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America's Jiminy Crickett: The Ted Turner Story

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After my previous post mentioned Ted Turner's promotional antics as owner of the Atlanta Braves, a reader suggested I write more about the man who became known as "The Mouth of the South." In three decades of sports writing, I've never come across anyone quite so outrageous. So you don't have to twist my arm.

Moscow, 1986: We are in a downtown conference room to interview Turner along with the Soviet press and a lineup of grim men in dark suits and sunglasses (KGB?) along the back wall of the room. Turner's inaugural Goodwill Games are about to begin. Cynics believe he has launched them purely as programming for his Atlanta superstation, WTBS. Turner claims a deeper purpose.

After the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Olympic games in 1980 and the Soviet's right-back-at-you boycott of the L.A. Olympics in 1984, Turner believed bringing Soviets and Americans together would make for a good TV show, yes, but also that the Goodwill Games -- an event he trumpeted as "a major, major undertaking of colossal proportions" -- would in turn promote peace and understanding.

Or as Ted reminded us, "Friends don't bomb friends."

During the course of the next hour, it became clear the Soviets in particular wondered if Turner had arrived by plane or spaceship.

He welcomed a Soviet comrade by saying, "Sitski here, Sovietski."

And to a Polish reporter: "Hey, Poland. I like that Polish vodka. Here's my room number. Bring me some, Poland."

I worked at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the time. While some other American media outlets sent a reporter to chronicle Turner's Goodwill Games brainstorm, the AJC was there in force. Dave Kindred, our gifted columnist and future winner of the Red Smith Award, made an inventory of the people, places and things Turner mentioned in that single hour for a column the next day:

Hitler, Jiminy Crickett, Helmut Kohl, General George Patton, Robert E. Lee, Caspar Weinberger, Jacques Costeau, Carl Sagan, Gorbachev (naturally), JFK, Lester Maddox, Finland, the National League, Seattle, Cuba, Ceylon, the Middle Ages, F-111 Jets, Nigeria, Australia, oxen, nuclear weapons, mountain goats and elephants (that's not even Dave's complete list).

I remembered the main points of Turner's press conference. But Kindred saved it for posterity in a collection of his columns titled Heroes, Fools and Other Dreamers. The title wasn't specific to Turner but he certainly qualified on all counts.

Turner ended the press conference with an appeal for nuclear disarmament and self-reflection:

"If there's a nuclear war between our countries, we're killing everybody. That's Bermuda, Bahamas, Jamaica, Switzerland, Sweden, Nigeria, India, Ceylon. Ceylon? They call it something else now. Perez de Cueller said it. By what right do the superpowers feel they have the right to decide the lives and fates of all mankind?

"Carl Sagan said it in Breaking the Spell. We've been here millions of years, 10 million years, human existence, that we've slowly evolved, that our parents worked to make us better and send us to better schools and get better education and improve airplanes and communications.

All the things we've done, our books, our art, our literature. And what have we done with our opportunity? Get ready to blow ourselves up. And not just ourselves. What about the elephants?"

"What about the elephants" became a catchphrase among the American press during the remainder of the Goodwill Games:

"How did Carl Lewis do," one would ask another.

"Won his heat easily," came the answer.

"What about the elephants?"

Turner hit Moscow like a cyclone. He walked the streets and sports arenas trailed by his future ex-wife, Jane (not Fonda, that Jane would come later). She was usually 20 paces behind. Every so often, he'd turn around and wave his arm like a third-base coach sending a runner home: "C'mon."

At the spectacularly choreographed Opening Ceremonies, every spectator flipped their cards on cue, revealing an amazingly realistic portrait of Lenin.

The Soviet press could not wait to hear what Ted thought. They crowded around him on his way out.

Asked about the card display, Turner said, "It was great, great. This Lenin guy's a big deal...like Jesus Christ and George Washington all rolled into one."

The following summer Ronald Reagan challenged Gorbachev to "tear down this wall."

Ted Turner never claimed he helped change the world with the Goodwill Games, though he most certainly did as a pioneer of satellite TV and 24-hour news. But he did administer a spanking to the two biggest kids on the block with another of his gems from Moscow, 1986:

"I think (the U.S. and Soviet Union) ought to be taken out behind the woodshed and some Big Daddy take a board and give it to us. You know, bend down, and hold your ankles. That's what I think. Speaking figuratively, I think it's just time we grew up."

Twenty three years later, Turner is America's largest landowner with over two million acres and a herd of 50,000 bison. He's in the Business Hall of Fame, the America's Cup Hall of Fame and is a winner of the Albert Schweitzer Humanitarian Award for his philanthropy.

I can't watch the Dos Equis "Most Interesting Man in the World" ad campaign without thinking of Turner. The character is shown bench pressing Asian women, playing jai alai, freeing a bear from a trap, engaged in a sword fight and other eccentric activities. He signs off by admitting he doesn't always drink beer but when he does he makes it Dos Equis.

Then he says, "Stay thirsty my friends."

At age 70, Ted Turner's had his fill.

Ted Turner's Memorable Moments (in no particular order)

"¢ Born in Cincinnati Nov. 19, 1938. Attended Brown but was expelled for having a woman in his room. When he announced he was going to be a Classics major, his father wrote him a letter. The elder Turner said he was "horrified" at the news and that he "almost puked" upon hearing it.

americas-cup-turner"¢ When 15 sailors died off the coast of England in the Fastnet Race won by Turner in 1979, Turner told the British Press: "It's no use crying. The King is dead. Long live the King. It had to happen sooner or later. You ought to be thankful there are storms like that or you'd all be speaking Spanish." (A reference to the troubled seas that foiled the Spanish Armada.)

"¢ In an attempt to turn his woeful Atlanta Braves fortunes, he sent manager Dave Bristol on a "scouting trip," put on a uniform and managed the team from the dugout. The Braves lost. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn intervened, telling Turner that MLB managers could not by rule have a financial stake in the team.

"¢ Told Sports Illustrated in 1986, "I want to be Jiminy Crickett for America. Remember how Jiminy always told Pinocchio to go to school, to do wise things? That's what I want to be for America."

"¢ On male-run governments: "Men should be barred from public office for 100 years in every part of the world. The men have had millions of years where we've been running things. We've screwed it up hopelessly. Let's give it to the women."

"¢ To SI, on his plan to curb overpopulation: "It would take only a billion dollars a year to furnish birth control devices to all the women in the world who would use them. That would cut the world population growth in half. That's about the cost of one Trident submarine."

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"¢ Founded the first cable superstation (WTBS) and the first 24-hour news station (CNN). Kuhn told him to cease and desist after he put the name "Channel" on the back of Atlanta pitcher Andy Messersmith's uniform No. 17.

"¢ Miss America 1983 said Ted Turner was the person she'd most like to meet.

"¢ Before becoming Braves owner he said, "What do you have to know about baseball? Both teams have 10 guys?" Or, more accurately, nine.

"¢ Turner took over Turner Outdoor Advertising at age 24 after his father's suicide. He grew a $1 million a year business into a media empire.

"¢ Called Christianity a "religion for losers" and abortion opponents "bozos." Issued an apology and later worked with church groups to fight malaria.

"¢ To Charlie Rose in April 2008, on the impact if we don't curb global warming: "Most of the people will have died and the rest of us are cannibals."

"¢ Stan Kasten, his righthand man with the Braves and Hawks, on Turner: "He has a hundred ideas a day, and only two of them are good. But how many people have two good ideas a day?"

"¢ After launching CNN, Turner said: "We won't be signing off until the world ends. We'll be on and we will cover the end of the world. That will be our last event. And when the end of the world comes we'll play 'Nearer, My God, To Thee' before we sign off."

And with that, I'll sign off. See you next month.

Bud Shaw is a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who has also written for the Philadelphia Daily News, San Diego Union-Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The National. You can read his Plain Dealer columns at Cleveland.com, and read his mental_floss articles here.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.

1. ON SCIENCE

"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.

2. ON NASA FUNDING

"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles

3. ON GOD AND HURRICANES

"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole

4. ON THE BENEFITS OF TECHNOLOGY INVENTED FOR USE IN SPACE

"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles

5. ON THE DEMOTION OF PLUTO FROM PLANET STATUS 

PBS

"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

6. ON JAMES CAMERON'S TITANIC

"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole

7. ON DEATH BY ASTEROID

"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles

8. ON THE MOTIVATIONS BEHIND AMERICA'S MOONSHOT

"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

9. ON INTELLIGENT LIFE (OR THE LACK THEREOF)

Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."

10. PRACTICAL ADVICE IN THE EVENT OF ALIEN CONTACT 

A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
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"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

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