Wednesday, April 18, 2012

What ever happened to the Great American Hero?

Babe Ruth greeting beloved kids

Players for the Love of the Game not the Money!

For years, I watched in amazement as one after another of the last of the American heroes died and there was no one left to replace them.  For a long time I wondered why our heroes were disappearing, and where were we turning for inspiration, example, hope, and dreams.

I cannot even imagine growing up in a world today when your heroes might be Avatars or Anime, instead of Gary Cooper or Mickey Mantle.

Actually a few of you may wonder why Cooper is one of my top heroes.

When I was a kid baseball was still America's sport.  By the 1950's America had survived two world wars and the greatest depression in history, all in less than 40 years.  It was a time for the Golden Years when dreams came true and the American Dream could be realized.

By the way, whoever suggested the American dream was owning your own home in the suburbs with a brand new car in the driveway was nuts.

I was a Midwestern Hayseed and our dreams were of being really good at something so others might look up to you.  No one I knew was motivated by the desire for money and material possessions.  We wanted to excel at something and earn the respect from others for what we might achieve.

For the most part, setting new standards, breaking barriers, working harder, and sacrificing more served as an inspiration to others.  Many of our (the guys) heroes were baseball players and back then they played for the love of the game, not the love of the money, a monumental difference from today.

Ruth & Gehrig with kids
Then they used their fame to help inspire others, mostly kids, to do the same.

Thus began the start of my keen interest in actor Gary Cooper.  In the 1950's the two most popular baseball movies were the stories of the two most popular Yankees of all time and the two players whose careers epitomized the best and worst of baseball, Gehrig and Ruth.

The Yankees Babe Ruth, the Bronx Bomber, and Lou Gehrig, the Ironman of baseball, both had helped build the New York Yankees into the most popular and powerful franchise in sports history, including today.

Gehrig's story was first on film in 1942 called The Pride of the Yankees, released just a year after his unexpected death before his 38th birthday.  In America it was too early, too young, and too wrong for a genuine American hero to die that way.

Actor Gary Cooper played the role and had the benefit of the real Yankees and Babe Ruth who played with Lou Gehrig, to help him with the role. More than that, his Oscar winning talent was up to the task and his personal humility captured the essence of Lou Gehrig,  The film was magical and no one left the theater with a dry eye.

In 1948 William Bendix played the Babe in the movie The Babe Ruth Story about the life of the other twin pillar of Yankee history.  The beloved hero of all kids in America, raised in an orphanage in Baltimore, had a hard life struggling with the dark side but never wavered in his efforts to inspire kids.

Bendix, a Manhattan native, had once been bat boy for the New York Yankees and was in the dugout with the Babe as he hit over 100 home runs in Yankee stadium.  The Cooper and Bendix performances were exceptional and the movies remain among the top movies of all time to this day.

Maria Cooper Janis - Gary Cooper's daughter
My second experience with Gary Cooper came over 30 years later when I met a quite gifted woman in New York City trying to generate interest in quality films and documentaries.  At the time I had been working on National Geographic Television projects and was introduced to Maria Cooper Janis, the wife of world famous Classical Pianist Byron Janis.

Maria was Gary Cooper's only child and in the few conversations we were able to have about her father, one of my heroes who also played one if my heroes, I learned a lot more about her father.  Of course I remembered him for winning Oscars in Sergeant York and High Noon and his role as Lou Gehrig.

Father & daughter
But Maria's stories of growing up surrounded by Hollywood legends and listening to her dad's friends like Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Dinah Shore, and Rosemary Clooney sing in her father's home on his grand piano must have been, well, amazing.

Maria and I shared a common interest in American Indians as did her father, and his reverence for the Indians extended to their values and practices.  At the time I was working with Indian nations from throughout North and South America and the world but especially with the Hopi of Arizona.

Gary Cooper was a hero, and many of the film roles he played captured the persona of heroes Americans loved.  His best friends included hero actor James Stewart and writer Ernest Hemingway, and among his co-stars were other heroines like Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, and Marlene Dietrich.

The question is, where have the heroes all gone?

The song Where Have All the Flowers Gone was written by Pete Seeger and Joe Hickerson and performed by Marlene Dietrich, a friend and co-star of Cooper.

Marlene Dietrich performed this song in English, French and German. The song was first performed in French (as "Qui peut dire où vont les fleurs?") by Marlene in 1962 at a UNICEF concert. She also recorded the song in English and in German, the latter titled "Sag' mir, wo die Blumen sind", with lyrics translated by Max Colpet.  She performed the German version on a tour of Israel, where she was warmly received; she was the first person to break the taboo of using German publicly in Israel since WWII.

So you see, heroes can influence heroes, like Ruth, Gehrig and Cooper, but where have they all gone? Perhaps in time we can recapture those values and characteristics out of our past and rekindle them in our future or America may never again have genuine heroes.

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