Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Pierre de Coubertin

This week, January 1st, we celebrate the 148th anniversary of the birth of Baron Pierre de Coubertin.

I freely admit I am an Olympics junkie. This is very odd, considering I generally do not like sports. I don't watch football, can't tell you how the local teams are doing, and am apathetic about the whole Yankees/Red Sox thing. But every four years I become a temporary expert on all things Olympic. I watch every game and competition, read all about the athletes, and memorize all the stats. Want to know the rules of beach volleyball or who's favored in the 100 meter freestyle? Just ask me.

And I owe it all to Pierre de Coubertin. At 5'3", 100 pounds, no one would have mistaken the little man with the big mustache for an athlete. But no man was more important to the modern Olympics. He almost singlehandedly brought the Olympics back to life after more than 1500 years.

Inspired by the English system of encouraging athletics in schools, Coubertin set out to bring sports to French schools. He had little success at first. He began to travel to other countries to study the application of athletics to education. Gradually, his dream grew. He decided he wanted to revive the greatest sports competition in history--the ancient Olympics.

He travelled the world, speaking about the Olympic Games and gaining support for its revival. By 1894 he had enough people interested to arrange an international conference. Seventy-nine delegates from twelve countries voted to revive the Olympics. The first game would be held in Athens, Greece, the birthplace of the ancient Olympics. On April 5, 1896, the first Olympic Games in 1500 years were opened.

Baron de Coubertin became the face of the modern Olympics. When he died in 1937, his heart was buried at Olympia, the site of the ancient Olympics.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Margaret Hamilton

This week (December 9) we celebrate the 108th anniversary of the birth of Margaret Hamilton.

Admit it, you shivered a bit when you read that name didn't you? Hamiliton was a gifted stage and screen character actress. Apparently that's what they call you when you're not pretty enough to play the romantic lead. Her looks were charitably called "plain." She had a sharp prow of a nose and eyes as piercing as a hawk's. Her voice, with its crisp diction, would curdle milk. That made her the go-to actress when they needed a spinster or a school-marm type.

But there is only one role for which she is known. She so inhabited the role of the Wicked Witch of the West, that she gave generations of children nightmares. It is hard to imagine anyone else playing the part. In 1979, forty years after "The Wizard of Oz" was filmed, when she visited the University of Connecticut as a guest speaker, she was greeted with a treat of Dunkin Donuts Munchkins.

She knew the effect the role had on children. My favorite story: when she visited older children in schools, she was often asked to do her witch laugh. She did, letting the cackle ring out through the auditorium. There was applause, of course, but only after a second or two of terrified silence. In those few seconds, she knew, everyone in the audience was a little child again, feeling the horror of seeing that frightful green face turn to the screen and hearing that cackling evil laugh. She had connected with her audience, and the power of it must have surprised even them.

How delightfully satisfying that must have been!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Walt Disney

This weekend (December 5) marks the 109th anniversary of the birthday of Walt Disney.

I once gave a talk to a group of second graders in which I mentioned that I'd done a biography of Walt Disney. One little voice piped up, "You mean that was a real person?" Apparently the child knew the name only as that of the entertainment empire. All that just seemed too big for one man. Perhaps that is a testament to all that Walt accomplished.

But yes, kids, there was a real Walt Disney. To me and others of my generation, he was very real, and we invited him into our homes every Sunday night when we watched his TV show. Before each show he talked to us lovingly and patiently, and never ever condescendingly. Not for nothing was he known as "Uncle Walt."

When we look at the huge entertainment corporation that bears his name, it's hard to believe that for many years Walt was a failure. Oh sure, he had big dreams, but it took a while for those dreams to catch fire. When he left Kansas City for California in 1923, he was nearly penniless and homeless. Even after he'd made a name for himself with his own studio, he lost his star cartoon character--Oswald the Lucky Rabbit--to a crafty business associate. He had to start all over again and come up with a whole new character.

Walt would have been forgiven if he'd given up on his dreams then. Probably there were those who advised him to do just that. There always seems to be some well-meaning family member ready to tell dreamers to get a real job in a factory or a grocery store. But that wasn't Walt. He kept on dreaming and creating. And children today know his name because he did.

Oh, that new cartoon character he came up with? It was a little mouse.