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New York City Hall, December 31, 1900.

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A Brief Oral History of ‘Head of the Class’ in Moscow

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In September of 1988, the cast and crew of ABC’s Head of the Class became the first Americans to shoot a television series inside the Soviet Union. The sitcom starred Howard Hesseman as the teacher of a New York City high school honours class. The premise of the two-episode ‘Mission to Moscow’ was an academic competition, with scenes filmed at Moscow High School No. 20. The episodes were originally broadcast without a laugh-track. 

Headshots, Head of the ClassRich Eustis, executive producer: “It is all the normal American TV sitcom, though the locale has moved to Moscow. On another level, however, we are saying some things and saying them quite consciously, about the Soviet Union and about Russians by portraying them as they are, as we found them and as we think Americans should get to know them… If we can diffuse the concept of Soviet people as enemies, we may have done some good.”

Michael Elias, executive producer: “A lot of stereotypes died in that classroom. The Russian kids turned out to be kids, just as Russians in general have turned out to be people, just people pretty much like us. And that is something we want to show.”

Rich Eustis: “Americans don’t realize, for the most part, that people here live quite normally. Even in our group, which was prepared for this trip, people were amazed by the normality of life.  Somehow they didn’t expect to find gas stations and dry cleaners and grocery stores, and that is a measure of how stereotyped our image is of Moscow.”

Ninety-five cast, crew, and family members travelled to Russia. They stayed at the Rossiya Hotel, a Stalinist-era building demolished in 2007. Capable of accommodating 4,000 guests, the hotel had a police station with jail cells behind the barber shop. 

Rossiya HotelDan Schneider, cast member: “We stayed in a huge hotel, 1,000 rooms, and in the main lobby there was one old man with a dial phone for all of them. My room was a quarter-mile from the elevator. They have these large, cylindrically shaped women every hundred yards or so in the halls who check your identification. [People in Moscow] don’t really want to have anything to do with you. They wave and look in the other direction. Young people were a little friendlier. They didn’t know who we were. They didn’t even know Mike Tyson.”

The heavyweight boxing champion of the world, Mike Tyson had travelled to Russia with his wife, cast member Robin Givens. The couple visited Lenin’s tomb and ate ice cream at the Baskin-Robbins shop which had just opened in their hotel. They were surrounded by American journalists, tourists, and Soviet citizens in Red Square.

Mike Tyson: “If anybody ever told me I’d be in Russia and someone would ask me for an autograph, I’d think it was crazy. When I first got here, I was scared. You hear so much bad stuff. This place looks like New York City in the 1940s in a black-and-white movie. You see people on the lines. It looks like the Depression with people waiting for soup. It’s a great experience, but I don’t want to give America up. I like the people, but they don’t smile very much.”

In Givens’ divorce petition, she described a violent argument which culminated with her husband hanging from a balcony seven stories above the atrium. Tyson flew home on an earlier flight. “He was exemplary at all times,” said Michael Elias. “I never heard him raise his voice to anyone.”

In Red Square, Givens and co-stars Khrystyne Haje and Howard Hessman posed beside an American fan, who would later post the pictures on the Various Celebrities I Know Or Have Met page of his website. Head of the Class‘ ‘Mission to Moscow’ episodes were well-received, but the fourth season would be Hesseman’s last.

Howard Hesseman cast member: “It’s not necessarily true that there’s no socially redeeming value to Head of the Class. It’s true in my opinion, but not necessarily true. We’re not doing the show that I was led to believe I’d do, and it’s difficult for me to get off that. I don’t want to air dirty laundry in public, but I do feel that the educational arena is one that offers a variety of story ideas as a means of investigating our lives-what we mean to one another and what’s important.”

Sources:

‘Head of the class’ finds Moscow and loses stereotypes, Michael Parks, Los Angeles Times, October 4, 1988.  ABC’s ‘Head of the Class’ goes on field trip to Moscow, The Washington Post, October 29, 1988.  Tyson Scores With A Crowd In Red Square, Steve Goldstein, Inquirer Staff Reporter, September 12, 1988. The Glows Are Off, Pat Putnam, Sports Illustrated, October 24, 1988. ‘Head of the Class’ Goes to Moscow, John J. O’Connor, The New York Times, November 2, 1988. ‘Hesseman Gives ‘Head Of The Class’ A Low Grade, Luaine Lee, Scripps-Howard News Service, August 16, 1989.

Photo: Rossiya Hotel, Panther, Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.5

LBJ Selects his Vice President

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During the 1964 Democratic convention, President Lyndon Baines Johnson phoned his younger brother Sam for his ideas on who to select as his running mate.

“Now, I knew damned well he had probably made up his mind several weeks back, but I decided to go along with his cat-and-mouse game. As a matter of fact, this would be a good chance to smoke him out, the way our daddy would do it. Having already assumed it was Humphrey, I tried my old reverse-elimination gambit.

‘I kinda like Senator Pastore myself,’ I said. ‘He made a damned good speech this evening.’

He actually snorted when I said that. ‘Goddamnit, Sam Houston, what in the hell’s gone wrong with you? How could an Italian from a dinky little state like Rhode Island possibly help me?’

‘There’s Adlai,’ I said, ‘He’s got the egghead vote good and solid.’

‘Don’t need him,’ said Lyndon. ‘With Barry Goldwater running, I look like a Harvard professor to the eggheads.’

‘Maybe you oughta get a Catholic like Gene McCarthy. He’s awful strong in the Midwest.’

‘He’s not exactly what I’m looking for. There’s something sort of stuck-up about Gene,’ he said. ‘You get the impression that he’s got a special pipeline to God and that they talk only Latin to each other.'”

My Brother Lyndon, Sam Houston Johnson, edited by Enrique Hank Lopez, Cowles Book Company, Inc., 1969.

Rudolf Nureyev Defects at Paris-Le-Bourget

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June 17, 1961:  On tour with the Kirov Ballet, the principal dancer Rudolf Nureyev embraced Paris, where he befriended a young woman named Clara Saint. The Central Committee in Moscow ordered Nureyev’s recall after the KGB’s embassy rezidents informed Moscow that his behavior was putting the Kirov’s security at risk. At the airport, Soviet officials informed him he would not be going to London with the rest of the troupe. The dancer Pierre Lacotte was at Le Bourget to see Nureyev off. Lacotte phoned Clara Saint, who approached the airport police.

“Clara knew that the French police were virulently anti-Communist and was betting on the chance that they might be eager to help. ‘Look, we can’t go to him, he has to go to us,’ they explained. ‘If he comes to us, then we’ll take care of everything.’

‘But how?’ Clara asked. ‘There are two men guarding him.’

The policeman promised to accompany Clara downstairs to the bar. She was to go first and order a coffee. They would follow ten minutes later and stand near her. When they had taken up their positions, she was to approach Rudolf again and explain to him that he had to go to them on his own.

Clara’s legs were ‘like rubber’ as she went to bid farewell to ‘poor Rudi’ one more time. ‘It’s so sad that he’s leaving,’ she lamented to Strizhevski, hoping to convince him that she was just an overwrought French girl. For added effect, she made a show of great affection to give the impression she was whispering something tender in Rudolf’s ear. ‘It’s so sad that you’re leaving us,’ she said for all to hear, and then, sotto voce, added, ‘See those two men at the bar? They’re waiting for you. You must go to them.’ As they exchanged one last kiss, Rudolf simply said, ‘Yes,’ as he kissed her cheek.

Five minutes later Rudolf bolted from his chair to the bar, a distance of just a few yards. ‘I want to stay in France,’ he cried in English just as Strizhevski and the other agent lunged and grabbed him. A tug-of-war ensued for a full minute.’That’s enough!’ the French police shouted at the Russians. ‘You are in France!’ At this, the Russians had no choice but to let go of Rudolf. As the French police ushered him upstairs, the embassy agents rushed to the phones to relay the bad news.”

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Nureyev: His Life, Diane Solway, William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1998.

Rudolf Nureyev’s debut on American television: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ag_r-_lPvJ8

Zimbabwe Ruins

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EMPIRE EXHIBITION SOUTH AFRICA, 1936. JOHANNESBURG

Controversy is still raging round the Zimbabwe ruins, which lie some distance from Fort Victoria. Some archaeologists maintain that an ancient city was built here about 2,000 years B.C., while others say it was the work of the Bantu/people about 6000 years ago.

Merrys.

Rat Pack Vernacular

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“We sat out on the patio, which ran the whole length of the penthouse floor, a tremendous area, and though the drinking was pretty heavy, the conversation was light and airy. Frank and Pete– somehow Peter never seemed right for Peter Lawford– communicated in a language of their own. It was a mixture of slang, a vernacular that originated with hip musicians, comics, hoodlums, and teenagers. Their favourite words were gas and gasser, clyde, bunter, cool, crazy, harvey, fink, mother, hacked, smashed, pissed, charley, and, of course, ring-a-ding, or ring-a-ding-ding, depending on the enthusiasm of the moment. The meaning of many of these expressions seemed to change daily. This was at a time when Frank was known as The Leader (he was also The General, The Dago, The Pope) of the Rat Pack, which he inherited from the late Humphrey Bogart. The name of the group was later refined to the Clan. Besides Lawford, the membership included Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, Sammy Cahn, Sy Devore, Mike Romanoff, Jimmy Van Heusen, and for a time, Eddie Fisher and Elizabeth Taylor.

Much of the time their conversation, as I was soon to learn, was inconsequential. They communicated by using only the punch lines, or buffo lines, as they called them, to in jokes. If you didn’t know the joke, you had no idea what the words meant. They might just as well have been talking Chinese. Much of the time I sat there smiling while they slapped their thighs and guffawed. There was little said worth remembering. When people use words or talk about subjects or people that I’m not familiar with, I have a tendency to daydream.”

My Story, Judith Exner, as told to Ovid Demaris, Circus Books, 1977.

Photo by Alan Light