Friday, June 9, 2006

A Few Passings

It is often said that celebrities die in threes. I am not sure that is true, but they certainly do seem to die in bunchs at times. Lately, there have been a few celebrity deaths of note. I thought I would cover them all in one post.

Among those deaths was special effects innovator Arthur Widmer. Widmer died of cancer at age 92. Widmer was born in Washington, D.C., and attended the University of Michigan. He worked for Kodak's research labs and later Clinton Laboratories (later to become the Oak Ridge National Laboratory).

At Kodak Widmer worked on colour photography, including Kodachrome. Following World War II, Kodak sent Widmer to Hollywood. There he was part of introducing Kodak Color Negative and Color Positive to the movie studios. He was at Warner Brothers when he developed the Ultra Violet Travelling Matte, an early version of what we now call "bluescreen." Quite simply, bluescreen involved the process of shooting actors against a monochromatic background (usually the colour blue, hence the name) in order to replace the background with another background or scene. Widmer was also pivotal in developing such technologies for film as 3-D and wide screen. For his contributions to the movie industry, Widmer received an Acadmey Award of Commendation for his development of the Ultra Violet Travelling Matte.

Another celebrity to die of late was comic book and animated cartoon artist Alex Toth. Toth died at age 77 in Burbank, California. He was born on June 25, 1928. At age 15 Toth started his career in illustrating comic books. He was first hired by illustrator and editor Steve Douglas to work on Famous Funnies. He would later be hired by legendary editor Sheldon Mayer to work on various titles at All-American Comics. After All-American merged with National Periodical Publications (better known, and now officially known, as DC Comics), he would continue to work with Mayer. At All-American and National, Toth worked on such titles as All-Star Comics (featuring the Justice Society of America) and Green Lantern. After a stint in the military Toth would work for Dell Comics.

While Toth worked extensively in comic books, he is perhaps best known for his work with Hanna-Barbera. He joined the animation studio in 1965. There he developed such characters as Space Ghost, the Herculoids, and Birdman. He would also work on such cartoons as Josie and the Pussycats and Superfriends. Toth's Hanna-Barbera characters, such as Space Ghost, entered American pop culture and would prove to be an influence on future comic book artists and writers (Mike Baron and Steve Rude credit Space Ghost as the inspiration for their comic book character Nexus). Following his work for Hanna-Barbera, Toth went back to work in comic books, working for such companies as DC, Dell, and Warren.

I was always a fan of Alex Toth. Although his work was often simple and uncomplicated, it was also realistic. With a few simple strokes, Toth could endow any given scene with a sense of immediacy and realism that many artists with more complex styles could not. Fittingly, Toth died at his drawing table.

The third celebrity to die of late was keyboardist Billy Preston. Preston died June 6 at age 59 after a long battle with chronic kidney disease. Preston was born in Houston, Texas, although he grew up in Los Angeles, California. He started playing piano when he was only three years of age. His first work was with the likes of Little Richard and Ray Charles. Perhaps his greatest claim to fame was his work with The Beatles. Appearing on The Beatles albums Let It Be and Abbey Road, he was the first non-Beatle to receive a credit on a Beatle record. For this reason he was sometimes called "the Fifth Beatle." Preston would work again with George Harrison on the song "My Sweet Lord."

Preston would go onto work with such artists as The Rolling Stones, Sly and the Family Stone, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He would also have a successful solo career of his own. Preston's first two singles went nowhere on the Billboard charts, but he had a hit and a Grammy win with his third single, "Outta Space." He would have two number one singles with "Will It Go Round in Circles" and "Nothing From Nothing."

In my humble opinion, Preston was one of the greatest keyboardists of the Sixties and Seventies. His work with The Beatles was impeccable. Indeed, I don't think any of The Beatles could have done better than him when it came to playing keyboards. I also enjoyed his some of his solo work, particularly "Will It Go Round in Circles." I am truly saddened by his passing.

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