Jeff Healey

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Categories: Musicians

jhealey.jpgNorman Jeff Healey, a Grammy-nominated singer and musicologist, died on March 2 of lung cancer. He was 41.

Born and raised near Toronto, Healey was diagnosed with a rare form of retinal cancer when he was only one years old. The disease, known as retinoblastoma, claimed his eyesight.

Blindness could not halt Healey’s passion for music. At three, he picked up his first guitar and taught himself to play by laying the instrument across his lap. In his teens, Healey continued to hone his guitar skills while also learning how to play the trumpet and the clarinet. He graduated from Etobicoke Collegiate Institute, performed in several bands, studied musical theory and emulated musicians such as B.B. King, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. He would eventually share a stage with King as well as George Harrison, Ringo Starr, ZZ Top, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt and Stevie Ray Vaughn.

Healey formed The Jeff Healey Band in 1985. The group performed hundreds of concerts over a two-year period before signing with Arista Records and recording “See the Light.” The album, which featured the hit single “Angel Eyes,” went platinum in the United States and eventually sold two million copies worldwide. “See the Light” also earned Healey a Grammy nomination and the 1990 Juno Award for Entertainer of the Year. In 1989, The Jeff Healey Band performed their bluesy brand of rock music in the movie “Road House,” starring Patrick Swayze. Soon they were filling stadium venues with thousands of fans.

Healey also had a love for jazz, a genre of music he concentrated on in the 1990s. He once again picked up the trumpet, and recorded several albums with his jazz band, Jeff Healey’s Jazz Wizards. Healey also hosted the radio show “My Kinda Jazz” on CBC Radio and on Toronto’s Jazz-FM station, and operated two clubs in Toronto. His final album, “Mess of Blues,” which he recorded with the Healey’s House Band, will be released on March 20 in Europe and on April 22 in North America.

The cancer that plagued Healey in infancy returned in 2006. The husband and father of two underwent numerous operations to remove tumors from his lungs and leg, as well as aggressive radiation and chemotherapy treatments, but the disease continued to wreak havoc on his body. Healey fought the cancer physically and spiritually, but also musically, giving concerts that raised money for Daisy’s Eye Cancer Research Fund.

Two memorial concerts are scheduled to be held in May in Toronto. Information on tickets and acts will be posted on Healey’s Website. Later this year, Stony Plain will reissue two of his jazz albums, “Among Friends” and “Adventures in Jazzland.”

The Jeff Healey Band Remembering Jeff Healey


Kenneth Parnell


Categories: Criminals

Kenneth Eugene Parnell, one of California’s most notorious child molesters, died on Jan. 21 at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, Calif. Cause of death was not released. He was 76.

The Texas native spent most of his adolescence in and out of juvenile detention facilities. At 19, he was convicted of impersonating a police officer and sodomizing a young boy for which he spent three-and-a-half years in prison. An armed robbery charge in the 1960s briefly landed him back behind bars in Utah.

Then on Dec. 4, 1972, Parnell abducted 7-year-old Steven Gregory Stayner as the boy was walking to his Merced, Calif., home. The pedophile, who coaxed the child into his car by pretending to be a preacher, took him to a cabin in the woods and held him there for several hours. When the second-grader asked to be returned home, Parnell said Stayner’s family didn’t want him anymore. He gave Stayner a new name — Dennis Gregory Parnell — and spent the next seven years pretending to be his father. During that time, he also repeatedly molested the boy.

When Parnell snatched 5-year-old Timmy White in 1980, Stayner began to plan their escape. He knew he couldn’t let Parnell hurt White too. A month after White’s abduction, the boys snuck out in the middle of the night, hitchhiked to Ukiah, Calif., and told the police what happened. In his written statement, Stayner said: “My name is Steven Stainer (sic). I am fourteen years of age. I don’t know my true birthdate, but I use April 18, 1965. I know my first name is Steven, I’m pretty sure my last is Stainer, and if I have a middle name, I don’t know it.” The following day, the boys were reunited with their families.

Stayner’s story became the basis for a true crime book written by Mike Echols and a TV movie called “I Know My Name Is Steven,” which earned four nominations for Emmy Awards and one for a Golden Globe. Stayner received $30,000 for the film, and made a cameo appearance as one of the police officers who returns the boys to their families. He later married and had two children, a son and a daughter. In 1989, he was killed in a motorcycle accident at the age of 24. Timmy White, then 14, served as one of the pallbearers at Stayner’s funeral.

Parnell was convicted of both kidnappings in 1981 and received a seven-year prison sentence; however, he was paroled five years later. Parnell spent the next decade living quietly in Berkeley, Calif., where he rented a modest studio, smoked three packs of cigarettes a day and received food from the Meals on Wheels program. Local police kept an eye on him, but many of his neighbors never knew they had a sexual predator in their midst.

In 2003, an informant told police that Parnell had sought her help in trying to buy a four-year-old boy for $500. Moments after the money changed hands, police arrested him. Parnell was sentenced to 25 years to life under California’s “three strikes law.” He died in the prison’s hospice unit of an undisclosed illness.


Richard Knerr

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Categories: Business

Richard Knerr, a businessman who brought joy to millions of children around the world, died on Jan. 14 from complications of a stroke. He was 82.

The California native was a teenager when he befriended Arthur “Spud” Melin outside a Pasadena movie theater. The pair, who would remain lifelong pals and business partners, attended the University of Southern California but had no interest in joining their fathers’ companies after graduation. Instead, they started a small business training falcons. Few customers wanted to buy the birds, yet many were intrigued by the homemade wooden slingshots used to feed the creatures. So Knerr and Melin launched Wham-O Inc. in 1948, naming the business for the sound a slingshot makes when it hits its target. Its motto: “Our Business Is Fun.”

Over the next four decades, Wham-O expanded into other sporting goods and toys, including the bouncy Superball, the Slip ‘N Slide water slide, the Water Wiggle sprinkler, the Limbo Game and Silly String. But their most prominent contribution to the world of toys was a large ring called the Hula Hoop. A fad was born the moment kids placed the hoop around their hips and started swaying. Within four months of its 1958 release, Wham-O sold more than 25 million units. By 1960, 100 million Hula Hoops had sold.

Another popular product made its way into Americana after Knerr and Melin discovered Walter “Fred” Morrison playing with a flying disk on a beach in 1955. They immediately bought the rights to the disk, made some simple modifications and renamed it. The Frisbee instantly found a niche on college campuses and with dog owners. It also sparked the creation of an Ultimate Frisbee competition. To date, the company has sold more than 100 million Frisbees.

Not all of Wham-O’s products found an audience or became a craze. The company’s $119 do-it-yourself fallout shelter, which was marketed during the height of the Cold War, sold very few units. Wham-O did accept millions of orders for its Instant Fish aquarium kit, but the African fish refused to mate so the product was discontinued.

Wham-O was purchased by the Kransco Group Companies in 1982, earning Knerr and Melin $12 million for their endeavors. Melin died in 2002 at 77. In 1994, Mattel acquired Wham-O from Kransco; three years later, a group of investors bought it back and made it an independent company once again.


Maila Nurmi

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Categories: Actors, Artists, Hollywood

mnurmi.jpgMaila Nurmi, an actress and artist who became the queen of the B-movie scene in Los Angeles, died on Jan. 10. Cause of death was not released. She was 85.

Born Maila Elizabeth Syrjaniemi in Petsamo, Finland, Nurmi immigrated to America when she was just a toddler. Although she grew up in Ohio, Nurmi moved to New York in her late teens to try and break into show business. The actors and artists she met in Manhattan persuaded her to change her name and head to Hollywood. For Nurmi, the trappings of stardom were simply too enticing to pass up.

While auditioning for roles, Nurmi worked as a chorus girl and pin-up model. In 1953, she won a costume contest at the annual Bal Caribe Masquerade, an event that brought her to the attention of KABC-TV Channel 7 program director Hunt Stromberg Jr. He tracked her down months later and offered her a job as the host of a late-night horror program.

That’s how Nurmi became Vampira, a gothic enchantress reminiscent of Charles Addams’ New Yorker cartoons. Each week, the Black Madonna of Hollywood would appear on camera wearing a slinky black dress, blood-red lipstick and darkly mascaraed eyes, and introduce fright films like “Revenge of the Zombies” and “Devil Bat’s Daughter.”
Although “The Vampira Show” was canceled after about a year, Nurmi became a cult figure among B-movie buffs. Her legions of admirers launched fan clubs in her honor all over the world. Many felt she inspired the character of Morticia Addams on “The Addams Family,” which premiered about a decade later. Nurmi, however, believed her dark persona was stolen by Cassandra Peterson, an actress who created the horror movie hostess Elvira. She even filed a $10 million lawsuit against Peterson for pirating her trademark image, but lost the court battle.

Nurmi later appeared in several B-movies, including “Sex Kittens Go to College,” “The Beat Generation,” “The Magic Sword” and “The Big Operator.” She also made a memorable appearance in Ed Wood’s 1959 cult classic, “Plan 9 From Outer Space.” But these pictures didn’t pay the bills, and Nurmi was forced to support herself as a linoleum-layer, carpenter, housekeeper, clothing designer and antique shop owner. More recently, she painted pictures of Vampira that she sold on the Internet.

Privately, Nurmi was a self-described psychic with a talent for clairaudience, and a passionate advocate for animals rights. Her life story was chronicled in the 2006 documentary “Vampira: The Movie.”



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Categories: Misc.

gemina.jpgGemina, the beloved crooked-necked giraffe at the Santa Barbara Zoo, was euthanized on Jan 9. She was 21.

Gemina was born on July 16, 1986, at the San Diego Wild Animal Park. Her parents, Ginger and Black Jack, were both born in captivity at the San Diego Zoo.
Gemina was brought to the Santa Barbara Zoo when she was a year old. At three, she began to develop an odd “crick” in her neck. Zoo officials could not determine the cause of the oddity, even after taking x-rays, but they decided against performing exploratory surgery on her neck because the operation would have endangered her life.

Despite her unusual appearance, Gemina was a healthy giraffe and one of the most popular animals at the zoo. The 13-and-a-half-foot-tall leaf-eater even gave birth to a healthy calf in 1991; the baby giraffe later died of pneumonia.

Gemina was a Baringo (or Rothschild) giraffe, one of three species found in Uganda and western Kenya. The tallest animal on the ground, Baringo giraffes can grow to be 16 feet tall. Females tend to be slightly shorter than males, but both have brown, patterned coats and tufted horns on top of their heads.

Last summer, the zoo celebrated Gemina’s 21st birthday with a serenade by Zoo Campers, a “giraffe-sized” birthday card and a special treat of acacia. A video of the occasion was posted on YouTube. Gemina also topped a local radio station’s list of the “Seven Wonders of Santa Barbara.”

During the final two weeks of her life, Gemina’s health declined. When she stopped eating altogether, zoo officials knew old age had taken its toll on her, and it was time to put Gemina down. Her deterioration was not believed to be related to her neck condition, however results from a necropsy are pending.

“Though a few giraffes in captivity have been known to live into their late-twenties, reaching age 21 is considered an achievement,” zoo CEO and Director Rich Block stated. “She was a great animal ambassador, showing that differences can be accepted and even celebrated. She will be missed.”

[Photo by Van Swearingen. Used with permission.]

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