October 31, 2009

Apologies for the erratic posting schedule, but I've been a busy bug this month.. Working on my Suspension of Disbelief column drew the short straw these past couple of weeks, but I'm back in black.

As promised, further suggestions for notable Kentuckians whose lives would make a darned good play:

1. Beulah Annan - Beulah was already used, in a highly fictionalized way, as the basis for the Roxie Hart character in the musical Chicago, but it would be nice to see her story told in a more gritty, realistic and factual stage presentation. Beulah was something of a femme fatale who, in a very short period of years, went through many men and much misadventure. She made national headlines in 1924 when she shot and killed a laundromat worker named Harry Kalstedt, with whom she was having an affair.

Beulah told multiple versions of her story - that she murdered him in cold blood for no reason; that she murdered him because he was leaving her; that Kalstedt tried to rape her and she shot him in self defense; and that he reached for his gun when she told him she was pregnant, so she grabbed it first and shot first. Whichever version is true, what is common to all versions is her admission that instead of calling for help immediately, she sat around drinking cocktails and watching him bleed to death for two hours while playing a 78 record by Sophie Tucker called “Hula Lou” over and over and over.

2. Kit Carson - Once upon a time, the "big three" of frontiersmen was generally regarded to be Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and Kit Carson. Somewhere along the way, Carson's reputation has lagged behind the other two thirds of the triumvirate, and it's time for writers to start rectifying that. Carson was born in Madison County, KY, near Richmond, and went on to become a great American adventurer out west. The Carson family lived on a farm owned by the sons of Daniel Boone, who had purchased the land from the Spanish prior to the Louisiana Purchase. The Boone and Carson families were closely linked by intermarrying. Carson's reputation as an explorer, trapper, and soldier were canonized in a series of action novels and a popular TV show that ran for four seasons but is all but forgotten today.

3. Virgil Earp - Wyatt Earp may have gotten all the fame from the O.K. Corral showdown, but his brother Virgil (born in Hartford, KY) was a more interesting and talented figure. After surviving the shootout, he led a life filled with drama and action, being chased and pursued for years afterward by men seeking revenge for the Tombstone incident. One subsequent assassination attempt very nearly did him in, and cost him the use of an arm. After spending much time on the run, he worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad, hired as security during the Battle of the Crossing. Late in life, he fought against the Temperance Movement, whose prohibition laws prevented him from opening a saloon.

4. Alfred M. Hubbard - The Alfred M. Hubbard story - what little we know of it - is one of the strangest, most mysterious tales of cloak-and-dagger intrigue, skullduggery and adventure I've heard. And of course, he's a good Kentucky boy.

As he himself told the story of his early youth, he was poor, barefoot; a self-described hillbilly from the mountains of Kentucky. Then a pair of angels appeared to him and instructed him to "build something". In 1919, he did indeed build something: he invented the "Hubbard Energy Transformer", an alleged perpetual motion device which garnered nationwide media attention. Hubbard sold half the patent for $75,000 to the Radium Chemical Company of Pittsburgh, PA, after which it was never heard of again.

In adulthood, Hubbard began a bizarre series of career moves that involved bootleggers and smugglers, the OSS, the CIA, the Manhattan Project, the "Remote Viewing" department of the Stanford Research Institute, and who knows what else. He became obsessed with LSD as a cure-all and began a major campaign to promote it as the spiritual cure to all humanity's problems. He introduced thousands of prominent people to it, including Aldous Huxley, Stanley Kubrick, and - so he claimed - the Pope. Reports conflict on whether he did this strictly on his own volition, or as part of the CIA's "MK-ULTRA" mind-control LSD experiments. Hubbard died a recluse, in a trailer in the desert at the age of 81.

5. Colonel Sanders - As if creating the greatest fried chicken restaurant ever and becoming a Kentucky iconic figure himself weren't enough, Harland Sanders led quite an interesting life even before he went into the bird business.

In his early adulthood, Sanders was a volunteer firefighter, a chef, a soldier stationed in Cuba, a traveling salesman, a steamboat operator, active Freemason (he underwent his initiation in 1917) and ran several small businesses of his own, including a gas station in Corbin. It was in Corbin that his special way of preparing fried chicken became a great roadside success, and by 1932 a thriving restaurant and motel had developed out of it. Sanders Cafe Chicken was renamed Kentucky Fried Chicken in 1952, and the rest is history. In 1980, Sanders died at the age of 90 and has a visually striking monument in Louisville's Cave Hill Cemetery.

Can't you just imagine "Colonel Sanders: the Broadway Musical"? I can.

Contact the author at jshpaint@gmail.com.

Jeffrey Scott Holland is the Artistic Director for Catclaw Theatre Company, author of Weird Kentucky on Sterling Press, and painter whose works have been exhibited worldwide. Visit him on the web at jshla.com.