March 28 marks the date of a historic moment in the history of comedy. On that date in 1948, Jack Benny’s popular radio show aired one of the great exchanges in the long history of that beloved program:

Mugger: Your money or your life.
Mugger: Look bud. I said, your money or your life.
Jack: I’m thinking it over!

Born in Chicago in 1894 as Benjamin Kubelsky, or alternately in whatever year was 39 years before the air date of his show, Jack Benny grew up in Waukegan before heading to vaudeville in his teens. The “Your Money or Your Life” sketch took place long after the comedian had taken his place as the king of radio and a year before he famously jumped from longtime home NBC to anchor CBS’s entertainment bloc on the wireless.

For years, the skit was celebrated as getting the longest laugh in the history of The Jack Benny Program. Fans and biographers have since disproved the claim. The seven-second laugh in fact finished far behind other gags that provoked laughs over twenty and even thirty seconds long. But “Your Money or Your Life” and the skit on either side of it remains a beloved part of Benny lore.

Emerging in the 1850s, elocutionists recited poetry or drama with music to create a new type of performance. The genre—dominated by women—achieved remarkable popularity. Yet the elocutionists and their art fell into total obscurity during the twentieth century. Today we barely remember the ubiquity of the genre. Indeed, we barely remember elocutionists at all.

Marian Wilson Kimber is working hard to revive awareness of this pop culture phenomenon of yesteryear. Her recent book The Elocutionists: Women, Music, and the Spoken Word explores the world of these forgotten performers, their art, and their appreciative audiences. Now Wilson Kimber has opened up the wayback machine to give we twenty-first century people a look at the elocutionists in action. How? She became an elocutionist. Well, kind of. Not exactly. But in the neighborhood. Living the scholarship, Wilson Kimber has dropped four videos onto YouTube recorded at a recent elocutionist’s recital at the University of Iowa. The first is above. The rest are available via easy links. If you think entertainment in the late 1800s consisted solely of Wild West Shows, shooting passenger pigeons, and hog calling, think again!

Rockmore_and_TermenYou can’t have Women’s History Month without musician-genius Clara Rockmore (left in the photo). The appropriately named Rockmore was a master of the theremin, that haunting/creepy sound-maker that entered our consciousness through 1950s science fiction films, “Good Vibrations,” twentieth-century electronica, and by inspiring the Moog synthesizer.

The theremin, it will not surprise you, had a strange history. Russian scientist and radio engineer Leon Theremin (right in the photo) invented the device that bears his name and showed it to the world in 1920. The only instrument that is played without being touched, it became an international sensation.

glinskyBut, as Albert Glinsky shows in his acclaimed book Theremin: Ether Music and Espionage, the story of the instrument and its inventor goes way beyond music history.

Theremin surrendered his life and work to the service of Soviet state espionage. On assignment in Depression-era America, he became the toast of New York society and worked the engines of capitalist commerce while passing data on U.S. industrial technology to the Soviet apparat. Following his sudden disappearance from New York in 1938, Theremin ended up in a Siberian labor camp and subsequently vanished into the top-secret Soviet intelligence machine, presumed dead for nearly thirty years. Using the same technology that lay behind the theremin, he designed bugging devices that eavesdropped on U.S. diplomatic offices and stood at the center of a pivotal cold war confrontation. Glinsky masterfully blends the whimsical and the treacherous into a chronicle that takes in everything from the KGB to Macy’s store windows, Alcatraz to the Beach Boys, Hollywood thrillers to the United Nations, Joseph Stalin to Shirley Temple. Theremin’s world of espionage and invention is an amazing drama of hidden loyalties, mixed motivations, and an irrepressibly creative spirit.

woeseToday we turn over the 200 Years of Illinois feature to Steven Lenz and Nicholas Hopkins, authors of an essay (reprinted below) in the new UIP book The University of Illinois: Engine of Innovation. Lenz and Hopkins look into the life and work of longtime U. of I. figure Carl Woese.

Carl Woese (1928-2013) received a bachelor’s degree in math and physics from Amherst College in 1950. Despite his fascination with physical phenomena, however, Woese opted to explore the relationship between physics and the world of living things. He completed his graduate work at Yale University just as scientists were becoming aware of the role of the genetic code in the evolution of life. Marked by an independent turn of mind, however, Woese chose to explore the origins of the genetic code itself rather than to study its operation in living cells as had Nobel laureates James Watson and Francis Crick. He pursued this curiosity through postdoctoral work at Yale and the General Electric Research Laboratory in Schenectady, New York, and brought it with him to the University of Illinois, where he was recruited to the faculty (and immediately tenured) in 1964. Woese would remain in Urbana-Champaign for the rest of his career.

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tri-state-tornado-damage-gorham-illinoisThis weekend marks the anniversary of the Tri-State Tornado, the deadliest tornado disaster in U.S. history. On March 18, 1925, an F5 twister formed near Ellington, Missouri in the early afternoon. The storm packed 300 MPH winds and stayed on the ground a nigh-unthinkable 3.5 hours. Moving northeast, it crossed the Mississippi River. On its way across southern Illinois it wiped out almost half of Murphysboro, where 234 people died either in the storm or in the fires that broke out shortly afterward. In Gorham, the winds ripped railroad tracks out of the ground. Virtually every building was destroyed. It soon leveled De Soto, where the partial collapse of the local school killed 33.

“I was happy that day of the tornado and, just in a flash, I was desolate,” survivor Betty Moroni told a newspaper in 2015. “I didn’t have a home, didn’t know the way home. It was all blown away.”

Bush, West Frankfurt, and the Orient Mine suffered enormous damage. The storm demolished the entire town of Parrish. Still moving northeast, it smashed into three Indiana towns and destroyed an estimated 85 farms before dissipating near Petersburg at 4:30 p.m.

The total death toll across the tornado’s path was a still-record 695 people, with approximately 600 of the deaths in Illinois.

Scientists today generally believe the Tri-State Tornado was in fact a family of tornadoes, though there’s not enough data to be certain. Strong downburst winds from the storm clouds added to the damage. It seems that in some places rain or dust hid the tornado from sight and allowed it to approach with little or no warning. Meteorologists group the Tri-State Tornado into a massive March 18 tornado outbreak that affected at least six states. The storm that spawned the Tri-State twister spun off more tornadoes in central Indiana.


mayneWidely regarded as one of the most innovative and passionate filmmakers working in France today, Claire Denis has continued to make beautiful and challenging films since the 1988 release of her first feature, Chocolat. Judith Mayne‘s comprehensive study of these films traces Denis’s career and discusses her major feature films in rich detail.

Born in Paris but having grown up in Africa, Denis explores in her films the legacies of French colonialism and the complex relationships between sexuality, gender, and race. From the adult woman who observes her past as a child in Cameroon to the Lithuanian immigrant who arrives in Paris and watches a serial killer to the disgraced French Foreign Legionnaire attempting to make sense of his past, the subjects of Denis’s films continually revisit themes of watching, bearing witness, and making contact, as well as displacement, masculinity, and the migratory subject.

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fowlerThis survey of Sally Potter’s work documents and explores her cinematic development from the feminist reworking of Puccini’s opera La Bohème in Thriller to the provocative contemplation of romantic relationships after 9/11 in Yes. Catherine Fowler traces a clear trajectory of developing themes and preoccupations and shows how Potter uses song, dance, performance, and poetry to expand our experience of cinema beyond the audiovisual.

Potter has relentlessly struggled against predictability and safe options, and her work provides an example of the complexities of being a woman in charge. Instead of the quest to find a romantic partner that drives mainstream cinema, Potter’s films feature characters seeking answers to questions about their sexual, gendered, social, cultural, and ethnic identities. They find answers by retelling stories, investigating mysteries, traveling and interacting with people. At the heart of Potter’s work we find a concern with the ways in which narrative has circumscribed the actions of women and their ability to act, speak, look, desire, and think for themselves. Her first two films, Thriller and The Gold Diggers, largely deconstruct found stories, clichés, and images. By contrast her later films create new and original narratives that place female acts, voices, looks, desires and thoughts at their center.

Fowler’s analysis is supplemented by a detailed filmography, bibliography, and an extensive interview with the director.

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mchughIn considering Jane Campion’s early award-winning short films on through international sensation The Piano and beyond, Kathleen McHugh traces the director’s distinctive visual style as well as her commitment to consistently renovating the conventions of “women’s films.” By refusing to position her female protagonists as victims, McHugh argues, Campion scrupulously avoids the moral structures of melodrama, and though she often works with the narratives, mise-en-scene, and visual tropes typical of that genre, her films instead invite a distanced or even amused engagement.

Jane Campion concludes with four brief, revelatory interviews and a filmography. Campion spoke twice with Michel Ciment, first after the screening of her short and medium-length films at the Cannes Film Festival 1986, and three years later, after the Cannes screening of Sweetie. Judith Lewis narrates a Beverly Hills interview with Campion that followed the release of Holy Smoke, and Lizzie Francke’s interview, reprinted from Sight and Sound, centers on Campion’s film In the Cut, adapted from Susanna Moore’s novel.

Clear LaRue Road. Today marks the day officials close the storied roadway to assist of one of Illinois’s majestic natural wonders: the spring snake migration in Shawnee National Forest. The limestone bluffs come alive as snakes, as well as various turtles, frogs, toads, and other animals, hitch up their covered wagons to trek to wetter digs in the nearby LaRue Swamp. Amateur herpetologists flock to see a wide variety of snake species making the commute between natural habitats. Three venomous snakes usually get the headlines: the cottonmouth, the copperhead, and the timber rattlesnake. But around thirty-five snake species make the trip alongside many kinds of reptiles and amphibians, including protected and endangered species.

Humans began closing a 2.5 mile stretch of the road in 1972. Until then, locals liked to shoot the snakes or run over them with their cars. The closure lasted three weeks in the early days. Research soon indicated that the animals took far longer to migrate. The Forest Service now closes LaRue Road, aka Snake Road, for two months in the spring and two months again in September-October, when the animals make the trip back to winter in the limestone. Though traffic cannot pass, the Forest Service allows people to walk the slithering, creeping, hopping highway. If you go, don’t except a tsunami of snakedom. Officials note that spotting twenty snakes in a day would be a big deal, unless you’re the type to add skinks to your scorecard to boost your numbers.

bookstoreBook lovers enjoy writing/talking about the sanctity of books. The tactile pleasure. The superiority of the physical object to the ethereal electronic version. The knowledge. The immersive experience. The old friend thing.

But the time comes when every bibliophile must face an inexorable fact: he/she owns too many freaking books.

You look around. Mortality stares you in the face and you realize that, even if you’re put under house arrest, even if you alone survive nuclear war, you will never read all of the books in your collection. You won’t read half. You won’t read even a modest number because you’ve reached an age where you keep re-reading the same clutch of old favorites.

Unless you happen to live in the Clue mansion with its library and murder-minded cleaning staff, it becomes both clear and unbearable that the $%^(#&$)# books are everywhere. Filling the closets and the stove, along the baseboards and atop the windowsills, fashionably piled next to doorways and unfashionably strewn about bedrooms. They’re like sand, but harder to vacuum.

reading - be kind to books clubAnd we all keep buying more. Not just because a book looks interesting, and not just because its a symptom of a problem (though it is), but because so many of us feel an obligation to support book stores and the publishing industry. To support that vague notion called culture. In these times more than ever, given the political ascendance of a new minority (?) group called Knowledge-hostile America.

The difficulty in weeding a book collection—it astonishes me. Suddenly, books sort themselves into categories, and most of those categories only exist to justify keeping the books. In this pile: books needed for future research of half-baked ideas. In that pile: gifts (Sidebar: I am unable to get rid of anything given to me as a gift. This includes the salt and pepper shakers of two pigs locked in an intimate pose that my youngest sister gave me decades ago.) Another pile consists of The Greats and another of pristine hardcovers bought on impulse while another, the largest, forms a skyline of books that still look interesting but will remain unopened until your heirs devote them to the public library.

The list, like all excuses, can go on forever. Yet there are a few valid categories that, with a little discipline, can make up the only books you need to keep:

Rarities. These run a gamut between foreign editions bought on trips abroad to adored bookstore finds, whether first editions (for those who like that sort of thing) or curios like that pocket guide to Napoleonic War uniforms or genre fiction with tacky covers.

Books with notes in the margins. You may need to remember what you jotted down about Of Mice and Men when you were sixteen.

Beloved books you re-read all the time. No one’s asking you to donate Forever.

Attractive coffee table books. Never scrimp on decor. A subset of this category would be books that look good on the living room bookshelf, with the caveat that once you fill the shelves, the category is closed.

People, I share your pain. Just last night, while going through a milk crate of books, I felt a sudden affection for a history of cholera that I haven’t seen since at least 2003. It went back into the crate, to be mulled over again the next time I move. Don’t be like me. Stick to the easy-to-remember categories above and liberate your sofa today. A book is only like an old friend in that it comes into your house and will not leave.

deslippe rights not rosesAlthough the most visible banners of feminism were carried by educated, white-collar, professional women, in fact, working-class women were a powerful force in the campaign for gender equality. “Rights, Not Roses” explores how unionized wage-earning women led the struggle to place women’s employment rights on the national agenda, decisively influencing both the contemporary labor movement and second-wave feminism.

Drawing on union records, oral histories, and legislative hearings and debates, Dennis A. Deslippe unravels a complex history of how labor leaders accommodated and resisted working women’s demands for change. Through case studies of unions representing packinghouse and electrical workers, Deslippe explains why gender equality emerged as an issue in the 1960s and how the activities of wage-earning women in and outside of their unions shaped the content of the debate. He also traces the faultlines between working-class women, who sought gender equality within the parameters of unionist principles such as seniority, and middle-class women, who sought an equal rights amendment that would guarantee an abstract equality for all women.

A thoughtful and thorough study of working-class feminism, “Rights, Not Roses” raises important questions about the meaning of equality for working women, the connections of women to their unions, the gendered nature of equal rights, and more.

international women's dayIt is International Women’s Day, comrade! By universal proclamation we honor women and dedicate ourselves to helping them overcome the many obstacles they still face in this man’s world. Indeed, some people intend to observe the day with A Day Without a Woman strike in a new twist for our more activist times.

Begun as a socialist observance, perhaps in New York City circa 1909, International Women’s Day later caught on in the Soviet Union and its allied bloc of nations. The United Nations got involved in 1977, declaring March 8 the U.N. day for women’s rights, though considering what women face in many parts of the world, the U.N. should declare at least a U.N. fortnight for women’s rights, if not a U.N. solar cycle.

The University of Illinois Press publishes one of the premier lists of books on women and women’s issues not just in the United States, but in the world. Just our recent books on women’s topics—a handful of brilliant suns in our galaxy of visionary scholarship—include a study of women baseball pioneers, the many-faceted portrayals of African American girls in literature, a timely look at why women marched into the current millennium, and a journey back into the forgotten world of elocutionists.

And, sister, we’re not going for the Lean In crapola, with its advice steeped in infantilization, buzzwords, and dubious corporate-friendly faux feminism, to say nothing of the author promoting her ideas as a movement, that’s a red flag. Why do we not go for those money dollars, that delicious hype?

Because we know you have a brain. You demand The Valid, as in valid information. You want eyes-wide-open feminism. You want someone who understands that women face a lot more obstacles than not trying hard enough. You want writing meant to provoke change.

You came to the right place. Happy International Women’s Day.