Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

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.”

Ready When You Are, Cecil

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.”

What About Bob?

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.

 

Mama eu Quero, Part 3: Deceit, the Only Recourse

She and Jorge had, just a day earlier, shared their first kiss.  It was an awkward moment during which each of them was so concerned about the other’s reaction that the end result rivaled the emotional wallop of a two-cheek greeting from a forgotten aunt.  But later – for Delia anyway, when she was alone – that anemic kiss blossomed into the most lyrical and sensual act of all time, superior to any kiss any time anywhere by any couple, living or dead, including even that kiss she had witnessed through the rear view mirror of Johnny Edward’s ’49 Ford, a kiss involving arms and legs as much as lips.  At that time, she had realized what the real difference between the sexes was; now she knew why.

And even with the passage of time, a whole 24 hours of it, she was still giddy, certain she would swoon unless she diverted her attention.  So she picked up The New York Times just to let its sophisticated but utterly meaningless words ricochet off her occupied mind.  And she certainly found news fit to print – just a few sentences – not about Eisenhower or Khrushchev or DeGaulle, but about Carmen Miranda.  Carmen Miranda was coming to Havana to appear at the Tropicana.

Although none would ever equal in her mind that fumbling first kiss, their kisses were now accelerating in frequency and intensity.  They were no longer awkward, though sometimes clumsy, perhaps, in a frenzied sort of way.  She and Jorge had whizzed past everything Delia had learned from the rear view mirror and were speeding down a highway she’d never traveled before, without the aid of a road map – or if there were a road map, it was all in Spanish.  Delia, however, set the speed limit and enforced it as necessary. This she usually did by breaking into conversation.

“We must go to see Carmen Miranda,” Delia insisted as Jorge tried to calm himself.

“That place represents all that is wrong with Cuba,” answered Jorge.

“I don’t think one little nightclub can represent so much.”

“It’s not little.”

“But it’s her, Jorge.  She doesn’t hurt Cuba.  She loves Cuba. She loves everyone. Please, Jorge.”

“We’ll see.”

“Absolutely not,” said her father.

If the Tropicana represented for Jorge all that was wrong with Cuba, it represented for her father all that was wrong with civilization.  To him, the Tropicana was Sodom itself with Gomorra thrown in for good measure, and any young woman who ventured therein would be, or should be, turned to a pillar of salt or stoned by people without sin or tossed into a lion’s den.  (Delia knew most of the Bible stories, but she did have a little problem with proper juxtaposition.)  To Delia, the Tropicana was the Promised Land, Eden, or to edge comfortably away from the Biblical, Xanadu. Once a vast private estate, it was now Cuba’s most luxurious club, a place where partying parishioners went to worship the nightlife under starry Cuban skies.

“They drink there and they gamble there,” her father went on.  “God only knows what else they do.  It’s not the proper atmosphere for a child.”

“I’m not a child.”

“Nevertheless, you’re not 21, the legal age for entering such an establishment.”  Delia wanted to point out that this was Havana not Dubuque, that they were probably a lot looser about such things here, but decided it would not help her cause.

“But if I can look 21and I don’t drink or gamble or do anything but watch one show, what can it hurt,” she pleaded.

“It would be breaking the law,” said her father. This was not just a convenient parental ploy; Delia’s father obeyed laws, even speed limits.  “We are guests in a foreign country and it is incumbent upon us to respect that country’s laws.”  For all Delia knew, twelve-year-olds could legally enter the Tropicana, but even if they could, she’d never convince her father it was so.  She had but one recourse – deceit.

continued

“Mama Eu Quero” originally appeared in the literary magazine Dandelion.  It is included in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.

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Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

OCTOBER 5, 1983: BURPING IN POLITE COMPANY

Cheap Halloween Thrills

In 1984, Ghostbusters was the most expensive comedy ever filmed. Wildly successful, it paid for itself and then some. Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd, and Harold Ramis are the titular paranormal investigators/exterminators. They have their hands full: An ancient Babylonian demon (channeling himself through Sigiourney Weaver) has unleashed an entire army of nasty spirits on New York City.  It’s a wild, over-the-top comedy, ranked number 28 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 best.

1 The Shining

2 The Exorcist

3 Beetlejuice

4 Invasion of the Body Snatchers

5 Ghost Story

6 Ghostbusters

BURPING IN POLITE COMPANY

Noted American businessman and inventor, Earl Silas Tupper died on October 5, 1983. He was buried in a 100-gallon Tupperware container whose lid was “burped”to get an airtight seal before being lowered into the ground. Thousands paid their respect at a memorial Tupperware Party held earlier.

For indeed this was the man who invented and gave his name to Tupperware, a line of plastic containers in an almost infinite array of shapes and sizes that changed the way Americans stored their food. Tupper invented the plasticware back in the late 30s, but it didn’t really start worming its way into every household until the 50s when Tupper introduced his ingenious and infamous marketing strategy, the Tupperware Party. This clever gambit gave women the opportunity to earn an income without leaving their homes and to simultaneously annoy their friends and relatives.

tupper1

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.

 

Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

JULY 29, 1887: NAUGHTY NOMADS AND SINGING SOTS

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

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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.”

 

elf

Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

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.

Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

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.”

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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.