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The Late Greats: Lives We Lost in 2018 

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click to enlarge Ted Dabney. - ILLUSTRATION BY GREG HOUSTON
  • Ted Dabney.

Ted Dabney
Electronics engineer and co-founder of Atari
May 2, 1937–May 26, 2018
In the beginning was a word. And the word was pizza.

Pizza parlors, to be exact — the ones lit by the blinking screens of arcade cabinets and populated by animatronic critters. In the mid-1960s, such establishments only existed in ambitious schemes cooked up by Ted Dabney and Nolan Bushnell, two friends then employed as engineers by California-based electronics company Ampex.

Dabney agreed to join Bushnell in his business venture, which combined the former's technological and electronics expertise (gained in the '50s at the Navy's electronics school on Treasure Island in the San Francisco Bay) with the latter's unbridled creativity and experience working as a carnival barker during college.

Unsurprisingly, the duo's initial efforts failed to bear the intended fruit (or dough, for that matter), but they did mark the genesis of electronic gaming as a cultural institution. What started out as a far-fetched dream would soon become a household name: Atari.

At the time, coin-operated arcade cabinets were largely analog machines: pinball, fortune tellers, skee-ball. Dabney and Bushnell were intent on replicating the mechanical complexity of these games first on a computer, and later on a television set. Programming and buying computers was cost-prohibitive, so Dabney — inspired by how a TV set's vertical and horizontal move the picture back and forth — devised a way to move digital shapes across a screen using a universal platform that was cheaper to build and easier to manage and store.

"Ted came up with the breakthrough idea that got rid of the computer so you didn't have to have a computer to make the game work," one of Atari's first employees, Allan Alcorn, told the New York Times in June. "It created the industry."

Bushnell pitched the new motion circuit technology to arcade manufacturer Nutting Associates, who helped the duo produce the first-ever commercially-available coin-operated cabinet video game, Computer Space, in 1971.

The sci-fi themed game netted Dabney and Bushnell enough royalties to found their own company, first called Syzygy and quickly renamed Atari. The company broke into the mainstream in 1972 with the release of Pong, a simplified departure from Computer Space that simulated table tennis with two lines and a dot. By the end of 1974, Atari sold more than 8,000 units of the game at $937 a pop.

Unfortunately, Dabney reaped a much smaller reward than his partner. He learned that Bushnell had applied for a patent without his consent, submitting Dabney's designs under his own name. Bushnell's charisma pushed Dabney to a lower rung of Atari, leaving him frustrated enough to sell his ownership for $250,000 in 1973.

Disillusioned by the perils of success, Dabney largely bowed out of the industry. In the meantime, Bushnell pushed Atari into living rooms with a series of video consoles. In the late '70s, Bushnell enlisted Dabney to help develop a new venture — a restaurant-slash-arcade called Pizza Time, later renamed Chuck E. Cheese's. After further disputes split the pair up again, Dabney retreated from the entertainment industry for good.

Dabney died of esophageal cancer on May 26. — Jude Noel

click to enlarge Mike Arnold. - ILLUSTRATION BY GREG HOUSTON
  • Mike Arnold.

Mike Arnold
Owner-operator of St. Louis' Gus Gus Fun Bus
November 11, 1963–June 21, 2018 Mike Arnold, a tireless booster of the St. Louis food and drink scene, was run down on June 21 by a stolen Ford F-150. A pair of downtown carjackers, fresh off pepper-spraying two women, apparently saw the bearded 54-year-old filming them with his cell phone, veered off the road and intentionally slammed him with the two-and-a-half ton truck, authorities say. They then crashed into a pole and were arrested within moments.

In a way, it was a very St. Louis crime: stupid and needlessly violent with an element of small-town familiarity.

Arnold had become a favorite character in the city's hospitality industry. He worked for 30 years for AAA, but it was his alter ego as the gregarious driver of the fourteen-seat party bus (dubbed "Gus Gus Fun Bus" by one of his children) and unofficial St. Louis ambassador that endeared him to brewers, restaurateurs and bartenders. He delighted in a good beer and gutsy young chefs who gambled on optimism. He used his ever-growing Twitter following to celebrate their work and introduce others to his favorite spots around town. In between, he offered congratulations on new babies, raised money for any number of causes and delivered weather reports with paternal advice to take care on the roads.

At home, he was a father of eight who lifted sitting kids, chair and all, in his arms and danced them through the air, a husband whose wife woke to his voice: "Good morning, Angel." He and his wife first purchased Gus Gus Fun Bus because it was one of the few vehicles big enough to accommodate their blended family.

On the day Arnold was hit, he was downtown for a festival, a celebration of local food and chefs. He obviously knew about the city's darker side. Anyone who has spent any time here is familiar with the violence that can so easily overwhelm. The wickedness, the dog-dumb brutality of his own death was a reminder of that St. Louis.

And if you want to fit his killing into that worldview, you can. But you will overlook what he saw in St. Louis. You will miss the feisty beer-makers, the Cardinals' baseball games and the restaurants that get better every year. You will miss the fun. — Doyle Murphy

click to enlarge Vladimir Voinovich. - ILLUSTRATION BY GREG HOUSTON
  • Vladimir Voinovich.

Vladimir Voinovich
Soviet dissident and dystopian satirist
Sept. 26, 1932–July 28, 2018
By the time of his death, Vladimir Voinovich was never mentioned without some variation of his title: satirist. Sometimes it was "famed satirist" or even "master satirist." But the Russian writer, who spent his life alternatively fleeing and critiquing his homeland's leaders, told interviewers that he found the label exasperating. He saw himself as a realist.

"What I describe here is only what I saw with my own eyes," Voinovich writes in the introduction of his dystopian epic Moscow 2042.

Of course the book, described by one reviewer as "the Soviet Catch-22," is a ridiculous piece of fiction. The novel follows Russian dissident writer Vitaly Karsev, who essentially functions as Voinovich's stand-in as he bumbles his way into a time-traveling expedition 60 years into the future. He arrives in a Moscow governed as a city-state by "pure Communism," a system wherein bathrooms are under the jurisdiction of the "Bureau of Natural Functions" and newspapers are printed directly on toilet paper.

Above it all is the Generalissimo — a strongman keeping the population under control on the combined strength of religious dogma, a ludicrous cult of personality and the secret police.

The book was a hit in the West when it was published in 1987 (it was banned in Soviet Russia). Decades later, contemporary scholars noted that the novel's dystopian merger of the KGB, the Communist state and the church foreshadowed the rise of Vladimir Putin, creating a reality with odd parallels to the fictional Moscow of 2042.

Voinovich noticed the similarity too. "I think it's pretty close," he admitted to The Daily Beast in 2015.

By then, he had already lived many disparate roles: Born to a Jewish mother and journalist father, he served as a loyal Soviet soldier in World War II, a wannabe poet under Stalin, a dissident writer under Khrushchev and then a satirist in exile in West Germany, where he penned Moscow 2042. Welcomed home during the presidency of Mikhail Gorbachev, he finally attained acceptance in his own homeland.

And then, like an absurdist plot in one of Voinovich's own works, Putin took control. Once again, Voinovich became an outspoken dissident, as the author rebuked the regime's repression of the media and political opponents, as well as the war in Chechnya.

Indeed, Voinovich managed to live long enough to become his own sort of time traveler. In his final years, he witnessed a backsliding Russia controlled by bureaucrats who projected breathtaking confidence in their leader, even as the country's hard-won freedoms unraveled under that leader's fist.

"Next time, I'll write a utopia," Voinovich joked to an American crowd a few years ago. "People keep saying that all the bad things I write come true, so I'm going to write something good."

Instead, he suffered a heart attack. The master satirist died July 28. He left his prophetic gifts for the next generation of dissidents and trouble-makers — and stories of comic authoritarianism that, with each passing headline, seem less and less fantastical. — Danny Wicentowski

click to enlarge Mary Carlisle. - ILLUSTRATION BY GREG HOUSTON
  • Mary Carlisle.

Mary Carlisle
"Baby starlet" who made more than 60 films in a decade
Feb. 3, 1914-Aug. 1, 2018
A radiant 1930s film ingénue known for her fresh face, porcelain skin and blond hair, Mary Carlisle appeared in more than 60 films in the course of her short career, everything from Bing Crosby crooners to B-movie horror films — the last of which was the low-budget vampire thriller Dead Men Walk, released in 1943.

Born Gwendolyn Witter in Boston in 1912 or 1914 — according to the Washington Post, she would frequently say her true age was "none of your business" — she was discovered at fourteen while eating lunch at Universal Studios with her mother. Studio executive Carl Laemmle Jr. saw her and demanded she be given a screen test, reportedly saying, "This girl has the most angelic face I ever saw." But it wasn't until after she completed her formal education — and bluffed her way into a chorus girl casting call at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, thanks to her uncle Robert's film connections — that she pursued a career on the big screen.

Her first part was an uncredited appearance in the Academy Award-winning 1932 drama Grand Hotel, starring Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo and John Barrymore.That same year she was named a "Baby Star" — a PR designation for starlets deemed to be on the cusp of a big film career — by the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers, but Carlisle never found the same success as other "stars" like Clara Bow or Ginger Roger. Typecast as a wholesome virgin or upbeat gal, Carlisle eventually retired from cinema after marrying British actor James Blakeley in 1942. "I've played sweet young heroines long enough," she said.

After her acting career, Carlisle managed the Elizabeth Arden salon in Beverly Hills. She died at the age of 104 (or 106, depending on who you ask) at the Motion Picture and Television Fund retirement community for actors in Woodland Hills, California. — Maija Zummo

click to enlarge Chief Wahoo. - ILLUSTRATION BY GREG HOUSTON
  • Chief Wahoo.

Chief Wahoo
Cleveland Indians mascot and racial flashpoint
Chief Wahoo, the racist red-faced symbol that has adorned the sleeves and ballcaps of the Cleveland Indians' uniforms since 1947, has succumbed at last to his inevitable fate, possibly timed to Cleveland's imminent date in the national spotlight with the 2019 MLB All-Star Game.

A much-floated and entirely plausible theory is that MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, a vocal opponent of Wahoo's continued use, told Cleveland the summer showcase would only be bestowed on the city if the offensive symbol was no longer around. MLB's very public announcement of deliberations between the team and the league on the Wahoo front in advance of the All-Star game announcement lent a certain undeniable credence to the conjecture.

In recent years, the team had "scaled back" the use of Wahoo in favor of a primary "Block C" logo, but the image was still beloved among diehard fans, prominent in the team shop and regularly worn by the team.

Team owner Paul Dolan announced last year, though, that Wahoo at last would be eliminated, at least as an official logo on the team's uniforms. Given MLB's visible crusade, Dolan, who had over the years acknowledged Wahoo's problematic existence and reception outside of the city, could at least save face with ardent Wahoo supporters — many of whom now wear "Keep the Chief" or "Long Live the Chief" apparel to games — by saying Major League Baseball, not the Indians, was to blame.

Last year, the logo was paraded around for the full season, an outlandish farewell tour for a symbol that most everyone outside of Cleveland has long acknowledged represents an enduring harm to Native American communities. It was and is a grotesque caricature that belongs in a museum, if not a garbage can.

Chief Wahoo first appeared in 1947, created by cartoonist Walter Goldbach, who was only seventeen at the time. (Goldblach died in 2017.) The image was meant to "convey a spirit of pure joy and unbridled enthusiasm," at a time when Native American racism was still rampant. The team name was "inspired" by former Native American player Louis Sockalexis, in the sense that fans enjoyed taunting and jeering him for the duration of his very brief career, one cut short by alcoholism. That is the legacy that current Wahoo apologists so passionately claim to be honoring.

In 1951, the logo evolved into the Red Sambo still in use today. His death is mourned and protested by thousands of Clevelanders who believe that professional baseball has been infiltrated by snowflake social justice warriors and race hucksters who are promoting racism where none exists for their own political and financial gain.

The Chief is unfortunately survived on the professional sporting stage by the Washington Redskins' name and by dozens, if not hundreds, of similarly offensive logos and nicknames of high schools across the country. — Sam Allard

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