I live in a fairly obscure and quite small town in west-central Pennsylvania, though it has produced (or at least claimed–more on that, in a bit) a number of famous people (in various fields of endeavor).
First up, let’s admit that this onetime coal mining center itself has a decidedly funny name: Windber. A major mining corporation (The Berwind,White Company) founded the place at the ass-end of the 19th century. Locals back then wanted to suck up to the Big Boss over in Philadephia (one Charles Berwind), by naming the place after him. But another of their several company towns beat ’em to the punch (hence: Berwind, West Virginia).
Determined to pay tribute at any cost, the local geniuses went a different and typically eccentric way. They flipped the syllables–resulting in Windber (Berwind spelled kind of/sort of sideways?).
From such an oddball starting point, perhaps it was inevitable that a number of those who claimed Windber as their place of origin have had unique and entertaining (and sometimes controversial) biographies.
But given my personal artistic/cultural bent, I decline to go into our most famous politician–the (filthy rich) US Congressmen who very nearly went to prison for mail fraud in the 1970s.
Instead, I want to focus on a famous athlete turned movie hero (Johnny Weismuller), the pioneering radio DJ who coined (or at the least first popularized) the term “Rock ‘n’ Roll” (Alan Freed) and–well, if you don’t mind indulging my ego–me!
Weismuller is probably our most famous “native son”–except that, of course, he WASN’T BORN HERE. He claimed to be, his entire life, but….that little fib was what enabled him to rise to fame and fortune the first half of the 20th century.
The truth is, Johnny Weismuller was born to an ethnic German family in what today is a village in Romania in 1904. His family moved to the US (and yes, to Windber) when he was a toddler. While living here, the family had a second son. A couple years further on (1910), the family moved to near Chicago–where he contracted a (thankfully mild) case of polio. A doctor suggested the boy take up swimming as physical therapy and Johnny proved a natural–then way more than a natural.
Soon he was breaking records–state records, national records and eventually a ton of world records. Johnny was destined for the Olympics–or maybe not. Back then the rules required you be born in the US, in order to represent the US. So–ahem–the family swapped birth info for the brothers. Johnny claimed to be from our fair city (back then Windber was at its peak, with nearly 10,000 residents–versus less than half that number today), while his younger (not so athletic) brother got tagged as the “foreign-born” one.
Johnny W. proceeded to win a Bronze Medal in the 1924 Olympics as part of the US Water Polo team, then won a whopping 5 swimming Gold Metals all for himself, dominating the 1928 Games. He became world famous and continued setting records (often breaking his own repeatedly) for several more years.
Hollywood beckoned and in the 1930s and early 40s a slew of films allowed him to become the popular embodiment of that legendary Ape Man: Tarzan! Johnny is the one who came up with the infamous ‘Tarzan Yell.’ He wasn’t the first movie Tarzan, of course (an earlier athlete/strongman named Elmo Lincoln played the role in a silent picture) and he was far from the last. But even after 1948, when the studio with the rights to the film series decided he was getting too old for the role and brought in a new actor, the public knew who the REAL Tarzan was (and thought they knew where he came from).
In fact, from ’48 on, Johnny went to a rival studio and made 13 more movies as “Jungle Jim”–a popular Tarzan clone created especially for him. He did a few more movies (3 times playing himself) and hosted an early TV show (26 episodes in the early 50s).
His personal life was pretty legendary, too. He was married five times (most famously to notorious ‘Mexican Spitfire’ actress Lupe Velez) and made appearances all over the world until his death in Acapulco, Mexico in 1984. And all the while, he kept up the fiction of being a true “Windber boy.” He returned to his pseudo-birthplace repeatedly over the years and never had anything bad to say about the place.
As Weismuller’s career began winding down, another–in this case genuine–Windber native burst into public life in a whole other cultural area.
Alan Freed has been born in Windber in 1921. His family moved to Ohio in the 1930s and by the dawn of the 1950s Alan was a radio disc jockey. In 1951 he hit it big on a powerful station whose signal reached a good third of the nation. Ever wonder why the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame is in Cleveland, of all places?
‘Cause Windber’s own Alan Freed–who had nicknamed himself “Moondog”–used his position there to introduce millions to the new form of music he referred to as, yes, “Rock ‘n’ Roll.” He later moved to New York City and still later to Boston, spreading the news everywhere he went.
He appeared (as himself) in a bunch of 50s movies and had a 1957 TV show that predated Dick Clark’s AMERICAN BANDSTAND (but got cancelled after only 4 episodes, because a black singer was seen dancing with a white girl–yeah, back then that didn’t go over well). He got fired again 1958, after he criticized Boston police for overreacting at a concert he’d promoted.
But the thing that finally crippled his career was the “Payola Scandal”–where record companies bribed DJs with under the table money to play their label’s records. He nearly went to jail in 1962 and died in 1965.
Only a bit less expansive as a serial monogamist than Weismuller, Freed married three women in his time.
Gone, but definitely not forgotten, a fictionalized version of Alan Freed was portrayed by Tim McIntire in the movie AMERICAN HOT WAX in 1978. Then in 1986, The Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame opened in Cleveland and Alan was one of the first class inducted. And now you also know why the Cleveland Cavaliers pro basketball team has a mascot called “Moondog.”
Which brings us to–yeah, yours truly.
I was born in Windber in 1958 (same year Freed ran afoul of the Boston PD) and when a semi-retired Weismuller was about two-thirds of the way into the fourth marriage. Unlike them, I’m still here–though considerably less well-known than either was in his day (see? My ego does know SOME bounds).
I don’t claim to have directly benefited from their turbulent personal lives, either. The fact I’ve never been married is my own affair, alas.
But I’m a Windber boy who (from 1982 on) has seen his fiction (mostly short), my nonfiction articles (mostly shorter) and the odd (sometimes VERY odd) poem published over 1,500 times in assorted print magazines, e-magazines, websites, newsletters, print and e-book anthologies in the US, Canada, The UK, South Africa and Australia. I take pride in the fact that my credits are wide ranging in genre terms as well (having written horror, fantasy, science fiction, erotica, crime fiction, general/mainstream fiction, a bit of romance and even one children’s story over the years).
With my very dear friend Synthia Berns, I co-founded a small local non-profit in 2012 that (in its own small, underfunded way) both helps the needy and supports local artistic/creative individuals, venues and projects in andaround our shared hometown.
I’ve never gotten rich (unlike my esteemed predecessors), but I’m still slogging along in the literary trenches after all these years (emailed out another story today, in fact–with yet another on hand that I’m still deciding where I should send it). Still doing what I love and surviving in the process (though it can be ‘a bit of a near-thing’ as the Brits say, from time to time).
If anybody cares, the smirking character in the steampunk photo above (thanks, Syn!) is me. I believe you can figure out who the other two gents are. If anybody has the odd desire to check out a sampling of my (non-blogging) published work, feel free to visit my author page (amazon.com/author/leejim). (It’s not ‘jimlee’ cause that OTHER Jim Lee–the Korean-American comic book legend–got his page first. SIGH…
And anyway, I’m yet another “Windber boy” in my own right (own write?)–like Tarzan and Moondog and some others I could (and maybe someday will) name!