She sang (but didn’t dance) the Charleston


ON THIS DATE in 1923, nineteen-year-old Elisabeth Welch launched a dance craze by singing “Charleston” in a Broadway show called Runnin’ Wild.

“Because I had a loud voice I was chosen to sing Charleston,” she told the Associated Press, “but when the chorus girls came on they quickly yanked me off the stage because I couldn’t dance.”

An energetic and popular dance in the 1920s, the Charleston involved turning the knees inward and kicking out the lower legs.

In 1931 Welch sang the controversial “Love for Sale,” a song about prostitution, in Cole Porter’s New Yorkers. She later broke new ground for black actors by starring in Song of Freedom (1936) and Big Fella (1937).

In 1986, Welch was nominated for a Tony for her role in ”Jerome Kern Goes to Hollywood” and won an Obie for her one-woman show, ”Time to Start Living.”

“If anyone has to be eaten, then you will be the first!”

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ON THIS DATE in 1914, nineteen-year-old Perce Blackborow stowed aboard the Endurance, a ship docked in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and bound for the Antarctic. A native of Whales, he had been stranded in Argentina without a ship. When expedition leader Ernest Shackleton learned of Blackborow’s presence on the vessel he made him a steward but said, “If anyone has to be eaten, then you will be the first!” The young sailor would suffer frostbite in his toes and eventually have his left foot amputated. He was the first person to ever step foot on Elephant Island, an ice-covered mountainous island off the coast of Antarctica.

“The most incredible act of selfless bravery I ever witnessed”


FIFTY YEARS AGO TODAY (1965), eighteen-year-old Milton Olive III leaped on an enemy hand grenade in South Vietnam, sacrificing himself and saving the lives of four fellow soldiers. Olive’s platoon commander called it “the most incredible act of selfless bravery I ever witnessed.” Olive received a posthumous Medal of Honor, the first awarded to an African-American in the Vietnam War. The Milton L. Olive Middle School in Long Island is named in his honor, as is Chicago’s Milton Lee Olive Park.

Speaking of flowers …

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ON THIS DATE in 1967, eighteen-year-old George Harris was photographed placing a flower in the rifle of a National Guardsman during an anti-Vietnam War demonstration in Washington, D.C. Bernie Boston of the Washington Star took the picture, which became one of the most iconic images of the anti-war movement. Harris would relocate to San Francisco, change his name to Hibiscus, and emerge as the glitter-bearded, fruit-and flower-headed leader of a performance troupe called the Cockettes. Filmmaker and former Cockette David Weissman remembered Hibiscus in a 2003 New York Times story as “a pied piper” and “a visionary” who “had an extraordinary way with old kimonos, torn gowns, lace, glitter and wilting flora.” Hibiscus died of AIDS in 1982.

The Cowsills love the flower girl (they don’t know just why, she simply caught their eye)

ON THIS DATE in 1967, the Cowsills, consisting of a mother and six siblings from ages eight to nineteen, released their first hit song, “The Rain, The Park & Other Things.” Some know this as the “Flower Girl” song. The tune reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart.

From Newport, Rhode Island, the Cowsills recorded a number-10 hit with “Indian Lake” in 1967 and a second number-two smash with “Hair” in 1969.

The success of the Cowsills inspired the half-hour sitcom “The Partridge Family,” which followed the adventures of a six-member — including Shirley Jones as the mom — family band. “The Partridge Family” aired from 1970 to 1974.

Three of the seven Cowsills members have passed on. Barbara Cowsill, the mom, died of emphysema in 1985 at age 56; Bill, the lead singer, died of emphysema and other ailments in 2006 at age 58; and Barry, 50, drowned when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005.

Cromwell Dixon’s Sky-cycle


ON THIS DATE in 1907, fifteen-year-old Cromwell Dixon took first prize for the flight of his self-constructed “Sky-cycle” at the International Balloon Race of 1907.

Like Elliot’s flying bike in E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial, Dixon’s contraption allowed the rider to pedal through the air — with the help of a 25-to-35-foot long (sources differ) gasbag. The balloon-race competition was fierce, however, and no one expected the teenager to triumph against what Martin J. Kidston in Cromwell Dixon: A Boy & His Plane (2007) called “the best of the best.”

Cromwell Dixon

The founder of Popular Mechanics described the International Balloon Race, held in St. Louis, as “the greatest event in aeronautics ever seen in this country,” and Dixon provided the biggest thrill by floating his cigar-shaped Sky-cycle to an elevation of 1,200 feet and becoming the first person to cross the Mississippi in a hot-air balloon. He landed eight miles away in Illinois.

Dixon’s triumph made him a celebrity, with newspapers calling him “Air-Boy,” “Bird-Boy,” and “The Boy Balloonist.” Moving on from balloon flight, the inventor-pilot flew airplanes and attained celebrity for the “Dixon Corkscrew,” a stunt in which he plunged straight down from 8,000 feet before leveling off and landing.

In 1911, the nineteen-year-old became the first person to cross the Rocky Mountains in an airplane. Two days later, he crashed and died during an exhibition flight in Spokane, Washington.

One youngster swapped for another

ON THIS DATE in 1609, fourteen-year-old Henry Spelman of Jamestown, Virginia, was sent by Captain John Smith to live with the Powhatan tribe. Spelman is remembered for writing a narrative titled Relation of Virginia that documented early English life in America

Spelman wasn’t the first English teenager sent to live with the Powhatans. One year earlier, thirteen-year-old Thomas Savage had been traded for a youngster named Namontack. Both sides wanted their young men to learn the language and customs of the others in order for them to serve as future interpreters. And possibly spies.

Living with the Native American tribe proved a lucky break for Savage and Spelman. The winter of 1609 and 1610 brought “the starving time” in Jamestown, with nearly 90 percent of the colony perishing due to disease and lack of food. One desperate colonist killed and ate his wife. The Powhatans suffered no such famine, and the young Englishmen survived.

Relation of Virginia was written in 1613. Despite his name, Spelman couldn’t spell worth beans: it begins with “BEinge in displeasuer of my frendes …” Nonetheless, Relation of Virginia is an essential eyewitness account of early English life in America.