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John’s Believe It Or Not… March 15th

* 44 B.C. The Ides of March * 1965 Johnson calls for equal voting rights * 1968 Construction begins on America’s highest vehicle tunnel * 1972 Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather opens * 1959 Frankie Avalon’s “Venus” hits #1

Headshot of Frankie Avalon

It’s Thursday! Did You Know…

* 44 B.C. The Ides of March

Gaius Julius Caesar, dictator of Rome, is stabbed to death in the Roman Senate house by 60 conspirators led by Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus.

Caesar, born into the Julii, an ancient but not particularly distinguished Roman aristocratic family, began his political career in 78 B.C. as a prosecutor for the anti-patrician Popular Party. He won influence in the party for his reformist ideas and oratorical skills and aided Roman imperial efforts by raising a private army to combat the king of Pontus in 74 B.C. He was an ally of Pompey, the recognized head of the Popular Party, and essentially took over this position after Pompey left Rome in 67 B.C. to become commander of Roman forces in the east.

In 63 B.C., Caesar was elected pontifex maximus, or “high priest,” allegedly by heavy bribes. Two years later, he was made governor of Farther Spain and in 60 B.C. returned to Rome, ambitious for the office of consul. The consulship, essentially the highest office in the Roman Republic, was shared by two politicians on an annual basis. Consuls commanded the army, presided over the Senate and executed its decrees, and represented the state in foreign affairs. Caesar formed a political alliance–the so-called First Triumvirate–with Pompey and Marcus Licinius Crassus, the wealthiest man in Rome, and in 59 B.C. was elected consul. Although generally opposed by the majority of the Roman Senate, Caesar’s land reforms won him popularity with many Romans.

In 58 B.C., Caesar was given four Roman legions in Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum, and during the next decade demonstrated brilliant military talents as he expanded the Roman Empire and his reputation. Among other achievements, Caesar conquered all of Gaul, made the first Roman inroads into Britain, and won devoted supporters in his legions. However, his successes also aroused Pompey’s jealousy, leading to the collapse of their political alliance in 53 B.C.

The Roman Senate supported Pompey and asked Caesar to give up his army, which he refused to do. In January 49 B.C., Caesar led his legions across the Rubicon River from Cisalpine Gaul to Italy, thus declaring war against Pompey and his forces. Caesar made early gains in the subsequent civil war, defeating Pompey’s army in Italy and Spain, but was later forced into retreat in Greece. In August 48 B.C., with Pompey in pursuit, Caesar paused near Pharsalus, setting up camp at a strategic location. When Pompey’s senatorial forces fell upon Caesar’s smaller army, they were entirely routed, and Pompey fled to Egypt, where he was assassinated by an officer of the Egyptian king.

Caesar was subsequently appointed Roman consul and dictator, but before settling in Rome he traveled around the empire for several years and consolidated his rule. In 45 B.C., he returned to Rome and was made dictator for life. As sole Roman ruler, Caesar launched ambitious programs of reform within the empire. The most lasting of these was his establishment of the Julian calendar, which, with the exception of a slight modification and adjustment in the 16th century, remains in use today. He also planned new imperial expansions in central Europe and to the east. In the midst of these vast designs, he was assassinated on March 15, 44 B.C., by a group of conspirators who believed that his death would lead to the restoration of the Roman Republic. However, the result of the “Ides of March” was to plunge Rome into a fresh round of civil wars, out of which Octavian, Caesar’s grand-nephew would emerge as Augustus, the first Roman emperor, destroying the republic forever.

History group's recreation of Julius Caesar's political assassination brings to life the Ides of March.
History group’s recreation of Julius Caesar’s political assassination brings to life the Ides of March. (nbcnews.com)

* 1965 Johnson calls for equal voting rights

On this day in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress to urge the passage of legislation guaranteeing voting rights for all.

Using the phrase “we shall overcome,” borrowed from African-American leaders struggling for equal rights, Johnson declared that “every American citizen must have an equal right to vote.” Johnson reminded the nation that the Fifteenth Amendment, which was passed after the Civil War, gave all citizens the right to vote regardless of race or color. But states had defied the Constitution and erected barriers. Discrimination had taken the form of literacy, knowledge or character tests administered solely to African-Americans to keep them from registering to vote.

“Their cause must be our cause too,” Johnson said. “Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”

The speech was delivered eight days after racial violence erupted in Selma, Alabama. Civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King and over 500 supporters were attacked while planning a march from Selma to Montgomery to register African-Americans to vote. The police violence that erupted resulted in the death of a King supporter, a white Unitarian Minister from Boston named James J. Reeb. Television news coverage of the event galvanized voting rights supporters in Congress.

A second attempt to march to Montgomery was also blocked by police. It took Federal intervention with the “federalizing” of the Alabama national guard and the addition of over 2,000 other guards to allow the march to begin.

The march to Montgomery finally began March 21 with over 3,000 participants under the glare of worldwide news publicity.

The violence, however, continued. Just after the march was successfully completed on March 25, four Klansman shot and killed Detroit homemaker Viola Liuzzo as she drove marchers back to Selma.

On August 6, 1965, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which made it illegal to impose restrictions on federal, state and local elections that were designed to deny the vote to blacks.

While state and local enforcement of the act were initially weak, mainly in the South, the Voting Rights Act gave African-American voters the legal means to challenge voting restrictions and vastly improved voter turnout. In Mississippi alone, voter turnout among blacks increased from 6 percent in 1964 to 59 percent in 1969.

In 1970, President Richard Nixon extended the provisions of the Voting Rights Act and lowered the eligible voting age for all voters to 18.

Lyndon Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shake hands after the bill is signed.
Lyndon Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shake hands after the bill is signed. (yellowhammernews.com)

* 1968 Construction begins on America’s highest vehicle tunnel

On this day in 1968, construction starts on the north tunnel of the Eisenhower/Johnson Memorial Tunnel on Interstate 70 in Colorado, some 60 miles west of Denver. Located at an altitude of more than 11,000 feet, the project was an engineering marvel and became the world’s highest vehicular tunnel when it was completed in 1979. Four months after opening, one million vehicles had passed through the tunnel; today, some 10 million vehicles drive through it each year.

The north tunnel (or bore) was finished on March 8, 1973, and named for America’s 34th president, who was in office from 1953 to 1961. Construction on the south tunnel began on August 18, 1975, and was finished on December 21, 1979. The south tunnel was named for Edwin C. Johnson, a Colorado governor and U.S. senator who was a big supporter of an interstate highway system across his state. (Interstate 70 stretches more than 2,100 miles from Interstate 15 near Cove Fort, Utah, to Baltimore, Maryland. It was America’s first interstate highway project. Construction began in 1956 and ended in 1992 in Glenwood Canyon, located near the city of Glenwood Springs in western Colorado.)

The north tunnel cost $117 million to construct and at the height of the building process, some 1,140 people worked three shifts, 24 hours a day, six days a week. The south tunnel cost $145 million and employed 800 workers, approximately 500 of whom were involved in drilling operations.

The Eisenhower/Johnson Tunnel cuts through the Continental Divide at an average elevation of 11,112 feet. (Driving conditions around the tunnel can be challenging during the months between November and April: The surrounding area receives an average of 26 feet of snow during those months.) The north tunnel, which handles westbound traffic, is 1.693 miles long, while the south tunnel (eastbound traffic) is 1.697 miles. Illuminating those tunnels is no small task–each has approximately 2,000 light fixtures using 8-foot bulbs.

The Eisenhower/Johnson Tunnel is an impressive accomplishment, but it’s small potatoes compared to some others. The 15.2 mile-long Laerdal Tunnel in Norway is the world’s longest road tunnel. One of the busiest vehicular tunnels in America is the Lincoln Tunnel, which was built under the Hudson River to connect New Jersey and Midtown Manhattan in New York City. That tunnel’s center tube opened in 1937, while its north tube opened in 1945 and its south tube in 1957. In 2008, some 41,874,000 vehicles passed through the Lincoln Tunnel.

Tunnel construction diagram
Tunnel construction diagram (CDOT)

* 1972 Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather opens

On this day in 1972, The Godfather–a three-hour epic chronicling the lives of the Corleones, an Italian-American crime family led by the powerful Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando)–is released in theaters.

The Godfather was adapted from the best-selling book of the same name by Mario Puzo, a novelist who grew up in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen and got his start writing pulp stories for men’s magazines. Controversy surrounded the film from the beginning: Soon after Paramount Pictures announced its production, the Italian-American Civil Rights League held a rally in Madison Square Garden, claiming the film would amount to a slur against Italian Americans. The uproar only increased publicity for the movie, which Paramount was counting to become a big-money hit after the success of Puzo’s novel.

The studio’s production chief, Robert Evans, approached several directors–including Sergio Leone and Costa Gavras–about The Godfather before hiring the relatively unknown Francis Ford Coppola, who was only 31 years old at the time. As an Italian American himself, Coppola strove to make the film an authentic representation of the time period and the culture and to do justice to the complex relationships within the Corleone family, instead of focusing primarily on the violent crime aspect of the story. He worked with Puzo on the screenplay and persuaded Paramount to increase the budget of the film, which the studio had envisioned as a relatively meager $2.5 million.

Perhaps most importantly, Coppola and Puzo fought to cast Marlon Brando in the coveted role of Vito Corleone. At the time, Brando’s career had been in decline for a decade, and he had become notorious for his moody on-set behavior, most notably during the filming of 1962’s Mutiny on the Bounty. When Paramount insisted that Brando do a screen test, the legendary actor complied because he wanted the role so badly. Reading his lines from hidden cue cards, Brando turned in a phenomenal, intuitive performance as the Godfather, winning an Academy Award for Best Actor (which he declined to accept). Combined with Coppola’s meticulous direction and memorable performances by the rest of the film’s cast, including Al Pacino, James Caan, Robert Duvall and Diane Keaton, Brando’s star turn propelled the film to record-breaking box-office success, as well as three Academy Awards, for Best Actor, Best Picture, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

The Godfather has remained a perennial choice on critics’ lists of the all-time best films in history. In 2007, it ranked second on the American Film Institute (AFI)’s list of the greatest movies of all time, behind Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941). Its sequel, The Godfather: Part II, was released in 1974 and won six Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. A third installment, The Godfather: Part III (1990), received some positive reviews but was generally considered to be the weakest of the three films.

The Godfather (1972) - Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone
The Godfather (1972) – Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone (Scraps from the loft)

* 1959 Frankie Avalon’s “Venus” hits #1

The business minds behind American Idol are not the first to try their hand at manufacturing pop stars. In fact, the process of corporate idol-making is nearly as old as rock and roll itself. The first man-made idols were launched in the late 1950s from Philadelphia, where a handful of enterprising businessmen applied a little creativity and a lot of cold, hard cash to the task of capitalizing on the rock-and-roll phenomenon. The Philadelphia teen idol machine hit full stride on March 15, 1959, when local boy Frankie Avalon hit #1 on the pop charts with his hit song, “Venus.”

The commercial genius of the Philadelphia idol-makers was in looking at rock and roll and understanding it as an economic phenomenon rather than a musical one. Elvis Presley may have combined black rhythm and blues and white country music in a transformative way, but on a dollars-and-cents level, he also revealed the enormous, untapped spending power of America’s teenage girls, some of whom surely cared more about his dreamy good looks than his musical innovations. Enter a clean-cut brigade of pop singers hand-picked to appeal to this market. The music—much of which bore no relationship to rock and roll—was almost an afterthought. As Greg Shaw writes in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, “The machinery was so well constructed that a good-looking teenager could be spotted on the street, cut a record and, aided by a few bribed DJs, within a few weeks have a hit on the national charts—no uncertainties, no risks.”

Frankie Avalon wasn’t the only made-in-Philadelphia idol to prove the success of this machinery—Fabian, and Danny and the Juniors took the same route to stardom—but he was the most successful. Transformed from a trumpet player into a crooner by Bob Marucci, head of Chancellor Records, Avalon scored two minor hits in 1958 before shooting to the top of the pop charts with “Venus,” which reached #1 on this day in 1959.

Dust jacket of the 45  RPM record "Venus" and the disk itself.
1959 Frankie Avalon’s “Venus” hits #1 (youtube.com)

Today’s Sources: 

* Canadian History Timeline – Canada’s Historical Chronology  http://canadachannel.ca/todayincanadianhistory/index.php

* This Day In History – What Happened Today                        http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/                               

Author: John Fioravanti

I'm a retired History teacher (35 years), husband, father of three, grandfather of three. My wife, Anne, and I became business partners in December 2013 and launched our own publishing company, Fiora Books (http://fiorabooks.com), to publish my books. We have been married since 1973 and hope our joint business venture will be as successful as our marriage.

21 thoughts on “John’s Believe It Or Not… March 15th”

      1. Oh, John! I struggled with reading through school. It just wasn’t easy. Ever. I vividly remember being at the beach as a teenager and reading this book. This one clicked. I was glued. For a non-reader, that is a testimonial to the book.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I agree. I was different – I loved to read – my mother’s fault. In my early years, I devoured (from the public library) every book about sports heroes that I could find – learned a lot of baseball history in the process. In high school, historical fiction became my thing – Thomas Costain, Leon Uris, and others. Eventually, I made my way to thrillers and romances. As I got into the teaching profession, my reading tailed off because of all the planning and marking I had to do in the evenings – so I missed reading The Godfather. I do remember when the movie was released, my dad (Italian) was incensed – claimed that Puzzo was causing the general public to think that all Italians are connected to the Mafia. Later, I understood his ire when I consider what the Italian community went through here in Canada in the aftermath of WWII.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Wonderful insight, John. Thank you! Oh boy, I can completely understand your father’s ire with The Godfather. See, this is the important part of history that is often glossed over in schools.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. We know all about the Japanese internment in both of our countries, but in Canada, the Italian men were also interned here in Ontario. Many Italians anglicized their names to avoid discrimination. I found that nugget buried in a supplemental class resource. My dad confirmed that his dad was picked up but released when authorities verified my dad was in the Canadian army.

              Liked by 1 person

              1. John! I did not know that Canada interned Italian men during WWII. My husband, aka Mr. History, did not know that either. Terrible. And to think that your grandfather was ‘picked up’ but then released. No wonder your father was not keen on The Godfather! So interesting. History always is.

                Liked by 1 person

                1. When my dad made that comment about the Godfather, I wasn’t aware of the Italian Internment. When they interned the Japanese on the west coast, they moved entire families. At least with the Italians in Ontario, they left the wives, kids, and properties alone. Although we think that things are bad sometimes, there was a time when our countries were a lot less tolerant and just plain hateful. My uncle Tony Fassel, who married my dad’s sister, Bella, changed his name from Fasselino.

                  Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’re right. I think democracy’s greatest threat is voter apathy. Some think that 73% is a good voter turnout. I think it stinks. Thanks, Opher.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. I agree, Bob – we’re not much better. Often our turnout for a federal election is just over 70%. Provincially, in Ontario, we might get 60%. In municipal elections, it could range from 25% (if there’s no mayoral race) to 50%. How I jumped up and down (literally) in my classroom about this issue. Sigh.

          Liked by 1 person

            1. Frankly, I think that most of them didn’t care much – politics is so boring to many kids. Actually, I hope the election of Trump has grabbed their attention about the importance of voter turnout. I even recounted the story of how Hitler was elected to power on the strength of low voter turnout… YAWN…

              Liked by 1 person

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