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Recent Obituaries of Interest

For your edification... some more obituaries...

Ray Forrest, 83 - the first nationwide television personality
By Robert McG. Thomas Jr. courtesy of The New York Times

Ray Forrest, who worked for many years at his family's jewelry store in Paterson, New Jersey, died March 11 at a hospital near his home in Kinnelon, New Jersey He was 83 and all but forgotten as the man who became a hero to hundreds in 1939 as the nation's first television personality.

If Forrest is better remembered among older New York television viewers for the acclaimed educational program Children's Theater, which he produced and hosted for WNBC-TV from 1949 to 1960, there is a reason his earlier work has been virtually forgotten.

At the time he became the most visible presence on television, there were fewer than 1,000 television sets in existence.

Wearing a tuxedo to intone the formal sign-on when NBC went on the air each evening, Forrest announced every station break and every program. There he was, covering wrestling, boxing, hockey, horse racing and movie premieres; interviewing men and women on the street; introducing dramatic productions; serving as quiz show announcer and variety show host and even becoming the network's first full-time news anchor (after Lowell Thomas, whose radio news had been simulcast on television, decided to do his broadcasts from his upstate home).

Forrest, then a 23-year-old junior radio announcer at NBC, was not present at the opening of the New York World's Fair on April 30, 1939, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt and David Sarnoff, the president of the Radio Corporation of America, NBC's parent, inaugurated regular television programming with a broadcast over NBC's experimental station, W2XBS.

Indeed, for months the station employed no announcers, recruiting them as the occasional need arose from NBC's radio staff, a process that so irritated the radio network's crusty chief of announcers that by the fall he had persuaded the station to stop pestering him and take on one of his six junior announcers full time.

Forrest won the job, and for the next two and a half years almost every time he opened his mouth he made television history.

He was the on-board announcer for the first airborne telecast, from a U.S. plane flying low over New York City on March 6, 1940, and later that year he was the NBC announcer at the first televised political convention, in Philadelphia, where the Republicans nominated Wendell Willkie. (CBS, which was racking up some firsts of its own, broadcast the convention in color.)

The next year it was Forrest who read the formal announcement on camera when W2XBS, newly licensed by the Federal Communications Commission and renamed WNBT (it later became WNBC), ushered in the era of commercial television on July 1, 1941.

The first commercial, a film showing a ticking Bulova watch, used no announcer, but three days later, on July 4, Forrest did the first live television commercial, for Adam hats, a chore that earned him no sponsor's fee unless you count the hat. Forrest got to keep it.

Later that year Forrest apparently became the first television announcer to break into a program with a news bulletin, interrupting a Sunday afternoon movie, "The Playboy" with Harry Richman, to announce that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.

For Forrest, a native of Germany who came to the United States with his family in 1923 and got his broadcasting start at 20 with a job in the NBC mail room in 1936, those were heady days.

But World War II interrupted both the development of television and his own career, and by the time he returned from service in 1946, television was in the midst of its postwar boom and he was no longer the only kid on the block.

Still, he was almost as busy as ever, among other things serving as the announcer for "In the Kelvinator Kitchen," an early cooking show, in 1947, and as the announcer and eventually the host of "TV Screen Magazine," one of the first television magazine shows, in 1948 and 1949.

Then he was asked to produce and be the host of "Children's Theater," and Forrest made what he regarded as his most important contribution to television.

Dismayed by plans to have him introduce Hollywood comedy shorts that he found full of racial stereotypes and sexual innuendo, Forrest obtained grudging permission to use high-quality science and nature films, but was warned he would lose his audience within two weeks.

Instead, as he recalled in "The Box," an oral history of television compiled by Jeff Kisseloff and published by Viking in 1995, the ratings shot up, and within months he dominated his 6:30 p.m. weekday slot.

Although it drew reams of appreciative mail from parents, the program attracted no sponsors, and after a couple of years it was canceled, drawing such an outpouring of protests it was immediately reinstated as a 90-minute Saturday morning fixture, and Forrest was off and running again, turning the basement of his Ridgewood, N.J., home into a one-man production studio, where he edited educational films, including many he made himself.

When the program went off the air in 1960, Forrest, whose original name was Feuerstein, joined the family jewelry business, content that he had done his duty by creating the first truly educational program.

He is survived by his wife, Charlotte; a son, Ray Jr. of Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, and two granddaughters.

Sunday, March 21, 1999

Morey Bernstein, Hypnotist and Proponent of Bridey Murphy, Dies at 79
By Robert McG. Thomas Jr - courtesy of The New York Times

Morey Bernstein, the Colorado businessman who pursued an amateur interest in hypnotism all the way back to 19th-century Ireland as he coaxed a young mother into recounting a previous life as a woman named Bridey Murphy, died on April 2 at his apartment in Pueblo, Colo. He was 79.

His family said the cause was an irregular heart beat.

At a time when hypnotism is old hat, the occult is fashionable and a Shirley MacLaine can blithely claim memory of a dozen incarnations, it is hard to imagine the sensation created in 1956 when Bernstein published "The Quest for Bridey Murphy," an account of how he had repeatedly hypnotized a woman he called Ruth Simmons, taking her farther and farther back into her childhood until she went over the hump, as he put it, and emerged with a thick Irish brogue describing a presumably previous life in eerie and persuasive detail.

Within months of the book's publication in January 1956, it created a cultural brush fire, elevating hypnotism into something of a national mania and laying the groundwork for a later surge in interest in reincarnation and channeling.

Publication started with an optimistic initial press run of 10,000 copies, but sales were so brisk that by the middle of March, 200,000 copies were in print, though "Bridey" was not even at the halfway mark of its 26-week run on the best-seller list of The New York Times. The book, reissued in 1965, was eventually published in 30 languages in 34 countries.

Along with the inevitable "come as you were parties," and cartoons in which parents greeted newborns with "welcome back," the book, bought mainly by those who rarely read books, touched off a 25-fold increase in the sale of works on hypnotism. Pretty soon a vast crop of newly minted amateur hypnotists started performing at parties all over the country, invariably getting eager subjects to recall all sorts of previous lives in chilling detail, suggesting to psychologists and other skeptics that highly impressionable subjects were so eager to please their hypnotists that the merest urging that they focus their minds on past lives led them to ransack their unconscious minds for stray childhood memories and reassemble them into a convincing former life.

By the time "The Search for Bridey Murphy" came out as a movie late in 1956, with Louis Hayward as Bernstein and Teresa Wright as Ruth Simmons, such skepticism was ascendant, especially after investigators in Ireland had failed to find any record of Bridey Murphy or her family and a Chicago newspaper series had found many parallels between incidents in the real Ruth Simmons' girlhood in 20th-century Chicago and those she attributed in her trances to a previous life.

Although Bridey believers concede that the various investigations failed to prove that she had lived as she had been described, they also insist that the investigations failed to prove she had not.

For his part, Bernstein never wavered in his belief that his subject really had a previous life in Ireland, but then he came from a family that had taken a lot on faith.

There was, for example, his grandfather, Morris Bernstein, whose belief in America as the promised land led him to flee the pogroms of Russia and make his way to New York, where he stayed just long enough to learn, as family legend has it, that junk was the immigrant's calling, that every Jewish immigrant in New York was already a junk dealer and that he should go west to seek his fortune.

When he heard later that the only steel mill west of the Mississippi was in Pueblo, he went there and opened a junkyard with scrap metal as a specialty in 1890. By the time his grandson entered the business some 60 years later, after graduating with honors from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in 1941, his father and uncle had renamed it Bernstein Brothers and turned it into a thriving business dealing in heavy equipment, plumbing supplies and the like.

Morey Bernstein made it flourish even more, developing a large mail order operation specializing in ranch equipment and supplies.

For all Bernstein's business success, the incident that would change his life came when he went to a party in the early 1940s and saw a friend perform hypnotism as a parlor trick. Bernstein was so impressed that he soon became an amateur hypnotist himself, reading everything he could on the subject and hypnotizing his country club friends to a fare-thee-well, sometimes just for the novelty of it, sometimes in an effort to cure chronic headaches and other ailments.

As soon as Bernstein hypnotized Ginni Tighe, as she was then known, the 27-year-old wife of a local car dealer, he knew she was the best subject he had ever worked with. After some experimenting with age regression, the two agreed to see if she could remember anything before her birth, and in a tape recorded session on Nov. 29, 1952, she obliged.

Her recollections then and in a series of other sessions (ended the next year after she became pregnant with her third child) became the basis for the 1956 book, with Mrs. Tighe disguised as Ruth Simmons.

Known as Virginia Morrow after a later marriage, she was never convinced that she had been Bridey Murphy but retained an open mind until 1995, when she died in a Denver suburb, perhaps for the second time.

Bernstein, who gave up hypnotism after discovering Bridey Murphy, sold his business in 1970, prospered in the stock market using the techniques developed by Benjamin Graham and became a major Pueblo philanthropist, donating land for the city's convention center and an arts center and giving millions to the University of Southern Colorado.

He is survived by a brother, Robert, of Bethesda, Maryland.

Sunday, April 11, 1999

AL HIRT, 76, Jazz Trumpeter Who Symbolized New Orleans
By Nick Ravo, courtesy of the New York Times

Al Hirt, the portly Dixieland jazz trumpeter who was a symbol of the exuberant laissez-faire way of life of New Orleans, died Tuesday at home in New Orleans. He was 76.

Hirt had been hospitalized until last week at East Jefferson General Hospital in Metairie, Louisiana, with liver ailments, said his personal assistant, Peggy Stegman. He had used a wheelchair for the last year because of edema in his leg, she said.

One of the nation's most recognizable performers in the 1960s, Hirt, recorded 55 albums in his career and won a Grammy award in 1963 for the song "Java."

Genial, bearded, sometimes topping 300 pounds and known to some friends as Jumbo, Hirt was a ubiquitous figure in his home town. He had roles in several motion pictures, was a minority owner in the city's Saints football team and ran a popular club on Bourbon Street in the city's French Quarter for 22 years; it closed in 1983.

"He's part of New Orleans, like Louis Armstrong," said the clarinetist Pete Fountain, a fellow New Orleans resident who knew and played with Hirt for 55 years. "When you say Al Hirt, you say New Orleans. When you say New Orleans, you say Al Hirt. We're just lucky enough to be from here."

Alois Maxwell Hirt was born on Nov. 7, 1922, in New Orleans, the son of a police officer. A child prodigy, he got his first trumpet from a pawnshop at age 6 and played his first gig in 1938 when he was hired to blow the horn at a local race track. Besides earning young Hirt $40 a week, the job also started a lifelong and often -expensive passion for the ponies.

Hirt attended the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music from 1940 to 1943 and, after a three-year stint in the Army, started his career as a trumpet player, bandleader and songwriter, touring with big bands, including those led by Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman.

He started his own band in 1950 and a combo with Fountain in 1955. In 1960, he signed with RCA Records, which released his first album the following year. His most popular albums included "Greatest Horn," "He's the King" and "Bourbon Street." He also had a pop single hit with "Cotton Candy."

Hirt continued to play at local clubs until recently, even though he had to be wheeled on to the stage. It was a tribute to his feisty spirit. Indeed, Fountain recalled the time in 1970 when Hirt, riding on a float during Mardi Gras, was reportedly hit in the lip with a brick thrown by a rowdy spectator. "I think I was bent over, looking up, about to throw some doubloons to some kids when the lights went out," he said. "I always told him I think he fell on a Courvoisier bottle," Fountain recalled. He said they last played together about two months ago at Fountain's Night Club in New Orleans.

"He sat in and that was a good time that night," Fountain said. "He was having trouble getting around because his legs hurt him, because he's so big his knees gave out. But otherwise, he was all right. He played. He tooted with us, all the old favorites that we have done together through the years -- 'Muskrat Ramble,' 'When the Saints Go Marching In,' 'A Closer Walk With Thee,' 'Struttin' with Some Barbecue' and 'Jazz Me Blues.' We played all of those that night."

Though he was adept at many musical genres, Hirt was sometimes derided by critics and jazz purists for injecting rock into jazz numbers and pandering to mass tastes.

He often responded by saying he was nothing more than a crowd-pleaser. "I'm a pop commercial musician," he said in a New York Times interview in 1984. "I'm not a jazz trumpet, and never was a jazz trumpet. When I played in big bands for Tommy Dorsey and Jimmy Dorsey and Ray McKinley and Horace Heidt, I played first trumpet. I led the trumpet section. I never played jazz or improvised."

"Hirt's playing style was never progressive, but more of a swing type," Fountain said. "But Jumbo could play anything. That's how schooled a musician he was. He was a good musician, very good. He could read all the notes off the page."

Hirt is survived by his wife, Beverly Essel Hirt, and six children from a previous marriage: Mary Lee Russo of Bethesda, Md., Rebecca Dickerson, Bridgid Mearns, Stephen Hirt, Rachel Caron and Jennifer Sammons, all of New Orleans; a sister, Rosemary Hirt Rost; a brother, Gerald; 10 grandchildren, 6 step-grandchilden and two great-grandchildren.

The trumpeter, who was often also called the "Round Mound of Sound,"considered one of his most important performances to have been his 1987 solo rendition of Handel's "Ave Maria" for Pope John Paul II during the pontiff's visit to New Orleans.

April 28, 1999

And here's the next set of groovy obits...
  • Lyndon Lyon -- world-class African violet breeder
  • James Blades -- "V For Victory" percussionist
  • Waldo Semon, who patented bubblegum


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