On this day in 1890, the great geneticist Hermann Joseph Muller was born. He got the Nobel Prize for his work on the effects of radiation on biological systems and their genetics. But his most important work may have been his activism to promote the long-term negative effects of radiation, especially as a result of the nuclear testing that was going on like gangbusters at that time.
Paul Winchell was born in 1922. He was one of the greatest ventriloquists of all time. In the puppet and ventriloquist community, he is legend. In the 1950s and 1960s, he was huge on television. But he is probably best known today as the voice of Tigger in the Winnie-the-Pooh movies. As you will see in the video below, the puppet doesn’t just talk, it moves its arms around and does all kinds of stuff. He is using another puppeteer, which was unheard of then. Winchell was also a mechanical genius. He invented and the first artificial heart. Really! Anyway, here are two charming and funny bits with his two primary puppets, Jerry Mahoney and Knucklehead Smiff:
Talk show host Phil Donahue is 78 today. He was important. He really did change the way that talk shows were produced. Of course, I haven’t really seen anything nearly as good since then. I love the following video clip from when Donahue went on The Factor with Bill O’Reilly. It isn’t the words that are spoken. The styles contrast so perfectly. Donahue is calm and thoughtful with a power that makes you think, “That’s how Thomas Paine must have been!” And O’Reilly is absolutely unhinged—clearly controlled by his inner rage. This isn’t to say that O’Reilly is stupid; he’s clearly a smart guy. But his rage really does take him out of contention for being anyone you would ever listen to. But the video also shows something you don’t often see from Bill O’Reilly: fear. He’s afraid of Donahue. And he should be! Donahue is a far greater man than O’Reilly is in his grandest dreams.
The great guitarist Frank Zappa was born in 1940. He has always been an under appreciated guitarist. And I’ll be honest: when I was younger, I didn’t really get it. Now I listen to him and I am blown away. To some extent, it is that he was too revolutionary. He goes way beyond rock fundamentals. I remember reading a quote from Eddie Van Halen (who is without question a great guitarist) saying that he rarely played anything outside the blues scale. And it is amazing how far that can take you. But Zappa really did go far outside that. Maybe it is more correct to call him a jazz guitarist, but really, he was a rock guy. Here he is doing “The Torture Never Stops” (the guitar playing starts around the 5:00 mark):
Other birthdays: German composer Hermann Raupach (1728); the most overrated person in the formation of this country Paul Revere (1734); the great French painter Thomas Couture (1815); composer Lorenzo Perosi (1872); evolutionary theorist Sewall Wright (1889); cartoonist John Severin (1921); actor Jane Fonda (76); guitarist Albert Lee (70); actor Samuel L Jackson (65); and comedian Andy Dick (48).
The day, however, belongs to the great Italian painter of the Italian Renaissance, Masaccio who was born on this day in 1401. In many ways, he was a first painter of the period. He truly was revolutionary—one of the first painters anywhere to use the vanishing point. If you know any of his work, it is probably his fresco, The Expulsion (see above), which shows Adam and Eve being banished from Eden. It is interesting in that until the 1980s, there were fig leaves covering their genitalia. But those were a later addition, so when the fresco was cleaned, they were removed. I find it fascinating how sexual mores change over time. People have this tendency to always think that the way things are is the way they have always been. Or that things just get more and more permissive. But that isn’t the way things work at all, and we would all be better off if we would just get over it. Regardless, Masaccio had a great influence on pretty much all painters that came after him. I don’t think it is an over-statement to say that without him, there would have been no Antonello da Messina or even probably Leonardo da Vinci. And he only lived to be 26 years old. It isn’t known how he died.
Here is his Holy Trinity where you can really see his use of the vanishing point:
Happy birthday Masaccio!