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

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February 27, 1902: Travels with Steinbeck

John Steinbeck was born and grew up in Salinas, California, a part of the fertile region he would later call the Pastures of Heaven in a collection of short stories and the setting for many of his works. The Nobel-winning novelist was born on February 27, 1902.

steinbeckjohnHis first critical and commercial success was Tortilla Flat set in and around Monterey, California, and featuring a small band of ne’er-do-well paisanos living for wine and good times after World War I. The novel was a sort of rogue’s tale, full of rough and earthy humor. From here Steinbeck moved on to more serious portrayals of the economic problems facing the rural working class in the social novels for which he became known — In Dubious Battle in 1936, Of Mice and Men in 1937, and his most important work The Grapes of Wrath in 1939, the saga of hardscrabble Oklahoma tenant farmers who became America’s migrant workers.

johnsteinbeck_thegrapesofwrathSteinbeck’s California did not take kindly to his portrayal. His books were banned, and in his hometown, twice burned in public protests. In fact, his books were banned in schools and libraries throughout the country and continued to be well into this century. Steinbeck was one of the ten most banned authors from 1990 to 2004 (according to the American Library Association), Of Mice and Men, sixth out of the top 100 banned books.

Later novels include Cannery Row, East of Eden, Travels with Charley,  and The Winter of Our Discontent. Steinbeck died in 1968.

 

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February 24, 1827: A Midsummer Night’s Prayer Meeting

“The Family Shakespeare — in which nothing is added to the original text,censored-shakespeare but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family. My great objects in this undertaking are to remove from the writings of Shakespeare some defects which diminish their value.”

Thus read an introduction for the 1807 edition of Shakespeare’s works, finally made suitable for general audiences by Thomas Bowdler some 200 years after the Bard was safely buried. Certainly Shakespeare, were he alive, could not have objected to having the defects which diminished their value removed from his works. Shakespeare and family values — together at last.

Shakespeare no doubt would have thanked Thomas Bowdler who joined him in the hereafter on February 24, 1827.

Bowdler undertook this project, along with his sister Henrietta, thanks to childhood memories in which his father had entertained his family with readings from Shakespeare. Only later as an adult did Bowdler realize that his father had been leaving out some of the naughty parts of the plays, anything he felt unsuitable for the ears of his wife and children. Realizing that not all fathers were clever enough to censor on the spot, Bowdler decided it would be worthwhile to publish an edition which came already sanitized and “expletive deleted.” True to his word and to his credit, Bowdler did not add anything to the Shakespeare texts as some earlier tinkers had (Poet Laureate Nathum Tate had, for example, given King Lear a happy ending.)

More than a century later, scholars decided that sister Henrietta had a somewhat heavier hand in the expurgations than previously believed. Naturally, as an unmarried lady, it would have been scandalous for her to admit having read, much less understood, the naughty stuff removed.

Later publications by Bowdler demonstrated his interest in and knowledge of continental Europe (with France presumably excised). His last work was a rather monumental expurgated version of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — no togas, no orgies — published posthumously in 1826. His version of Lady Chatterley’s Acquaintance turned out to be three pages long.

Bowdler has been recognized for his contributions to English literature by being awarded an adjective — bowdlerize, to change a book, play, movie, etc. by removing parts that could offend people.

 

If trees could scream, would we be so cavalier about cutting them down? We might, if they screamed all the time, for no good reason. — Jack Handey

 

 

February 10, 1960: Two Holes, No Waiting

Depending on the age of the viewer, The Tonight Show is synonymous with Jay Leno, Johnny Carson, or perhaps Jack Paar. Paar was at its helm from 1957 to 1962. About halfway through his tenure on February 10, 1960, Paar, a gifted storyteller, told what became known as his infamous water closet story (water closet, a British term for toilet):

An English lady, while visiting Switzerland, was looking for a room, and paar_jackshe asked the schoolmaster if he could recommend any to her. He took her to see several rooms, and when everything was settled, the lady returned to her home to make the final preparations to move.  When she arrived home, the thought suddenly occurred to her that she had not seen a “W.C.” around the place. So she immediately wrote a note to the schoolmaster asking him if there were a “W.C.” around. The schoolmaster was a very poor student of English, so he asked the parish priest if he could help in the matter. Together they tried to discover the meaning of the letters “W.C.,” and the only solution they could find for the letters was “Wayside Chapel.” The schoolmaster then wrote to the English lady the following note:

Dear Madam:
I take great pleasure in informing you that the W.C. is situated nine miles from the house you occupy, in the center of a beautiful grove of pine trees surrounded by lovely grounds. It is capable of holding 229 people and it is open on Sunday and Thursday only. As there are a great number of people and they are expected during the summer months, I would suggest that you come early: although there is plenty of standing room as a rule. You will no doubt be glad to hear that a good number of people bring their lunch and make a day of it; while others who can afford to go by car arrive just in time. I would especially recommend that your ladyship go on Thursday when there is a musical accompaniment. It may interest you to know that my daughter was married in the W.C. and it was there that she met her husband. I can remember the rush there was for seats. There were ten people to a seat ordinarily occupied by one. It was wonderful to see the expression on their faces. The newest attraction is a bell donated by a wealthy resident of the district. It rings every time a person enters. A bazaar is to be held to provide plush seats for all the people, since they feel it is a long felt need. My wife is rather delicate, so she can’t attend regularly. I shall be delighted to reserve the best seat for you if you wish, where you will be seen by all. For the children, there is a special time and place so that they will not disturb the elders. Hoping to have been of service to you, I remain,
Sincerely,
The Schoolmaster

No one saw the four-minute tale that evening. NBC censors decided the story was unfit for consumption by its audiences, late-night though they were, and cut it from the broadcast. They did so without consulting or even notifying Paar of their action. A mistake? Stay tuned.

 

Unlikely star entertainer Jimmy Durante was born February 10, 1893. Saiddurante critic Leonard Maltin about Durante: “The old ‘schnozzola’ was the living embodiment of the term ‘beloved entertainer’: Everyone adored him, but no one could ever really figure out just what it was he did. He sang, he danced, he played the piano and, of course, he clowned — but he wasn’t really great at any of these tasks. Mostly, it was the sheer wolfman-3force of his overbearing personality that won viewers over.”

Fuzzy-faced film star Lon Chaney Jr. was born on February 10, 1906, In addition to owning the character of the Wolf Man, he also took a turn at fellow monsters Frankenstein and the Mummy.

 

 

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