What does a writer do when he’s got a family that includes a blacklisted member of the Hollywood Ten, the brains behind Tony the Tiger and the Marlboro Man, a trio of gay puppeteers, the world’s leading birdwatcher, 1960s hippies, a Dutch stowaway who served in an all-black regiment during the Civil War, and a convicted murderer? He tells their stories and secrets, illuminating 150 years of American history along the way.
Dan Bessie begins his journey through the Bessie and Burnett family history with his great-grandfather in the cargo hold of a ship bound for New York on the storm-tossed Atlantic. What follows are stories of his grandfather’s various entrepreneurial schemes, a grandmother who was voted “New York’s Prettiest Shop Girl” (and who resisted the recruitment efforts of various city madams), and his uncle Harry’s Turnabout Theater in Los Angeles (a renowned puppet theater drawing patrons as diverse as Shirley Temple, Ray Bradbury, and Albert Einstein).
Through inherited journals and letters, Bessie comes to a new understanding of his father, Alvah, an actor and writer who fought in the Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. Later, as a screenwriter, Alvah was blacklisted for his Communist sympathies and jailed as one of the Hollywood Ten.
Alvah is only one of many colorful relatives who would go on to play key roles in the world. Bessie’s research reveals many prominent people, from his grandmother’s cousin Sidney Lenz who wrote Lenz on Bridge, a classic guide to the game, to Bessie’s brother-in-law Wes Wilson who designed rock-and-roll posters for the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco during the 1960s and lived a counterculture existence vastly different from the bridge-mad Depression Era.
Not to be outdone, Cousin Michael Bessie established his niche in publishing, co-founding Atheneum Press and shaping books by Anwar Sadat, Edward Albee, and Aldous Huxley. With an equally impressive career, Uncle Leo Burnett built the country’s fifth largest advertising agency. A passion of a different sort led cousin Phoebe Snetsinger to travel all over the globe; during her lifetime she sighted 8,400 different birds—nearly 85 percent of the species known to exist.
Rare Birds celebrates the colorful diversity of a remarkable and accomplished family. While their choices and professions run the gamut of the American experience in the twentieth century, the history of the nation can be traced in their lives as Bessie’s passionate bids of a feather sing their unique songs across the decades and generations.
About Author Dan Bessie:
Dan Bessie is an award-winning filmmaker who cut his teeth in cartoon animation then went on to write, produce and direct more than 125 films, both live and animated, from shorts for schools to features to TV specials.
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