Sunday, February 28, 2021

Tony Packo: Ohio Restaurateur


Normally I start these blog posts with a photo of the person being profiled.  For the life of me though, I cannot find a picture of Tony Packo anywhere.  So the company logo will have to do.  And admittedly, Tony Packo is not exactly a household name, but it's one known by M*A*S*H fans the world over.  More on that later.

Anthony "Tony" Packo was born in Toledo, Ohio on July 25, 1908.  He was the son of Hungarian immigrants who settled on Toledo's east side.  His older brother John started a small tavern along the banks of the Ohio River, and while working for him as a teenager, Tony realized he had a knack for the restaurant business.

In 1932, Tony and his wife Rose borrowed $100 from his family, a hefty sum during the Great Depression, and opened a sandwich and ice cream shop.  His menu proved both tasty and economical, so much so that by 1935, he was able to buy a building at 1902 Front Street, which became home to the original Tony Packo's Restaurant, still in business today.  

The business proved very successful and thrived for several decades.  Tony passed away in 1963, but ironically, the restaurant's best years were yet to come.

In 1972, Burt Reynolds was appearing in a Toledo stage production.  He was approached by Tony's daughter Nancy, who invited him to stop by the restaurant while he was in town.  Reynolds did just that, and while there, he autographed a hot dog bun, starting a new Packo's tradition.  Today, the walls are decorated with hundreds of signed buns.

Four years later, Packo's achieved international recognition after being mentioned on the hit CBS series M*A*S*H.  In an un-scripted episode called "The Interview," cast members were forced to improvise their answers to questions put to them by a news crew shooting a documentary.  Cast member Jamie Farr, as Corporal Klinger, took the opportunity to give his own hometown of Toledo to that of his character.  In the process, he advised viewers to stop by Packo's for a real Hungarian hot dog.  

The writers liked what they heard during this episode, and going forward, intentionally put references to Packo's in their scripts.  The restaurant, in return, became an unofficial sponsor of the series, still selling Jamie Farr and M*A*S*H related memorabilia to this day.

Tony Packo, Jr. brings the family fixins to the M*A*S*H set, circa 1978.
Tony was buried at Calvary Cemetery in Toledo.

Rest in peace, Tony.

  • Packo's signature sandwich, known as a Hungarian hot dog, is actually a sausage with chili sauce on rye.  European immigrants who flocked to Packo's in the 1930s often stated that there was no such thing as a Hungarian hot dog until Packo invented it.

  • Packo opened the original restaurant next door to his brother's tavern.  As the business expanded, Packo demolished the tavern and built a parking lot for the restaurant.

  • On February 28, 1983, M*A*S*H ended it's 11-year run with a series finale that broke the Nielsen ratings.  Like many places, Packo's hosted a viewing party, which you can watch on YouTube.

  • Today, there are three Packo's locations in Toledo.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Two Thumbs Six Feet Under


"This is one of those movies that is usually seen on the big Jumbo-tron screens in a sports bar during the day - when everyone is quite drunk.  Unfortunately, I was sober when I saw this movie."
  -- Gene Siskel on BASEketball (1998).

Eugene Kal Siskel was born in Chicago on January 26, 1946, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants.  By the time he was nine, they had both passed away, leaving an aunt and uncle to fill the void.

Despite the loss, Siskel excelled academically, eventually attending Yale University, where he majored in philosophy.  He also studied writing under John Hersey, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who had covered the bombing of Hiroshima.  When Siskel graduated in 1969, Hersey provided him with a personal reference, helping him land his first job at the Chicago Tribune.

Shortly after joining the paper, Siskel wrote his first film review, covering the Walt Disney production Rascal.  Through this review, he landed the job of film critic for the paper, a position he would hold for the next three decades.

Sneak Previews (1975).
In those early years, Siskel developed a friendly rivalry with Roger Ebert, film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.  The two put that aside however in 1975, when they were first teamed together for the PBS series Opening Soon at a Theatre Near You, later renamed Sneak Previews, a movie review program.  They developed the now iconic ratings system of either "thumbs up" or "thumbs down," one that is often still parodied in pop culture to this day.  Even Facebook uses it.  Two years after it premiered, the series had proven successful enough in Chicago that PBS made it available to its sister stations, giving the film critics a new national audience.

Seeking a larger audience and an ever larger paycheck, the two parted ways with PBS in 1982, signing with Tribune Broadcasting for the new series At The Movies.  Other than the title, there was very little to distinguish this program from the original.  They'd stay with it until 1986, when they left yet again, this time signing with the Walt Disney Company for the new series Siskel & Ebert & The Movies.  So much for objectivity.

In May 1998, Siskel was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor, for which he'd undergo emergency surgery.  Afterwards, he picked up right where he had left off, but it was pretty obvious to friends, family and the long-time viewers that the surgery had taken a toll.

Nine months later, he announced a leave of absence from the show, during which time he'd be undergoing more surgery.  "I'm in a hurry to get well because I don't want Roger to get more screen time than I," Siskel joked.  Unfortunately, he'd never get the chance.

A few days after that second procedure, Siskel developed complications from which he'd never recover.  He passed away on February 20, 1999.  He was 53 years old. 

Gene Siskel was buried at Westlawn Cemetery in Norridge, Illinois.

Inscription: Loving Husband and Treasured Soul Mate
Devoted Father, Brother and Son
"Blessed is One Who Lived With a Good Name"
Hebrew Translation: Ben, Son of Napthali and Chaya 
GPS: Latitude 41.9561729
Longitude -87.8295212

Rest in peace, Gene.

  • If you stop by Westlawn to pay your respects, don't bother asking for directions.  The staff have been told by Siskel's family to keep visitors away.  Your best bet is to plug the coordinates into your GPS and make it to the grave on foot.

  • Siskel's final episode aired on January 23, 1999.  It included movie reviews for The Hi-Lo Country, Playing by Heart, The Theory of Flight, At First Sight and Another Day in Paradise.  I don't remember any of them either, but you can watch that final episode here.

  • Siskel's favorite film was Saturday Night Fever, so much so that he bought John Travolta's iconic white suit from the film.

  • Siskel often admitted that he had walked out of three films in his career - The Million Dollar Duck (1971), Maniac (1980) and Black Sheep (1996).  Curious?  Click on each title for its respective theatrical trailer.  And here's his review of the latter.

  • The closest you'll come to a Siskel biography is the 2012 book Enemies, a Love Story, by author Josh Schollmeyer.  It tells the story of how Siskel and Ebert met and how they eventually became partners.

  • Siskel and Ebert rarely appeared in Hollywood productions, believing it would undermine their professional credibility.  One notable exception however, was the animated Jon Lovitz sit-com The Critic.  You can watch that sequence on YouTube.  And in a case of life imitating art, the two critics reviewed the series on Siskel and Ebert.  

  • Siskel and Ebert paid a special visit to Sesame Street, where they explained the difference between "thumbs up" and "thumbs down" to a thoroughly confused Oscar the Grouch.  You can watch that segment on YouTube

Friday, February 19, 2021

Dr. Ronald McNair: Challenger Astronaut

Most everyone my age remembers where they were on January 28, 1986, watching a national tragedy unfold on live television.  A space shuttle disaster that would claim the lives of seven astronauts, including the subject of today's blog.  But more on the tragedy later.

Dr. Ronald Erwin McNair was born in Lake City, South Carolina on October 21, 1950.  Academics came easily to McNair, as he was always fascinated with science and technology.  He would graduate valedictorian of his high school in 1967, eventually earning a Ph.D. in Physics at MIT.

In the late 1970s, McNair applied for the NASA astronaut program and was eventually selected from a pool of over 10,000 applicants.  His first venture into space began on February 3, 1984, aboard the space shuttle Challenger.

By this time, the space shuttle program had earned the public's confidence, and McNair's first venture into space was as successful as all its predecessors.  He was offered additional missions with the space shuttle program, which he enthusiastically accepted.

By 1986, McNair was assigned another mission on board Challenger, one that gained international attention for its inclusion of the first civilian in space, New Hampshire school teacher Christa McAuliffe.  It would be Challenger's tenth and final trip into space, bearing the designation STS-51-L.

On January 28th, Challenger took off from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 11:37 a.m. EST.  As everyone watching that day remembers, it exploded just one minute after take-off.  You can watch that footage here.

An investigation into the disaster took several years to complete, but the cause was eventually attributed to a faulty O-ring on the right solid rocket booster, which led to the complete disintegration of the shuttle and its crew.

The crew's remains, including McNair's, were recovered from the Atlantic Ocean and were properly identified.  While a memorial to the crew was placed at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, most of their remains were returned to the families for private burial.

McNair was originally laid to rest at Rest Lawn Memorial Cemetery in Lake City.  In 2004, he was re-interred at the new Ronald E. McNair Memorial Park.


  • When he was eight years old, McNair attempted to check out a series of books from the Lake City Public Library, which was segregated at the time.  He was initially refused service, but after police were called to the scene, he was allowed to take the books home after all.  Today, the library has been renamed in his honor.

  • McNair's brother Carl wrote the official biography entitled In the Spirit of Ronald E. McNair - Astronaut: An American Hero.  Author Rose Blue also published a children's book chronicling McNair's library episode referenced above, entitled Ron's Big Mission.  Both are available from Amazon.

  • McNair played the saxophone and had planned to record a piece on board Challenger for composer Jean-Michel Jarre.  Following the disaster, Jarre released his album "Rendez-vous" with a track dedicated to McNair, entitled "Last Rendez-Vous: Ron's Piece."  You can listen to it here.

  • McNair was the second African-American to venture into space, behind Colonel Guion S. Bluford, who was a member of Challenger's crew in 1983.

  • McNair studied taekwondo, achieving a sixth-degree black belt.

  • You can visit the park's official web site for a virtual tour and more information.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Barbara Billingsley: Jive Lady

Barbara Billingsley was born Barbara Lillian Combes in Los Angeles on December 22, 1915.  Her father was a chief of police and her mother was a factory foreman, but their marriage wouldn't endure, ending in divorce when Barbara was just four years old.  The Cleavers they were not.

Barbara knew from an early age that she wanted to become an actress.  During her freshman year in college, she was appearing in a stage production called Straw Hat.  It did well enough in Los Angeles to warrant a trip to the Broadway stage.  Billingsley dropped out of Los Angeles Junior College and relocated to New York City.  The production proved less popular in the Big Apple unfortunately, closing its doors after just five performances.

Undeterred but having rent to pay, she took a job as a fashion model, earning $60 a week.  It led to a contract with MGM Studios in 1945, so Barbara returned to Los Angeles with her new husband in tow, restaurant owner Glenn Billingsley.

Her early roles were mostly uncredited, in films such as Three Guys Named Mike (1951) and The Bad and The Beautiful (1952).  Her first movie of note was the 1953 science-fiction classic Invaders From Mars.  Like her earlier roles, this too was uncredited.

She landed on the boob tube in 1955, with a co-starring role on the Stephen Dunne sit-com Professional Father.  It would only last for one season, but would lead to other series as well.  In 1956, she had a recurring role on the Gale Gordon sit-com The Brothers.  She followed this up with guest appearances on You Are ThereCavalcade of America and Make Room for Daddy.

In 1957, Billingsley was cast in the role that would define her career, that of June Cleaver in the classic sit-com Leave it to Beaver. When it premiered that fall on CBS, it was by no means a success.  In fact, the network canceled it just one year later.  Then in the fall of 1958, the series was picked up by rival network ABC, where it saw greater success, lasting an additional five seasons.

Billingsley was both proud and protective of her character, often defending June as societal views regarding the role of women in the household changed.  Some critics described June as a weak character.  Billingsley disagreed.

"She was the love in that family.  She set a good example for what a wife could be," Billingsley told TV Guide's Matt Roush, a critic who hates just about everyone.  "I think everybody would like a family like that.  Wouldn't it be nice if you came home from school and there was Mom standing there with her little apron and cookies waiting?"

When the show ended in 1963, Billingsley, like so many other actors, found herself typecast, and she didn't work for several years, choosing to travel instead.  Then in 1979, she was contacted by Paramount Pictures and offered a role in the comedy spoof Airplane!.  She didn't know it at the time, but the film would prove to be so successful that it would completely revive her career.  Golly!  Here's a clip of her assisting a fellow airline passenger.  In this interview, she discusses having to learn a new language for the film.

Upon her return to Hollywood, Billingsley made guest appearances on such series as Mork and MindySilver Spoons and as was required by law, The Love Boat.  Then in 1983, she reunited with the surviving cast members for the made-for-TV movie Still the Beaver.  It was a ratings success and led to a revival series The New Leave it to Beaver, which ran for four seasons on the Disney Channel.

When that series ended in 1989, Billingsley continued to act on television, guesting on such series as Murphy BrownEmpty Nest and Parker Lewis Can't Lose.  Her final role was in the 2003 made-for-TV movie Secret Santa.

Billingsley suffered from polymyalgia rheumatica, a rather unpleasant condition that brings pain and stiffness throughout the body.  It ultimately took her life on October 16, 2010.  She was 94 years old.

She was buried at Woodlawn Memorial Cemetery in Santa Monica.

Location: Block 12, Lot 120, Grave A

Rest in peace.


  • Barbara took her surname in 1940 when she married restaurant owner Glenn Billingsley.  Although the marriage only lasted for seven years, she'd continue to use the name for the rest of her career.  Incidentally, Glenn Billingsley was a second cousin of Peter Billingsley, the actor who portrayed Ralphie in A Christmas Story.

  • Ever wonder why June Cleaver always wore pearls, even while doing household chores?  That was a decision of Billingsley's, done to conceal a surgical scar on her neck.

  • Billingsley provided the voice of Nanny on the animated series Jim Henson's Muppet Babies, for which she was twice nominated for a Daytime Emmy Award.  Here's a sound clip.

  • Hungry for some prime rib?  Head over to Billingsley's Restaurant in Los Angeles, owned and operated by Billingsley's two sons, Drew and Glenn.  It was opened in 1969 and has apparently never been re-decorated.

  • In 1997, Hollywood brought Leave it to Beaver to the big-screen.  Billingsley was the only original actor to make an appearance in the big-budget flop.  Ironically, it was her final film role.  Here's the theatrical trailer.