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Jim Henson with Muppets

Arts Days: September 24, 1936: TV’s Muppet Man
Perhaps the most famous puppeteer of all, Jim Henson turned the piles of fabric and fur known as Kermit the Frog, Rowlf the Dog, and Ernie (as in Bert and Ernie) into loveable characters. In Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, Henson’s wonderful, wisecracking animal and people puppets educated and entertained children.

It was important to Henson to create work that would appeal to people of every age. His puppets might have been teaching youngsters to count, but he also made sure they threw out a few asides to amuse their parents, too. Nothing gave the modest Mississippi native more pleasure than making people laugh and enjoying the magic of puppetry.
Puppets, Television, Innovators & Pioneers, Comedy, America, Popular Culture

Will Smith

Arts Days: September 25, 1968: Will Power
Will Smith’s many talents, from rapping to acting and producing, have enabled his rise as one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood. As part of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, Smith and childhood pal Jeff Townes hit big with the song “Parents Just Don’t Understand” in the 1980s. They even won the very first Grammy® awarded to a rap act.

The folks at NBC liked Smith’s appealing persona enough to build a TV show around him; The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air ran from 1990–96 and cemented Smith’s reputation as a natural comic. The show served as Smith’s platform to transform himself from hip-hop artist to accredited actor with starring roles in Hollywood blockbusters like Men in Black and Independence Day.
America, Hip-Hop, Music, Popular Culture, Movies & Movie Stars, Young Artists

West Side Story

Arts Days: September 26, 1957: Tonight, Tonight
Behind the hit musical about the rival white “Jets” and the Puerto Rican “Sharks” is an updated, urban retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The inspiration and innovation was provided by a boatload of talent; Stephen Sondheim wrote the sophisticated lyrics, Leonard Bernstein the historic music.

Jerome Robbins directed and choreographed the revolutionary dance sequences like the Shark Girls’ exuberant “America” and the Jets’ “Cool.” Audiences saw how violent gang warfare shattered the dreams of star-crossed lovers Maria and Tony. The musical drew big crowds, shocking them all with the death of two young men at the end of Act One and of Tony at the close of the play. As stunned viewers exited the theater, few doubted the universality of Shakespeare’s love story.
Broadway, Musicals, America, Choreographers, Composers, Controversial, Playwrights & Plays, Shakespeare, Popular Culture

John Cage

Arts Days: September 05, 1912: Pushing Music’s Boundaries
You might be confused the first time you hear an orchestra perform John Cage’s famous 1952 composition, 4’33” which refers to the length of time the piece lasts: four minutes, 33 seconds. During this time, no one will play their instrument; the concert hall will be completely silent.

Or will it? Cage, one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, believed in “found sound.” He thought that a whole other kind of music could be heard in the hundreds of small noises of a concert hall: someone shifting in her chair, someone coughing, someone else turning the page of a program. His experimental ideas about music and composition are still considered controversial by many.
America, Composers, Controversial, Innovators & Pioneers, Music, Music Legends

Jimmy Reed

Arts Days: September 06, 1925: Bluesman Jimmy

With his harmonica slung around his neck and his electric guitar in his grip, Jimmy Reed sang the blues like nobody else had before. Like the words he typically sang in his distinctive singing style, his music kind of loped along, even as it set listeners’ toes tapping.

Writing songs covered by everyone from Elvis Presley to the Rolling Stones, Jimmy Reed captured everyday people’s joy and pain in songs like “Ain’t That Loving You Baby” and “Bright Lights, Big City.” These tunes, simple at first listen, hooked you with their melodies and with the emotion with which Reed delivered them. His music, honest and catchy, brought the blues to a whole new audience.


America, Blues, Music, Music Legends

Buddy Holly

Arts Days: September 07, 1937: Rock’s Best Buddy
Buddy Holly started singing and playing instruments as a child. At 18, he heard Elvis Presley perform; later that year, he was opening for Elvis and generating buzz for his rockabilly music, which combined elements of bop, country, and rock.

Though his life ended at age 22 in a plane crash, he had an outsized influence on early rock and roll. For example, along with his band, the Crickets, Holly helped make the standard rock band lineup that has stuck to this day: two guitars, one bass, and drums. He also was one of the first rock-and-rollers to write, produce, sing, AND play on his own songs. And oh boy, did he crank out a lot of rock standards: “Every Day,” “That’ll Be The Day,” and “Peggy Sue” are just a few.
America, Innovators & Pioneers, Music, Music Legends, Popular Culture, Rock & Roll

Kelly Clarkson

Arts Days: September 04, 2002: Idol Maker
Something like 50 million people were watching the night Kelly Clarkson was chosen the winner of the first season of American Idol. This wildly successful, interactive singing competition counts on viewers calling or texting in votes for their favorite singers to help determine who will make it to the next round.

The popular show helped launch Clarkson’s career, just as it has with other winners in subsequent years. The show’s judges—originally Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson, and Paula Abdul—helped shape viewers’ voting with their blunt feedback on the performances, which can range from pathetic to magnificent.
Television, Popular Culture, Young Artists, Music, America

The John F. Kennedy Center

Arts Days: September 08, 1971: America’s Home for the Arts
In 1958, President Eisenhower signed legislation to build a national cultural center in Washington, D.C. Yet in the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, Congress decided that the center would be a “living memorial” to our 35th president, who had worked tirelessly to elevate the role of the arts in America.

Opening night saw the debut performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, written in memory of the fallen president; other performers included the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Berkshire Boys Choir. Since that night, the Center has welcomed and entertained millions as the finest performers from around the globe have graced its multiple stages. In addition, its Education Department touches more than 11 million young people, teachers, and parents each year.
Architecture, Art Venues, Backstage, Ballet, Choreographers, Composers, Dance, Dance Legends, America, Innovators & Pioneers, Music, Music Legends, Musicals, Opera, Theater

Francis Scott Key standing on ship

Arts Days: September 14, 1814: O Say Can You Sing?
Key was watching the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore by the British when he wrote a poem he called “Defence of Fort McHenry.” An important battle in the War of 1812 was raging, and Key was among those aboard American ships in the Chesapeake Bay. Rockets rained down all night on the fort, and Key wondered whose flag would be flying in the morning light.

Imagine his relief to see that “Star-Spangled Banner” waving above the fort the next day—tattered but proud. The poem was set to an existing tune and printed in several newspapers. It became very popular and was often played at public events. In 1931, President Hoover signed a law designating the song as our national anthem.
America, History, Military, Music, Poetry

Oh Susanna

Arts Days: September 11, 1847: America’s First Pop Hit
This American folk tune starts with lines that make absolutely no sense: “The sun so hot I froze to death/Susanna don’t you cry.” Yet Stephen Foster, the songwriter, was probably most concerned with just creating a hummable tune. And that he did. The song tells the story of a man going to New Orleans to see his beloved Susanna.

Filled with desire and longing, the man sings of dreaming of his love at night. Foster intended the song to be sung in minstrel shows, during which white performers often performed in blackface makeup. Traditionally the song is sung with only the accompaniment of a guitar and harmonica.
America, Controversial, Music, Music Legends, Popular Culture

William “Count” Basie

Arts Days: August 21, 1906: The Count of Jazz
As a jazz bandleader, pianist, and composer, Count Basie had few peers. He learned to play piano as a youngster, making up music to go with the early silent films of the day.

Working in Harlem and Kansas City, Missouri, Basie absorbed the regional styles of jazz into his own signature “jumping” sound, which referred to his spare piano, pulsating rhythm section, and riffs—a series of notes that are repeated throughout a song—created by his horn players. His band was less formal than others, demonstrating a new lightness and solo originality.

This 1981 Kennedy Center Honoree made jazz history night after night in concert halls and clubs around the world.
America, Composers, Jazz, Music, Music Legends

Gene Kelly

Arts Days: August 23, 1912: Dancing Up a Storm
Dancer, actor, choreographer, boyishly handsome good guy—that was Gene Kelly, the fellow who bought a one-way ticket to New York City when he was a young man and soon landed a Broadway lead.

Kelly pushed for Hollywood to make more musicals and wound up dominating the musical revival in the 1940s and 50s. In timeless movies like Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris, Kelly’s elegant dancing stole the show.

He made it look so easy, yet his dancing demanded great strength, technical skill, and expression. In his choreography and in his performances, he melded everything from classical ballet to jazz to athletic prowess to tap dancing. And by the way, he could sing, too.
America, Choreographers, Dance, Dance Legends, Musicals, Movies & Movie Stars

Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind

Arts Days: August 24, 1938: Gable Becomes a Goner
It’s said that actor Clark Gable didn’t even want to play Rhett Butler—the very role with which he will forever be synonymous. This Hollywood heartthrob of the 1930s was the person the film’s producer David O. Selznick wanted to play Butler from the start, but it took Gary Cooper turning down the role for Gable to become a serious contender.

Gable had starred in successful films like Mutiny on the Bounty and It Happened One Night, but Gone With… forever cemented him in the public’s mind as a leading man without peer: dashing, handsome, sophisticated.

The epic Civil War drama, based on the book of the same name by Margaret Mitchell, is routinely cited as one of the greatest movies of all time.
Movies & Movie Stars, Literature, America, History

Charlie Parker

Arts Days: August 29, 1920: Rare Bird
As a musician who could improvise jazz and blues music on the fly, Charlie “Bird” Parker has few equals. With his alto saxophone and his deep reservoir of talent, Parker thrilled listeners with his playing on tunes like “Ko-Ko” and “Billie’s Bounce.”

He was one of the leading developers of bebop, a jazz form featuring four or five musicians, fast tempos, and jagged-sounding, complex melodies. He also crafted new ways of playing long solos that shattered the usual conventions. For example, he experimented with creating melodies using higher intervals of a chord than had traditionally been played.
America, Jazz, Music, Music Legends, Musical Instruments

Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C.

Arts Days: August 28, 1975: Rock 'n' Rap
When the rock band Aerosmith cut this single in the mid 1970s, they probably didn’t know they were setting the stage for a mash-up of rock and rap a decade down the road.

In 1986, Aerosmith worked with rap duo Run-D.M.C. to make a new version of the song. Its tempo and rapid-fire lyrics lent themselves well to the full rap treatment. Aerosmith’s singer Steven Tyler and both halves of Run-D.M.C.—Joseph “Run” Simmons and Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels—shared singing/rapping duties on the new version.

The fun video for the remake—in which Tyler feigns indignation at the interlopers rapping his song, then dances with them—only helped the song rocket up the charts. It was the first major hit featuring the melding of rock and rap music.
America, Music, Popular Culture, Rock & Roll, Hip-Hop

Leonard Bernstein

Arts Days: August 25, 1918: Bernstein’s Bold Baton
You might find it odd that Leonard Bernstein was the first American-born and trained music director of the New York Philharmonic. But historically speaking, he was also the first American classical music conductor to earn worldwide acclaim.

Bernstein, who was awarded Kennedy Center Honors in 1980, was applauded for his ability to convey all the facets of a composer’s music and its meaning when he was conducting—or when he was teaching at his Young People’s Concerts. He also wrote orchestral pieces, ballet scores, choral and chamber music, the score for the film On the Waterfront; and of course, the music for Broadway’s Candide and West Side Story.

Held in extremely high regard by musical colleagues, Bernstein’s passion and intensity for conducting, writing, and playing music never ebbed over his lengthy career.
America, Composers, Broadway, Music, Music Legends, Musicals, Orchestra

Lee de Forest

Arts Days: August 26, 1873: Mister Sound Man
Can you imagine a movie without sound accompanying the action? Lee de Forest is the guy who first gave sound to movies in a synchronized way. Invented in 1920, his Phonofilm process made it possible to link the sound and the images on the screen.

Sure, there had been sound in films before this time, but it might have been, say, a scene of a car driving by and a random horn blowing on the soundtrack. De Forest’s technology made it possible for a car and its beep to be linked together.

Basically, de Forest found a way to use a photocell to “read” light and dark areas on the film, then convert them to an audio track matching the action. For his accomplishment, de Forest received a special Oscar® in 1959.
America, Innovators & Pioneers, Inventions, Movies & Movie Stars

Madonna

Arts Days: August 16, 1958: Lady Madonna
Madonna Louise Ciccone was born into a large Italian-American family with a strong Catholic faith. Yet she has said that her ethnic and religious roots fed her desire to rebel. Among other things, she dropped out of college to move to New York and dressed provocatively, often mixing religious icons with her revealing stage outfits.

In songs she wrote such as “Like a Prayer” and “Papa Don’t Preach,” Madonna pushed lyrical boundaries; and in her popular videos on MTV, she made polished, sometimes controversial mini-movies to go with her songs.

A string of dance-able hits and a charismatic personality, plus her chameleon-like ability to change her look and style from one record to the next, have made Madonna one of the world’s biggest pop stars.
America, Dance, Music, Popular Culture, Rock & Roll, Fashion

Andy Warhol

Arts Days: August 06, 1928: Prince of Pop Art
Whether silkscreening, painting, filming, or photographing his subjects, artist Andy Warhol looked at them with a brand-new eye. Though he began his career designing ads and record covers, it’s as a fine artist that his creativity took flight.

Warhol used images of familiar objects—from Campbell’s Soup cans to Brillo dishwashing sponges—to find the artistic qualities in mundane objects and to redefine what constituted art. His work supports “pop art”—a 20th century art movement in which popular culture’s logos, products, and images are used together or separately—and, its creators say, is elevated to something on par with more traditional art.

At the end of the day, Warhol created uniquely American art that commented on our obsession with celebrities and consumerism.
America, Popular Culture, Visual Arts

Louis Armstrong playing the trumpet

Arts Days: August 04, 1901: Horn of Plenty
The great trumpeter Louis Armstrong soaked up all the pains and joys of a young man growing up poor and unequipped yet possessing an extraordinary musical talent. These emotions can be clearly heard in the jazz music he grew up to both play and sing.

There's little doubt that Armstrong was the most gifted and influential trumpet soloist in the history of the instrument. His innovations included playing high notes that had never been hit before, and holding these notes for long periods of time; creating vibrato or trembling sounds with his lips; and experimenting with rhythm to make music move, or "swing."

Armstrong's combination of singing and playing (both trumpet and cornet), plus his larger-than-life personality, made him one of the world's greatest and most memorable solo entertainers.
America, Jazz, Music, Music Legends, Innovators & Pioneers, Musical Instruments

Benny Carter

Arts Days: August 08, 1907: They Call Him “King”
What aspect of jazz did the great Benny Carter not master? This 1996 Kennedy Center Honoree played alto sax, clarinet, and trumpet. He composed and arranged songs, some of which, like “When Lights are Low,” are now considered jazz standards. And he was an in-demand bandleader for much of his career.

Largely self-taught, Carter began playing in Harlem nightspots in his teens. At 21, he made his first recordings with Charlie Johnson’s Orchestra, and in the 1930s, he lived in and toured Europe, spreading the gospel of this uniquely American music form.

This jazz legend shaped the big-band jazz sound more than just about any other musician before or since. As jazz great Miles Davis once said, "Everyone should listen to Benny Carter. He's a whole musical education."
America, Music, Music Legends, Jazz

Steve Martin

Arts Days: August 14, 1945: A Wild and Crazy Guy
Perhaps “zany” is the perfect word to describe this funny Renaissance man who juggles like a pro, dances with happy feet, and plays a mean banjo like no ordinary country star. Steve Martin’s goofy comedy stunts—from wearing a fake arrow through his head to twisting together balloon animals during his show—have endeared him to countless fans.

Even with a white-hot standup career propelled to new heights by his work on “Saturday Night Live,” Martin tried acting, with lead roles in hilarious films like The Jerk, Roxanne, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, among others. In recent years, he’s branched out: writing short stories and plays and appearing regularly with the bluegrass band, Steep Canyon Rangers.
Comedy, America, Musical Instruments, Movies & Movie Stars

A Vogue Fashion Show

Arts Days: August 10, 1903: Fashion's Grand Dame
Style maven Eleanor Lambert came from the Midwest but lived most of her life in New York City, where deciding what people ought to wear was (and still is) considered a high art.

Lambert had a natural knack for public relations and shepherd numerous young American clothing designers to fame and fortune. She helped bring Calvin Klein, Bill Blass, and other now-household name designers into the fashion mainstream by promoting their works to magazine editors and celebrities.

Lambert is also credited as the creator of “Fashion Week,” an elaborate, twice-a-year display of the latest fashion designs in New York City, as well as the International Best-Dressed List, which actors, socialites, and other celebrities strive to be included on each year.
Innovators & Pioneers, Fashion, America

Snow White

Arts Days: December 21, 1937: The Fairest (and First) of Them All
The story of a lovely princess, seven sidekicks, and an evil Queen all played a part in Walt Disney’s initial venture into Technicolor. Based on a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, Snow White was also the first animated feature film made in the U.S. The making of the film was considered an absurd gamble, with its groundbreaking ideas that required the invention of brand-new technology.

Focusing on telling the story rather than garnering laughs, animators made sure the film had all the elements of suspense, comedy, romance, and tragedy of a feature film. The risk paid off. The audience at the premiere loved the film, which included original songs like “Someday My Prince Will Come."
Cartoons, Comics, & Animation, Innovators & Pioneers, Movies & Movie Stars, America, Popular Culture, Folklore

It's a Wonderful Life

Arts Days: December 20, 1946: The Richest Man in Town
Jimmy Stewart, a 1983 Kennedy Center Honoree, was a very popular actor when he was cast as the likeable George Bailey, the lead role in It’s a Wonderful Life. Director Frank Capra tells the story of a small-town fellow who, through no fault of his own, comes to the end of his rope on Christmas Eve. As he considers suicide, Heaven sends a gentle guardian angel named Clarence to convince him what a good life he really has.

Told mostly through flashbacks, the movie has become essential viewing for many at Christmastime. Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, and the other cast members bring Bedford Falls to life year after year, reminding us all that “no man is a failure who has friends.”
Movies & Movie Stars, Popular Culture, America, Comedy, Family

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