HISTORY

The Frisbee’s sweet story

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As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, May 19, 2019. Artwork by Emma Rose Walsh.

It’s unlikely a bachelor of arts in Frisbeeology will be conferred by any of the nearly 3,000 colleges holding commencements in the United States this month. But the degree is not without precedent.

In 1984, at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., Johnny Dwork was handed a diploma for his self-designed “Flying Disc Entertainment and Education” major, which combined courses in business, psychology, and dance with the countless hours Dwork spent hucking a Frisbee outside of Hampshire lecture halls. The one-of-a-kind graduate went on to become a world-champion flying disc athlete.

Dwork’s degree was a full-circle moment. The Frisbee got its start, at least in part, on picturesque college quadrangles, some of them possibly here in Rhode Island. More on that in a moment.

Whirling Frisbees are as much a sign of spring as cherry blossoms and Little League uniforms. As many as 300 million plastic platters have been sold since the original Frisbee design was patented in 1958. And Ultimate Frisbee, now known simply as Ultimate, is in the offing to become an Olympic team sport in 2028.

The Frisbee’s march to the marketplace was a team sport, too, involving players who were 3,000 miles apart and unknown to one another.

In Bridgeport, Conn. during the first half of the 20th century, the Frisbie Pie Company sold baked goods to schoolchildren and nearby college students who, after consuming the confections, discovered the pie tins were ideal for playing catch. At Yale, undergrads yelled “Frisbie!” as they tossed the empty tins, alerting fellow students to the spinning discs heading their way. The Frisbie bakery’s success in Bridgeport led to additional shops in Hartford, Poughkeepsie, and Providence, so shouts of the pie maker’s name may have been heard on the campuses of Brown University and Providence College, as well.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles in the late 1930s, Fred Morrison and his future wife, Lucile, were having fun flipping a popcorn can lid to each other at the beach one day when a passerby offered them 25 cents for their makeshift toy. According to Morrison, “That got the wheels turning, because you could buy a cake tin for five cents, and if people were willing to pay a quarter for it, well, there was a business.”

For the next decade, Morrison worked to perfect his disc, creating multiple prototypes before settling on a plastic model, which he called the Flyin-Saucer. It became the archetype of all flying discs today. The inventor would later refine his toy’s design and dub the new version the Pluto Platter.

Morrison, who was awarded a U.S. design patent, sold the rights for the Pluto Platter to Wham-O in 1957. Based in Carson, Cal., the up-and-coming toy company had recently introduced the Hula Hoop with great success and would go on to create several of the most popular toys of the 1960s, including the Super Ball, Slip ’N Slide, and Silly String.

Wham-O’s executives soon discovered that “Pluto Platter” wasn’t flying with college kids back in New England, where the Frisbie name had stuck. So, in a moment of marketing brilliance, the company changed the disc’s name to Frisbee, altering the spelling of the bakery name by one letter to avoid trademark issues.

A market research team could have spent thousands of hours developing and testing new names for the Pluto Platter, but I doubt any would have topped Frisbee. The fun-sounding word instantly conjures up visions of aerodynamic wonder and athletic ballets while possessing a baked-in acknowledgment of a humble pie company’s key role in the Frisbee story.

Fred Morrison, upon learning that Wham-O had tossed his Pluto Platter moniker in favor of Frisbee, thought it was “a terrible name.” But after royalties made him a millionaire, the inventor revised his evaluation: “I wouldn’t change the name of it for the world.”

Patrick, Joseph, and saintly parades

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As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, March 17, 2019. Above, poster for St. Joseph’s Day on Federal Hill in 1977.

Two Christian saints rub shoulders on the calendar this month, just as the Irish- and Italian-Americans did in the Providence neighborhood where I grew up in the 1970s.

Whether your last name was Reilly or Riccio, most kids in Elmhurst wore green to school on March 17 in honor of St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. And then, two days later, many of us showed up garbed in red to celebrate the Feast of St. Joseph, whose intercessions were believed to have once saved Sicily from a severe drought.

What else do we know about Patrick and Joseph, and why are their respective feast days so beloved in these parts?

Details on both saints are sketchy, but of this we can be certain: Patrick was not Irish. Born in Britain when it was under Roman rule, he came to Ireland as a Christian missionary in the fifth century.

Patrick is said to have used the three leaves of the shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity to Ireland’s druids and pagans. And legend has it he drove the snakes from the Emerald Isle, just as God had banished the serpent from the Garden of Eden. (For those keeping score at home, herpetologists tell us that Ireland has actually never been home to snakes.) March 17 is generally accepted as the date of Patrick’s death; hence, the timing of his feast day.

Interestingly, the first recorded St. Patrick’s Day parade was held not in Dublin or Galway, but in New York City in 1762 when Irish soldiers serving in the English army marched to honor their Catholic saint. Today, up to two million spectators gather for the festivities along Fifth Avenue. Closer to home, as many as 50,000 people trek to Newport’s annual parade, now in its 63rd year.

Joseph, husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is the patron saint of Sicily. According to legend, he responded to Sicilian prayers during a severe drought in the Middle Ages. The rain came, a famine was avoided, and grateful believers honored Joseph with feasting and celebration, thus starting a tradition that continues throughout the world to this day.

In the late 19th century, Sicilian immigrants came to the United States largely through the port of New Orleans, and they brought their St. Joseph’s Day traditions with them. Soon parades honoring the saint were annual springtime events in the French Quarter. This year’s procession will take place on March 23, with marchers handing out silk flowers and fava beans, which is the crop that saved Sicilians from starvation during their historic drought.

Other cities in the United States with large Italian-American populations are known for their St. Joseph’s Day celebrations, as well, including New York, Syracuse, Hoboken, and, of course, Providence.

I was fortunate to have been behind-the-scenes for the St. Joseph’s Day festivities on Federal Hill in the mid-1970s after Atwells Avenue had been given a dramatic facelift. Decorative streetlamps now stood sentry over wide brick sidewalks, and a massive archway greeted visitors at the east end of the busy retail thoroughfare.

At home, my mother, who was secretary of the Federal Hill Businessmen’s Association, laid out silk sashes on our living room couch, to be worn by the politicians and dignitaries who would march in the parade. One year, my older brother’s roommate at the Rhode Island School of Design created the poster for the event. Fancy green type stood out against a screened archive photo of a marching band: Festa di San Giuseppe, March 19, 1977.

The weather was chilly that day, with the temperature only in the low 40s, but the freshly painted red-white-and-green traffic stripe in the middle of Atwells Avenue gleamed in the sun as thousands made their pilgrimage to the Hill.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! And, as corned beef and Guinness give way to zeppole and sambuca, Happy St. Joseph’s Day, too!

Getting in the last word

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As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, January 20, 2019. Above: Cemetery headstone at St. Luke’s Church, East Greenwich, R.I.

Leave them laughing when you go.

That seems to be the idea behind some epitaphs, those phrases or statements inscribed on cemetery headstones.

George Carlin said he wanted his to be “He was here just a minute ago.” Groucho Marx proposed “Excuse me, I can’t stand up.”

Neither epitaph was ever actually carved in stone. Carlin was cremated, his ashes scattered; the only embellishment on Groucho’s grave marker is the Star of David.

But mixing mourning with mirth at gravesites is more common than you might think. If a quick Google search is to be trusted, there’s this gem from a couple laid to rest in the Washington, D.C. area: “We finally found a place to park in Georgetown!” And at a New Mexico cemetery, a headstone plays off the deceased’s last name: “Here lies John Yeast. Pardon me for not rising.”

British-Irish comedian Spike Milligan’s epitaph, translated from Gaelic, feigns indignation: “I told you I was ill.” Billy Wilder’s hits home with scribes: “I’m a writer but then nobody’s perfect.”

Some inscriptions strike us with their poignance. Visitors to Martin Luther King Jr.’s tombstone are familiar with the words it bears, echoing his most famous address: “Free at last, Free at last, Thank God Almighty I’m Free at last.” At Robert F. Kennedy’s gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery, a low granite wall presents a quote from the impromptu speech that Kennedy gave hours after King’s assassination: “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need … is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another.”

Some epitaphs are sweet. George H.W. Bush’s simple gravestone is inscribed with his Navy number and words honoring his wife: “He loved Barbara very much.” Mary Tyler Moore’s reads “Her spirit a beacon, Her smile eternal, She made us better.” A statue of a resting angel at the actress’s grave bears the title of the theme song that opened her popular television show in the 1970s: “Love Is All Around.”

For writers and poets, a grave marker represents the last blank page. Emily Dickinson’s two-word epitaph is distinguished, like her verse, by its economy of expression: “Called back.” Dorothy Parker’s is almost as concise, if less otherworldly: “Excuse my dust.”

Oscar Wilde’s last words are often erroneously cited as “Either this wallpaper goes or I do.” (Wilde quipped about the decor in the room where he lay several weeks before he died, but his final spoken words reportedly were a mumbled Catholic prayer.) The Irish writer’s actual gravestone epitaph is taken from his poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” which recalls his imprisonment for homosexuality in the 1890s. It reads, in part: “For his mourners will be outcast men, And outcasts always mourn.”

Shakespeare issues a warning to any who might meddle with his final resting place: “Good friend for Jesus’ sake forbear, To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones.”

For pop stars, referencing a lyric from a hit song is a common epitaphic practice. Frank Sinatra assures us “The best is yet to come.” Whitney Houston says “I will always love you.” Dee Dee Ramone offers “OK … I gotta go now.”

Not surprisingly, the epitaphs of entertainers are, well, entertaining. Jackie Gleason’s mausoleum reprises the catchphrase from the end of his variety show monologues: “And away we go!” Talk show host Merv Griffin’s headstone reads “I will not be right back after this message.” And I have nothing but respect for comedian Rodney Dangerfield’s chiseled one-liner: “There goes the neighborhood.”

But perhaps my favorite headstone valediction, fitting for the close of this column, belongs to Mel Blanc. The voice of hundreds of “Loony Tunes” cartoon characters, Blanc chose a signature line from Porky Pig to commend his spirit to perpetuity: “That’s all, folks!”

Serving up prayers for Thanksgiving

Church_in_FogAs published in The Providence Sunday Journal, November 18, 2018.

What’s your favorite holiday?

That’s a question my brothers and I asked each other as kids.

Christmas topped our lists, of course. How could any day compete with December 25 and the presents it brought?

If Thanksgiving ever received an honorable mention, it was for its one advantage over Christmas – you didn’t have to go to church!

Like most of our neighbors in the Elmhurst section of Providence, we celebrated Turkey Day in secular fashion, with family, football, and food. Watching the Macy’s parade on TV, I was unaware that our annual national feast had deep religious roots. But it does. The practice of observing prayer-filled days of thanksgiving, especially following good harvests, dates back to early American settlement communities.

On Oct. 3, 1789, George Washington issued his fledgling country’s first presidential Thanksgiving Proclamation. In it, he recommended that November 26 “be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.” Washington attended services at St. Paul’s Chapel in New York City that day. Then solemnity gave way to celebration, and the president provided the city’s imprisoned debtors with food and beer.

Presidents after Washington declared days of thanksgiving as well. According to the Plimouth Plantation Museum, by the 1850s almost every state and territory observed such celebrations, though not in any unified way. It wasn’t until Abraham Lincoln that our national day of gratitude was formalized, due in large part to the persistent advocacy of one Sarah Josepha Hale.

Hale, often referred to as the Godmother of Thanksgiving, was a successful editor and writer who began campaigning for the nationwide holiday in the 1830s. Her letter to Lincoln in September 1863 urged him to “have the day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival.” The appeal, on the heels of the North’s victory at Gettysburg, must have struck a chord with the president, who felt it was his sacred duty to preserve the Union.

On October 3, 1863 – exactly 74 years after Washington’s proclamation – Lincoln invited “fellow citizens in every part of the United States … to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

That timing remained unchanged until 1939 when November had five Thursdays, the last of which fell on the final day of the month. With the country still mired in the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt moved the holiday up a week to the 23rd to lengthen the Christmas shopping season and, he hoped, spur retail sales. The change was not popular; 62 percent of Americans disapproved. The Republican mayor of Atlantic City, Thomas Taggert, criticized FDR for his action, derisively referring to the rescheduled holiday as “Franksgiving.”

A Commerce Department survey two years later reported that FDR’s brainchild had delivered little positive economic impact. Shortly afterward, a joint resolution of Congress, signed into law by the president, officially designated Thanksgiving Day as the fourth Thursday in November – importantly, not the last Thursday as Lincoln had prescribed, thereby ensuring the holiday would never again fall as late as the 29th or 30th.

But it’s Lincoln’s proclamation that gives one pause now. In his younger years, Honest Abe was considered a religious skeptic. By 1863, however, his evolving spiritualism moved him to “fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”

The great man from Illinois had offered up a prayer that many of us are saying, in our own ways, this Thanksgiving as well.

 

 

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