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12 Violinists Known for Something Else

The violin is considered by many to be the thinking man’s instrument, famously played by the likes of Albert Einstein and Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional genius Sherlock Holmes. Here are 12 other celebrities who fiddled around in their spare time:

1. Charlie Chaplin played the violin (and the cello) in a unique way: backwards – specially strung to be fretted with the right hand and bowed by the left. As the story goes, renowned violinist Jascha Heifetz once unwittingly picked up Chaplin’s violin to do a little showing off, only to screech out several discordant notes. Chaplin calmly took the violin, and whipped out some Bach. He then explained: “I am...made inside out and upside down. When I turn my back on you in the screen, you are looking at something as expressive as a face. I am back, foremost.” He can be seen but not heard playing the violin in The Vagabond, one of his earliest silent movies, and Limelight, in which he and “pianist” Buster Keaton destroy one another’s instruments before any actual music occurs.

[Viewer beware: some violins may have been injured in the filming of this routine.]

2. Larry Fine (aka Louis Fienberg, aka Larry of the Three Stooges) began playing the violin as a child -- therapy for a bad chemical burn on his arm.

The kid had chops, and was soon performing on local stages and studying to become a concert musician. Unable to keep from clowning around, Larry eventually incorporated his fiddle into a stand-up routine, riffing on it in between jokes in a style later made famous by Henny Youngman. Though he’s better known for prat-falls, Larry showcases his virtuosity in flicks like Punch Drunks and The Stooges Go Around the World in a Daze.

3. Ana Gasteyer may be best known as one of the “NPR ladies” on Saturday Night Live, but she’s also a classically trained violinist. At age ten, the self-proclaimed “violin nerd” landed a gig playing for Jimmy Carter, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin during a little break at Camp David Accords. No pressure.

4. Henri Rousseau was a groundbreaking post-impressionist painter underappreciated in his lifetime. To his friends, he was also an underappreciated violinist. To supplement his meager income as a toll-taker, Rousseau busked on the street and taught violin lessons around Paris. In the evening, he composed waltzes and played at soirees held by the notorious Société des Artistes Indépendants. Legend has it that he was once so overtaken by music (and/or wine) that he continued sawing away for hours, even as hot candle wax dripped continually upon his head.

5. Werner Klemperer (aka Colonel Klink on Hogan’s Heroes) grew up in a musical household, and trained classically on the violin from an early age. His father, Otto Klemperer, was one of Germany’s most respected symphony maestros, and became the head conductor at the LA Philharmonic after the Klemperers fled Hitler’s Europe in 1935 (a somewhat ironic history, considering that the Jr. Klemperer found fame playing a German kommendant at a WWII POW camp.) Also ironic: Klemperer’s Klink played the violin terribly in a 1971 episode of Hogan’s Heroes. Klemperer downplayed his talent, performing in symphonies primarily as a...narrator? Is that still a thing?

6 and 7. Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, both students at the College of William and Mary, became friends while doing a violin duet one evening at a fancy Christmas party. While history tells us that they both practiced obsessively, their respective talent remains questionable: One contemporary supposedly called Patrick Henry “the worst fiddler in the colonies, excepting Thomas Jefferson.” This criticism could be explained by the fact that although Jefferson was fond of referring to his instrument as the more colloquial “fiddle,” he probably stuck to a stately classical repertoire, and had little experience with proper, folksie fiddling. Patrick Henry, for his part, seemed to play more for his own enjoyment; visitors claimed he would play while lying on the floor as his caterwauling children crawled all over him.

8. Ben Franklin did a little of everything. Should the violin be any surprise? Not one to be left out of the fashionable fiddle fad among intellectuals at the time, Franklin — who taught himself the instrument, as well as the harp and guitar — penned a little music for a string quartet, and invented something called the “glass harmonica,” which is kind of a fancy version of rubbing the rim of a wine glass with your finger.

9. Woodrow Wilson grew up playing the violin, and probably played into his adulthood. Rumors of his violin skills may have been over-emphasized in the internet age, however, largely because the legitimately famous violinist Ruggiero Ricci once went by the more American-sounding pseudonym “Woodrow Wilson Rich.” Nixon played the violin as a boy, too, but you don’t hear violinists bragging about that one so much.

10. John Tyler was, you know, the tenth president of the United States. He may not be the most famous president, but he was one of the most musical. He relished writing songs and jamming with his family so much that they began performing as a band after his presidency. And unrelated to his musical talents — his grandsons are still alive!

11. Louis Farrakhan is best know as the long-time leader of the Nation of Islam, but his love for the violin has endured since childhood. Just a month after Farrakhan (then Louis X) joined the Nation of Islam, Minister Malcolm X preached for musicians to choose between show biz and the Temple. Farrakhan chose the latter, and gave up the violin for over 40 years. In 1993, he returned to the stage, in a somewhat controversial performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto (probably the only “controversial” Violin Concerto ever). The New York Times reviewed Farrakhan’s playing as “wide, deep, and full of the energy that makes the violin gleam.”

12. Marlene Dietrich spent her early years training to be a concert violinist, before a painful wrist problem and a pesky sex appeal forced her into Hollywood stardom. Her first performance was at a Mexican-themed Red Cross pageant, for which sixteen-year-old Marlene (who then preferred the name “Paul”) wore a boy’s suit and a sombrero. She later got a job accompanying silent movies, until she was fired – allegedly because her legs were too distracting for her fellow musicians. Forced to go into acting, she forever called the violin “the symbol of my broken dream.”

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25 Wonderful Facts About It’s a Wonderful Life
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Mary Owen wasn’t welcomed into the world until more than a decade after Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life made its premiere in 1946. But she grew up cherishing the film and getting the inside scoop on its making from its star, Donna Reed—who just so happens to be her mom. Though Reed passed away in 1986, Owen has stood as one of the film’s most dedicated historians, regularly introducing screenings of the ultimate holiday classic, including during its annual run at New York City’s IFC Center. She shared some of her mom’s memories with us to help reveal 25 things you might not have known about It’s a Wonderful Life.

1. IT ALL BEGAN WITH A CHRISTMAS CARD.

After years of unsuccessfully trying to shop his short story, The Greatest Gift, to publishers, Philip Van Doren Stern decided to give the gift of words to his closest friends for the holidays when he printed up 200 copies of the story and sent them out as a 21-page Christmas card. David Hempstead, a producer at RKO Pictures, ended up getting a hold of it, and purchased the movie rights for $10,000.

2. CARY GRANT WAS SET TO STAR IN THE ADAPTATION.

When RKO purchased the rights, they did so with the plan of having Cary Grant in the lead. But, as happens so often in Hollywood, the project went through some ups and downs in the development process. In 1945, after a number of rewrites, RKO sold the movie rights to Frank Capra, who quickly recruited Jimmy Stewart to play George Bailey.

3. DOROTHY PARKER WORKED ON THE SCRIPT.


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By the time It’s a Wonderful Life made it into theaters, the story was much different from Stern’s original tale. That’s because more than a half-dozen people contributed to the screenplay, including some of the most acclaimed writers of the time—Dorothy Parker, Dalton Trumbo, Marc Connelly, and Clifford Odets among them.

4. SCREENWRITERS FRANCES GOODRICH AND ALBERT HACKETT WALKED OUT.

Though they’re credited as the film’s screenwriters with Capra, the husband and wife writing duo were not pleased with the treatment they received from Capra. “Frank Capra could be condescending,” Hackett said in an interview, “and you just didn't address Frances as ‘my dear woman.’ When we were pretty far along in the script but not done, our agent called and said, ‘Capra wants to know how soon you'll be finished.’ Frances said, ‘We're finished right now.’ We put our pens down and never went back to it.”

5. CAPRA DIDN’T DO THE BEST JOB OF SELLING THE FILM TO STEWART.

After laying out the plot line of the film for Stewart in a meeting, Capra realized that, “This really doesn’t sound so good, does it?” Stewart recalled in an interview. Stewart’s reply? “Frank: If you want me to be in a picture about a guy that wants to kill himself and an angel comes down named Clarence who can’t swim and I save him, when do we start?”

6. IT WAS DONNA REED’S FIRST STARRING ROLE.


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Though Donna Reed was hardly a newcomer when It’s a Wonderful Life rolled around, having appeared in nearly 20 projects previously, the film did mark her first starring role. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role today, but Reed had some serious competition from Jean Arthur. “[Frank Capra] had seen mom in They Were Expendable and liked her,” Mary Owen told Mental Floss. “When Capra met my mother at MGM, he knew she'd be just right for Mary Bailey.”

7. MARY OWEN IS NOT NAMED AFTER MARY BAILEY.

Before you ask whether Owen was named after her mom’s much beloved It’s a Wonderful Life character, “The answer is no,” says Owen. “I was named after my great grandmother, Mary Mullenger.”

8. BEULAH BONDI WAS A PRO AT PLAYING STEWART’S MOM.

Beulah Bondi, who plays Mrs. Bailey, didn’t need a lot of rehearsal to play Jimmy Stewart’s mom. She had done it three times previously—in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Human Hearts, and Vivacious Lady—and once later on The Jimmy Stewart Show: The Identity Crisis.

9. CAPRA, REED, AND STEWART HAVE ALL CALLED IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE THEIR FAVORITE MOVIE.


Liberty Films

Though their collective filmographies consist of a couple hundred movies, Capra, Reed, and Stewart have all cited It’s a Wonderful Life as their favorite movie. In his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, Capra took that praise even one step further, writing: “I thought it was the greatest film I ever made. Better yet, I thought it was the greatest film anybody ever made.”

10. THE MOVIE BOMBED AT THE BOX OFFICE.

Though it has become a quintessential American classic, It’s a Wonderful Life was not an immediate hit with audiences. In fact, it put Capra $525,000 in the hole, which left him scrambling to finance his production company’s next picture, State of the Union.

11. A COPYRIGHT LAPSE AIDED THE FILM’S POPULARITY.

Though it didn’t make much of a dent at the box office, It’s a Wonderful Life found a whole new life on television—particularly when its copyright lapsed in 1974, making it available royalty-free to anyone who wanted to show it for the next 20 years. (Which would explain why it was on television all the time during the holiday season.) The free-for-all ended in 1994.

12. THE ROCK THAT BROKE THE WINDOW OF THE GRANVILLE HOUSE WAS ALL REAL.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain 

Though Capra had a stuntman at the ready in order to shoot out the window of the Granville House in a scene that required Donna Reed to throw a rock through it, it was all a waste of money. “Mom threw the rock herself that broke the window in the Granville House,” Owen says. “On the first try.”

13. IT TOOK TWO MONTHS TO BUILD BEDFORD FALLS.

Shot on a budget of $3.7 million (which was a lot by mid-1940s standards), Bedford Falls—which covered a full four acres of RKO’s Encino Ranch—was one of the most elaborate movie sets ever built up to that time, with 75 stores and buildings, 20 fully-grown oak trees, factories, residential areas, and a 300-yard-long Main Street.

14. SENECA FALLS, NEW YORK IS “THE REAL BEDFORD FALLS.”

Though Bedford Falls is a fictitious place, the town of Seneca Falls, New York swears that it's the real-life inspiration for George Bailey’s charming hometown. And each year they program a full lineup of holiday-themed events to put locals (and yuletide visitors) into the holiday spirit.

15. THE GYM FLOOR-TURNED-SWIMMING POOL WAS REAL.

Though the bulk of the film was filmed on pre-built sets, the dance at the gym was filmed on location at Beverly Hills High School. And the retractable floor was no set piece. Better known as the Swim Gym, the school is currently in the process of restoring the landmark filming location.

16. ALFALFA IS THE TEENAGER BEHIND THAT SWIMMING POOL PRANK.

Though he’s uncredited in the part, if Freddie Othello—the little prankster who pushes the button that opens the pool that swallows George and Mary up—looks familiar, that’s because he is played by Carl Switzer, a.k.a. Alfalfa of The Little Rascals.

17. DONNA REED WON $50 FROM LIONEL BARRYMORE ... FOR MILKING A COW.

Though she was a Hollywood icon, Donna Reed—born Donnabelle Mullenger—was a farm girl at heart who came to Los Angeles by way of Denison, Iowa. Lionel Barrymore (a.k.a. Mr. Potter) didn’t believe it. “So he bet $50 that she couldn't milk a cow,” recalls Owen. “She said it was the easiest $50 she ever made.”

18. THE FILM WAS SHOT DURING A HEAT WAVE.

It may be an iconic Christmas movie, but It’s a Wonderful Life was actually shot in the summer of 1946—in the midst of a heat wave, no less. At one point, Capra had to shut filming down for a day because of the sky-high temperatures—which also explains why Stewart is clearly sweating in key moments of the film.

19. CAPRA ENGINEERED A NEW KIND OF MOVIE SNOW.

Capra—who trained as an engineer—and special effects supervisor Russell Shearman engineered a new type of artificial snow for the film. At the time, painted cornflakes were the most common form of fake snow, but they posed a bit of an audio problem for Capra. So he and Shearman opted to mix foamite (the stuff you find in fire extinguishers) with sugar and water to create a less noisy option.

20. THE MOVIE WASN’T REQUIRED VIEWING IN REED’S HOUSEHOLD.

Though It’s a Wonderful Life is a staple of many family holiday movie marathons, that wasn’t the case in Reed’s home. In fact, Owen herself didn’t see the film until three decades after its release. “I saw it in the late 1970s at the Nuart Theatre in L.A. and loved it,” she says.

21. ZUZU DIDN’T SEE THE FILM UNTIL 1980.

Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu in the film, didn’t see the film until 1980. “I never took the time to see the movie,” she told Detroit’s WWJ in 2013. “I never just sat down and watched the film.”

22. THE FBI SAW THE FILM. THEY DIDN’T LIKE IT.

In 1947, the FBI issued a memo noting the film as a potential “Communist infiltration of the motion picture industry,” citing its “rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers by casting Lionel Barrymore as a ‘Scrooge-type’ so that he would be the most hated man in the picture. This, according to these sources, is a common trick used by Communists.”

23. THE MOVIE’S BERT AND ERNIE HAVE NO RELATION TO SESAME STREET.

Yes, the cop and cab driver in It’s a Wonderful Life are named Bert and Ernie, respectively. But Jim Henson’s longtime writing partner, Jerry Juhl, insists that it’s by coincidence only that they share their names with Sesame Street’s stripe-shirted buds. “I was the head writer for the Muppets for 36 years and one of the original writers on Sesame Street,” Juhl told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000. “The rumor about It's a Wonderful Life has persisted over the years. I was not present at the naming, but I was always positive [the rumor] was incorrect. Despite his many talents, Jim had no memory for details like this. He knew the movie, of course, but would not have remembered the cop and the cab driver. I was not able to confirm this with Jim before he died, but shortly thereafter I spoke to Jon Stone, Sesame Street's first producer and head writer and a man largely responsible for the show's format … He assured me that Ernie and Bert were named one day when he and Jim were studying the prototype puppets. They decided that one of them looked like an Ernie, and the other one looked like a Bert. The movie character names are purely coincidental.”

24. SOME PEOPLE ARE ANXIOUS FOR A SEQUEL.

Well, two people: Producers Allen J. Schwalb and Bob Farnsworth, who announced in 2013 that they would be continuing the story with a sequel, It’s a Wonderful Life: The Rest of the Story, which they planned for a 2015 release. It didn’t take long for Paramount, which owns the copyright, to step in and assure furious fans of the original film that “No project relating to It’s a Wonderful Life can proceed without a license from Paramount. To date, these individuals have not obtained any of the necessary rights, and we would take all appropriate steps to protect those rights.”

25. THE FILM’S ENDURING LEGACY WAS SURPRISING TO CAPRA.

“It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen," Capra said of the film’s classic status. "The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud… but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”

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Listen to What Darth Vader Sounded Like On the Star Wars Set
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.
Star Wars © & TM 2015 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

The voice of Darth Vader, provided by James Earl Jones, is one of the most iconic aspects of the original Star Wars movies. But James Earl Jones wasn't the actor wearing that outfit—it was British actor David Prowse, who was cast in part because he was huge (reportedly 6'5" and a former body-building champion).

George Lucas always intended to replace Prowse's voice, but it's still a bit of a shock to hear a muffled British voice coming out of Darth Vader's helmet. Here's video showing what Darth Vader sounded like on the set before James Earl Jones re-recorded the dialogue.

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