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.

 

 

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January 16, 1777: We’re Outta Here

It would appear that the state of Vermont got kicked around a lot back in Revolutionary times. After it had been governed as a part of New Hampshire for 15 years, King George III decided in 1764 that the territory should belong to New York. It didn’t take long for Vermonters (they weren’t really called that yet) to realize they didn’t want to be a part of the Empire State (it wasn’t called that yet), so in 1777 they got together and declared their independence from everybody — New York, Britain and New Hampshire.

They called their independent state New Connecticut (they had some identity problems). After a few months, they renamed the state Vermont, a bastardized translation of the French for Green Mountain. A month later, they wrote themselves a constitution, the first written in North America and the first to prohibit slavery.

Throughout the 1780s the U.S. Congress refused to recognize their independence (kind of snarky for someone having just fought a war for independence). In 1784, the governor of New York asked the U.S. Congress to declare war on Vermont, but Congress (probably sick of war) did not oblige.  Vermonters turned to the British, requesting readmittance to the empire as part of Canada. Finally, in 1791, Vermont was admitted to the new American nation as the 14th state.

There’s No Business Like Show Business

Born on January 16, 1908, Ethel Merman was the Queen of Broadway for three decades, belting out song after song in a voice described as trumpet-clean, penny whistle-piercing, Wurlitzer-wonderful.”  When she was not appearing on Broadway, Merman enjoyed a successful movie and television career.

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?”

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.”

 

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October 5, 1983: 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.

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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.

 

I found it all about as arousing as a Tupperware party.  — Stephen Fry

 

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

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.