When Eleanor Met Jack… 50 Years Later

Screen Shot 2019-12-23 at 10.43.03 PMEleanor

Yesterday would have been my Grandma Eleanor’s 111th birthday. In her memory, I’m sharing some wonderful letters from 1983, when she was 75 and I was 20. After visiting with her and my Grandpa Mac in Florida, I was inspired to write a letter to someone who I had heard Eleanor mention often since I was a boy: Jack Gilford.

Knowing my interest in comedy and musical theater, my grandmother loved to share that she went to elementary school with him — back when Jack Gilford went by Jacob Gellman. I recognized his stage name from Broadway cast albums, such as “Cabaret” and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” the popular Cracker Jack’s commercials he starred in, and his portrayal of Winnie the Pooh, on one of my favorite LPs.

In my letter to Jack Gilford (see below), I explained why I was writing, and shared a photocopy of his inscription to Eleanor in her autograph book, when they were both students at P.S. 18 in Brooklyn. I made sure to include a current photo of her, to help jog his memory. I also shared a story the Eleanor told me often of how, when they were kids, Jack was constantly clowning around, and once jumped on my great grandmother’s new couch to get laughs from the other kids.

Two months later, I got a wonderful handwritten response from Jack (also featured below). He began it saying:

What a delightful surprise! What a wonderful flashback! Of course, I’m Jacob Gellman, and of course I remember Eleanor Feiman. I think her folks had a store on Grand Street and she and Ethel Krim were friends. We all graduated from P.S. 18 as you know.

I immediately shared this good news with Eleanor, and read her the letter over the phone. She especially loved his comment, “She was a pretty young girl and she certainly looks great now.” I think she also loved that this comment brought out some playful jealousy from my grandfather.

Eleanor took Jack up on his offer to call. They had a long phone conversation, chatting about their childhoods, revealing they both had incredible memories for detail. Jack mentioned he was in Florida performing in a dinner theater production of “Heaven Can Wait” (playing the part of… Mr. Jordan!) Eleanor – always an enthusiastic letter-writer – wrote me the day after she spoke with Jack and gave me the “tea” (as the kids say today) on their chat (see below)

While Eleanor was not able to see him in this production, another reunion opportunity popped up soon after. Jack was cast in the Ron Howard movie “Cocoon,” a sci-fi movie about a group of elderly people who get new vitality from space aliens. It was being filmed in St. Petersburg, which was close to my grandmother’s home in Sarasota.  Also in the cast were famous veteran actors, such as Hume Cronyn, Don Ameche, Jessica Tandy, Gwen Verdon and Maureen Stapleton. Jack had called Eleanor to invite her to the set to have lunch. Eleanor explained that she’d love to come but my mother happened to be visiting at the time. Jack invited her and my grandfather as well.

According to my mother, Eleanor was super excited but super nervous about seeing Jack after all these years. She changed outfits many times, hoping to find the “perfect” one. My mom said the reunion was delightful and charming. At one point, my Grandpa Mac, who always prided himself on my mother looking more like him than my grandmother, went over to Jack and asked, “Tell me, Jack, who does Eileen (my mom) look more like — Eleanor or me?” In a flash, Jack smiled and said, “I think she looks like me!”

I am a deep believer in the idea that someone is immortal as long as people have fond memories of them and tell stories from their lives. Looking at Eleanor’s handwritten letter to me from 1983 brought a rush of marvelous memories from all the terrific times we spent together.

And if you want to see a little of Jack Gilford’s unique talent, watch this clip of him using just his face to do an impression of pea soup bubbling over (JUMP to 5 minutes in).

Here’s to the bygone days of letter-writing! In this era of email, text, and tweets, it’s unlikely I would have had this kind of experience helping my grandmother connect with an old friend who she hadn’t seen in more than 50 years.

Enjoy this delightful correspondence from 36 years ago! (click on each page to see it enlarged)

 

Eleanor1

Eleanor2

Gilford1 Gilford2 Gilford3 Screen Shot 2019-12-23 at 10.23.36 PM

EleanortoJB_1 EleanortoJB_2 EleanortoJB_3 EleanortoJB_4

 

 

paper airplane and crumbs

Remembering Ellie, Our Basset Hound

EllieBlog

Our dog Ellie passed away at age 14. To celebrate her life, I want to share some stories about this sweet, smart Basset Hound.

Checking Out a Dog at the Library

We met Ellie, at age 8, at a dog-themed fundraiser at our local library. At this “Woof Walk,” patrons gave a donation to walk their dogs around the fall foliage. A Basset Hound rescue had also brought dogs for adoption, including Ellie. My wife Ellen had always wanted a Basset Hound, and this one shared her namesake, so it was kismet. We brought along our beagle mutt Bentley to make sure he and Ellie got along. Happily, they hit it off. Despite Bentley being the bigger of the two, Ellie made it clear from the start: SHE was the boss.

Canine Intelligence

My daughter Olivia had to do a science experiment for school. She decided to explore, “Which of My Dogs Is Smarter?” She predicted that Ellie would win, paws down. Having seen Ellie’s wily ways in action, I had to agree. Ellie once swiped a loaf of French bread off a high counter. By the time I noticed, she had run into another room, meticulously removed the baguette from the plastic wrapping, and devoured it.

To test her hypothesis, Olivia hid treats in my office, then called Ellie from a distant part of the house. In a flash, she raced up the stairs and sniffed out all treats. When she repeated this test with Bentley… well, let’s just say that he has other charms.

Lumps and Bumps

Over the last few years, Ellie developed some odd growths. Our vet determined they were all benign. Then, about a year ago, a new growth appeared at the top of her front right leg. It resembled a mutant cauliflower. We asked about having it removed, but the vet said that since Ellie had a heart murmur, putting her under anesthesia was not wise. Still, Ellie continued to do all her favorite things—having her belly rubbed, stealing food, basking in the sun, and chasing Bentley.

Gross Encounters

(NOTE: This next part is not for the squeamish. You’ve been warned.) As Ellie’s tumor grew, the more she licked it. And the more she licked it, the more it bled… A LOT. It was not uncommon for one of my kids to walk into a room where Ellie had been and say, “Ugh, it looks like a crime scene!”

To control the bleeding, we had luck with a Chinese herb called Yunnan Baiyou. But Ellie still licked her tumor, and the smell got worse. When she left a room, we had to spray air fresher to cover the stench. You know how St. Bernards are famous for carrying barrels of whiskey around their necks? I joked that Ellie should do the same with a can of Fabreze.)

Saying Goodbye

I suspected the end was near when Ellie stopped eating. She still wagged her tail but her energy level plummeted. I was cooking in the kitchen, when Ellie wandered over, and collapsed. In a matter of minutes, she was gone. We wrapped her body, and played “Amazing Grace” on bagpipes on my phone, as we carried her to our unheated garage, a few minutes from our house.

When our previous two dogs had died, it was during the summer or fall, so I had no trouble digging their graves in the woods on our property. Since it was winter I thought that we’d have to cremate her remains. But Finian, my brawny 18-year-old son, was determined. It took him a few days, but he dug her grave. We buried her wrapped body, and covered it with heavy rocks.

As putrid as Ellie’s “aroma” was during the last few months, I’d give anything for another whiff of her, as she strolls in the room. Rest in peace, Ellie. We’ll always remember you.

(I also wrote canine eulogies in 2007 and 2013 for our late, great pals Tanner, and Satchmo, if you’re curious to read them.)

paper airplane and crumbs

Teaching Kids the Power of Perspective (READY JET GO!)

One of my most thrilling moments as an Educational Consultant for kids TV happened yesterday. I watched an especially remarkable episode of READY JET GO!, a PBS science series I’ve worked on for a number of years.

ReadyJetGo-team

READY JET GO!’s educational mission is to build on children’s wonder and curiosity about astronomy and earth science via entertaining, funny stories that teach the basics about the planets, moons, stars, asteroids, comets and so on. The premise of the series is that an alien boy named Jet Propulsion has come to Earth from Bortron 7, a distant planet in the Milky Way, with his parents who are intergalactic travel writers. (It’s catchy opening theme song can be enjoyed here.)

The thing with animated programs is that they often take many months to produce, so an early draft of a script I would review takes a year to be presented on air. The episode that knocked my socks off yesterday is called “The Tiny Blue Dot.” This episode addresses the concept of “perspective.” Young children, as you know, can be very self-centered. It takes effort and maturity for kids to see beyond themselves, and have some compassion for the broader world. So, one of the learning goals of the series is to inspire children to think of Earth from a broader point of view, and to realize that our own Sun is actually a star—one of billions in the Milky Way galaxy (which is just one of more than a 100 billion galaxies in the universe)

While looking back at some old script notes I wrote, back in 2014, I found that I had suggested to the writers that we teach young children the word “perspective.” The episode I watched yesterday, entitled “The Tiny Blue Dot” (which is available via Amazon and YouTube for free for subscribers, or a small fee) was inspired by a photo taken in 1990 by NASA’s Voyager 1. As this famous space probe flew to the outer reaches of our solar system, it took a photo of Earth from that distant “perspective.” In it, Earth is just a tiny “pale blue dot” which Carl Sagan eloquently spoke about. He wistfully comments about this distant view of Earth: “On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.”

Inspired by Sagan’s words, RJG series creator Craig Bartlett and composer Jim Lang wrote a beautiful, touching, song “Tiny Blue Dot,” sung by Jet’s parents and the other characters as they look at our planet, billions of miles away. HERE IT IS! Please enjoy and share it with the little “Earthies” that live in your home.

paper airplane and crumbs

SCIENCE STUNTS: Dr. Dazz, Olivia and More

ScienceStunts300dpi 5

Calling all curious kids! My latest book SCIENCE STUNTS explores the magic of science—and the science of magic. Sci-fi writer and inventor Arthur C. Clarke wrote “Magic’s just science that we don’t understand yet.” Some science tricks today would have seemed like witchcraft hundreds of years ago. (Tangent: Check out this amazing, true story of how famous magician Robert Houdin actually stopped a rebellion using the science of electromagnetism.)  As a child, I loved performing magic shows at birthday parties as “The Great Jordini.” Around that time, I also became fascinated with science experiments that had a big razzle-dazzle factor. So, when I was asked to write a kids science book that showcases the fun side of physics, I jumped at the opportunity. I did a bunch of research to find an engaging collection of science explorations that illustrate physical phenomena such as gravity, motion, heat, magnets, sound, light, and electricity. I was thrilled when my CRAZY CONCOCTIONS illustrator Anthony Owsley agreed to create wonderfully wacky illustrations again.

The book is hosted by Dr. Dazzleberry (“Dr. Dazz,” to those in the know), a physicist and magician who wears a rhinestone-studded tuxedo. He was inspired by some of my heroes, including Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, and Penn Jillette. To help Dr. Dazz explain “The Science Behind the Stunt,” I created cartoon versions of Isaac Newton, Galileo, and Albert Einstein. (In the Acknowledgments I had fun telling this talented trio: “If there are any errors between these covers, I blame you guys for not jumping in a time machine and correcting them.”)

My daughter Olivia, to whom this book is dedicated, graciously agreed to demo some of the experiments from the book in a series of YouTube videos. Take it away, Olivia!!!

Wooden Block Tower

Laser Light Bend-o-Rama

Fire and Ice

 

 

paper airplane and crumbs

The Day I Met Leonard Nimoy

leonardprogram

Last week, I was deeply saddened to hear of Leonard Nimoy’s passing. Ever since I discovered the original Star Trek series when I was in 4th grade in the early 1970s, I have found his varied and illustrious career “fascinating” (as a certain alter ego might say.) As a kid, my friends and I spent many hours transforming my bedroom into the Enterprise, and building models of ST spaceships, phasers, communicators and tricorders. I knew what the acronym IDIC stood for, and even got a kick out of Nimoy’s and Shatner’s infamous “Golden Throats” recordings. Later, I eagerly followed Nimoy’s career as a hosted “In Search Of…” and appeared in the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and directed a bunch of entertaining movies, Trek-related and otherwise.

In March 1980, I had the delightful pleasure of meeting a mustachioed Leonard Nimoy in person. Even though my home was in Buffalo, NY, I was living in Athens, Georgia at the time because my father was on sabbatical at the University of Georgia. My parents had read that  Nimoy would be appearing in Vincent, a one-man show about Vincent van Gogh in Atlanta, and eagerly got our family tickets! Several weeks before seeing the play, I decided to write him a fan letter. My Grandpa Milton was always writing letters to people he admired and frequently got replies. So what did I have to lose? In my letter to Nimoy, I gushed about my admiration for his work, shared that we both were born in the Boston area, and even composed a limerick in his honor (which I still remember by heart):

An actor named Leonard Nimoy

Is as famous as Helen of Troy.

This time, he appears

Without pointed ears,

The image of Spock to destroy.

I also send him a picture of my 16-year-old self, and told him I couldn’t wait to see his play (and I happened to mention the matinee I’d be attending.) The day of the show, my family and I were milling about the lobby, waiting to enter the theater. The house manager walked up to me and said, “Are you Jordan Brown?” When I confirmed I was, he said, “Oh, good. Mr. Nimoy would like to meet you after the show.”

I was stunned and delighted. As promised, I went backstage after the performance, and was escorted to Nimoy’s dressing room. I mentioned to him that I was thinking of becoming an actor, and that I was visiting Georgia for the year because of my father’s sabbatical. He asked what my father taught, and I said, “mathematics.” Nimoy replied with a smile, “Oh, that should be very helpful for your acting career.” I can’t recall much of our conversation but I did get his autograph (see below), and continued to admire him for the rest of his life and career.

 

LNautograph

 

paper airplane and crumbs

The Fun Side of Physics – 2 New Books!

Exciting news for young scientists! Simon & Schuster just published two children’s books I wrote for their new Science of Fun Stuff series.The Thrills and Chills of Amusement Parks and The Innings and Outs of Baseball. Both books are aimed at kids in Grades 1-4, and are filled with silly illustrations, and loads of fascinating facts.

Screen Shot 2015-02-24 at 12.23.04 PM

The Thrills and Chills of Amusement Parks helps kids understand the basic physics behind roller coasters, bumper cars, and “step-right-up” midway games. This book also presents the sweet, sweet chemistry behind cotton candy. (If you check out this link on Amazon, you can peek at the inside the first chapter.) To help readers grasp “the forces behind the fun,” I explain Isaac Newton’s famous laws of motion and ideas about gravity, and show how they relate to the sciences of “Ahhhhhh!” “Whoooa!” and “I think I’m going to be sick!” The last section features amusement park trivia and a quiz.

 

Screen Shot 2015-02-24 at 12.23.28 PM

The Innings and Outs of Baseball explores the physics of homeruns, curveballs, the “sweet spot” of a bat and more. Readers learn such cool facts as the ball’s stitches rub against the air as they hurl through it—which causes friction and helps it fight the pull of gravity. Why is this important? For one thing, if baseballs didn’t have stitches that cause air resistance, then hitting a homerun wouldn’t be possible! A chapter on baseball experiments describes how scientists study superstar hitters, and even created robots that can pitch and hit. The last section features information about the history of baseball and a quiz.

 

paper airplane and crumbs

If I Had a Banjo: R.I.P. Pete Seeger

If I Had a Banjo: R.I.P. Pete Seeger

A couple days ago, one of my all-time heroes Pete Seeger died, after 94 remarkable years. After a lifetime of creating music, fighting for the underdog, and bringing people together, Pete’s “get up and go got up and went.” (Thanks to YouTube, here’s a clip of him singing this funny song)

The only good thing about his passing is that it provides me with an occasion to sing his praises. As a musician, storyteller, activist, and educator, Pete was a fascinating and phenomenal force of nature. Last September, I had the great fortune to see one of his last concerts in Peekskill, New York. In addition to singing such classics as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” he dazzled the audience with his rendition of “English is Crazy” which points out some quirks of the English language, such as “if a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat” and “why do we have noses that run and feet that smell?” For the whole song, go here.

But I digress (yet another talent that Pete was good at.) Before I went to see Pete last September, I read through a fascinating book, In His Own Words, a collection of miscellaneous letters, articles, etc. that Pete wrote over his lifetime. Most surprising was an interview he gave to Seventeen magazine in 1963, when he was 44 years old.  Well worth checking out!

About eight years before that interview, when Pete was 36, he was asked to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. I loved reading the transcript of his testimony, which became public not too long ago. He humbly told the committee that he was just a “banjo picker,” and that he refused to answer any questions concerning his “associations, philosophy or religion.” Pete’s tenacity, wit, and integrity are so inspiring.

Pete’s passion and joyful music holds a permanent place in my heart and soul.

Bye, Pete. You’ll be missed!

 

 

paper airplane and crumbs