Zero Degrees of Separation

Six degrees of separation is the idea that anyone in the planet can be connected to anyone else in just six steps. "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" is a parlor game based on the same concept, and now a popular meme. Reflecting on this made me think about my encounters with famous and other interesting people, which you might think of as zero degrees.

So let's start with Kevin Bacon. I sat at a table next to him and Kyra Sedgwick at a boutiquey little restaurant in Seattle one evening. We didn't talk. I was with two former friends, and we were guzzling from the one and only bottle of Cristal champagne I will ever pay for.

I'm sure Kevin and Kyra would have graciously engaged us, or at least me. But even though I'm from Indiana, I knew better than to disturb celebrities. That's because I went through the entire program of Miss Kinnear's School of Dance and Etiquette, a true relic of Midwestern white privilege. You started in sixth grade with dressed up boys and girls, and one Victrola. As you moved through the age groups, they incrementally added live musicians, all black. The endpoint was a grand cotillion with dance cards and green mint float punch. (And people wonder why I'm such a mess.)

But I digress. Let me start back in my childhood, which would be the during the 1960s. In future posts I'll cover later time periods.

Famous and interesting people:

Francis Farmer. She washed up in Indianapolis in the early 60s and used to introduce the afternoon movie on a local TV station. With each film she would share reminiscences of the stars in it she had known. So Mom took my brother's Cub Scout den to get a tour of the station, and although I was two years younger, I tagged along. Francis had her own dressing room and was truly elegant. I still remember her sitting at her vanity, primping in front of a mirror ringed with very bright lights. Another highlight: That same visit we got to meet Harlow Hickenlooper. He put on a live children's show featuring Three Stooges shorts. Between films, Harlow (aka Hal Fryar) entertained kids with different bits. During our visit he held a contest for a box of clay, which I won. As fate would have it, I encountered Hal 20 years later when we worked for the same advertising agency in Indy, Handley & Miller.

Walter Cronkite. One summer day he was having lunch at my parents' country club. Apparently he was visiting friends in Indianapolis. I waited for him to come out, and walked with him to the parking lot. He gave me his autograph, then he and his family got into a regular old station wagon and drove off.

Colonel Harland Sanders. One of my rich uncles would buy out a section of penthouse seats at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and host friends, family and business associates to the annual Indy 500 car race. Fully catered. He hired a city bus with police escort--which is cool until you get close in and fight for position with all the other police escorted mucky-mucks. At the 1965 race, as our bus emptied out at the reserved penthouse parking area, I spotted the Colonel in his full white-suited regalia. Like Cronkite, he was driving a station wagon with his family. I walked up to him and asked for his autograph. He was very kind. I hadn't been to Miss Kinnear's school yet, but I knew better than to ask how he made his crispy fried chicken, and especially my favorite, crunchy gizzards.

Yes, before it was KFC, Kentucky Fried Chicken served amazing food—moist, fresh, flavorful. Those were the days when the Colonel drove around in that station wagon and personally inspected (yelled at, harassed, insulted, fired) franchisees. Maybe that's why his chicken was so finger lickin' good.

Not exactly zero degrees:

Peter, Paul and Mary. Went to my first pop concert in 1965. My older brother was supposed to stay home and babysit me. Instead, he dragged me along with his friends to the the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum (which a few years later blew up, killing dozens of people). The only thing I recall is that it was loud, packed and infused with weed. It should be noted that, at the same time, I was attending classical performances at Clowes Hall on the Butler University campus. My piano teacher would give me tickets to the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra as well as assorted musical acts, like the piano duo Ferrante & Teicher. In later years at Clowes I saw Manhattan Transfer, Jane Goodall and a cheesy "town hall" put on by Today Show weather clown Willard Scott.

Jack Benny and Wayne Newton. Also in 1965, I went to an evening performance at "Starlight Musicals," an outdoor bowl-style theater next to the Butler University Hinkle Fieldhouse (where "Hoosiers" was filmed). Newton was the opening act, and "Danke Schoen," his creepy paean to pedophiles, was a big hit. This was when he was pubescent, chubby and very white. Benny made jokes and played the violin. In later years I saw performances by Liberace, with boi toy Scott Thorson, and Joan Rivers, among others.

I'll round out this visit to 60s with a story from 1968. That was a turbulent year, with anti-war protests, riots in the streets, a violent Democratic convention in Chicago and, tragically, the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy soon thereafter. (Perhaps only us old folks realize how close we're coming to that kind of nationwide trauma again.)

On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., American clergyman and civil rights leader, was fatally shot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. I remember that day well. My family was waiting to take a flight from the Indianapolis airport to Florida for spring break. The flight was delayed, and—in a pre-online world—word spread slowly about King’s assassination. The passenger waiting area filled with apprehension as the anxious travelers worried about what this meant, and what would happen next.

What most of us didn’t know is, elsewhere in Indianapolis that evening, U.S. senator and presidential candidate Robert F. "Bobby" Kennedy was addressing a potentially hostile, mostly black audience in an inner city park. The campaign stop was previously arranged, and Kennedy insisted on making an appearance—against the vehement protests of numerous local officials, including mayor and future senator Richard Lugar.

Kennedy went on to give one of his most famous speeches. His words spoken then resonate all too painfully with the racial conflicts of today. Entirely extemporaneous, both historic and timeless, it is quoted here in full:

"Ladies and Gentlemen: I'm only going to talk to you just for a minute or so this evening, because I have some very sad news for all of you—Could you lower those signs, please?—I have some very sad news for all of you, and, I think, sad news for all of our fellow citizens, and people who love peace all over the world; and that is that Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tennessee.

"Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it's perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black—considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible—you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

"We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization—black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion and love.

"For those of you who are black and are tempted to be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.

"But we have to make an effort in the United States, we have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond, or go beyond these rather difficult times.

"My favorite poem, my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote:

'Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will, comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.'

"What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

"So I ask you tonight to return home, to say a prayer for the family of Martin Luther King—yeah, it's true—but more importantly to say a prayer for our own country, which all of us love—a prayer for understanding and that compassion of which I spoke.

"We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We've had difficult times in the past. And we will have difficult times in the future. It is not the end of violence; it is not the end of lawlessness; and it's not the end of disorder.

"But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings that abide in our land.

"Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people."

It is important to remember Dr. King’s singular and enlightened focus on nonviolence. He drew this inspiration from a man named Gandhi. Mahātmā Karamchand Gandhi (1869 - 1948) was an Indian activist who was the leader of the Indian independence movement against British rule. Employing nonviolent civil disobedience, Gandhi led India to independence and inspired movements for civil rights and freedom across the world.

King emphasized nonviolence for two reasons. He believed violence could not legitimately serve the cause of social justice. But just as important, he knew from Gandhi’s experience that violence hardens prejudices and divides people. Nonviolence, on the other hand, exposes evil in the brightest light—and creates empathy rather than distrust. Even the coldest hearts could not ignore the injustice of brutality against black people who wanted nothing more than equal rights.

Following King’s assassination, violence erupted around the nation. But not in Indianapolis—perhaps because Bobby Kennedy reminded a community in pain what King’s life represented.

Comments? Send to:

Butler University
Colonel Harland Sanders
Francis Farmer
Jack Benny
Martin Luther King Jr.
Peter, Paul and Mary
Robert F. Kennedy
Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon
Walter Cronkite
Wayne Newton

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