Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Mother's Days Past in Alabama

Celebrations of motherhood were practiced among ancient cultures, including the Greeks and Romans. A modern day to honor mothers is celebrated in many countries around the world, and the concept originated with Anna Jarvis in the United States early in the 20th century. 

Born in West Virginia, Jarvis became a literary and advertising editor for an insurance firm in Philadelphia. When her mother Ann's health began to decline, she moved to Philadelphia so Anna could care for her. Ann died on May 9, 1905.

Various efforts to honor mothers had appeared in the United States in the 19th century. Ann Jarvis, who had nursed soldiers on both sides in the Civil War, had created Mother's Day Work clubs to work on public health issues after the war.

After her mother's death, Anna began a sustained campaign to create a Mother's Day. In 1910 her efforts started reaching fruition as West Virginia became the first state to officially recognize the second Sunday in May as Mother's Day. Alabama U.S. Senator J. Thomas Heflin wrote and achieved passage of a national recognition when Congress passed a law on May 8, 1914. The following day President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation in support of Mother's Day. In 1934 President Franklin Roosevelt approved a stamp to honor the day. 

By 1910 Alabama had also recognized Mother's Day. Below you can see a newspaper notice from May 1, 1910, that Governor B.B. Comer had issued a proclamation declaring Sunday, May 8, to be Mother's Day in Alabama. Just below that notice is another one about Comer, noting he had been kicked by a horse and would be unable to the upcoming World's Fair banquet to which the mayor of New York City had invited him.  

Sentiments surrounding Mother's Day appeared in a 1926 issue of the Avondale Sun published for employees of the state's Avondale mills. The author of the letter, Charlie Harris, declared "And on Mother's Day you should send your mother something to make her happy."

Mother's Day in 1963 was not so happy for some people in Anniston. The article below notes that two homes of blacks and a black church were riddled with shotgun fire from a passing car in the afternoon. The homes were filled with people celebrating the day; the church was empty. Luckily no one was injured. In May 1961 Anniston had been rocked by violence during the Freedom Rides through Alabama.  

By the early 1920's Mother's Day had been fully commercialized by the greeting card, floral and candy industries. For years Anna Jarvis unsuccessfully fought these changes; she felt the celebration should be about sentiment, not money. She spent her last years in some economic distress and finally in a sanitarium. She never married and never had children of her own. 

Anna Jarvis [1864-1948]
Source: Wikipedia

Source: Avondale Sun April 30, 1926, page 6
[Published for employees of Avondale Mills in Alabama] 

Source: Pensacola Journal May 1, 1910, via the Library of Congress' Chronicling America digital collection. The same notice appeared in the Washington, D.C., Evening Star on the same date. 

 Source: Birmingham News May 13, 1963, via Birmingham Public Library's Digital Collections

Monday, April 27, 2015

A Film Projection Course at Auburn in 1923

Who knew that in 1923 Auburn University--then known as Alabama Polytechnic Institute [API], of course--had a Motion Picture Projection Department?

Wandering around Lantern, the Media History Digital Library, will turn up all sorts of goodies. Recently I found the two-part article below in July 1923 issues of Motion Picture News. The News was published under that title from 1913 until 1930.

The article gives us many details about the projection course being taught at API as described to the editor by Professor A.L. Thomas, head of that department. Included are questions from the course's final exam and answers of one of the students. Over 100 students had taken the course since it first began in the 1918-19 school year. The auditorium at the school had two "latest model" Simplex projectors used by student projectionists for film showings six nights per week.

A bit of the history of movies at API is included in the article. Film projection first came to the campus in 1907. By 1911 an Edison projector had been installed for movie showings once a week for students. The College Band provided music, and a student served as projectionist. By 1915 the "College Picture Show" was operating two nights a week with a paid six-man orchestra.

The article is unsigned but at the very beginning the author refers to himself [?] as "the Editor", which might mean the magazine or the section editor. I could find no staff listing for the magazine in those two July 1923 issues.. 

I have found little information so far on the National Anti-Misframe League. The organization appears in issues of the Motion Picture News as early as 1917 and as late as 1925. A Google search returned nothing. The "Forum" was a regular feature of the publication for discussion of matters of interest to League members. The "Pledge" of the Forum found on the last page below is concerned primarily with taking care of the physical condition of film reels.  

In 1926 projection speed of silent films was standardized at 24 fps [frames per second]. Prior to that time projection rates could vary from 16 to 23 fps depending on the shooting speed of each film. I wonder if this change had anything to do with the League's apparent disappearance. However, there would still be the problem of the care of physical reels.

The article has two photographs taken on the API campus. The first shows students in one section of the class posing in front of an iconic building, Langdon Hall. Several cameras on tripods can be seen. The building dates from 1846 and was originally a wood structure on the campus of the Masonic Female Seminary. Moved to the API campus in 1883, the building was bricked and eventually named after Charles Carter Langdon, a school trustee from 1872 until 1899.

The second photograph shows students receiving instruction in the "motion picture laboratory." The building is no doubt one of the engineering department's locations at the time.

Women were admitted to the school in 1892, but none can be seen in these photos. Women were enrolled in engineering programs at API by 1918 or so, but probably most movie projectionists around the country were male.

Professor Albert Lee Thomas taught mechanical and electrical engineering at the school from 1904 until 1956.

Silent film projector from the 1920s

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Valley Elementary School in Pelham on a Postcard

Recently I was going through my Alabama postcard collection and came across the one below. Both of our children attended Valley, and I remember walking under that front entrance canopy many times. 

The school operated from 1964 until 2015. Pelham has created its own school system, built a new elementary school and no longer needs this one. Apparently the city will allow a developer to create an "entertainment destination" there.  

Dr. Norma Rogers became principal in the early 1970's and served until 1991 when she became Superintendent of Shelby County Schools. The address now is 310 Opportunity Drive. Directory assistance informs me that phone number has been disconnected.

At some point during either our son's or daughter's time at Valley this key chain was given out. My daughter entered Riverchase Middle School in the 1999-2000 school year, so the key chains were distributed before then. 

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Long, Strange History of "Alabama Song"

Recently the Library of Congress added The Doors first album The Doors to its National Recording Registry that recognizes items of importance to the nation's audio culture. That 1967 album by the group includes a song called "Alabama Song (Whiskey Bar)" which has wound its way through world music for almost a century. Let's take a look at that long, strange history.

And no, this one is not the "Alabama Song" on Allison Moorer's album of the same name. This "Alabama Song" is also known as "Whiskey Bar", "Moon Over Alabama" and "Moon of Alabama" and it began life deep in the heart of 1920's Germany.

The lyrics originated with German poet, playwright and theatrical director Bertolt Brecht [1898-1956]. Written in 1925, they first appeared in his collection Hauspostille [Manual of Piety in Eric Bentley's 1966 translation] two years later. 

In that same year Brecht began a collaboration with composer Kurt Weill  [1900-1950] on Mahagonny-Songspiel, a short opera they prepared for the Baden-Baden Festival. German singer and actress and Weill's wife, Lotte Lenya [1898-1981], playing the prostitute Jessie in that production, first sang the song in public. "Alabama Song" and one other piece were performed in English, with translation provided by frequent Brecht collaborator Elisabeth Hauptmann [1897-1973]. 

By 1930 the songs of the short opera had been included in Brecht and Weill's epic political satire, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, where the prostitute character's name has become Jenny. The longer work was first performed in Leipzig in March 1930.

Lenya did not appear in the new opera, but she released a recording of "Alabama Song" to coincide with its premiere. Lenya continued to perform the song for the remainder of her career. She did play the prostitute Jenny character in the 1928 premiere of Brecht and Weill's best-known work, The Threepenny Opera. That work, performed over 10,000 times around the world, continues to be popular and is famous for introducing the song "Mack the Knife."Lenya is perhaps best remembered today for her role as Rosa Klebb in the second James Bond film, From Russia with Love. 

The lyrics below are those used in the Door's 1966 recording. An amazing variety of other artists have performed "Alabama Song" over the years. The Mitchell Trio folk group included it on a 1964 album. Bette Midler included the number in her shows in 1977 and it's available on her Live at Last album. David Bowie, Nina Simone, Marianne Faithfull, David Johansen, and Marilyn Manson have all recorded or performed the song. Numerous others are included on a lengthy list on Wikipedia

I have a CD "All that Jazz: The Best of Ute Lemper" released in 1998. On it Lemper performs several Kurt Weill songs, including "Alabama-Song." The German singer and actress is a well-known modern interpreter of Weill's work.

In 1965 the album Mack The Knife And Other Berlin Theatre Songs Of Kurt Weill was released featuring saxophonist Eric Dolphy and pianist John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet. The album opened with "Alabama Song", recorded in January 1964 just six months before Dolphy's death. 

The album was reissued with additional tracks in 2008; the cover of that version is below. You can hear it on YouTube along with other versions under the various titles. According to the Wikipedia article on the song linked above, trombonist and arranger of the song Mike Zwerin asked Dolphy to "play what [he] felt about Alabama."

Now we come to the question of the hour. What in the world does this song have to do with Alabama? Beats me, although we do have plenty of whiskey bars, moons, mamas and dying in the state. Perhaps it just seemed exotic to some artistic Germans in the 1920's; perhaps the word fit the rhythm. 

After the Nazis came to power, the work of Brecht and Weill was banned and they, along with Hauptmann, immigrated to the United States until after World War II. Whether they ever visited Alabama during those years is unknown.

Bertolt Brecht
Source: Wikipedia

Weill in 1932
Source: Wikipedia 

Lotte Lenya.jpg
Lenya as photographed by Carl Van Vechten in 1962
Source: Wikipedia

item image #0

A 1930 recording of the song by Lotte Lenya

Source: Internet Archive 


Well, show me the way
To the next whisky bar
Oh, don't ask why
Oh, don't ask why
Show me the way
To the next whisky bar
Oh, don't ask why
Oh, don't ask why
For if we don't find
The next whisky bar
I tell you we must die
I tell you we must die
I tell you, I tell you
I tell you we must die
Oh, moon of Alabama
We now must say goodbye
We've lost our good old mama
And must have whiskey, oh, you know why
Oh, moon of Alabama
We now must say goodbye
We've lost our good old mama
And must have whisky, oh, you know why
Well, show me the way
To the next little girl
Oh, don't ask why
Oh, don't ask why
Show me the way
To the next little girl
Oh, don't ask why
Oh, don't ask why
For if we don't find
The next little girl
I tell you we must die
I tell you we must die
I tell you, I tell you
I tell you we must die
Oh, moon of Alabama
We now must say goodbye
We've lost our good old mama
And must have whisky, oh, you know why

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Birmingham Photo of the Day (31): Shades Mountain Filtration Plant in 1908

Yet another example from the 1908 book Views of Birmingham is the photograph below of the massive Shades Mountain water filtration plant, long a part of the Birmingham Water Works.  

Here's a view of the same buildings taken during the great blizzard of March 1993. Source: 

Monday, April 13, 2015

Films Based on Augusta Wilson's 1867 Novel St. Elmo

Recently I made one of my frequent visits to Lantern, the Media History Digital Library, a wonderful resource that makes available full texts of 20th century magazines devoted to film, television and radio. I always find interesting items there, and this time I stumbled across an advertisement for the 1923 silent film, St. Elmo. You can see that ad below. I knew there had been more than one film version of Augusta Jane Evans Wilson's novel, so I decided to investigate; here's what I found. 

First, some background in case you aren't familiar with Wilson. She's one of Mobile's legendary residents; although born in Columbus, Georgia, she spent most of her life in the city. She published nine novels before her death in 1909, and some of them such as St. Elmo and Beulah made her one of the bestselling American novelists of her day. 

Like many female authors of that time, she began writing to supplement her family's income. St. Elmo sold over a million copies and made her the wealthiest female writer in America before Edith Wharton. Only Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and Lew Wallace's Ben-Hur sold better among American novels in the nineteenth century.

There is a town in Mobile County named after the novel. Several of her works, including St. Elmo, can be found via Project Gutenberg. A recent book about Evans is The Life and Works of Augusta Jane Evans Wilson, 1835–1909 by Brenda Ayres [Ashgate, 2012]. 

In her entry on Wilson in the Encyclopedia of Alabama, Sarah Frear describes the story of St. Elmo. "In it, Evans depicted a moral struggle between good and evil. The novel's male protagonist, St. Elmo Murray, is at first a cynical and cruel man, but he is gradually converted to Christianity through his love for the virtuous heroine, Edna Earle. Edna willingly gives up her literary career when she marries St. Elmo, and this choice reflects Evans's belief that women were happiest, and most powerful, when they devoted themselves to their families and homes." Perhaps Wilson created a bit of wish fulfillment for herself in this story. 

From what I can determine, five silent film versions of the novel were made: two short ones in 1910, one in 1914, and two more in 1923. The first 1910 version was produced by the Thanhouser Company and released in March. The second one, produced by Vitagraph, came out the next month. You can follow the links below to Wikipedia articles giving more details on both films. The Internet Movie Database also has entries here and here. Both films ran for one reel, or some 10-12 minutes. 

The 1914 version was released in August and "promised 194 gorgeous scenes". Follow the Wikipedia link below for stills from a couple of them and more information on the film. This version was much longer, running six reels. I know a bit about silent film history, but did not recognize any cast members in these three films. I would imagine they are known only to serious silent film buffs and scholars.

However, I am familiar with the leads in the 1923 American version of Wilson's novel. John Gilbert played St. Elmo Thornton in the rising star period of his career. In 1924 Gilbert changed to MGM Studios and soon became as big a box office draw as Rudolph Valentino. Known as "The Great Lover", Gilbert made three films with Greta Garbo. Gilbert's career declined after the arrival of talkies, and he died in 1936 at the age of 38.

His co-star in St. Elmo was Barbara La Marr, known as "The Girl Who Is Too Beautiful." By 1923 she was a major star, but her career did not last much longer. A hard-partying young lady, alcoholic and probably a drug addict, La Marr died in 1926. She was 29 and married to her fifth husband at the time. She and Gilbert reportedly had a steamy affair during production of St. Elmo.

Another familiar name is Warner Baxter, who had a much longer career and died in 1951 at 62. Among many other films silent and sound, he played The Crime Doctor in a series of ten movies popular in the 1940's. 

The last film adaptation of the novel, also released in 1923, was a British production. Like so many silent films, apparently no prints of any of these five versions of Wilson's novel have survived. 

The ad below for the 1923 American film claims "For the past twenty years St. Elmo has been the most called for book in the libraries throughout America." One might think Wilson would be seldom read today, but she still has her fans. Some of them have commented enthusiastically on the GoodReads site. A much longer modern reaction can be found at Vintage Novels



Augusta Jane Evans Wilson

Source: Alabama Department of Archives & History 


Title page of a United Kingdom edition. The book was published under her maiden name; she did not marry Colonel Lorenzo Wilson until 1868.

A still from the Thanhouser Company's one reel silent film released in March 1910

Source: Wikipedia


A New York newspaper ad for Vitagraph's April 1910 adaptation, also a short single reel film.

Source: Wikipedia

St Elmo 1914 film poster.jpg

Poster for the Balboa Amusement Producing Company's 1914 release
Source: Wikipedia 

Ad for St. Elmo from Motion Picture News 12 September 1914

Source: Lantern 

Advertisement for the 1923 Fox Film Corporation release

Source: Motion Picture News July-August 1923 via Lantern

Monday, April 6, 2015

Alabama on U.S. Postage Stamps (1): Some African-Americans

Alabama people and themes have been featured on numerous U.S. postage stamps over the years, and I want to explore some of them in a few posts. Other nations have also honored Alabamians in this way.

My father Amos J. Wright, Jr., was a stamp collector in the 1960's and gave my brother Richard and I an appreciation of the hobby. I still collect them, although they simply end up in a shoe box. We still have my dad's stamp albums, as well as several boxes of stamps that never made it into albums. He pretty much dropped the hobby when his interest turned to Alabama archaeology

The stamps below feature African-Americans connected with our state in some way. I've added comments on some of them.

The U.S. Postal Service recently featured "Stamps Reflect History of Tuskegee University" on its blog.

10c Booker T. Washington stamp, issued April 7, 1940

This stamp featuring Booker T. Washington was issued on April 7, 1940, and was the first U.S. stamp to honor an African-American.

BTW 1956 Commemorative Stamp

Another stamp was issued in 1956 to honor the centennial of Washington's birth. 
Ralph Ellison 91¢

African-American author Ralph Ellison is best known for his 1952 novel Invisible Man. Ellison, who attended Tuskegee Institute, died in 1994. He arrived at Tuskegee on a music scholarship but left to study the visual arts in New York City. He eventually detoured into writing. This stamp was issued on February 14, 2014.

George Washington Carver

This George Washington Carver stamp was issued on February 3, 1998. I recently described "That Time Mom Saw George Washington Carver in Camp Hill" on this blog.

Florence, Alabama native William "W.C." Handy had a long career as songwriter and arranger and is known as the Father of the Blues. He died in 1958 and this stamp was issued in 1969.

Although Tanner never visited Alabama as far as I know, I wanted to include him because his sister Halle Tanner Dillon Johnson has an important connection to the state. Henry Ossawa Tanner was the first African-American artist to achieve fame internationally. He moved to Paris in 1891 and remained there until his death in 1937. As I wrote in another post, his sister was "The First Certified, Practicing Female Physician in Alabama." She practiced at Tuskegee Institute for several years after finishing medical school in Philadelphia in the spring of 1891. Their father was Benjamin T. Tanner, a prominent minister in Pittsburgh. This stamp was issued in 1973

Jesse Owens

Jesse Owens is one of many legendary athletes born in Alabama.  This stamp was issued on September 10, 1998.

The United Arab Emirates featured Owens on a stamp in 1973.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Alabama Bicentennial is Coming!

In April 1798 Congress created the Mississippi Territory which included land that is now Alabama. In 1817 the Alabama Territory was created and on December 14, 1819, that territory became the 22nd state. The territorial and early statehood time is a fascinating period in Alabama history. 

The state of Alabama will be celebrating it's bicentennial with numerous events in 2017 through 2019. The Alabama Bicentennial Commemoration has been established in the state tourism department to coordinate and promote those events. What will your community be doing to celebrate?

Below are a few maps of the state from that early period.

Mississippi Territory in 1804

This 1817 map shows the state of Mississippi and the Alabama Territory.

Here is the Alabama Territory in 1818. 

And here is the state of Alabama in 1822. 

All maps are taken from UA's wonderful Historical Maps of Alabama digital collection.