Today in History: Oct. 4

Work on Mount Rushmore National Memorial began on this date in 1927. Gutzon Borglum, a sculptor from Idaho whose monumental works had made him noteworthy (a six-ton marble head of Abraham Lincoln had been exhibited in the White House during Theodore Roosevelt’s tenure), and several hundred workers started blasting granite from the the face of the mountain, where George Washington’s visage now rests.

Borglum died in May 1941 with the project unfinished—he intended to carve more than the presidents’ faces, but funding dried up after his death and his son suspended the work in its “unfinished” state at the end of that year. Over fourteen years, four-hundred workers drilled holes in the granite and exploded dynamite caps to loosen the rock face to fulfill Borglum’s monumental vision of a monument.

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Dick Tracy, the comic strip by Chester Gould, made its debut in the Detroit Mirror 85 years ago today.

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Fifty-nine years ago today, the Soviet Union launched a two-foot metal ball with four radio antennae poking off it. It was Sputnik 1 and it transmitted a beep every few seconds on two radio frequencies. That was all it was designed to do, but because the U.S.S.R. had not publicly announced its intention to launch an orbiter into space, the success of the launch and the fact that anyone with a radio could listen to the beep had an immediate effect that went beyond its modest design: The U.S. entered the “Space Race.” Sputnik 1 completed 1400 orbits over the next three months, and re-entered the atmosphere on January 4, 1958.

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Janis Joplin died on this date in 1970. Anne Sexton died on this date in 1974. Glenn Gould died 34 years ago today. Graham Chapman died on this date in 1989.

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Buster Keaton was born on this date in 1895. He spent almost his entire 70 years alive in show business. His parents, Joe and Myra, were vaudevillians. Myra was a musician and Joe did anything he could to get people into the theaters and stay in their seats, usually involving slapstick stunts, especially high-flying and loud-landing ones.

Their son joined the act as a toddler and he learned that he enjoyed getting laughs from the audience, and that he got the biggest laughs when he did not react to being tossed about on the stage; he held the deadpan expression for the rest of his life on stage and in film, although in home movies and interviews he laughs and smiles easily and broadly.

His place in film history as one of the immortals is secure. (He would be on the Mount Rushmore of comedy; his nickname was “the Great Stone Face” for his deadpan expressionless expression. Perhaps Gutzon Borglum started his stone faces on this date for more than one reason.) Alcoholism nearly derailed Keaton from his career (in one legendary story, he was placed in a straitjacket in an asylum but he escaped from the straitjacket because he grew up learning performance tricks from none other than Harry Houdini), but by the 1950s, he was being rediscovered (or re-rediscovered) by a new audience. He was a frequent presence on TV and in movies into the ’60s.

One of his last films was a silent performance in a short called The Railrodder for the National Film Board of Canada, in which he tours Canada in twenty minutes. Here is that film:

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Charlton Heston was born on this date in 1923. The late Alvin Toffler was born on this date in 1928. (He died in June.) Jackie Collins was born on this date in 1937.

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Anne Rice is 75. Roy Blount, Jr. is 75 today. Susan Sarandon is 70. Armand Assante is 67. Alicia Silverstone is 40 today.

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