Monday, June 25, 2018

Whitney Houston: Six Feet Under

Certain national events are forever etched into our memories.  No doubt you remember where you were on the morning of September 11th as you saw America under attack.  Gen X-ers can vividly tell you where they were when the Challenger exploded, and your grandparents no doubt remember the JFK assassination with perfect clarity.  One event that I will always remember is the death of singer Whitney Houston.  While I was not a huge fan of "The Voice," I certainly appreciated her talents.  For me, it was HOW I heard of her passing.

It was February 11, 2012.  I was in New York City and decided to visit Caroline's Comedy Club.  The main act that night was Darrell Hammond, formerly of Saturday Night Live.  Somewhere between the warm-up act and the main event, word broke that Houston had died, and it was Hammond who broke the news to us there that night.  To say that it cast a somber mood on what should have otherwise been a lively night would be an incredible understatement.  "Hey everyone, Whitney Houston's dead - let's have a few laughs!" 

Now of course when you hear news like that, the first thing you want to do is check your phone, see that it's true, and be the first to get word to your friends.  Uh-uh.  Not in a comedy club where phones are verboten.  So Hammond's set seemed particularly long that night.

So what happened?  Houston was in Los Angeles for the 54th Annual Grammy Awards ceremony.  She was staying at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, where record producer Clive Davis was hosting a pre-Grammy Awards party.  Fellow singers Brandy and Monica headlined the event.  Those in attendance would later describe Houston as "disheveled" and "erratic."

On the afternoon of the 11th, Houston's entourage called paramedics, after finding the superstar unconscious and submerged in the bathtub of Suite 434.  They attempted to revive her, but ultimately were unsuccessful.  She was pronounced dead at 3:55 p.m. 

Six weeks later, the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office released it's report on the singer's death, attributing it to accidental drowning.  They detailed a number of drugs found in her system, including cocaine, cannabis, Xanax, Benadryl and Flexeril. 

Houston's red carpet memorial service was held the following Saturday in Newark, New Jersey, the singer's hometown.  An invitation-only event, it included performances by Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys and R. Kelly, among others.  Houston's husband/drug dealer Bobby Brown attended, but left shortly after it began.  It was his prerogative.

Someone at the event was kind enough to snap a photo of the singer in her casket, which they sold to the National Enquirer for what must have been a hell of a pay day.

Interment took place in Fairview Cemetery in Westfield.  As the Enquirer reported, Houston was buried wearing more than $500,000 in jewelry.  Once word of this got out, Houston's family hired a private security firm to stand guard at the grave 24/7, to prevent would-be thieves from digging up the late singer.  Attempting to visit the grave shortly after the singer's passing, the team here at Six Feet Under were quickly turned away.  In a public cemetery!

Eventually the guards were retired however, and the public was finally able to pay their respects.

Although obscured in this photo, the marker bears the inscription "I will always love you," Houston's signature song.

Meanwhile, back in Los Angeles, the Beverly Hilton Hotel was also being bombarded with a slew of curiosity seekers, fans eager to see where Houston spent her final hours.

In an attempt to throw fans off the trail, the hotel removed all markings for Suite 434.  But with a little detective work, it can easily be located, as we did just four months after the star's passing.

Just three short years later, Houston's daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown, would follow her mother to the grave, similarly drowning in a bathtub.  Dealing with yet another tragedy, the family placed her next to her mother.

We will always love you!

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Jim Thorpe: Six Feet Under

Once he was called the greatest athlete who ever lived.  Now, he's a roadside attraction in a town he never visited.  The story of Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe and how he came to be entombed in a small Pennsylvania village is a fascinating one.

Jim Thorpe was born Wa-tho-huck, or "Path Lit Up at Night by a Bolt of Lightning," on May 22, 1887.  He was born to a Native American couple on the Sac and Fox Reservation in the Oklahoma Territory.  Even as a young man, he showed great athletic prowess, which he demonstrated on the football field at Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania.  In a now infamous game against West Point, Thorpe and his team defeated halfback and future president Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Thorpe competed in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden.  There he became the only Olympian to ever win the gold medal in both the Pentathlon and Decathlon.  Sweden's King Gustav proclaimed "Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world," to which Thorpe only replied "Thanks, King."

After a long and successful career, which included a stint as the first president of the National Football League, Thorpe passed away in 1953.  And here's where things got weird.

The town of Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania was in dire economic straights.  Needing a tourist attraction to boost the local economy, the town appealed to the Thorpe family, asking that Jim be interred there.  Strangely, the family agreed, on the condition that the town re-christen itself Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania.  And that's exactly what they did.

Jim's connection to the town, if any, is iffy at best.  While he had heritage in Pennsylvania, it has not been conclusively proven that he ever set foot there.

There are two statues on the site, depicting both his football and Olympic careers.

The casket itself is adorned with a series of illustrations depicting Thorpe's achievement across the athletic field.

Can't make it to Western Pennsylvania?  Take a 360-degree aerial tour of the site here.  Mute the audio though.