MAY 11, 1888: THE LEADER OF THE BAND

THE LEADER OF THE BAND

Israel Beilin was born on this day in 1888 in a small village in Belarus.  His father, a cantor in a synagogue, with the intimidating name of Moses, uprooted his family in the face of the anti-Jewish pogroms of the late 19th century, emigrating to the United States, where theyalex settled into a cold-water basement flat with no windows in New York City.  At the age of fourteen, Izzy, as he was called, realized that he contributed less to the family than his siblings and decided to leave home. With few survival skills and little education, he found no real employment. His only ability was acquired from his father’s vocation: singing. He joined with a few other youngsters, singing in Bowery saloons popular ballads for whatever customers would give them. Beilin began to recognize the kind of songs that appealed to audiences. In his free time he taught himself to play the piano, picking out tunes when the bar had closed for the night.

 

His first attempt at songwriting was a song called “Marie From Sunny Italy,” written in collaboration with the bar’s pianist. The sheet music to this song is important primarily because of a printer’s error.  The name printed on the cover was misspelled as: ‘I. Berlin.’

 

His meteoric rise as a songwriter came soon after with a song that would become world-famous. “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” firmly established Irving Berlin as an instant celebrity and one of America’s foremost musical wonders. He went on to write an estimated 1,500 songs, many becoming major hits, during his 60-year career, including the scores for 19 Broadway shows and 18 Hollywood films.  His songs were nominated eight times for Academy Awards. A list of noted songs might begin with “A Couple of Swells” and end with “You’re Just in Love,” with a whole lot in between.  Here’s a more complete list.

 

George Gershwin called him “the greatest songwriter that has ever lived” and composer Jerome Kern concluded that “Irving Berlin has no place in American music—he is American music.”

Meanwhile in Romania

On this same date a few years earlier, in 1884, another musical talent was born in Romania.  Like Irving Berlin she emigrated to America at a young age.  Alma Gluck did not have his lasting fame, but she became a successful performer at  the Metropolitan Opera as well as in concerts throughout the country.  She was an early recording pioneer, and her recording of “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” sold over a million copies, earning her a gold record, only the seventh to be awarded.

 

 

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MAY 10, 1893: THE SUPREME COURT SAYS TOMAHTO

THE SUPREME COURT SAYS TOMAHTO

An 1883 tariff act required a tax to be paid on imported vegetables, but not fruit. The Nix family, tomato entrepreneurs, went to court to recover back duties paid to the Port of New York under protest, claiming that they owed nothing because, botanically, a tomato is a Tomato1fruit, a seed-bearing structure growing from the flowering part of a plant. The case made it to the Supreme Court where, on May 10, 1893, the justices unanimously ruled that, botany be damned, a tomato is a vegetable.

At the hearing, both the plaintiffs’ counsel and the defendant’s counsel made extensive use of dictionaries. The plaintiffs’ counsel read in evidence the definitions of the word tomato, while the defendant’s counsel read the definitions of the words pea, eggplant, cucumber, squash, and pepper. In a clear case of one-upmanship, the plaintiff then read in evidence the definitions of potato, turnip, parsnip, cauliflower, cabbage, carrot and bean.

The court decided in favor of the defense and found that the tomato should be classified under the customs regulations as a vegetable, based on the ways in which it is used, and the popular perception to this end.  Justice Horace Gray, in a horticultural burst of logic, stated that:

“The passages cited from the dictionaries define the word ‘fruit’ as the seed of plants, or that part of plants which contains the seed, and especially the juicy, pulpy products of certain plants, covering and containing the seed. These definitions have no tendency to show that tomatoes are ‘fruit,’ as distinguished from ‘vegetables,’ in common speech, or within the meaning of the tariff act.”

He acknowledged that botanically, tomatoes are classified as a “fruit of the vine”; nevertheless, they are seen as vegetables because they were usually eaten as a main course instead of being eaten as a dessert. In making his decision, Justice Gray brought up another case in which the court found that although a bean is botanically a seed, in common parlance a bean is seen as a vegetable. While on the subject, Gray clarified the status of the cucumber, squash, pea, and turnip for good measure.

It would take another century to declare ketchup a vegetable.

MAY 9, 1671: STALKING THE CROWN JEWELS

STALKING THE CROWN JEWELS

In the movie The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Holmes’ nemesis Professor Moriarty is out to steal the crown jewels. His  battle of wits with Holmes over England’s great treasure lasts about an hour.  Earlier, an Irishman, Colonel Thomas Blood, attempted the same feat with a much more elaborate plan.

Colonel Blood set the plan in motion in April with a visit to the Tower of London. Dressed as a parson and accompanied by a woman pretending to be his wife, Blood made the acquaintance of Talbot Edwards, an aged but trustworthy keeper of the jewels. During this time, the jewels could be viewed by the payment of a fee. After viewing the regalia, Blood’s “wife” pretended to be taken ill, upon which they were conducted to Edward’s lodgings where he gave her a cordial and treated her with great kindness. Blood and his accomplice thanked the Edwardses and left.

Blood returned a few days later with a half dozen gloves as a present to Mrs. Edwards as a gesture of thanks. As Blood became ingratiated with the family, he made an offer for a fictitious nephew of his to marry the Edwardses’ daughter, whom he alleged would be eligible upon their marriage to an income of several hundred pounds. It was agreed that Blood would bring his nephew to meet the young lady on May 9, 1671.  At the appointed time, Blood arrived with his supposed nephew, and two of his friends, and while they waited for the young lady’s appearance, they requested to view the jewels. Edwards accommodated the men but as he was doing so, they threw a cloak over him and struck him with a mallet, knocking him to the floor and rendering him senseless.

Blood and his men went to work. Using the mallet, Blood flattened out the crown so that he could hide it beneath his clerical coat. Another filed the sceptre in two to fit in a bag, while the third stuffed the sovereign’s orb down his trousers.

The three ruffians would probably have succeeded in their theft but for the opportune arrival of Edwards’ son and a companion, Captain Beckman. The elder Edwards regained his senses and raised the alarm shouting, “Treason! Murder! The crown is stolen!” His son and Beckman gave pursuit.

As Blood and his gang fled to their horses waiting at St. Catherine’s Gate, they dropped the sceptre and fired on the guards who attempted to stop them. As they ran along the Tower wharf, they were chased down by Captain Beckman. Although Blood shot at him, he missed and was captured before reaching the Iron Gate.  The crown, having fallen from his cloak, was found while Blood struggled with his captors, declaring, “It was a gallant attempt, however unsuccessful, for it was for a crown!” — a rather eloquent comeuppance speech which today would be something more along the lines of “Oh fuck!”

MAY 8, 1854: A MILE IN WHOSE SHOES?

A MILE IN WHOSE SHOES?

Celebrated pedestrian Robert Barclay Allardice, 6th Laird of Ury, generally known simply as Captain Barclay, died on May 8, 1854. During his life he accomplished many feats in the world of walking, and is, in fact, considered the father of pedestrianism, a popular sport of the 19th century.

 

His first feat, at the age of fifteen, was to walk six miles in an hour ‘fair heel and toe.’ Heel and toe was a rather vague rule of pedestrianism, that the toe of one foot could not leave the ground before the heel of the other foot touched down. It was randomly enforced. In 1801, at the age of 22, Barclay walked from Ury to Boroughbridge, a distance of 300 miles in five oppressively hot days, and in that same year, he walked 90 miles in 21 and a half hours, winning 5000 guineas for his fancy footwork.

 

His most famous feat came in 1809 when he undertook the task of walking 1000 miles in 1000 successive hours, a mile within each hour, a challenge in which many had failed and none had succeeded. At stake was 100,000 pounds (roughly 8 million dollars today). This feat captured the imagination of the public, and 10,000 people came to watch over the course of the event, cheering him on or wishing him ill fortune depending on the direction of their own wagers. He began his course at midnight on June 1 and finished it at 3 p.m. on July 12.

 

Pedestrian races were popular with both the media and the public throughout the 19th century, drawing throngs of spectators, along with bookies, touts and other unsavory characters who frequent such competitions. With the coming of the automobile, however, pedestrianism became an endangered sport as pedestrians themselves became an endangered species, serving mostly as targets for mechanized sporting types.  It does remain in our popular culture, however, with such paeans to pedestrianism as “The Stroll,” “Walk on the Wild Side,” “Walk Like a Man,” and “Walk This Way.”

 

Walking the Dogs

On May 8, 1877, 1,201 of the classiest American canines convened at the Hippodrome in New York City to compete for the the title of top dog.  This was the first dog show to be held under the guidance of the Westminster Kennel Club, and it has been held annually ever since.  Among the luminaries at that first event were two Staghounds from the pack of the late General George Custer and two Deerhounds bred by Queen Victoria.

Eighteen years later, on May 8, 1895, felines had their turn in the spotlight at the first cat show held in New York at Madison Square Garden.  This was a more down to earth affair with prizes given in several categories including the best stray alley cat.

MAY 7, 1885: COMIN’ THROUGH THE TV, SHOOTIN’ UP THE LAND

COMIN’ THROUGH THE TV, SHOOTIN’ UP THE LAND

An essential player in Hollywood westerns was the leadinggabby man’s sidekick, and many sidekicks became just as famous as their starring partners: Andy Devine was Jingles to Wild Bill Hickock, Pat Buttram and Smiley Burnette were both sidekicks to Gene Autry, Jay Silverheels was Tonto to the Lone Ranger, Leo Carillo was Pancho to the Cisco Kid. The top sidekick was, of course, Gabby Hayes, born May 7, 1885. Through the 1930s and 1940s, he was sidekick to Hopalong Cassidy in 18 films and to Roy Rogers in 41.

 

The third of seven children, George Francis Hayes was born in an upstate New York hotel owned by his father. As a young man, he worked in a circus and played semi-pro baseball while a teenager. He ran away from home at 17, and joined a touring stock company. He married Olive Ireland in 1914 and the duo enjoyed a successful vaudeville career. Although he had retired in his 40s, he lost money in the 1929 stock market crash, and he felt the need to work again.  He and his wife moved to California and he began his movie career, taking various roles until finally settling into a Western career.

 

Hayes first gained fame as Hopalong Cassidy’s sidekick Windy Halliday in many films between 1936-39. He left the Cassidy films in a salary dispute and was legally prevented from using the name “Windy.”   So “Gabby” Hayes was born.  He gained fame as a sidekick to stars such as John Wayne, Randolph Scott, and, of course, Roy Rogers – beginning with Southward Ho in 1939 and ending with Heldorado in 1946.

 

Offstage Hayes was the complete opposite of his screen persona – an elegant bon vivant, man-about-town and connoisseur. He died in 1969.

On the subject of his movies: “I hate ’em. Really can’t stand ’em. They always are the same. You have so few plots – the stagecoach holdup, the rustlers, the mortgage gag, the mine setting and the retired gunslinger.”

“You’re a good-looking boy: you’ve big, broad shoulders. But he’s a man. And it takes more than big, broad shoulders to make a man.” — High Noon

“There are only two things that are better than a gun: a Swiss watch and a woman from anywhere. Ever had a good… Swiss watch?” — Red River

“A gun is a tool, Marian; no better or no worse than any other tool: an ax, a shovel or anything. A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it. Remember that.” –Shane

“You don’t look like the noble defender of poor defenseless widows. But then again, I don’t look like a poor defenseless widow.” –Once Upon a Time in the West

MAY 6, 1782: YOU’VE GOT THAT MIDAS TOUCH

YOU’VE GOT THAT MIDAS TOUCH

On this day, one James Price, a distinguished amateur chemist and a Fellow of England’s Royal Society began a series of remarkable experiments. The seven experiments were witnessed by peers, baronets, clergymen. lawyers and chemists – men of unimpeachable public character. In these experiments, mercury was apparently transmuted into various quantities of gold and silver. Some of the gold was presented to His Majesty George III.

 

Price became a celebrated figure, and many saw in his work the dawning of an era of unparalleled prosperity for England. Naysayers claimed that Price was merely a clever juggler or that he had deceived himself. In his favor were the facts that he was already a wealthy man and no needy adventurer and that he had already distinguished himself in chemistry.

 

A fierce paper battle ensued over the veracity of the experiments, and eventually the Royal Society stepped in, calling upon Price as a Fellow of the society to prove to the satisfaction of his fellow Fellows the truth of his transmutations by repeating his experiments in their presence.

 

Price dithered, making various excuses for not repeating the experiments (one of which was that it cost more to produce gold than the gold was worth).  Finally, however, he yielded to their exhortations and announced that he would leave London for his laboratory in the country to prepare for the experiment. He pledged to return in a month, but the month passed, and a second and a third. Six months passed, and even his friends had given up on him.  Just when everyone was convinced he had fled to France or some other criminal haven, he  reappeared, inviting members of the Royal Society to meet him at his laboratory for the experiment.

Although only a year earlier they were contending for the honor of witnessing the experiments, only three society Fellows accepted his invitation. Stepping before them, Price hastily produced a flask and swallowed its contents. Noting a sudden change in his appearance, the visitors called for medical assistance, but in a few moments Price was dead.

 

One thing was sure.  Price had not transmuted himself to gold.  It is speculated that in the beginning he had probably deceived himself, then in the usual slippery slope of skullduggery  attempted to deceive others, and finally,  lacking the moral courage to confess his mistake, checked himself out. In any event, the last belief in the possibility of alchemy among England’s scientific community came to an end in 1782 with Price’s death.

 

Thinking to get at once all the gold the goose could give, he killed it and opened it only to find — nothing. — Aesop

 

Long Playwright’s Journey

On May 6, 1957, Eugene O’Neill was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama for his play Long Day’s Journey Into Night.  It was his fourth Pulitzer, the most ever for a playwright.  His previous awards were for Beyond the Horizon in 1920, Anna Christie in 1922, and Strange Interlude in 1928.  Robert Frost won four Pulitzers for poetry.

MAY 5, 1862: VAMOS A CELEBRAR

VAMOS A CELEBRAR

Today is Cinco de Mayo. It is sometimes mistakenly thought of as a major Mexican holiday; it is, rather, a celebration of Mexican heritage and pride by people of Mexican descent living mostly in the United States – and, of course, non-Mexicans looking for an excuse to drink tequila.

 

In Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated primarily in the state of Puebla where it is called El Día de la Batalla de Puebla (The Day of the Battle of Puebla) observed to commemorate the Mexican army’s unlikely victory over French forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. France, under the leadership of Napoleon Number Three, sought to establish a Gallic empire in Mexico (possibly because things had gone so well for Napoleon Number One in Russia back in 1812). In 1861, a large French force landed at Veracruz sending the Mexican government into retreat. Moving toward Mexico City, the French army encountered heavy resistance near Puebla from a poorly equipped Mexican army of 4,500 men. The Mexicans were able to soundly defeat the 8,000-strong French army, considered the best in the world.

 

Although there’s not much happening in Mexico City on May 5, there’s plenty of action elsewhere as celebrations everywhere honor Mexican cuisine, culture and music. In addition to the many U.S. events, Windsor, Ontario, holds a Cinco de Mayo Street Festival, and a club near Vancouver, British Columbia, holds a Cinco de Mayo skydiving event. In the Caribbean, there is an annual Cinco de Mayo air guitar competition in the Cayman Islands and a celebration at Montego Bay, Jamaica. Cinco de Mayo events are held in Australia, New Zealand, London and and even in Paris (where it’s sometimes called, Cinco de Mayo, Merde).

MAY 4, 1959: VINYL AND GOLD

VINYL AND GOLD

The first Grammy Awards (or Gramophone Awards as they were originally called) honoring achievement in the recording industry were held in 1959. And it was a banner year to start passing out those little gold gramophones.

In contention for Record of the Year was Perry Como with one of his three Top 10 singles for the previous year, “Catch a Falling Star,” Peggy Lee with her biggest hit of the rock era, “Fever,” Frank Sinatra crooning “Witchcraft,” and the are-you-kidding entry, “The Chipmunk Song” by David Seville. Taking home the statuette (to Italy) was Domenico Mondugno and the only foreign language recording to ever win the top prize, “Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu.” The recording also won Song of the Year against pretty much the same competition.

For Album of the Year, Sinatra put both his 1958 releases in the running (possibly canceling each other out) – the upbeat Come Fly With Me, his first with arranger Billy May, and Only The Lonely, arranged by Nelson Riddle. Ella Fitzgerald placed one of her several songbook albums in the ring, this one dedicated to Irving Berlin. And Van Cliburn, having won the April 1958 International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, scored with Tchaikovksy: Concerto No. 1 In B-Flat Minor, Op. 23. Stiff competition but Henry Mancini was up to it, nailing the first of his 20 Grammy Awards with The Music from Peter Gunn.

Sinatra, Fitzgerald, Como and Cliburn all won in other categories, as did Louis Prima and Keely Smith, Count Basie, Andre Previn, and the Champs (Tequila). The head-scratcher Grammy of the year was in the category Best Country and Western Performance, won by the Kingston Trio for  “Tom Dooley.” Well, it’s not jazz or classical.

MAY 3, 1840: JIMMY’S LITTLE LETTUCE PILLS

JIMMY’S LITTLE LETTUCE PILLS

James Morison (not of the Doors nor A.A. Milne) was a British merchant turned physician(?) who died on May 3, 1840, at the ripe old age of 70 after suffering through a mid-life crisis of intolerable pain which he cured by magic little pills of his own devising. Thanks to his little pills created from flora and their miracle cure, he became throughout  his later life a notorious advocate of “vegetable medicines.”

Although many of his peers considered him a bit of a quack, he came to his calling in a fairly honorable way; having tried every known cure for his maladies in vain, he devised the vegetable pills and found them to be “the only rational purifiers of the blood.”

He became, at age 50, a new man. He regained his youthfulness; his pains were gone; he enjoyed sound sleep and high spirits. In short, he was healthy, fearing neither heat nor cold, dryness nor humidity.  And all because of his dear little pills and a morning glass of lemonade.

Would it have been fair for him to keep this medical miracle to himself? Wasn’t he morally bound to spread this blessing among his fellow creatures? Of courses he was. And what if he profited handsomely from his doing so? One can grow wealthy arcimboldowith a much clearer conscience peddling carrots and turnip pills than peddling many other things.

He established a vegetable pill emporium with the rather lofty title of  British College of Health, retired to the south of France where he remained healthy, wealthy and wise until his 1840 death.

arcimboldoHis work led to the later discovery of the powers of penicillin taken with a glass of lemonade.

“The Vegetable Gardener” by Giuseppe Arcimbaldo

Vegetables are interesting but lack a sense of purpose when unaccompanied by a good cut of meat. — Fran Lebowitz

 

MAY 2, 1843: THE TOWN THAT CRIED WOLF

THE TOWN THAT CRIED WOLF

Chances are you’ve never heard of Champoeg — unless maybe you’re from Oregon which is where it is, or was. Champoeg had the historical significance of being the first American government on the West Coast, having been established by representatives of Willamette Valley settlers on May 2, 1843, by a vote of 52-50. These representatives had held a series of meetings starting back in February to entertain measures to deal with the threat of wolves. During these so-called “Wolf Meetings,” the conferees established a series of civil codes (although its doubtful the wolves paid much attention to them).
When the Oregon Territory was created in 1848, Champoeg was cold-shouldered as upstart Oregon City became its capital. This despite the fact that Champoeg had become rather a bustling little metropolis with a steamboat landing, a ferry across the Willamette River, a stagecoach office, a granary and a warehouse. Ten streets ran north to south, crossed by six east-west thoroughfares.
Champoeg chugged along through the years as Oregon grew and gained statehood. Then in 1861, the Willamette River reared its ugly head, rising 55 feet above its normal stage, flooding the town and destroying every structure in it with the exception of two saloons (there’s a lesson here somewhere). Champoeg was never rebuilt after the flood; all that remains is a small monument describing it place in history and a stake marking a street corner (probably the one where a saloon stood).

“Well!”

Although he was first heard on radio as a guest of Ed Sullivan, Jack Benny debuted his own radio show for NBC on May 2, 1932. After six months he moved to CBS and then in 1933 back to NBC. Although he continued to jump back and forth on networks, his radio program lasted until 1955, some five years after his television program appeared.

Benny was a fixture on radio and TV for three decades, and is still considered one of the best. He was a master of comic timing, creating laughter with pregnant pauses or a single expression, such as his signature “Well!

Appearing with him over the years were Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Don Wilson, Dennis Day, Mary Livingston, Phil Harris, Mel Blanc and Sheldon Leonard. Leonard helped Benny produce what was said to be the longest laugh in radio history. Leonard as a holdup man approached Benny and demanded “your money or your life.” Benny remained silent. Finally, Leonard said “Well!?” and Benny answered “I’m thinking it over!”