APRIL 21, 1986: SEEMS LIKE WE STRUCK OUT

Notorious gangster Al Capone moved to Chicago in 1919 where he built a career in gambling, alcohol, and prostitution rackets, eventually becoming Chicago’s go-to guy in the world of crime. He oversaw his various enterprises from a suite at the Lexington Hotel until his arrest in 1931.  He died in 1947.

The Lexington Hotel outlasted Capone by a good many years. In the 1980s, a construction Al-Capone-psd53402company undertook a renovation of the historic hotel. While surveying the building, the company made some unusual discoveries, including a shooting range and an elaborate series of hidden tunnels connecting to taverns and brothels and providing escape routes should the Chicago police get frisky and raid Capone’s headquarters. Most intriguing of all was a secret vault beneath the hotel, where rumor had it, Capone hid vast sums of his ill-gotten gains.

These discoveries were just too tempting for “investigative reporter” Geraldo Rivera to let pass by.  So on April 21, 1986, Geraldo planned to open the vault on live TV in a much ballyhooed special, The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults. What would the two-hour media event reveal? Piles of plunder? Bodies of Capone competitors? Jimmy Hoffa? Judge Crater? Among those who stood by Geraldo as the whole world watched were a medical examiner and agents of the Internal Revenue Service, lending the entire undertaking an aura of grim importance.

The vault was opened, and there . . . ? A lot of dirt and a couple of empty bottles. Geraldo did his best to snatch something out of the rubble, suggesting to 30 million disappointed viewers that the bottles were exciting because they had been used for bathtub gin during Prohibition. A nice try, but he summed up the evening by saying: “Seems like we struck out.”

April 20, 1935: Splish Splash, Snooky Was Taking a Bath

A music staple of the 40s and 50s, Your Hit Parade, made its radio debut on April 20, 1935. It lasted for nearly 25 years before being done in by rock and roll music – and perhaps Snooky Lanson. It began as a 60-minute program with 15 songs played in a random format, and eventually moved to television where the seven top-rated songs of the week were presented each week in elaborate production numbers requiring constant set and costume changes.  The list of top songs was compiled through a closely guarded top secret algorithm that involved record sales, quarters plunked into jukeboxes, shoplifted sheet music and the divination of an unidentified mystic in Memphis, Tennessee.

Dorothy Collins , Russell Arms, Snooky Lanson and Gisèle MacKenzie were top-billed during the show’s peak years. And Lucky Strike cigarettes starred throughout its run.

As the rock and roll era took over, the program’s chief fascination became seeing a singer like Snooky Lanson struggle with songs like Splish Splash and Hound Dog.

APRIL 19, 1949: SEND IN THE CLOWNS

russian

With the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over the world, cold war adversaries were nonetheless able to find glimmers of humor. At the opening night of the Moscow Circus, noted Russian clown, Konsantin Berman, demonstrated who had the upper hand in the clown cold war, launching barb after barb in the direction of the United States.

Tossing a boomerang, he likened it to the U.S. Marshall Plan that was pumping economic recovery aid into Western Europe. “American aid to Europe,” he said, “Here is the dollar.” as the boomerang returned to his hand, delighting the audience. Producing a radio that bellowed out the sound of barking dogs, he announced: “That’s the Voice of America.”

Meanwhile American clowns were dumping buckets of water on each other and slipping on banana peels.

Speaking of Banana Peels

The Vagabond King a 1925 operetta by Rudolf Frimi was already an American success when it opened in London on April 19, 1927.  It’s success in England was probably assured given its theme of foibles of the French.  Its hero is a braggart, thief and rabble-rouser who attempts to steal an aristocratic lady from the king himself.  Not only that, he openly mocks the king, boasting about what he would do if he were king.  The angry king gives him royal powers for 24 hours — king for a day — during which he must solve all France’s problems or go to the gallows (the guillotine had not yet been invented).  He succeeds, wins the lady’s hand and lives happily ever after in exile — probably in England.  The operetta was the inspiration for a couple of movies and, of course, the popular radio and television program “Queen for a Day.”

 

 

APRIL 18, 1968: IF YOU BELIEVE THIS, I’VE GOT A BRIDGE . . .

Famous real estate deals abound — the sale of Manhattan for beads, the Louisiana Purchase, Seward’s Folly. One of the more unusual is the April 18, 1968, sale of London Bridge for a mere $1 million (of course, as any schoolchild knows, the thing was falling down). American oil sphinx_magnate Robert McCullough was the buyer and he bought it as a large conversation piece for his Arizona real estate development in an out-of-the-way spot that had previously only been an inspiration for Roadrunner cartoons.  The bridge was disassembled in London, each piece numbered, then hauled to Lake Havasu City, Arizona, where it was reassembled.

McCullough had wanted to buy the Brooklyn Bridge for his project, but it had already been sold. Many times, actually. One George Parker had made his living selling the bridge to oil magnates and other naive visitors to New York, some of whom actually tried to erect toll booths.

The relocation of London Bridge inspired, in addition to a great deal of laughter, a forgettable 1985 made-for-television movie Bridge Across Time (aka Arizona Ripper or Terror at London Bridge) in which several murders are committed in Lake Havasu by the spirit of Jack the Ripper, whose soul is transported to the United States in one of the stones of the bridge (sorry you missed it, aren’t you).

Although the Sphinx may have been more architecturally appropriate to the location, McCullough wasn’t interested. “Something about the nose,” he said.

Legumes in Love

British poet and physician Erasmus Darwin died on April 18, 1802.  As a physician graduated from Cambridge, he didn’t really distinguish himself. When he is remembered at all, it is for his poetry, and one particular poem, The Loves of the Plants, part of a larger work called The Botanic Garden (the other part being The Economy of Vegetation), in which the physiology and classification of the vegetable world is presented in a rather lofty and lyrical manner. Although the subject was mundane and the technical accuracy questionable, the poetic frenzy reached amazing heights. Had Erasmus Darwin’s grandson Charles presented his discoveries in a more poetic fashion, perhaps they would have been more warmly received.

 

 

APRIL 17, 1610: SOMEWHERE A RIVER BEARS YOUR NAME

Back at the dawn of the 17th century, the holy grail among explorers was the Northwest halfPassage, that elusive sea route that Europeans had been seeking ever since they discovered that North America stood right in the middle of their way to China. (For some reason, they longed to go west to China even though it was a lot closer going east.)

On April 17, 1610, intrepid British explorer Henry Hudson. already famous for having discovered and explored a river that just happened to share his last name, set sail on his latest attempt to find the passage that would at last allow Europeans to take (as the popular song tells us) a slow boat to China.

It was his fourth expedition, financed by adventurers from England. Sailing across the Atlantic, slipping between Greenland and Labrador, he entered the Hudson Strait (another remarkable coincidence) and soon reached (you’re not going to believe this) Hudson Bay. Unfortunately after all this seeming good luck, the expedition took a nasty turn.  After three months dawdling around the bay, Hudson was surprised by the onset of winter. Why winter north of Labrador in November would be a surprise is anyone’s guess. Nevertheless, Hudson and his crew were forced to set up a winter camp. The next few months were not pleasant, and many of the crew members were not amused. They grumbled and held their tongues throughout the winter until June. But once they were sailing again, they up and mutinied, setting Hudson, his son and seven friends adrift.  Although Hudson was never seen again, England laid claim to everything that shared his name — river, strait, bay and even a funny looking vehicle that seemed to have no useful purpose.

 

APRIL 16, 1850: CALL ME MADAME

Madame (Marie) Tussaud is arguably the world’s most famous wax sculptor. Born in France in 1761, she began her artistic career during the French Revolution, searching through corpses to find the heads of noted guillotine victims from which she made death masks. She herself was imprisoned for three months awaiting execution, but an influential friend intervened and she was released. She and her waxwork friends toured throughout Europe for 33 years before settling into a permanent exhibition in 1835 on Baker Street in London. There she gained prosperity and fame, managing her wax museum until her death on April 16, 1850.
Throughout Madame Tussaud’s long existence, its most popular feature has been the Chamber of Horrors (as pictured here).

And It Would Help with Social Distancing

Inventor Walter Pichler is the genius behind the amazing TV helmet of 1967. This device allows a user to leave the outside world and slip into his or her own little world of information and entertainment. The user simply inserts his or her head into a capsule that resembles a small submarine and hopes that he or she doesn’t bump into something while enjoying the “virtual world” of Gilligan’s Island.

April 15, 1992: Me, Pay Taxes?

April 15 is usually the deadline for filing income taxes, so it is quite fitting that prisoner number 15113-054 entered the federal prison in Lexington, Kentucky, on April 15, 1992, having been convicted of one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States, three helmsleycounts of tax evasion, three counts of filing false personal tax returns, sixteen counts of assisting in the filing of false corporate and partnership tax returns, and ten counts of mail fraud. Her famous excuse for this bit of naughtiness was “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.”

Known affectionately as the “Queen of Mean,” Leona Helmsley started her amazing career of acquiring everything she laid her eyes on back in the mid60’s, soon aided and abetted by Harry Helmsley, after they disposed of his wife in 1972. Their real estate empire included the Park Lane Hotel, the Empire State Building, Helmsley Palace and a collection of condos throughout Manhattan.

In 1983 the Helmsleys bought a 21-room mansion weekend retreat in Greenwich, Connecticut, for $11 million. Finding it a tad shabby for their tastes, they had it remodeled for another $8 million, adding among other homey touches a million-dollar dance floor and a mahogany card table. When they tried to stiff the contractors, they were sued for non-payment. The Helmsleys eventually paid up, but it was revealed that most of the work was illegally billed to their hotels as business expenses.

A federal criminal investigation followed, and they were indicted on several tax-related charges, as well as extortion. Harry called in sick, and Leona took the fall alone.

Sounds a lot like another notorious New York real estate nabob.  Sometimes they get caught.

 

APRIL 14, 2019: Right Out Loud

It’s okay to laugh out loud today. You don’t even need a reason because today is International Moment of Laughter Day and that ought to be reason enough. The day is the brainchild of Izzy Gesell, a self-described humorologist.

“Laughter comes right after breathing as just about the healthiest thing you can do,” he says. “It relieves stress, instills optimism, raises self-confidence, defuses resistance to change, and enhances all your relationships.”

To help you celebrate the day, here is a list of ways you can laugh. You can titter, giggle, chuckle or chortle. You can cackle or crow. You can snicker, snigger or snort. Ha-ha, hee-haw, ho-ho, tee-hee, yuk-yuk. You can guffaw, belly laugh or horselaugh. You can roar or shake with laughter. Split your sides, bust a gut, roll in the aisles and perhaps die laughing. And of course there’s the ever-popular laughing until you pee your pants.

THE FUTURE WILL BE BETTER TOMORROW

Fireworks, rock music and, yes, laughter punctuated the April 14, 1999, announcement by former Vice President Dan Quayle that he was tossing his hat into the Republican ring for the 2000 presidential race. He offered himself as the antidote for “the dishonest decade of Bill Clinton and Al Gore.” He promised to restore integrity, responsibility and more malaprops to the White House.  He exited the race a few months later, after finishing eighth in the first Republican straw poll, cheating the world out of future Quayle gems such as these:

If we don’t succeed we run the risk of failure.

Republicans understand the importance of bondage between a mother and child.

A low voter turnout is an indication of fewer people going to the polls.

It isn’t pollution that’s harming the environment. It’s the impurities in our air and water that are doing it.

When I have been asked during these last weeks who caused the riots and the killing in L.A., my answer has been direct and simple: Who is to blame for the riots? The rioters are to blame. Who is to blame for the killings? The killers are to blame.

Bank failures are caused by depositors who don’t deposit enough money to cover losses due to mismanagement.

I deserve respect for the things I did not do.

I love California, I practically grew up in Phoenix.

The global importance of the Middle East is that it keeps the Far East and the Near East from encroaching on each other.

I believe we are on an irreversible trend toward more freedom and democracy – but that could change.

APRIL 13, 1360: HAIL, HAIL, THE GANG’S ALL HERE

It was the 14th century and once again England was out to conquer France. The hostilities had been going on for nearly 20 years, when England’s King Edward III sailed across the Channel with a huge army — a cast of thousands.  The dead of winter set in, and the inconsiderate French refused to face the English invaders in direct combat. Instead they huddled in their warm and cozy castles, drinking cafe au lait while the English plundered the countryside and got frostbite. Come April of 1360, having lasted through the winter, Edward and his men fought and torched their way through the Paris suburbs, and readied themselves to have at Chartres.

Then, on April 13, a sudden violent storm came up. Lightning killed several soldiers, and then the heavens opened up and hailstones the size of pommes de terre began hammering the hapless army, killing a thousand men. Naturally, they took this as a sign that God was annoyed. Edward declared the invasion “my bad” and negotiated a peace with the French. The English renounced all claims to the throne of France, and the French gave them croissants.

But wouldn’t you know it, a few years later, the King of France declared war on England ( this was, after all, the Hundred Years’ War, scheduled to last another 75 years or so.)

Historians assure us that this was not the origin of the phrase “Hail to the Chief.”

Ifs, Ands or Butts

Alfred Mosher Butts was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, on April 13, 1899. Who, you ask, is Alfred Mosher Butts? He became an architect when he grew up, though not a famous one. He dabbled in art to no great success. His colorful last name is worth a pathetic seven points in a certain word game that can be found in one-third of American homes. 150 million sets have been sold worldwide in 29 languages. Yes, the game is the ubiquitous Scrabble. And Al Butts is the guy who invented it.

For those who may be new to the planet, Scrabble is a game where players place tiles on a board to spell words and earn points determined by the numerical value of individual letters. Butts determined the values of the individual letters by studying how often each letter appeared on the front page of The New York Times (fake letters in fake words in fake news, some might say).

A street sign in Jackson Heights (where Butts lived when he invented the game) memorializes the creation of the game.

APRIL 12, 1788: WHAT’S IN A NAME

Cape Disappointment is a headland at the mouth of the Columbia River at the southwesternmost tip of Washington State. Its main claim to fame is its fog. At 106 foggy days a year, Cape Disappointment is the foggiest spot in the United States. And then there’s the name, one that surely must put the Cape Disappointment Chamber of Commerce through its paces. Where did it get that name, you query? Good of you to ask. It just happens to have been named on April 12, 1788.

John Meares was an explorer, navigator, fur trader and a bit of a scoundrel. His first expedition to the north Pacific ended in failure. Sailing with false papers claiming Portuguese registry to avoid licensing and duties and with inadequate provisions, he was forced to winter in Prince William Sound. All but ten of his men died. Meares and these men were saved by the arrival of a British trader. To show his gratitude, Meares sued the trader, claiming he had been overcharged for the supplies that saved their lives.

In 1788, he was back in the north Pacific collecting sea otter furs to sell in China. Sailing southward along the Washington coast, he ran into nasty weather at that unnamed headland at the mouth of the Columbia River. Forced to turn back, he called the place X#!##X!&!! which was later cleaned up to Cape Disappointment.

A few years later, Meares would bring Britain and Spain to the brink of war, but that’s a story for another day.

Magic Kingdoms Here and There

It was a Big Apple Fantasyland. Finishing touches were still being put in place on New York City’s Hippodrome just hours before its April 12, 1905, opening. Seating 5300 people, it dwarfed the Metropolitan Opera with its 3000 seats. A marvel of theatrical architecture, its stage was 12 times larger than any existing Broadway house and was capable of holding a thousand performers at a time or, perhaps, a full-sized circus complete with clowns and horses and acrobats and a flying elephant or two.

Speaking of Flying Elephants (a Clever Segue to 1992)

Could Mickey Souris really cut it among continental consumers? Would the rodent empire have the necessary je ne sais quoi to win those jaded Gallic hearts and minds? No more guessing or advance planning or idle speculation after D-Day (as in Disney) — April 12, 1992, the day Euro Disney opened its gates in Marne-La-Vallee on the outskirts of Paris. Gladstone Gander or Goofy?
The lucky duck prevailed. The royaume magique became one of Europe’s leading tourist destinations with some 15 million annual visitors. Disney had created another Fantasyland.