July 29, 1887: Naughty Nomads and Singing Sots

Born in 1887, Sigmund Romberg moved to the United States in 1909 and, after a short resume builder in a pencil factory (as a sharpener?), found work as a pianist.  An instrument here, an instrument there, and pretty soon he had his own orchestra. He published a few songs that caught the attention of the Shubert brothers, who in 1914 hired him to write music for their Broadway shows. Next day on his dressing room, they hung a star.

Career off and running, he wrote his best-known operettas, The Student Prince in 1924, The Desert Song in 1926, and The New Moon in 1928.

The Student Prince was the most successful of Romberg’s works, the longest-running Broadway show of the 1920s at 608 performances, even longer than the classic Show Boat.  The “Drinking Song,” with its rousing chorus, was especially popular in 1924, with Prohibition is full swing:

Drink! Drink!
  Let the toast start!
  May young hearts never part!
  Drink! Drink! Drink!
  Let every true lover salute his sweetheart!
  Let's drink!

The Mario Lanza version from the 1954 movie remains popular with imbibers everywhere.

The Desert Song (with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein) is your typical superhero-adopts-mild-mannered disguise-to-keep-his true-identity-secret saga much like Zorro and Superman but with better music and no phone booths. The Red Shadow loves a beautiful and spirited girl, who loves his hero persona but not his wimpy side.  Will true love win out over hero worship? After much sophisticated music, lust in the dust and naughty humor, we learn the answer, especially in a lavish 1929 film production of the operetta – but only until the 1940s when it became illegal to view or exhibit the 1929 film in the United States because the folks in charge feared the naughty bits would morally harm us.

A second feature version was made in 1943, which had our hero fighting the Nazis, and a third version with Kathryn Grayson and Gordon MacRae in 1953 was about as squeaky clean as you can get.  Thank god for censors.

I drink to make other people more interesting. ― Ernest Hemingway

January 21, 1903: Give My Regards to Toto

A little girl lives in the middle of the great Kansas prairies with her aunt, wizard_of_oz_1902uncle and a little dog. One day, while she is playing with her pet, she is interrupted by a fierce whirlwind. The little girl and the dog take shelter in the farmhouse, which is whisked away into the stratosphere, plopping down in a strange, alien land.

The plot of the Wizard of Oz, written by L. Frank Baum in 1900 is easily recognized. Many children read the Wizard or one of the many Oz books. And is there anyone on the planet who has not seen the 1939 movie version?

The first outing, other than in print, for the Wizard of Oz came just a few years after publication of the book. A musical extravaganza for the stage opened on Broadway on January 21, 1903, and ran for 293 performances, closing at the end of 1904. It starred pretty much forgotten performers: Anna Laughlin as Dorothy, Fred Stone as the Scarecrow and David Montgomery as the Tin Man. The Cowardly Lion was reduced to a bit part, and the Wicked Witch was completely eliminated. (Fans of the current hit musical Wicked might dispute the logic of that move.) Toto was replaced by Dorothy’s pet cow, Imogene (probably because it created work for two actors instead of one little dog). New characters included King Pastoria II and his girlfriend, Trixie Tryfle, a waitress; Cynthia Cynch, a lunatic; Sir Dashemoff Daily, the Oz poet laureate; Sir Wiley Gyle; and General Riskitt.

The main plot of the musical is King Pastoria’s attempts to wrest the throne from the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy and her fellow protagonists become fugitives searching for the Wizard. The music is pretty much forgotten as well. Such tunes as “Just a Simple Girl from the Prairie” and “Budweiser’s a Friend of Mine” haven’t found their way into medleys with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”


Cecil Blount DeMille (it’s easy to see why he was known as C.B.) died on January 21, 1959.  As a film director, he was most widely known for his Biblical epics “with a cast of thousands.”


J. R. “Bob” Dobbs (not of who killed J.R.? fame) did not make as big a splash in the religious world.  Founder of the Church of the SubGenius, he died in 1984 at the hands of an assassin.  (Okay, somebody probably asked who killed J.R.?)  Dobbs early career was that of a salesman until on one fateful day in 1953, he saw a vision of God on a television set, inspiring him to found the religion whose motto was “Eternal Salvation — or triple your money back.”  Although he died in 1984, he has come back from the dead a number of times, according to his church.



January 16, 1908: Next Day on Your Dressing Room They Hung a Star

A few names are synonymous with the Broadway musical theater – Rodgers and Hammerstein, the Gershwins, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin,merman_ethel_phh composers all. As an entertainer, one name looms large; for three decades she was the Queen of Broadway. Born on January 16, 1908, Ethel Merman belted out song after song, starting in the Gershwin musical Girl Crazy and working her way through Cole Porter’s Anything Goes, Annie Get Your Gun, and Gypsy to name just a few. Hello Dolly was written with Merman in mind, but she initially turned down the role, finally taking it in 1970 six years after the production opened. On her opening night as the seventh and final Dolly in the play’s run, the performance was frequently brought to a standstill by long standing ovations. Critics agreed with the audience; Walter Kerr of The New York Times described her voice: “Exactly as trumpet-clean, exactly as penny whistle-piercing, exactly as Wurlitzer-wonderful as it always was.”

When she was not appearing on Broadway, Merman enjoyed a successful movie and television career. Among the highlights were a dandy comic turn in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and the role of a vaudeville family matriarch in Irving Berlin’s There’s No Business Like Show Business, whose title song became her signature.

Merman was also known for her salty language, never delivered in a whisper. Once while rehearsing for an appearance on the Loretta Young television show, she was told it would cost her a dollar each time she swore since Young disapproved of foul language. As she was fighting to get into an ill fitting gown, Merman shouted: “Oh shit, this damn thing’s too tight.” Young held out her curse box and said, “Come on Ethel, put a dollar in. You know my rules.” Merman is said to have replied: “Ah, honey, how much will it cost me to tell you to go fuck yourself?”

benny-goodman-coverA few blocks north on another January 16, in 1938, the joyful noise of jazz was wowing the audience at an unlikely venue. Benny Goodman, already crowned as the King of Swing, was making the first appearance by a jazz musician at the venerable Carnegie Hall, America’s citadel of classical music. In what has come to be seen as the most important jazz concert in history, Goodman assembled his own band, which included Harry James on trumpet, Lionel Hampton on vibraphone and Gene Krupa on drums as well as stars from the Duke Ellington and Count Basie Orchestras for a look at twenty years of jazz. The concert concluded with an amazing performance of “Sing, Sing Sing” featuring an impromptu piano solo by Jess Stacy.

All recordings of the show were presumed lost until 1950 when an album made from recovered acetates became one of the first albums to sell over a million copies.




December 20, 1880: Remember Me to Herald Square

On December 20, 1880, the stretch of Broadway between Union Square and Madison Square in New York City was illuminated by electric lights for the first time, becoming one of the first streets in the country to be lit up.  It had been exactly one year since over in New Jersey, in broadwayMenlo Park, Thomas Edison had demonstrated his incandescent light.  By the 1890s, the section of Broadway from 23rd Street to 34th Street had become so brightly illuminated by electrical advertising signs, that it was dubbed “The Great White Way.”  Later, when the theater district moved uptown to the Times Square area, the name moved with it.

Broadway is the oldest north-south thoroughfare in New York City, dating back to the first New Amsterdam settlement.  The name Broadway is an English translation of the Dutch breede weg, which means something like “street of hot pretzel vendors.”  Although best known for the boulevard portion that runs through Manhattan, Broadway also runs through the Bronx and north for another 18 miles through Westchester County to Sleepy Hollow.  There are countless landmarks along the route, but the one that first springs to mind this time of year is Macy’s Herald Square department store, between 34th and 35th Streets, where Christmas begins with Macy’s annual parade,  and its windows spectacularly celebrate the season.  (The store is also a costar of the classic movie Miracle on 34th Street.)

Continuing in the Christmas spirit, on December 20, 1989, Vice President Dan Quayle mailed out 30,000 Christmas cards with the inscription “May our nation continue to be the beakon of hope.”



November 16, 1889: Full of Single Entendres


Born November 16, 1889, George S.Kaufman was an American playwright, humorist, theater director and producer, and drama critic. In addition to comedies and political satire, he wrote several musicals.

Kaufman was the most successful playwright in the American theater during Broadway’s golden years between the two World Wars, producing forty-five plays, most of which were successes.  He collaborated at various times with the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Moss Hart, Edna Ferber, Ring Lardner, the Marx Brothers and the members of the famed Algonquin Round Table.

Three of his notable endeavors were for for the Marx Brothers The Cocoanuts (with Irving Berlin), A Night at the Opera,  and Animal Crackers. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for the 1932 musical Of Thee I Sing (with Morrie Ryskind and Ira Gershwin) and for the 1937 play You Can’t Take It With You (with Moss Hart), made into an Oscar-winning film by Frank Capra a year later . He also won the Tony Award as a director for the musical Guys and Dolls. Many other Kaufman plays were adapted into Hollywood films, including Dinner At Eight and Stage Door. He died in 1961.

The kind of doctor I want is one who when he’s not examining me is home studying medicine.

Epitaph for a dead waiter – God finally caught his eye.

I understand your new play is full of single entendres.

Satire is what closes on Saturday night.

October 5, 1967: Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

The rock musical Hair has played pretty much continuously since its Broadway debut at the Biltmore Theatre in the late 60s, its mix of sex, drugs and rock and roll more or less guaranteeing hairan avid following. It’s been translated into many languages and produced throughout the world. But back on October 5, 1967, it looked a lot like a colossal failure.

After rejections by producer after producer, the musical was accepted by Joseph Papp, who ran the New York Shakespeare Festival, to open the new Public Theater in New York City’s East Village for a six-week engagement.

Hair depicts a group of hippies living the bohemian life in New York City, rebelling against the Vietnam War, conservative parents and other societal ills while diving into the sexual revolution and the drug culture. Its protagonist Claude must decide whether to resist the draft or give in to conservative pressures and risk his principles (and his life) by serving in Vietnam.

Production did not go well. Perhaps the theater staff was too close to conservative America; the material seemed incomprehensible, rehearsals were chaotic, casting confusing. The director quit during the final week of rehearsals and the choreographer took charge. The final dress rehearsal was a disaster.

But the show did go on. Critics were not particularly kind, but it found an audience. During the six-week engagement, a man from Chicago was attracted to the show by its poster with a picture of five American Indians on it. He thought Hair was all about Native Americans, a favorite subject of his. He was surprised to discover it was actually about hippies, but he nevertheless liked it so much that, he bankrolled its move to a discotheque in midtown Manhattan. The show had to start at 7:30 pm instead of the normal curtain time of 8:30 and play without intermission so dancing could begin at 10 pm. But Hair was getting closer to Broadway.

In 1968, the play’s creators reworked it into the musical that everyone knows, adding additional songs, the infamous nude scene, and an upbeat ending — it was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

April 9, 1928: Goodness Had Nothing To Do with It

maeMae west made her Broadway debut as actress and playwright in 1928’s Diamond Lil. Born Mary Jane in Brooklyn, in 1893, West rose to prominence during the 1920s and 1930s with a comedic style employing fast-talking burlesque humor and over the top sexual innuendo. She began her career early. Having shown enough acting talent by the fourth grade that her mother let her quit school to pursue a performing career, she worked in vaudeville and burlesque until 1926, when she began developing her own material.

Diamond Lil became her signature character but success eluded her until she took a bit part in the 1932 movie, Night After Night, and stole “everything but the cameras,” according to costar George Raft. Paramount, offered her a contract with full control over the script. Her first starring role was in She Done Him Wrong (1933), a screen adaptation of Diamond Lil, memorable for such lines as “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me?” West then wrote and costarred in I’m No Angel, Belle of the Nineties, and Klondike Annie. Now at the height of her career, she costarred with W.C. Fields in the comic western My Little Chickadee (1940), whose script she wrote with him.

Mae West remained a symbol of outrageous sexual behavior throughout her life, appearing in Myra Breckinridge and Sextette in the 1970s shortly before her death in 1980. One of her most famous lines and the title of her autobiography came in response to another film character’s remark “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!” – “Goodness had nothing to do with it.”

April 8, 1904: It Was the Best of Times Square . . .

In 1904, a bit of real estate in the middle of Manhattan called Long Acre Square got a new name. New York Times publisher Adolph S. Ochs had just moved his newspaper’s operations to a new skyscraper on 42nd Street. He persuaded the City of New York to construct a Time Sqaure New York 2013subway station there, and the area was renamed Times Square. Just three weeks later, the first electrified sign appeared at the corner of 46th Street and Broadway.

During its heyday through the 1920s, celebrities such as Irving Berlin, Fred Astaire, and Charlie Chaplin were closely associated with the area, nicknamed The Tenderloin because of its desirable location in Manhattan. However, crime and corruption, and their friends gambling and prostitution were sneaking in. Beginning with the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s and through the following decades, Times Square gained its reputation as a dangerous neighborhood. The seediness of the area became a symbol of the dismal state of the city. The tourists who continued to flock to the city’s most famous landmark were greeted by go-go bars, sex shops, adult theaters, and a very unDisneylike atmosphere. (oh, you got trouble right here in New York City)

Revitalization began in thew 1990s and today Times Square is a place you’d take your elderly mother.  And lots of people do.  Times Square is the world’s most visited tourist attraction, hosting over 39 million visitors (and their elderly mothers) yearly.

It’s squeaky clean now and glitzier than ever. (It’s the only neighborhood with zoning ordinances requiring building owners to display illuminated signs.)

Dream on, Las Vegas; Times Square is king.