Whitney Houston: N.J. governor stands by decision to lower flags


New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, no stranger to controversy, is standing firm in his decision to fly flags at half-staff on behalf of Whitney Houston, despite complaints that the late pop singer should not have that recognition because of her history of drug problems.

The governor has ordered flags at government buildings to be flown at half-staff Saturday, the day of Houston’s funeral at the Newark, N.J., church where she sang as a child. The body of the 48-year-old musical icon was found Saturday in the bathtub of her guest room at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif.

There has been no ruling on the cause of death, but officials have said there were “no obvious signs of criminal intent.” Toxicology tests are under way to determine if drugs were involved.

Houston, in television interviews, had acknowledged past drug and alcohol problems and the fact that she had been in rehabilitation. Such problems were one reason for complaints about Christie’s decision to lower the flags.

Christie, who has built a national reputation for his pugnacious charm, refused to give ground to opponents. He told critics that Houston had made significant cultural contributions to the state.

“For those people who say, ‘I don’t think she deserves it,’ I say to them, 'I understand that you don’t think that. I do, and it’s my executive order,' " Christie said this week.

“I’ve seen these messages and emails that have come to me disparaging her for her troubles with substance abuse,” Christie said. “What I’d say to everybody is: There but for the grace of God go I.”

On Thursday, Christie’s decision was backed by FOX News commentator Bill O'Reilly, who has been outspoken about Houston's death and her use of drugs.

In an interview on NBC’s “Today” show, O’Reilly said it was right to lower the flags and also urged society to deal more forcefully with drug abuse.

“I think we should respect the life and talent of Whitney Houston. I said a prayer when I heard she died. This isn't a personal thing. This is a preventive thing. I want society and media to tell the truth about drug and alcohol addiction,” O’Reilly said. “Let's stop exploiting it and start explaining it.”

The other argument levied against the governor is that a pop singer doesn’t have the standing in society to merit the lowering of the flags.

In response, Christie noted that he has ordered flags flown at half-staff for all 31 fallen New Jersey soldiers and every slain police officer during his time in office.

He also ordered flags lowered last year for Clarence Clemons, the saxophonist for Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band.

Houston’s funeral will be private, but the Associated Press will have a video camera inside and will stream the service.


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Photo: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and his wife, Mary Pat Christie, attend a funeral last month for Assemblyman Alex DeCroce, 75. Credit: Mel Evans / Associated Press

Best in show: How the Pekingese breed earned 'Lion Dog' nickname

Malachy wins best in show

Best in show honors at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show on Tuesday night went to Malachy, a Pekingese who did proud a truly ancient breed. Dating back to the 8th century and the Tang Dynasty, the breed once held court as the lapdog companion of emperors.

Do not be fooled by the teeny tiny dog that rarely hits 15 pounds. The Pekingese breed is actually quite muscular, and its regal bearing and fierce loyalty helped earn it the nickname Lion Dog.

Legend has it that a long, long time ago in "the mists of time," a lion fell in love with a tiny marmoset monkey. But such a love was impossible. The lion begged the deity that ruled the animal kingdom to shrink him down to size so he could marry his true love. But his heart remained its original size, according to Asian History.com, and it is from this union that the Pekingese, or Fu Lin -- Lion Dog -- was born.

PHOTOS: Westminster Kennel Club dog show

In reality, the site says, DNA studies show that the Pekingese breed closely mimics the genetic composition of wolves and is among the purest breeds of dogs on Earth, making it a very ancient  breed indeed.

The dogs' appearance is marked by a long-haired coat and ears that lend a heart-shaped look to their  otherwise wide, flat head. They may look dainty and delicate, but they're surprisingly muscular and stocky, according to the American Kennel Club.

"Pekingese possess a regal dignity, intelligence and self-importance, making them good-natured, opinionated and affectionate family companions," according to the American Kennel Club.

Some other facts about Lion Dogs: They are front heavy. They can be any color. They are difficult to housebreak. They are relatively "inactive," which makes them ideal for indoor or apartment living. They're also prone to developing Small Dog Syndrome, that human-induced disorder that allows small dogs to think they run the joint. And those coats, as you might imagine, need plenty of brushing.

Pekingese get their name from the ancient Chinese city of Peking, now known as Beijing. Chinese art through the centuries -- ink drawings, bronze figures, clay sculptures and the like -- often celebrated the Pekingese. At one point in history, Lion Dogs could be owned only by royalty and were rarely seen outside the emperor's palace. (Stealing such a dog resulted in death.)

That changed when the British invaded in 1860, according to Pedigree UK. Upon entering the Forbidden City, troops found Empress Tzu'Hai dead on the floor after committing suicide rather than submit to invasion of the West. Guarding her body were five Pekingese dogs. When the British returned home, they took the breed with them.


Opinion: My furry Valentine

A little dog wins big at Westminster

Best in show at Westminster dog show: A pipsqueak, Malachy

-- Rene Lynch

Photo: Yep, I'm top dog: Malachy poses for photos moments after winning best in show at the Westminster Kennel Dog Show at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Credit: Michael Nagle / Getty Images

Best in show at Westminster dog show: A pipsqueak, Malachy

Best in show, that most coveted of all honors at the famed Westminster dog show, went to ... how should we describe it? A fallen cloud? A hair ball? A pug stuck inside a pom pom? Let's just call it what it is: a Pekingese named Malachy.

The 4-year-old champion at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show seemed to realize his coronation as the crowd at Madison Square Garden in New York City shouted out his name. The Associated Press noted Malachy was reveling in all the attention as his handler held him up while his pink tongue expressed itself amid all that fur, his "eyes sparkling like black diamonds."

It's worth noting that Malachy doesn't really win much -- he gets a silver bowl. There is no prize money. But the allure of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show transcends the notion of ribbons and bows and baubles. Malachy's title puts him into the history books, and perhaps his name will forever be uttered in show dog circles with awe and reverence. And wealth will come in time for Malachy's owners, with all the breeding opportunities afforded the winner.

PHOTOS: Westminster Kennel Club dog show

Malachy beat out dogs big and small Tuesday night to capture the throne, including a Dalmatian, a German shepherd, a Doberman pinscher, an Irish setter, a Kerry blue terrier and a wire-haired dachshund.

Since then, the court of public opinion has weighed in on Malachy, not all of it nice. But because Malachy can't read, we'll tell you: "Cute little dustmop/ Looks very huggable," said one comment on Twitter. "I'm sorry, but the thing that won Westminster is NOT a dog. It's more like an animatronic troll doll with extra hair," said another Twitter comment.

The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show was not without criticism and controversy.

Advocates for mutts and strays and rescue dogs have long decried the focus on pedigrees. They fear it encourages puppy mills when there are already so many dogs in need of a home. "They kill shelter dogs' chances," says PETA, which this year launched several protests surrounding the event. Some members even tried to infiltrate the show itself before they were halted.

Another protest took aim at the man who could be our next president: Mitt Romney. The Republican candidate has riled dog lovers everywhere with his story about traveling with his Irish setter, Seamus, back in 1983 and strapping the dog's crate to the roof rack for a 12-hour drive.

When Romney told the story, many people found it amusing. But animal rights activists didn't laugh about what they say must have been a harrowing, wind-whipped ride for the canine. On Tuesday, they held signs saying "Dogs Aren’t Luggage" and "I Ride Inside."

It's a good bet that Malachy never gets strapped to a roof rack.


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-- Rene Lynch
Twitter / renelynch

Photo: Malachy sits in his trophy after being named best in show at the 136th annual Westminster Kennel Club dog show in New York. Credit: Seth Wenig / Associated Press

Can Johnny Cash amp up Nashville? City gets museum to music icon

Johnny CashHe was rediscovered by alternative rockers in the last years of his life, became the subject of a blockbuster biopic, and now the late country music icon Johnny Cash will have his own museum in downtown Nashville.

The plans for the 18,000-square-foot, private museum were unveiled Tuesday by members of the Cash family and Bill Miller, a longtime friend, fan and champion of the Man in Black, according to a report in the Nashville Tennessean.

"My father and mother [the late singer June Carter Cash] had a way through honesty and truth of spirit," said son John Carter Cash. "It's not about the glamour or about making it for Nashville. This is about spreading their spirit."

That spirit will certainly be welcome among Nashville's civic leaders, who have been working diligently in recent years to revitalize a once-moribund downtown, in great part by focusing on Nashville's historic role as America's country music capital. The Ryman Auditorium, once used for Grand Ole Opry broadcasts, was renovated in 1994. Seven years later saw the opening of the Frist Center for the Visual Arts and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

Like many a downtown revitalization tale, this one involves a group of more or less marginalized artists who blazed a trail and helped the business community recognize its rich trove of homegrown cultural capital. You can find a version of that argument at the website Savingcountrymusic.com, which credits punk-influenced, non-mainstream country musicians such as Joe Buck -- who typically looked backward to more rough-hewn country styles for inspiration -- for breathing life into the old haunts.

"The turnaround story for downtown Nashville doesn't involve acts of government," one of the blog's writers posted in September 2010. "Lower Broadway was revitalized by music, and specifically, the music that was the precursor to the music we listen to, and talk about on this site. Mainstream fans will sometimes put down this music as 'obscure' or irrelevant. Toby Keith and Tim McGraw didn't revitalize the most historic part of Nashville. It was a bunch of punk kids from all around the country, who moved to lower Broadway to walk the same streets Hank Williams walked."

Of course, if there is one country legend to bridge the gap between the wild-man-country-grungy and the conservative-country-slick, it is Cash, who continues to be revered by, and influential to, both camps.

His museum is set to open this summer, according to the Tennessean. Whether the punk kids will fork over the $13 admission remains to be seen.


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Credit: Late country music legend Johnny Cash is at his Hendersonville, Tenn., home in 1999. Credit: Mark Humphrey / Associated Press

Whitney Houston: Plans for private funeral dismay some fans


Whitney Houston will be mourned by family and friends in a private service Saturday at the Newark, N.J., church where she first began singing in public, and there will be no public events surrounding the funeral.

The announcement has left some fans crestfallen, especially after early reports indicated that the family was considering a public service for thousands of people at the Prudential Center sports arena in Newark, where Houston was born 48 years ago and where she sang in the choir at the New Hope Baptist Church.

Carolyn Whigham, the owner of the Whigham Funeral Home, which is handling the arrangements, disclosed the plans Tuesday. She also said that Houston, who died Saturday, would not be buried in Newark, but she did not say where the pop queen would be laid to rest.

"They have shared her for 30-some years with the city, with the state, with the world. This is their time now for their farewell," Whigham said by way of explaining the family's desire for a private ceremony inside the New Hope Baptist Church, which since early Sunday has been visited by Houston fans leaving flowers, cards and other mementos at the church gate.

One of those who came by Tuesday, and who was disappointed to learn that the public would not be invited to the service, was Calvin Taylor, who said he had skipped work as a forklift driver to pay his respects.

"The public should have an opportunity to give a last goodbye to one of the city's most beloved daughters," he told the Star-Ledger. "She touched so many people, I think it's terrible," he said. "She's got a lot of love here."

Sharon Bailey agreed. "They should have one," Bailey said of the idea for a public memorial. "She's the queen of pop. Her death feels like a loss in my family."

Local media reported that police planned to close the street on which the church is located to keep crowds away, but that if the family agreed to let a camera inside the church, large screens would be erected outside so fans could watch the service.


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'Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter' winning over Lincoln historians

"Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" won't be in theaters until June 22. But the horror-meets-history thriller that re-envisions our 16th president as an ax-wielding fang-fighter already has an unexpected fan base: historians.

But that fan base didn't develop overnight. When the experts at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., first heard about the fictional book "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," by Seth Grahame-Smith, they were not exactly pleased. Would it make a mockery of the Great Emancipator? Would it ignore Lincoln's pivotal role in history? Would it portray him as a cartoonish figure in a stovepipe hat?

"There was a lot of skepticism, let's just say that," library spokesman Dave Blanchett told The Times.

But "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" appears to be winning over historians with its attention to fact and detail even as it swings wildly into the fantastic and the fictional.

The trailer for the movie was posted online Monday by 20th Century Fox, timed to coincide with  the official observances of the 203rd anniversary of Lincoln's Feb. 12, 1809, birth.

That trailer was a mere morsel for the masses when compared to the banquet served up Friday night at the library.

Director Timur Bekmambetov ("Wanted," "Night Watch") and actor Benjamin Walker, who plays Honest Abe, personally introduced several scenes from the movie to library staff and movie critics who flew in as part of a Hollywood junket. Producer Tim Burton couldn't make it, but he sent the next best thing, Blanchette said: a black-and-white digital message with several Burtonesque touches that seemed to thrill those in attendance.

Continue reading »

In Atlanta, a legal sideshow over training of circus elephants

In Atlanta, the storied Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is coming to town  this week. At the same time, a legal sideshow has sprouted up over the question of how to handle elephants humanely.

At issue is the use of an ancient, and some say cruel, tool used in the training and control of elephants. Known as a bullhook, or ankus, it is typically a long shaft with a metal hook at the end that is used to prod, and sometimes punish the animals. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals alleges that in the Ringling Bros. circus, "elephants are beaten, hit, poked, prodded and jabbed with sharp hooks, sometimes until bloody."

Concern about the use of bullhooks prompted commissioners in Fulton County, Ga., which includes much of Atlanta, to ban the use of the instruments in June, following the lead of municipalities in Florida, New York, and other states, according to Johnny Edwards of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

At the time, an official with Feld Entertainment, the owner of Ringling Bros., said that if bullhooks were banned, it would be impossible to have elephants at the circus.

This week, a county judge issued a temporary restraining order that prevents the county from enforcing animal control laws in the city, according to the paper.

Fulton County Commissioner Rob Pitts, who voted for the ban last year, said that the legal question revolves around the lack of a specific intergovernmental agreement between Atlanta and the county, which provides animal control for the city for a fee.

It is unclear what any of this means for Ringling Bros., which plans to roll into downtown Atlanta's Philips Arena on Wednesday for a six-day engagement. But presumably it means that the show will go on.


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Photo: Elephants are a draw for circus-goers; their treatment is an issue in several cities, including Atlanta. Here, young children line the sidewalk to watch elephants from the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus parade by in Washington in 2009. Credit: Shawn Thew/EPA

Slain boys: Radio host gets death threat for deal with Westboro

Washington state-based radio host Bobby D says his job is pretty simple -- entertain listeners each morning with pop music, celebrity interviews, saucy banter and general zaniness. In other words, he's probably the last person you'd expect to find brokering the deal that kept Westboro Baptist Church protesters away from a funeral Saturday morning for two slain children.

But Bobby D did just that when he agreed to turn over a portion of the Bobby D Show on Monday morning to Fred Phelps Sr., founder of Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist. The church has gained notoriety for its extreme anti-gay views -- views that lead church members to protest outside funerals for U.S. soldiers.

The deejay's efforts earned him a death threat. "Yeah, someone threatened to blow us up," Bobby D told The Times. But many more people hailed him for stepping in and putting a stop to what likely would have become a media circus of protesters, counter-protesters and grief-stricken relatives.

Some of the comments posted on the blog for the Bobby D Show:  "Thank you…It was a gift to be able to celebrate the lives of two beautiful boys without any negativity." "Thank you for proving that good can triumph over evil." "Thank you sir, for displaying what true Christianity looks like."

Here's how events unfolded: 

Josh Powell horrified Washington, and indeed all of America, on Feb. 5 when he took an axe to his children -- Charles, 7, and Braden, 5 -- and then killed all three of them in a gasoline-fueled inferno in Graham, Wash. The deaths were the culmination of a disturbing family drama that dated back to the 2009 disappearance of the boys' mother, Susan Powell, when the family lived in Utah.

While this tragedy was playing out in headlines, Washington state legislators were on their way to approving same-sex marriage legislation that Gov. Christine Gregoire signed into law Monday.

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church connected the dots between these two seemingly unrelated events. They laid the blame for the deaths on Gregoire and announced that they would protest outside the boys' funeral to remind everyone that the boys died because of the country's increasingly permissive attitude toward gays and lesbians.

That led counter-protesters to promise to be a buffer between Westboro members and grieving relatives. The boys' maternal grandparents, meanwhile, pleaded with everyone to stay away so the family could grieve in peace.

Bobby D said he was watching the events unfold much like any other Washington state resident -- it had nothing to do with him. Then, he came across an article that noted that Westboro congregants have increasingly been employing a new strategy: They agree to call off protests in exchange for radio time, which they believe gives them a broader audience.

"I thought, 'Hey, maybe I could do something here,' " Bobby D said. He knew the deal probably wouldn't gain him new listeners and would no doubt offend many. But he said he remembered an especially dark time during high school when he lost his mother, and then his best friend. He said he couldn't imagine how painful it would be to have Westboro congregants -- or anyone else -- causing a ruckus outside those funerals.

"On one hand, I didn't want to give these guys a venue to spew their hate," he said. "On the other, I thought, 'Man, I can stop these people from doing this.' "

Bobby D contacted Westboro, and church members agreed to halt the protest in exchange for air time. Bobby D interviewed Phelps on Friday and promised to air the conversation Monday morning, but only if Westboro steered clear of the funeral. Both sides kept the bargain, and the interview was broadcast as planned.

(Bobby D. also told Phelps that, during the interview,  he could not use the F-word -- referring not to the four-letter F-word, but the three letter F-word used as a pejorative for gays.)

You can listen to the interview here, as well as read more about Bobby D's decision.

The interview was difficult, Bobby D said. He had genuine questions for Phelps but also had to rein in his outrage at some of Phelps' answers. Bobby D said he didn't want to antagonize Phelps and trigger congregants to relaunch their protest plans.

Not everyone agreed with Bobby D's move, as evidenced by other comments left on his blog: "You’ve turned extortion into a business deal." "Bobby, you've been played." And "Trading air time for protests saves Westboro money in travel expenses and gives them a much wider outreach."

But Bobby D said he has no regrets. "I’d rather people be mad at me and hate my show than have these people ruin a day that was already going to be so horrible," he said.


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-- Rene Lynch
Twitter / renelynch

Photo: Bobby D at work. Photo credit: The Bobby D Show

Abraham Lincoln gets a Hollywood reboot -- as a vampire hunter

Abraham Lincoln is known by many labels. The Great Emancipator. The Rail Splitter. The 16th president. Honest Abe. "That guy on Mt. Rushmore." And the face of the $5 bill.

But this summer he'll be reintroduced to America with a new moniker: "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter."

20th Century Fox honored Honest Abe on Monday by posting online a trailer for the hotly anticipated summer movie "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter."

Compare that with -- yawn -- the various ways the rest of the country is honoring the 203rd anniversary of Lincoln's Feb. 12, 1809, birth. Some schools are giving students the day off; some states are shutting down all city, county and state offices; and no doubt the countless memorials and monuments erected nationwide in Lincoln's honor will see increased foot traffic all this week.

"Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" is a fantasy-fueled horror-thriller that re-engineers Lincoln as a politician who, in his spare time, wields a battle ax in his bid to crush vampires and their slave-owning helpers. Lincoln is also out to avenge his mother's death at the hands of such a supernatural creature.

Benjamin Walker plays Lincoln in the movie, which is based upon the book of the same name by author Seth Grahame-Smith. The fictional tome expresses itself through Lincoln's previously undiscovered journal of his quest for vengeance, a quest that takes him all the way to the White House. (Not familiar with this new history-marries-horror genre? It's also given birth to the likes of "Alice in Deadland," "George Washington Werewolf," "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.")

The film is produced by Tim Burton and directed by Timur Bekmambetov ("Wanted," "Night Watch") and you can see both influences in the action-packed trailer, which is creating a lot of buzz online Monday. It's slated for release June 22.

Happy birthday, Abraham Lincoln.


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Jennifer Hudson tribute to Whitney Houston: The must-see video

Jennifer Hudson's tribute to Whitney Houston at the Grammys on Sunday night was a heartbreaking showstopper. And it's easy to see why.

The producers of the 54th Annual Grammy Awards had to scramble to find a way to revamp the awards show to honor Whitney Houston just hours after the singer was declared dead under mysterious circumstances in her Beverly Hilton room in Beverly Hills. The 48-year-old pop legend had long struggled with drug addiction.

Houston's memory loomed large over the awards, with host L.L. Cool J. starting the show by addressing the challenge of celebrating music on a night tinged with such heartache. "There is no way around this. We had a death in our family," he said before leading the audience at Staples Center in a prayer for "our sister Whitney."

PHOTOS: Whitney Houston: 1963-2012

But all agreed — including Houston's mentor, Clive Davis — that Houston would have wanted the show to go on. So it did.

Hudson's emotional rendition of "I Will Always Love You" did not try to compete with Houston's version of the song. Instead, it paid homage and deference to a voice for the ages, a voice that influenced so many other performers, Hudson among them.

Wearing a somber yet elegant black dress and backlighted, Hudson's hair and makeup (particularly those glossy, nude lips) recalled Houston in her heyday. Still, Hudson nonetheless put her own twist on the song, finishing it this way: "Whitney, we love, we love you."


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— Rene Lynch
Twitter / renelynch


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Rene Lynch has been an editor and writer in Metro, Sports, Business, Calendar and Food. @ReneLynch

As an editor and reporter, Michael Muskal has covered local, national, economic and foreign issues at three newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. @latimesmuskal

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