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A friend, Debbie Allen, sent me this neat article on Charles “Charlie” Taylor, a mechanic for the Wright Brothers. Charlie earns a good deal of the credit in the final phase of the brothers’ preparations for powered flight. I knew a good deal about Charlie’s involvement, but was unfamiliar with the rest of his story.
Charles E. Taylor: The Man Aviation History Almost Forgot
Air Line Pilot, April 2000, page 18
By Bob Taylor
When I was appointed safety program manager (airworthiness) for the Cleveland FSDO, one of the duties assigned to me was to conduct the Charles E. Taylor Award Program, the purpose of which is to honor the mechanics who have been connected with aviation maintenance for 50 years or more. However, one question always came up about the program: Who was Charles Taylor? I was embarrassed because I didn’t know the answer. So I did some research, and here’s what I found.
Three men were involved in the invention and development of the first powered airplane-that’s right, three. Everyone knows about the Wright brothers, but the third man was Charles E. “Charlie” Taylor, a quiet genius who loved cigars and the sound of machinery. Although he contributed to powered flight-one of the greatest human achievements-his name was almost lost in aviation history, until now; and without Charlie, that first powered airplane would never have gotten off the ground.
Charlie Taylor was born on a little farm in Cerro Gordo, Ill., on May 24, 1868. As a boy, Charlie moved to Lincoln, Neb., with his family. He quit school at the age of 12 and went to work as an errand boy for the Nebraska State Journal. However, Charlie was mechanically inclined, so later, when he began working with machinery in the Journal’s bindery, it came easy for him.
When Charlie was in his 20s he moved to Kearney, Neb., where he went into the business of making metal house numbers. There, in 1892, Charlie met a young lady named Herietia Webbert and married her 2 years later. In 1896, the Taylors moved to Dayton, Ohio, where Charlie worked for Stoddard Manufacture, which made farm equipment and, later, bicycles. In Dayton, Charlie met the Wrights. Mrs. Taylor’s uncle rented a building on West Third Street to the Wright brothers for their bicycle business. This was a convenient connection-in 1898, when Charlie started his own machine shop, Orville and Wilbur Wright brought him special jobs, including a bicycle coaster brake they had invented but later dropped.
Charlie eventually sold his tool shop for a profit and went to work for the Dayton Electric Co. However, he didn’t like his job there, so he accepted when the Wright brothers asked him to work for them at $18 per week. This was a good decision for several reasons: The Wright brothers’ shop was only six blocks from where Charlie lived, he could ride a bike home for lunch every day, he was making $8 a week more, and he liked the Wright brothers a lot.
Charlie started to work for the Wright brothers on June 15, 1901, making routine repairs on bicycles. This let the Wright brothers pursue their glider experiments, which included trips to Kitty Hawk, N.C. After one of these trips, the brothers decided they needed more-accurate aerodynamic data than was available, and they decided to build a small wind tunnel with a delicate force balance. With this, they would measure the amount and direction of air pressures on plane and curved surfaces operating at various angles and would improve their theories based on their gliding experiences.
Building the wind tunnel was the first job that Charlie Taylor undertook for the Wright brothers that had any connection with aeronautics. The wind tunnel was a rectangular box with a fan at one end driven by a natural gas engine. Charlie ground hacksaw blades and used them for balances in the tunnel. The Wright brothers conducted many experiments in their wind tunnel, and from this data, they began to make their 1902 glider, with Charlie machining many of the parts.
On Aug. 13, 1902, the brothers shipped the glider to Kitty Hawk. They made several flights with the glider; and on Oct. 31, 1902, the Wrights returned to Dayton to make plans for a powered airplane. Through their experiments, the Wrights were able to accurately predict the horsepower-eight-that was needed to produce and achieve powered flight. The next problem was where to get a light engine that would produce eight horsepower. The Wrights knew that a steam engine might suit their purpose, but a gasoline engine would be safer and more efficient.
On Dec. 3, 1902, the Wrights sent letters to almost a dozen automobile companies and gasoline engine manufacturers asking if they could produce or modify an engine that would develop eight to nine brake horsepower, weigh no more than 180 pounds, and be free from vibration. Most companies replied that they were too busy to undertake building such a special engine.
Falling back on their own mechanical experience, the Wright brothers decided to design and build their own engine. They estimated they could build a four-cylinder engine with a 4-inch stroke and a 4-inch bore, weighing no more than 200 pounds with accessories included. By their calculation, it would develop the horsepower necessary to power the airplane in flight.
Now the problem was to find someone to build the engine, but that was easily solved. The brothers decided that they would give that task to Charlie and that they would build the airframe.
Charlie was excited about this new challenge. From his knowledge of mechanics and design, he knew that the engine design was basic, straightforward, simple, and capable of succeeding. Charlie had very limited knowledge of gasoline engines, but he used his craftsmanship, genius, enthusiasm, and efficiency to tackle the task.
Charlie started building the engine in the winter of 1902-03. Without any formal drawings available, Charlie or the Wrights had to crudely sketch out each part on a piece of paper. After a thorough discussion about the drawing, Taylor would pin it above his workbench and go to work to complete it. Using these sketches and specifications, he finished the engine in 6 weeks-an amazing accomplishment.
I want to describe in some detail how Charles Taylor made the engine, so you can appreciate the craftsman he was. The first problem that Charlie and the Wrights faced was how to design the crankcase. The case had to be light and strong. Aluminum was still a rare metal in those days, and getting a good sound casting was difficult. John Hoban, foreman of Buckeye Iron and Brass Foundry in Dayton, took on the job of making the crankcase using the strongest aluminum alloy he had. The cylinders were turned from fine-grain gray cast iron and had a bore of 4 inches. The top and bottom of the cylinders were threaded so they could be screwed into the crankcase and a water jacket could be screwed onto them.
Charlie’s next major task was making the crankshaft. Being a mechanic most of my life, I would never even try to take on a project of making a crankshaft with the equipment that Charles Taylor had-a drill press, a lathe (both run by a natural gas engine), and hand tools.
Charlie secured a plate of high-carbon tool steel that measured 15/8 inches thick, 6 inches wide, and 31 inches long. On the plate, he traced an outline of the crankshaft and carefully, painstakingly drilled hundreds of holes along the outline of the crankshaft. This weakened the plate enough so he could knock the excess material away with a hammer and metal chisel.
Once he had done this, he had the rough-cut crankshaft ready for the lathe and the finish cut. With the small natural gas engine chugging away at full power and driving the large, wide leather belts that turned the lathe, Charlie turned out a nearly perfect crankshaft to the thousandth of an inch.
The next part that Charlie worked on was a flywheel made from a solid block of cast iron.
Charlie carefully thought out the connecting rods, intake valves, exhaust valves, pistons, valve guides, rocker arm, and numerous other parts that made up the complete engine and tailored them to fit the operation of the engine. Charlie painstakingly assembled the engine part by part, fitting and refitting each piece with the meticulous care of a jeweler making a watch. He scrutinized every detail. He assembled and disassembled the parts, time and time again, making sure of their operation until all the parts were working in harmony.
Building the engine took a lot of genius and ingenuity, and it was finally complete and assembled in February 1903. It was mounted on a test stand and ran well, producing 8 horsepower at 670 rpm and 11 horsepower at 1,000 rpm.
As a result of getting an engine that produced 12 horsepower at full rpm, the Wright brothers were able to add another 150 pounds to the aircraft, which allowed them to strengthen the wings and framework. The engine drove two counterrotating pusher propellers by means of chains. The Wright brothers designed and tested propellers in the wind tunnel and built several propellers that could be used for their first successful flight.
Charlie also made all of the metal parts, including the metal fittings used to join the wooden struts and to which the spruce spars and Roebling truss wires were attached.
On Sept. 23, 1903, the Wright brothers left Dayton for Kitty Hawk to start preparation for their first powered flights, and the Flyer followed them on September 25. They assembled the Flyer and installed the engine on November 2. To reduce the danger of the engine falling on the pilot in a wreck, they placed the engine on the lower wing to the right of center. When they started the engine, the vibration from the irregular firing caused the prop shaft extensions to fail. Charlie made new shafts out of solid steel, which held up during the first flights.
On Dec. 17, 1903, in the mid morning, after a run of about 40 feet at a groundspeed of approximately 7 to 8 mph, the first successful airplane to carry a human lifted off and flew 120 feet in 12 seconds, thus introducing a new era of transportation. Orville and Wilbur Wright each flew twice that day, making successfully longer flights, until Wilbur’s 59-second flight, which covered 852 feet over the ground, ended in a soft crash. Although the Wrights’ first flights weren’t publicized that much, Charlie and the Wright brothers were very excited.
The Wright brothers decided to build another flying machine, but decided against going again to Kitty Hawk. They looked near Dayton for a level place for flying. After a few days of searching, the Wrights found a suitable 90-acre pasture, often called “Huffman Prairie,” which belonged to Torrence Huffman, a Dayton bank president. He allowed them to use it for free-provided they didn’t run over his cows. Charlie and the Wrights built a hangar to house the airplane and moved into the new facility on April 20, 1904.
Charlie took care of the field and facility while the Wrights went around the country and world. Charlie was the first airport manager.
In a 1948 interview, Charlie said that he had “always wanted to learn to fly, but I never did. The Wrights refused to teach me and tried to discourage the idea. They said they needed me in the shop and to service their machines, and if I learned to fly, I’d be gadding about the country and maybe become an exhibition pilot, and then they’d never see me again.” How prophetic those last words were!
On September 17, Charlie was slated to fly with Orville, but before the flight, larger propellers were installed to compensate for the heavier weight of the two men. At the last minute, Charlie was replaced by Lt. Thomas Selfridge, a 20-year-old West Point graduate from San Francisco.
During the flight, Orville heard a strange noise. He looked around, but saw nothing. However, he decided to shut down the engine and land. Suddenly, they felt two large thumps, and the airplane shook violently as Orville tried to control the airplane’s descent to the ground. About 20 feet from the ground, the airplane started to correct itself, but it was too late. The airplane hit the ground, killing Lt. Selfridge and badly injuring Orville Wright. Lt. Thomas Selfridge became the first passenger casualty in a powered aircraft.
After the accident, Charlie investigated the crash scene and found that the new propellers that they installed before the flight had delaminated. Charlie reported his findings to Orville, who was in the hospital recovering from his injuries. Charles was the first person to investigate a powered fatal accident flight.
Charles Taylor continued to work with the Wright brothers until 1911, when an adventurer and pilot, Calbraith Perry Rodgers, wanted to make the first continental flight across the United States. Rodgers bought an airplane from the Wright brothers and enough parts to build two more airplanes.
Orville realized that the airplane would not last more than 1,000 miles without being properly maintained, so he lent Charlie to Rodgers knowing that Charlie would be the only person who could keep the airplane flying for that distance successfully. Charlie sent his family ahead to California and got on the three-car train that was to accompany the flight. One car of the train was a repair car in which the aircraft parts were stored and the airplane repaired.
Crossing the United States took Cal Rodgers 47 days-3 days 10 hours of which was actual flying time. His longest single flight was 133 miles. He crashed 16 times, and the airplane was repaired so many times that at journey’s end only the rudder, the engine drip pan, and a single strut of the original airplane remained-a testament to the skill that Charlie used in keeping the airplane flying.
This was the last of Charlie’s big adventures. Charlie returned to Dayton and worked for the Wright-Martin Company until 1920.
Charlie eventually moved to California and lost touch with Orville Wright, but things turned bad for Charlie. The Depression hit, and Charlie’s machine shop failed. He lost his life’s savings in a real estate venture, and his wife died.
Charlie Taylor’s contribution to aviation was forgotten until 1937, when Henry Ford was reconstructing the old Wright bicycle shop in Dearborn, Mich. Detectives found Charlie working at North American Aviation in Los Angeles for 37 cents per hour. None of his co-workers realized he had built the engine for the first successful airplane.
Charlie worked for Ford until 1941, when he returned to California and worked 60 hours per week in a defense factory. However, in 1945, Charlie suffered a heart attack and was never able to work again.
In November 1955, a reporter discovered Charlie in Los Angeles General Hospital’s charity ward-he was almost destitute. His income was his Social Security retirement check and an $800-a-year annuity fund that Orville Wright had belatedly established before his death in 1948.
The aviation industry immediately started a campaign to raise funds for Charlie. He was moved to a private sanitarium, where he died a few months later, on Jan. 30, 1956, at the age of 88. Having no close relatives, Charles E. Taylor was buried in the Portal of Folded Wings Mausoleum dedicated to aviation pioneers, located in Valhalla Memorial Park, Los Angeles.
Charles E. Taylor was the last of the three who shrank the world by building the first successful powered airplane-the mechanic who made the flight possible.
I am sitting in my study, as I do four days a week, writing. Each afternoon through mid-evening I teach private lessons. But prior to teaching, I have three-scheduled hours of writing time, cheerfully followed by errands, and household chores. I am fortunate to spend my mornings, somewhat leisurely, writing, simply because one lady told me I could write, and then, she showed me how to write.
Although my younger siblings cringed when Darren Paquin pulled out my high school essays, written nearly a decade earlier, they also expressed some pride that their eldest brother was still remembered in the classrooms, and hallways, of Elwood Community High School. They often razzed me for my writing skills, but they never realized how much effort, time, and work, I put into writing, and especially, depending on the topic, research, and outlining.
Since the fall of 1982, I have continually used the “rock of writing” learned in Mrs. Paquin’s classroom: an outline. I can remember the encouragement, and insistence, that was her daily mantra, “Outline.” I always knew, when I ran into writing issues, the first question I would be asked, “Where’s your outline?”
One day, Mrs. Paquin hovered over my shoulder as I struggled with a particular paragraph in an essay. “Let me take a look at your outline.” It was such a casual request, yet one I was dreading that morning. I had no outline. I admitted that I had skipped a procedure in the very thing I now promote as a teacher: PROCESS. Mrs. Paquin straightened, looked down, and just stood there with a ‘are-you-kidding-me-? smile. For several seconds, she said nothing. Finally, using her red flair-tipped editing pen, she tapped me on the shoulder, and said, “You know I expect more from you.” And with that, she moved on to the next student, but turned to reaffirm her statement with a smile, punctuated with a wink.
For my sons, former students, and current students, who are reading this, I am sure there is a breeze, accompanied by the sound of a flock of fleeing birds, as they shake their heads, and roll their eyes. “I expect more from you,” an oft used phrase in The Haasienda, runs a close second to our family motto: “Always do your best – always!” That morning in Mrs. Paquin’s advanced composition class seemed to add a new element to my life’s journey, and future career. Through the years, the phrase became ingrained in my soul as a constant marker, reminding me to continually challenge myself to do better in all areas of my life.
Several years after I graduated from high school, Mrs. Paquin began a new chapter of living as she began her own process of survival. Her heart specialists prescribed an outline for living, and this outline included a transplant from a heart donor. As you can see from the posted video below, she kept to the outline.
I always tell my sons that I will never be their friend, nor they, mine. I explain that my mother will never be my friend. She is my mother. Yes, we have had a wonderful relationship for the past 47 years, but I could never reduce her status as anything other than the very reverent title, Mother. The same holds for Mrs. Paquin, and several other Elwood teachers who have had a tremendous impact on my life. Yes, in many ways, Mrs. Paquin, has been a valued friend, but as she was thirty years ago, she still is, today, my beloved Teacher.
I continue to learn from this wonderful lady through the inspiration of faith, hope, and perseverance she demonstrates. I am so grateful that when God was designing Mrs. Paquin’s life-outline, I was included as one of the many subheadings.
And I must be honest… I did not create an outline for this particular blog-post. Sometimes, the heart has it’s own outline.
Mrs. Paquin, know you are loved…
Note: Mr. Gordon Paquin was my high school principal, and one of the best role models for a fatherless teenager. Mr. & Mrs. Paquin have two children, Dawn and Derek, who attended high school with me.
I am finishing up the writing of a musical on the Wright Brothers, and in one particular scene, I recreate the concept of the hobble skirt when a modesty cord is tied around a young lady’s long, voluminous skirts prior to a flight with Wilbur Wright. A fashion designer happened to be in the crowd, watching these famed flights of 1909, and captured a new fashion design when the lady scooted away from the areoplane with the modesty cord still in place. In my research, I discovered the young designer was from Paris’ famed, The House of Paquin. You can bet The House of Paquin is mentioned in the musical!
On May 25, 1910 at Huffman Prairie, just outside Dayton, Orville Wright piloted two unique flights.
First, he took off on a six-minute flight with Wilbur as his passenger, the only time the Wright brothers ever flew together. They received permission from their father, Bishop Milton Wright, to make this flight. They had always promised their father that they would never fly together to avoid the chance of a double tragedy and to ensure one brother would remain to continue their experiments.
Next, Orville took his 82-year old father on a nearly seven-minute flight, the first and one of Milton Wright’s life. The
airplane rose to about 350 feet while the elderly Wright called to his son, “Higher, Orville… higher!”
And that’s how I felt today while being one of the first to ride the new carousel – the new gem of Dayton’s Carillon Park.
After lunch I rode with several Wright brothers enthusiasts to the site of the Wright family home on Hawthorn Street, just off Third Street in West Dayton. August 19th, 1871, Orville Wright was born in the front second floor bedroom. Three years later Katharine Wright was born on the same day, in the same room. We spent some time in the Wright brother’s bicycle shop on Williams Street, and then the aviation center across the plaza.
We stopped by Woodland Cemetery to pay our respects to the Wright family, and passed by Hawthorn Hill, the gorgeous mansion crowning a gigantic hill in Oakwood.
I retrieved Quintin from home so we could attend the Carillon Park/Dayton History annual meeting. I was slightly miserable from the heat and decided I would show Quintin the same things I visited earlier that afternoon. While at the cemetery, a couple from Oklahoma City approached and asked if I knew much about the Wright family.
It was nearing 5:00pm, and I knew I should be at the meeting. However, with a passion for history, I believe there is a duty as an ambassador to share Dayton’s history with others. By 5:20pm we were heading over to Carillon Park.
We stood in the back of the tent, catching the last 10 minutes or so of Brady Kress’ speech.
Dayton was so lucky to be blessed with the likes of Wilbur & Orville Wright, Charles Kettering, Col. Deeds, John Patterson, and countless others, but we are equally blessed with Brady Kress who is equal as a visionary to the Wrights, Kettering, Patterson, and Deeds combined! As local news media maestro, Jim Bucher, claimed, “Brady is Dayton’s own version of Walt Disney!”
Bucher is so right on target!
As Brady concluded the annual meeting, he encouraged everyone to check beneath the seats of their chairs. Thirty-three lucky people would find, taped to the bottom, a gold carousel coin honoring them with the first ride. I was a bit disappointed that I was not seated in one of the several open chairs and even considered making a mad dash for several.
As Quintin and I turned to head to the ribbon cutting ceremony, I saw Amy Kress, Brady’s wife, and her father coming towards us. Her father, Mr. Schwartz handed me the gold coin taped beneath his chair. He had already ridden the carousel during his granddaughter’s birthday party, and Amy said I would probably be thrilled to ride it. Of course, all week long Amy has endured my emails of childish glee – but she did start it several years ago when she first told me of the carousel’s unique design. Two of the special designs were to be Orville Wright’s Saint Bernard, Scipio, and Wilbur Wright’s dog, Flyer. I even loaned Brady one of my books that contained a photo of the original Flyer.
I know Mr. Schwartz was talking to me about something as we walked to the ribbon cutting, but honestly, I was not even close to earth as I held tightly to that gold coin. Being one of the lucky 33 ranked right up there with
- getting to hold Mary Todd Lincoln’s gloves
- holding the small portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln’s father, Robert Todd
- thumbing through Bishop Wright’s family Bible and holding his spectacles (thanks to Melba Hunt)
- holding Orville Wright’s white dinner jacket which he wore to a White House dinner in 1942 (again, thanks to Melba)
- meeting Vice-President Gerald Ford in July 1974
- singing “The National Anthem” as the first actual performance at The Schuster Center for the Hard Hat Concert
- standing a few feet from John Glenn and Neil Armstrong during the closing ceremonies of the 2003 flight centennial
I am sure there have been other major highlights like these – and beyond the arrival of a new son, or the birth of one my brother’s children. Today was one of those exciting, magical moments for me.
After the ribbon cutting, Quintin and I joined the crowd of 450+ and strolled into the building. The exhibits were great, but to be truthful, I was aiming for the carousel. We can return any time to enjoy the wonderful new exhibits.
We entered the carousel pavilion, and I heard workers calling for folks with the golden coin. I barreled through the bodies with out causing casualty to anyone and presented my golden coin. Willy Wonka, here I come!
I got to Flyer before a kindly looking woman who was eyeing this ride. She just thought it was an ordinary dog displayed on the carousel. Poor thing got a quick history lesson right there, and then. When I told her my dog was named Flyer she backed off and found another ride. One friend asked, “What if Amanda Wright Lane [the great grandniece of the Wright brothers] had been the lady and had wanted to be the first to ride Flyer?” Well, there was a cute little bi-plane representing her uncles and it would have only been fitting for her squat her rights on it!
I am hoping to head to Carillon Park Sunday afternoon to take in the exhibits.
Dayton – thank you for supporting our community’s rich history, and thank you, even more, for entrusting it to Brady Kress.
“Believe and act as if it were impossible to fail.”
Although I am a passionate historian, I must admit that I was rather lazy in my study of Dayton history. Normally, I am on top of my historical surroundings, and learn as much as possible. However, when I moved to Dayton, Ohio in 1990, I was not at all certain I would remain here more than 3-5 years. I anticipated moving to New York City, or even to Virginia near Williamsburg, or Washington, DC. Perhaps I had an unaddressable fear of learning too much about the Miami Valley for fear of it gluing me here.
Twenty years later, I still feel slightly negligent in knowing Dayton’s history. I seem to know more about the Wright Brothers than I do most of Dayton, and the surrounding area. Still, it was not until the summer of 1999 that I even gave the Wrights a second thought. I had been to the Air Force Museum when my parents visited in 1992, but I found it agonizingly boring. My dad had to stop and read every placard, and photograph nearly every plane. Mother, still with tints of red in her hair at the time, was photographed in front of the plane painted with the title, “Strawberry Bitch.” Each visit to the museum still prompts a photo with a family member standing in front of the plane.
Seven years later I was on my three week vacation that took me to:
- Niagara Falls (ugh… another story)
- a drive through the Adirondacks
- a pass through Schroon Lake
- Stowe, Vermont to visit the Trapp family members (THE SOUND OF MUSIC) at the Trapp Family Lodge
- Manchester, Vermont to visit Robert Todd Lincoln’s home, Hildene
- FDR’s home/grave in Hyde Park, NY
- Val-Kil, Eleanor Roosevelt’s home & retreat near Hyde Park
- New York City
- Flushing Meadows – the site of the 1939 and 1964 World Fairs
- Teddy Roosevelt’s home, Sagamore Hill
- Montauk Point Lighthouse at the tip of Long Island
- Assateague Island to see the wild horses because my fourth grade teacher, Diana Lane, read us the book, THE MYSTERY OF ASSATEAGUE ISLAND in 1974
- A brief trip through DC – only driving and looking, no stopping
- A trip across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge & Tunnel
- A visit with my aunt and cousins
- The Outer Banks
- Wright Memorial (merely drove around it and left)
- Cape Hatteras Lighthouse (which had just finished its hydraulic move the day before)
- Ocracoke Island
- A visit with my grandfather and family at Grandpa’s mission program in Southeastern Kentucky
- Gatlinburg for three days with family
- Lexington, Kentucky
- Mary Todd Lincoln
- Henry Clay home
- ice cream at Cheapside
- Lexington Cemetery
I took advantage of this East Coast vacation, packing as much in as possible. I knew that once I began adopting children, this kind of vacation would be on hiatus.
The memorial at Kitty Hawk meant absolutely nothing to me. I drop past it, only to return since it had a Dayton connection. I took a photo, and drove on not wanting to indulge any time in listening to a (biased) NC park ranger talk about airplanes.
September 1999, while roller blading in Centerville’s Stubbs Park, I was resting on a rock when I noticed a tiny sparrow hopping in the parking lot, picking at some food dropped by patrons from the previous evening’s concert. I had always been terrified of birds growing up, so I had never considered how they got their bodies into the air, supported by seemingly fragile wings.
As I watched the sparrow my eye caught a jet floating through the sky as it prepared to land at Dayton International.
“How did that thing get into the sky?”
As I continued to watch the bird and the plane (no Superman), I heard voices of two young boys arguing. I even turned around, expecting to find two lads arguing.
The voices continued.
Finally I heard the one boy call the name of the other, and there was no doubt as to who they were, and why I was privy to their aggravated conversation.
The next day, I returned from the USA Air Force Museum with nine books on the Wright Brothers. I had received “my mission” while resting in the park.
Prior to that September day, I had never given the Wrights much thought. By April 2000, I was finally sketching out plots, scenes, and characters.
July 2000, I drove to Kitty Hawk, stood on the Wright Brothers’ Memorial and flew a kite to toast the start of what would be a fascinating journey for the next decade.
My goal was to finish the musical, then titled, TWELVE SECONDS TO THE MOON, for the 2003 anniversary.
In 1998 I got a new saxophone student, Lucas Whipple – a neat 10 year old boy with a wonderful personality. I eventually began teaching his sister, Andra, piano and voice. Their mother, Gail, a fantastic musician (vocalist, pianist) was teaching music at South Dayton Preparatory School and asked if I’d please teach beginning piano there.
In January 2003, Gail and I were chatting about the Muse Machine musical we had just seen. Her husband, Tim, was the Muse board president. Gail and I began discussing musical scores, and she played a few of her own songs that were clearly “musical theatre.” I promptly asked her to assist me with TWELVE SECONDS TO THE MOON, and she agreed.
A month later, I hosted the first read-thru of the book with approximately 20 theatre friends at my town house. Gail attended, and brought her friend, Leslie Merry, introducing her as “a musician friend of mine.”
Within a few days, the trio of Gail, Leslie and Darin were embarking on our collaboration. Other than directing, this was my first collaborative effort, and I did not know what to expect with our first work session. I had tossed out ideas for styles on several songs. Quietly, Gail and Leslie tossed them back, presenting something completely different from what I was hearing… and it was magnificent. Throughout the years, I continued to toss to them what I was hearing in my head, and they provided something different… entirely different, and much more clever, and exciting!
As with any project, it evolved. The history of flight anniversary flew by and we knew that we still had a product. However, the Wrights’ story had changed. Their sister, Katharine, was now an integral part of the story, and it now began five years after they first flew at Kitty Hawk. We had uncovered more drama, and depth to their story – the story after the story with most are most familiar.
The working title soon changed to THE BIRD LET LOOSE, and the underlying theme was about “control.”
- The secret to flight was in “control”
- There was an international race to “control” the sky
- There were battles over financial “control”
- There were internal issues of “control” within the family circle
It was the right path for this musical.
Now, the 99.5% completed project is a grand mixture of our theatrical forefathers’ creations… there are hints of RAGTIME, SOUTH PACIFIC, THE SECRET GARDEN, EVITA, SUNDAY IN THE PARK, CAMELOT… the musical is dramatic, comedic, filled with suspense, interwoven with political intrigue (well, nothing that would arouse the interest of James Bond, but remember, it is 1908-1945)…
I was blessed to find a lyricist (Gail) who could arrange lyrics as wonderfully as Hammerstein, Lowe, and Rice, and a composer (Leslie) who could immediately whip out a strong melodic line rivaling Rodgers, Lerner and Webber but with a heavy flavor of Sondheim. And the score is, perhaps, more Sondheimesque. The lyrics, in many places, are simply too good to be true due to the clever, concise arrangement of thoughts and words. I would hand Gail a paragraph of thoughts, and she would return lyrics that made my jaw hit the floor. The lyrics and music, together, are outstanding, and I honestly believe their contributions to this project far surpass my work on the book. The three of us, each being musicians, have also contributed to one another’s individual assignments – which has been a splendid delightful process for we each trust one another, and are, too often, like one mind.
I humbly bow to my two collaborators, and will always be grateful for their magnificent contributions to the future success of this musical.
My personal journey with this project began a decade ago. The three of us were also working professionals, raising children, involved musicians, busy volunteers, and confronted with personal, and professional experiences that sometimes kept as from moving ahead on the project consistently. Before Gail’s family moved to California, we had many fantastic work sessions, and reading sessions (about six, in all). Now, Leslie and I will work together, and collaborate with Gail, using all the modern technologies.
What a thrilling journey it has been!