I am sorry to report that two icons of my youth have died today. The first is a man we all know as simply, “The Professor.” Of course, that’s just the character that he played on Gilligan’s Island. He was, of course, an actual human being named Russell Johnson. And you know what? He was actually a hunka hunka burning love. He was a good looking guy, which I define as, “I’d definitely have rather looked like him!” He could have been a movie star and as it turns out he had a really good career. I’m always seeing old films that he’s in, like This Island Earth. But of course, he will always be “The Professor.” Even to this day, people in my family often refer to me as Gilligan because I have roughly his coloring and have long been painfully skinny. (No more!) But “The Professor” is more my kind of guy. (By the way, his actual name was Roy Hinkley.) He fixes problems, he doesn’t make them. He was a botanist and I am a physicist (although he sure was good at electronics). We both had BS and PhD degrees, but I have an MS and he, for some strange reason, had an MA. So he’s cool with me and I’m sad that he has died, but he was 89. Here is a great bit from a speech he gave in his later years at MIT, “The Professor has all sorts of degrees, including one from this very institution! And that’s why I can make a radio out of a coconut, and not fix a hole in a boat!” We will miss Russell Johnson but we will always have The Professor.
The other icon is a man who is less well know, but still an icon of my young, a man I know of simply as, “Reuben Kincaid.” Now if you are old enough to remember The Partridge Family–Brady Bunch wars, you probably know him as that guy who was on The Partridge Family who you never really understood the purpose of. If you were a little older, or if you still think about the show like some losers I am, you know that he was their agent. Reuben Kincaid was played by Dave Madden. He didn’t have the kind of career that Johnson had. I believe he started as a stand-up comedian and have limited success with that. But eventually he made it to Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In which led to The Partridge Family and eventually Alice. He was 82.
On this day in 1908, the musical comedy legend Ethel Merman was born. When I was younger, I thought she was kind of a joke. That’s the problem with being so successful, you can become a cliche. But over time, I came to see that she’s absolutely great. Here she is with another Broadway legend, Mary Martin, doing a medley of many of their hits. It will make you feel better about life, I’m almost certain. (Extra musical geek points for every show you can name, except for Annie Get Your Gun and South Pacific—you are expected to know those!)
The great writer Susan Sontag was born in 1933. I mostly know her for her excellent essays. But she wrote and did so much more than that. That’s not to say that I completely agree with her. She was controversial—explicitly so. But if a public intellectual does not piss off a lot of people, she isn’t doing her job. And if Susan Sontag hadn’t driven Camille Paglia to fits of apoplexy, I don’t know what the point of life would be. One of my great desires in life is just to make Paglia angry by telling her something like, “You’ve spent the second half of your career in one big apologia for very clearly blaming rape victims for the crimes committed against them. Do you miss the days when you were still relevant?” Sontag, now dead over 9 years is still relevant. And just tell me, who ever wrote a better sentence than, “Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Balanchine ballets, et al don’t redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world.” I don’t necessarily agree with that, but it raises the kinds of questions that we should always be asking ourselves so that we can become better than we are.
Other birthdays: composer Niccolo Piccinni (1728); screenwriter Ruth Rose (1896); one of the greatest film editors of all time, Margaret Booth (1898); inventor Frank Zamboni (1901); hamburger tycoon Carl Karcher (1917); singer-songwriter Jim Stafford (70); country music star Ronnie Milsap (68); and the great film director John Carpenter (66).
The day however, belongs to the great Robert Service who was born on this day in 1874. He is known for his poems about the Yukon. But the truth is that he was something of a fraud. He wasn’t a prospector. He worked at a bank before moving to Whitehorse. There he hung out and listened to stories. I’m not saying this invalidates him. I think he always wanted to be a performer and writer. And his work is good. He wrote the kind of poetry that people still enjoy reading to this day. The best example of this is “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” This came about because Service was talking to a prospector who told him about a partner who he had to cremate on the trail. So he turned that story into a really compelling and funny poem. Service had a good sense of humor that he showed on many occasions. This is my favorite. You could just read it, but here is Service himself reciting. Note the very old style of reading it:
Happy birthday Robert Service!