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The Actors Who Are Dying to Play Yorick in Hamlet

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One of the most time-honored theater traditions is also one of the most morbid. Sometimes, when actors or very serious Shakespeare fans take their final bows, they bequeath their skulls to an acting company to be used as the skull of Yorick, the target of Hamlet's "Alas, poor Yorick" monologue.

Though it's hard to pinpoint exactly when and where the tradition began, it likely goes back to at least the early 1800s, when famed Shakespearean actor Junius Brutus Booth reportedly found himself on the receiving end of an unexpected gift. The story goes that Booth once befriended a man he shared a jail cell with, but while Booth was released, his friend was eventually hanged. The man told his jailers that his head should be sent to Booth and used in Hamlet. The Players Club in New York City, which Booth's son Edwin (brother of John Wilkes Booth) once owned, still has the skull said to have belonged to Junius Booth's unfortunate friend. (While it's clear that a real skull passed from Junius Booth to his son and was used in Hamlet, it's difficult to prove the original owner was Booth's cellmate.) The skull now bears the handwritten legend, "And the rest is silence."

Another early documented instance is that of John “Pop” Reed, a stagehand at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. After more than half a century working at the Walnut, Reed had developed a love for the Bard and stated in his will that he wanted to live on as Hamlet’s deceased jester. The Walnut granted his wish, and Reed's remains reside there to this day.

But the most famous Yorick is probably André Tchaikowsky, the Polish composer and pianist. When he died in 1982, the performer added his name to the list of people wanting to act from beyond the grave. A passionate Shakespeare fan who was often moved by Royal Shakespeare Company performances, Tchaikowsky willed his dome to the company. They stuck it on a roof for two years to dry and bleach it, then began using it in rehearsals. Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies) rehearsed with it, but the RSC eventually felt the skull was inappropriate to use in an actual performance; a cast was used instead.

Don't worry: Tchaikowsky’s mortal remains did get their moment in the spotlight. In 2008, actor David Tennant held the composer’s skull aloft in his 22 performances as Hamlet at the Courtyard Theatre in Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-Upon-Avon. Though it was originally reported that a fake was used, director Gregory Doran later explained that he didn’t want the skull’s story to become the focus of the production, and so had fibbed a little.

Sadly, not all those who ask are able to serve as Yorick. Comedian Del Close left his noggin to Chicago’s Goodman Theatre when he died in 1999, but his widow was unable to find anyone willing to clean it, and Close’s wish went unanswered. In 1995, an actor who dreamed of performing onstage with the Royal Shakespeare Company—yet who had been repeatedly rejected—figured he would audition from the afterlife by bequeathing his skull to the company. He told The Independent, "I may not know what my next job will be, but I want to ensure I know what my last job will be." Alas, the RSC declined him once again.

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Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
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Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?


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The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?


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In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

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Why Your Traditional Thanksgiving Should Include Oysters
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If you want to throw a really traditional Thanksgiving dinner, you’ll need oysters. The mollusks would have been featured prominently on the holiday tables of the earliest American settlers—even if that beloved Thanksgiving turkey probably wasn’t. At the time, oysters were supremely popular additions to the table for coastal colonial settlements, though in some cases, they were seen as a hardship food more than a delicacy.

For one thing, oysters were an easy food source. In the Chesapeake Bay, they were so plentiful in the 17th and 18th centuries that ships had to be careful not to run aground on oyster beds, and one visitor in 1702 wrote that they could be pulled up with only a pair of tongs. Native Americans, too, ate plenty of oysters, occasionally harvesting them and feasting for days.

Early colonists ate so many oysters that the population of the mollusks dwindled to dangerously low levels by the 19th century, according to curriculum prepared by a Gettysburg University history professor. In these years, scarcity turned oysters into a luxury item for the wealthy, a situation that prevailed until the 1880s, when oyster production skyrocketed and prices dropped again [PDF]. If you lived on the coast, though, you were probably still downing the bivalves.

Beginning in the 1840s, canning and railroads brought the mollusks to inland regions. According to 1985's The Celebrated Oysterhouse Cookbook, the middle of the 19th century found America in a “great oyster craze,” where “no evening of pleasure was complete without oysters; no host worthy of the name failed to serve 'the luscious bivalves,' as they were actually called, to his guests.”

At the turn of the century, oysters were still a Thanksgiving standard. They were on Thanksgiving menus everywhere from New York City's Plaza Hotel to train dining cars, in the form of soup, cocktails, and stuffing.

In 1954, the Fish and Wildlife Service tried to promote Thanksgiving oysters to widespread use once again. They sent out a press release [PDF], entitled “Oysters—a Thanksgiving Tradition,” which included the agency’s own recipes for cocktail sauce, oyster bisque, and oyster stuffing.

In the modern era, Thanksgiving oysters have remained most popular in the South. Oyster stuffing is a classic dish in New Orleans, and chefs like Emeril Lagasse have their own signature recipes. If you’re not looking for a celebrity chef’s recipe, perhaps you want to try the Fish and Wildlife Service’s? Check it out below.

Oyster Stuffing

INGREDIENTS

1 pint oysters
1/2 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup butter
4 cups day-old bread cubes
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 teaspoon salt
Dash poultry seasoning
Dash pepper

Drain oysters, saving liquor, and chop. Cook celery and onion in butter until tender. Combine oysters, cooked vegetables, bread cubes, and seasonings, and mix thoroughly. If stuffing seems dry, moisten with oyster liquor. Makes enough for a four-pound chicken.

If you’re using a turkey, the FWS advises that the recipe above provides enough for about every five pounds of bird, so multiply accordingly.

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