Remembering Five Interesting Americans Who Died in 2008

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I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Barbara Klein with PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English. Today we remember five interesting people who died this year. We begin with the writer David Foster Wallace. His inventive stories and books explored human emotions and the complexities of modern American culture.

Wallace's first novel, "The Broom of the System," was published in nineteen eighty-six. He was twenty-four years old at the time.

David Foster Wallace is probably best known for the novel "Infinite Jest" published ten years later. This book was over a thousand pages long. It is an intelligent and darkly humorous description of American society. Wallace was known for using footnotes to explain details in his stories. He experimented with unusual ways to structure stories.

The book "Consider the Lobster" is a collection of Wallace's many intelligent essays. They are about subjects including food, politics, and literature. His sharp observations make readers think about common subjects in new ways.

David Foster Wallace grew up in Champaign, Illinois. He studied philosophy and English at Amherst College in Massachusetts. He later taught creative writing at Illinois State University, then at Pomona College in California.

Wallace suffered from severe depression for many years. He committed suicide in September. He was forty-six years old.

One literary critic called David Foster Wallace one of the most influential writers of the past twenty years. He said Wallace brought experimentation of form and a sense of play to the American novel.

That was "Jack O Diamonds" by the folk and blues singer known as Odetta. She was an important performer during the American civil rights movement of the nineteen fifties and sixties. She sang a wide range of musical notes with her powerful voice.

Singer and songwriter Bob Dylan has said that he first became interested in folk singing after listening to the album "Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues." Dylan said there was something alive and very personal about her songs.

Odetta Holmes was born in the southern state of Alabama in nineteen thirty. She grew up listening to prison and work songs from the rural south. Odetta described these songs as freedom songs. She said the people in the songs were trapped by society and they could either lie down and die or insist upon life.

Odetta went to music school and trained in classical music. But she said this music had nothing to do with her life. She said folk music taught her about the human spirit.

Odetta became very active in the civil rights movement for racial equality. In the nineteen sixties, she performed alongside Martin Luther King, Junior at major political events. Later in her career, she made albums honoring the jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald and the blues guitarist Leadbelly.

Odetta died in December of heart disease. She had been sick for several years. She had been hoping to sing during President-elect Barack Obama's swearing-in ceremony next month.

For many people, the name Baskin-Robbins is linked to sweet memories of eating ice cream. Irvine Robbins, who helped create this famous company, died in May at the age of ninety. His life's work of making fun and exciting ice cream flavors changed the way Americans enjoy this food.

Irvine Robbins opened his first ice cream store in nineteen forty-five in California. At the time, there were no stores that sold only ice cream. His sister's husband, Burton Baskin, also opened his own ice cream stores.

In nineteen forty-eight, they combined their six stores into one business. Baskin and Robbins realized that they were too busy to operate each store well. So, they decided to sell part of each operation to the manager of that store. This permitted the company to grow quickly.

By nineteen fifty-three, they renamed their company Baskin-Robbins. They advertised that they sold thirty-one kinds of ice cream to show the many choices buyers had. There was one flavor for every day of the month.

Robbins and Baskin had fun inventing wild new ice creams. They sold "Lunar Cheesecake" the day after astronauts landed on the moon in nineteen sixty-nine. Other flavors included "ChaChaCha," for cherry chocolate chip, and Robbins' personal favorite, "Jamoca Almond Fudge." They said: "We sell fun, not just ice cream."

By nineteen sixty-seven there were five hundred Baskin-Robbins stores in the United States. The business partners sold their company that year. Today, there are more than five thousand eight hundred Baskin-Robbins stores around the world.

Irvine Robbins never went long without his favorite food. He started every day with a breakfast meal of cereal topped with Baskin-Robbins banana ice cream.

Cyd Charisse was a dancer known for her beautiful legs and beautiful moves. She starred in famous Hollywood musicals alongside the great dancers Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Astaire once described Charisse as "beautiful dynamite."

Cyd Charisse was born Tula Ellice Finklea in nineteen twenty-two. She grew up in Amarillo, Texas where she started dance lessons at a young age. Her brother was unable to pronounce the"sister" so he called her "Sid" and the name stuck. As a teenager, she went to California to train as a professional dancer. She became a member of the traveling dance group called the Ballet Russe of Monte Carlo and performed under the name Felia Sidorova. She married her first husband, the dance teacher Nico Charisse, when she was eighteen years old.

Cyd Charisse's role in the movie "Singin' in the Rain" first brought her wide public attention. It was released in nineteen fifty-two. Her sexy dance with Gene Kelly in this musical is hard to forget.

She also starred in other movies including "The Band Wagon", "Brigadoon" and "Silk Stockings." Later in her career, Cyd Charisse performed song and dance acts with her second husband, Tony Martin. She died in June of a heart attack at the age of eighty-six.

Cyd Charisse once said that she played a role in all of her dance performances . She said that dancing was about more than just steps.

GEORGE CARLIN: "Let's put it this way, there are things about the words surrounding football and baseball which give it all away. Football is technological. Baseball is pastoral. Football is played in a stadium. Baseball is played in a park. In football, you wear a helmet. In baseball you wear a cap!"

That was a live performance by the humorist George Carlin about the differences between American baseball and football.

GEORGE CARLIN: "The object in football is to march downfield and penetrate enemy territory and get into the end zone. In baseball the object is to go home."

He performed it in nineteen seventy-five on the first broadcast of the television comedy show "Saturday Night Live."

George Carlin made fun of many things, including religion, politics, and language. He liked to investigate the funny side of subjects considered socially unacceptable to discuss. Sometimes his humor was angry, while other times it was very silly. He said it was the duty of the comedian to test the limits of humor.

George Carlin was born in the Bronx area of New York City in nineteen thirty-seven. He dropped out of high school and joined the Air Force. He later worked as a radio announcer and had a late-night comedy act. In nineteen sixty, he moved to Hollywood and began performing on television.

One of his most famous acts was about "seven dirty words." It was on his nineteen seventy-two album, "Class Clown." Carlin talks about the seven words that are illegal to say on American television. When performing the act, Carlin was arrested for using bad language in public. The next year, a radio station aired another version of Carlin's dirty word act. The Federal Communications Commission fined the radio station for using adult language and the case went to the Supreme Court.

During his long career George Carlin made twenty-two comedy records, wrote three books and appeared in movies and hundreds of television programs. He also won four Grammy Awards for his albums. This year he was awarded the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. But he did not live to receive it. George Carlin died in June at the age of seventy-one.

This program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I'm Steve Ember.

And I'm Barbara Klein. You can learn about other famous Americans on our Web site, voaspecialenglish.com. Join us again next week for PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English.