December 22, 1999: Any Given Sunday Released

On this day in 1999, “Any Given Sunday” was released in U.S. movie theaters. Director Oliver Stone’s take on professional football did not work in a lot of areas, but did feature the greatest speech ever captured in a sports movie.

Any Given Sunday PosterOn this day in 1999, “Any Given Sunday” was released in U.S. movie theaters. Director Oliver Stone’s take on professional football did not work in a lot of areas, but did feature the greatest speech ever captured in a sports movie.

When I heard that Stone would be making a film about football with Al Pacino playing the head coach and Dennis Quaid playing the aging quarterback, I got excited. However, in its near three-hour running time, it exposed nothing new about pro football and the plot about a team and immature quarterback overcoming their dysfunction to win the big game was bit clichéd. The film did have its bright moments, but as the late Roger Ebert wrote in his review, “if some studio executive came along and made Stone cut his movie down to two hours, I have the strangest feeling it wouldn’t lose much of substance and might even play better.” I have to agree.

All that being said, Pacino’s speech before the opening playoff is the greatest pre-game speech in movie history. You can have “Win one for the Gipper.” I’ll take “Piece by inches” any day.

December 21, 1913: First Crossword Puzzle Published

On this day in 1913, the first crossword puzzle was published in the Sunday edition of the New York World. Invented by British journalist Arthur Wynne, it is now a staple of all newspapers.

First Crossword PuzzleOn this day in 1913, the first crossword puzzle was published in the Sunday edition of the New York World.  Invented by British journalist Arthur Wynne, it is now a staple of all newspapers.

Wynne’s crossword puzzle (pictured above) differed from today’s puzzles in the fact that it had no black squares. It was also called word-cross.

However, other papers saw the enjoyment its readers could gain from these puzzles and began incorporating them as well. The Boston Globe was publishing them by 1917 and many others were following suit by the 1930s. Ironically, The New York Times, whose crossword puzzles are considered the most difficult to solve, did not publish its first one until 1942.

December 20, 1803: The Louisiana Purchase is Completed

On this day in 1803, France turned control of New Orleans over to the United States. The transfer of power completed the Louisiana Purchase.

Transfer of Louisiana by Ford P. KaiserOn this day in 1803, France turned control of New Orleans over to the United States. The transfer of power completed the Louisiana Purchase.

Negotiations to acquire the Louisiana territory, which stretched from New Orleans to Montana’s Canadian border, went back and forth for three years. Finally, an agreement was reached to purchase the territory and the U.S. and France signed the treaty on April 30, 1803. The U.S. Senate ratified it in October.

The actual transfer took place in The Cabildo, then the colonial government building and now a museum along Jackson Square. A formal ceremony changing in land ownership was held in St. Louis in March of 1804.

December 19, 1843: A Christmas Carol Released

On this day in 1843, “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens went on sale. This classic Christmas story is also one of the first self-published works in history.

A Christmas Carol - First Edition 1843On this day in 1843, “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens went on sale. This classic Christmas story is also one of the first self-published works in history.

Dickens conceived and wrote the novella of cold-hearted miser Ebenezer Scrooge being visited by four spirits in the fall of 1843. Because of a disagreement with his publisher, Chapman & Hall, over the poor sales of “The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit” Dickens chose to forgo the typical lump-sum payment for his work. Instead, he financed the publishing and took a percentage of the profits.

The book was an overwhelming success and is now an essential part of the holiday season. However, because of high production costs, Dickens profits from the book were very minimal.

December 18, 1946: Steven Spielberg Born

On this day in 1946, Steven Spielberg was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is arguably the most influential filmmaker of all time.

Steven SpielbergOn this day in 1946, Steven Spielberg was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is arguably the most influential filmmaker of all time.

While he has made numerous classics as a director, he has been a producer on a variety of films ranging from “Poltergeist” to the “Back to the Future” trilogy to the Coen brothers remake of “True Grit.”  While his influence varies with each one, it can still be seen.

A good portion of the films that Spielberg has directed is now quintessential American cinema, but there are a few gems that have been forgotten. Here a few worth revisiting.

  • Duel (1971): This TV movie in which a business commuter (Dennis Weaver) is terrorized by a crazed trucker was the first to show Spielberg’s talent and is as frightening today as it was 40 years ago.
  • The Sugerland Express (1974): His feature film debut is the only time he ever made a lovers-on-the-run picture. It was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
  • Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984): This entry in the series is best remembered for its darkness and violence. That’s a true shame, considering that it’s second only to “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
  • Always (1989):A Guy Named Joe” is retold about firefighters out west. This film is forgotten, but is funny and heartbreaking all at once.
  • Munich (2005): The story of the Black September aftermath was an Academy Award Best Picture nominee. Considering that Spielberg’s best movie since “Schindler’s List” lost to “Crash,” it’s safe to say that it didn’t get the appreciation it deserved.

December 17, 1862: General Grant Issues Order No. 11

On this day in 1862, Union Major General Ulysses Grant issued General Order No. 11. The document expelled all Jews from his military district, which consisted of parts of Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky.

General U.S. GrantOn this day in 1862, Union Major General Ulysses Grant issued General Order No. 11.  The document expelled all Jews from his military district, which consisted of parts of Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky.

Grant had issued the order to prevent cotton sales from unlicensed traders through the black market, which he wrote was run “mostly by Jews and other unprincipled traders.” Outcry from the American Jewish community and members of Congress prompted President Abraham Lincoln to rescind the order a few weeks later.

In running for president in 1868, Grant explained that he impulsively issued the order without any thought on the long-term repercussions. In 1874, he became the first American president to attend a synagogue service.

December 16, 1985: Paul Castellano Murdered

On this day in 1985, Gambino Crime Family boss Costantino Paul Castellano and underboss Thomas Bilotti were gunned down outside of Sparks Steakhouse in Midtown Manhattan. Castellano’s murder is the most high-profile mob hit of the last 30 years.

Castellano Murder Crime SceneOn this day in 1985, Gambino Crime Family boss Costantino Paul Castellano and underboss Thomas Bilotti were gunned down outside of Sparks Steakhouse in Midtown Manhattan. Castellano’s murder is the most high-profile mob hit of the last 30 years.

The Gambino Family is the largest of New York’s “Five Families,” with operations extending from New York to California. When boss Carlo Gambino died of natural causes in 1976, he named Castellano his successor.  His reign as boss was full of controversy and strife (What mob boss’ isn’t?) and by December of 1985, he was openly feuding with Gambino Family capo (captain) John Gotti.

The two scheduled a dinner meeting at Sparks Steakhouse. When Castellano and Bilotti arrived, numerous gunmen approached their car and shot them. Gotti and Sammy “The Bull” Gravano watched from a nearby car.

Gotti became boss of the Gambino Family a month later and led until he was convicted in 1992 of numerous charges, including conspiracy to murder Castellano. Ironically, Gravano was the key witness in the case.

December 15, 2001: Leaning Tower of Pisa Reopens

On this day in 2001, the Leaning Tower of Pisa Reopened in Italy. It was the completion of an 11-year project to preserve one of Italy’s most historic structures.

The Leaning Tower of PisaOn this day in 2001, the Leaning Tower of Pisa Reopened in Italy. It was the completion of an 11-year project to preserve one of Italy’s most historic structures.

Completed in 1370, the tower would have been an architectural marvel even without the lean.  However, it was built on clay soil that subsided during construction so it had a tilt even when it was completed.

The tower did not move for nearly 500 years but nearby excavation work in the 1830s destabilized the base and began to lean a little more and more as the years went by. Finally, the Italian government took action in the late 1980s.

The $27 million effort consisted of sinking the ground on the high side of the tower and basically using steel cables to hold it in place while it was stabilized. The tower is now open for tours and engineers believe it will stay in place for a couple of hundred more years.

December 14, 1986: Voyager Begins World Flight

On this day in 1986, the Rutan Model 76 Voyager took off from Edwards Air Force Base in California’s Mojave Desert. Nine days later, it became the first aircraft to fly around the world with stopping or refueling.

Voyager AircraftOn this day in 1986, the Rutan Model 76 Voyager took off from Edwards Air Force Base in California’s Mojave Desert. Nine days later, it became the first aircraft to fly around the world with stopping or refueling.

The plane was loaded with fuel and piloted by Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager. The two were closely cramped in the plane, which only added to their exhausting conditions. When Voyager landed in California in front of a crowd of 55,000 on December 23, it only had about 1.5 percent of fuel left in its tanks.

Voyager was retired from service in 1987. Today, it hangs prominently in the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum.

December 13, 1975: Saturday Night Live Uses Delay on Richard Pryor

On this day in 1975, Richard Pryor hosted Saturday Night Live (SNL) under a five-second broadcast delay. This is the first time SNL used a delay on one of its hosts to prevent profanity from making the airwaves.

Richard PryorOn this day in 1975, Richard Pryor hosted Saturday Night Live (SNL) under a five-second broadcast delay. This is the first time SNL used a delay on one of its hosts to prevent profanity from making the airwaves.

The show had launched in October, and was already the edgiest on television. For its seventh episode, SNL pushed the boundaries further by bringing on Pryor. The comedy pioneer had a walked away from early success as a clean comic and had become the hilarious, raw and profane comic that earned him applause mixed with controversy. NBC was not comfortable giving him a microphone one live television and the delay was used.

Everything worked out fine. Pryor told a clean version of his hilarious bit about drinking and taking LSD. The show also featured the now-classic racist word association skit with Pryor and Chevy Chase.

Since then, SNL has tape-delayed only two other hosts, Sam Kinison in 1986 and Andrew Dice Clay in 1990.