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Nic Cage via YouTube
Nic Cage via YouTube

Dead Air: The Talk Show Guest Who Died on Dick Cavett's Stage

Nic Cage via YouTube
Nic Cage via YouTube

During his first few years on the air, talk show host Dick Cavett might have imagined his worst moment as a broadcaster would remain the night when actors Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, and John Cassavetes showed up for a taping drunk and incoherent. Things got so bad that at one point Cavett walked off his own show.

That was September 18, 1970. Less than a year later, Cavett would outdo himself. Interviewing New York Post columnist Pete Hamill, Cavett and his guest stopped momentarily to regard the odd behavior of the man sitting a few feet away. Jerome Rodale, who had just spent 30 minutes talking to Cavett about the organic food lifestyle he promoted, was snoring loudly.

That was funny only during the brief time it took for Cavett to realize Rodale’s color was pallid and that his head was slumped listlessly against his shoulder. Moments after the 72-year-old had declared he “never felt better in my life,” Rodale was dead, having expired in full view of ABC's cameras.

 

Wikimedia Commons

The name Jerome Rodale doesn’t have the same resonance today that it once did. At one time, the man media dubbed “Mr. Organic” was one of the most famous health advocates in the country, urging consumers to ignore the store aisles of increasingly processed food and to eat as many natural, whole foods as possible.

After a spell writing unsuccessful plays and self-publishing books, Rodale spent several years heading up magazines that espoused good nutritional habits. Many—like Prevention—are still in circulation today; others were used as a pulpit for Rodale to broadcast some of his more eccentric views on longevity and wellness. Polio, he once wrote, could be avoided not by vaccination but by eating a balanced diet; club soda contributed to poor eyesight.

It was contrary, occasionally outlandish advice, but Americans ate it up. By 1971, Rodale was firmly in control of a publishing empire and even made the cover of The New York Times Magazine for his status as a leading organic food advocate—at the time, a novel idea. The resulting publicity caught the attention of Cavett, who was preparing to tape a program in New York on June 7 of that year and had one spot open for a guest. His producers booked Rodale with the expectation that some of his more eccentric advice would make for good television.

They weren’t wrong. After Cavett opened his show with an act involving trained monkeys and comedian Marshall Efron, Rodale strolled out to the set bearing gifts. One was a goose egg that he declared harbored numerous health benefits; another was some asparagus that he claimed had been boiled in urine. The audience, perhaps drawing a line at consuming their own waste to benefit their health, responded with concerned murmuring.

Cavett, however, was happy. Rodale was as advertised, and the two spent 30 minutes of Cavett’s 90-minute running time exploring Rodale’s plans to live to be 100.

When Hamill came out, Rodale made room and shifted to another seat. After a few minutes, he appeared to lose consciousness. Though Cavett doesn’t recall it, he’s been told some people remember him asking Rodale if they were boring him.

Once Cavett realized what was happening, he began to shout for a doctor in the audience. Two medical interns rushed the stage, attending to a now-prostrate Rodale. "Two stewardesses in the front row who’d been winking and joking with me during the commercial breaks were now crying," Cavett recalled. "I guess from their training and having seen emergencies, they knew the score."

As police and EMTs began to fill the stage, it was obvious that Rodale would not be leaving under his own power. His inert body was taken away on a stretcher, leaving Cavett and his astonished audience to process what had just happened. Rodale had suffered a fatal heart attack.

 

Rodale’s death didn’t go on the air that night—or any night, for that matter. Both ABC and Cavett had the good sense to never exploit the incident in any way out of respect for Rodale and his family. Cavett aired a rerun, then went on the following night to explain what happened to viewers who had read of the incident in the papers. (Hamill had been taking notes during the entire fiasco.)

Cavett did watch the tape several weeks later with some of his production staff, and it’s likely someone in the network’s pipeline made copies of the morbid footage to give to their wives or friends as a scare. Aside from those incidences, Rodale’s death has never been seen by anyone.

Despite that embargo, Cavett once estimated that he is confronted 20 or so times a year by people who want to discuss “the guy who died on your show” and how shocked they were to see it. Cavett had painted such a detailed picture of the segment on his show that it created a kind of false memory in his viewers, some of whom could not be convinced the show didn’t actually air. A 2007 New York Times editorial by Cavett recalling the episode even featured a comment by one reader who swore that “I DID see this.” If they did, you’d think they’d remember the urine-soaked asparagus, too.

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History
The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

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Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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History
A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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