Vintage Icons from Nebraska
Jun 12, 2019 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
I love a great retro movie and find myself pausing the credits so I can Google the history of the people involved in the production. It’s always fun being an internet sleuth and discovering where people grew up. I’m fascinated by stories of origin. An article, commemorating D-Day, inspired me to create a new series celebrating vintage icons from each of our beautiful fifty states. I’ll start with my home state of Nebraska. At the top of the list, I’ll honor the gentleman who set this idea in motion and also saved the world!
Everyone, please meet Andrew Higgins. Hailing from Columbus, his isn’t a name that’s featured prominently in history books. I humbly suggest that this fact change as one of Andrew’s inventions paved the way for the Allied victory during WWII. This amazing creation goes by the official title of “Landing Craft, Vehicle and Personnel” (or LCVP’s for short). These flat-bottomed boats first came into being a couple decades earlier, when Higgins built prototypes for his lumber mill customers. These vessels helped ferry cargo to and fro in the shallow waters of the South. Their maneuverability and power caught the eye of the Coast Guard and soon Higgins’ handiwork was outsmarting rum runners nationwide during Prohibition.
Then came the defining moment – a date which will live in infamy. About 24 hours after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Higgins was at the patent office to present his most refined version of the LCVP’s. The hours Higgins spent to re-tool every feature paid off. The boats, now known as “Higgins boats”, were more stable and surprisingly nimble on the water. His grit and determination guided not only his design efforts, but the manufacturing as well. Higgins inspired a level of patriotic zeal in his employees that was nearly unrivaled, meaning they met the intense deadlines delivered by the beleaguered US Navy.
His efforts contributed greatly to the war effort, specifically to the D-Day invasion. Dwight D. Eisenhower even famously stated that “Andrew Higgins is the man who won the war for us.” A tremendous legacy, without question, but what I also appreciate is that he provided a platform for success for everyone. His factory employed people from all walks of life and that was ground-breaking for this time in American history. Elderly workers, African Americans, disabled folks, women – everyone worked in harmony to win the war. Not too shabby for a boy from Columbus! Let’s meet some other people from the Cornhusker state…
Fred Astaire | Omaha
Fred Astaire’s sweeping and elegant dance moves defined a generation. His legacy lives on in film and in his namesake dance studios. Born in 1899 in Nebraska’s biggest city, he and his sister (Adele) pursued their dreams of big lights and even bigger cities. First, they worked on the Vaudeville stage, making their way to Broadway in 1917. Young Fred was just 18 years old – basking in the glow of hit musicals, dancing alongside his beloved sister. In 1932 his sister married and moved to England, leaving him unsure of what to do next. Fred ventured to Hollywood and little did he know, his next partner was waiting in the wings for him.
The year was 1933 and the film was Flying Down to Rio, the first on-screen pairing of Fred and Ginger Rogers. Their scenes were limited, but memorable. The scripts came flooding in and their choreography evolved – blending styles and increasing in their intricacies and showmanship-quality. A professional for over twenty years, Fred’s fame peaked during the years following his split with Rogers. One of my personal favorites is Funny Face with Audrey Hepburn. All of his film appearances can be woven together by his impeccable skill and charm. Watching Fred Astaire dance is equal parts mesmerizing and comforting – I’m so glad he shared his gift with the world!
Dick Cavett | Gibbon
I recently discovered the joy that is the Dick Cavett Show thanks to the wonderful world of re-runs. His calm, yet commanding presence, stands in brilliant contrast to the big personalities that made their way to his studio. His list of guests is a who’s who of yesteryear. I bet that little boy from Gibbon pinched himself from the wonder of it all! His journey began after graduating from high school, when he attended the Yale School of Drama. Soon, like many of his contemporaries, he made his way to the big apple. Dick’s first jobs in New York weren’t exactly glamorous – like Johnny Carson he was a magician for a short time. He also had a brief stint as a stand-up comic, known for a rather dry approach. All this experience, his wit (and boldness!) led to his big break as a monologue writer for Jack Parr. The story of how he got his big break is pretty gutsy. After a day of tracking him down, Dick found Jack and handed him an envelope containing his writing. Sneaking into the taping, he was surprised to see Parr reach for his breast pocket and read his words!
Dick went on to lend his voice to Johnny Carson and even the iconic Groucho Marx. By 1968 the networks had taken note and he was offered his own late-night talk show by ABC. The show ran for nearly a decade, offering the American TV audience a new experience. Dick’s pioneering combination of humor and thoughtful discussion cut through the noisy time period during which it aired. I encourage you to check out this interview from earlier this year. I’m excited for the next young talk show host to take the baton because I would welcome honest and respectful conversation stepping back into the limelight. How about you?
Henry Fonda | Grand Island
Henry Fonda is known for his heroic stage presence. Heroic by his natural character and augmented by the fact that he was such a prolific actor, starring in nearly 100 films in a career that spanned multiple decades. His journey to stardom started with community theater, at the prompting of Marlon Brando’s mother. (Marlon is another Nebraska icon, by the way!) Upon learning the ropes at the Omaha Community Playhouse, he moved East and joined another playhouse company in Falmouth, Massachusetts. Broadway beckoned shortly thereafter and by the mid-1930s he was landing leading roles. He found that his classical theatrical training didn’t completely translate to the early days of cinema and by compensating for that, he ended up creating his signature style. Henry’s quiet intensity meant he was tailor-made for that “strong, silent type” role. (Also known as, the leading man or the name up in lights!)
Around the late 1930s, much like Astaire, Fonda met his match in the director John Ford. Their collaborations set the trajectory for American cinema: classics like Grapes of Wrath or Fort Apache set the bar for mass storytelling. But Henry wasn’t just an on-screen hero, he also bravely served his country during WWII. Upon his return from enemy shores, Henry returned to the great white way and earned a Tony award. It was his final feature film performance, On Golden Pond, that earned him his first Academy Award for best actor. Hard to imagine that a man, so respected by his peers, didn’t have a roomful of Oscars. Jack Lemmon, fellow icon, described Henry as “the definitive American actor.”
His legacy focuses predominantly on his work as he was a consummate professional, never seeking fame or discussing his private life in the public realm. I admire that dedication and find it refreshing in this Twitter-centric world we live in. Henry once described his job as such: “My goal is that the audience must never see the wheels go around, not see the work that goes into this. It must seem effortless and real. I don’t do anything very consciously except that my end results must never be obvious in any way.” Perhaps because his love of treading the boards was so strong, Henry remained unimpressed by the glam life and instead cultivated his strong work ethic. What a great way to wrap up this meet-and-greet with our quartet of Nebraskans, as each of them share an unbridled tenacity that spanned time or profession. Tell me, dear readers, do you feel there’s something to this notion of place impacting personality?