History Center Album.

Opening History provides access to documents from this and other moments in film history.  The Atlanta History Center Album has a large collection entirely devoted to the premiere of Gone with the Wind and its subsequent anniversary celebrations.

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