Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

February 3, 1882: You’re a Big One, Aren’t Ya

A rather large sales transaction took place on February 3, 1882: Flamboyant showman and circus entrepreneur P.T. Barnum purchased his largest performer, a single-named star who stood ten feet at the shoulders, Jumbo. Jumbo of course was an elephant, a very big elephant. He was born in the Sudan and took a rather circuitous journey north to Germany, France and finally England and the London Zoo, where he resided for 17 years, becoming famous for giving rides to zoo visitors.

Londoners were not happy about the sale. The Zoological Society was up in arms. 100,000 schoolchildren petitioned Queen Victoria to halt the sale. A lawsuit was filed against the zoo. The zoo attempted to renege on the sale, but the court sided with Barnum.

The deal was a bonanza for Barnum. He exhibited Jumbo to huge crowds at Madison Square Garden, recovering the entire cost of his investment in three weeks. With Jumbo as its main attraction, the circus earned $1.75 million for the season.

Jumbo’s circus career would be short-lived, however. In 1885, he was struck by a train and died within minutes.

What’s in a Name

While jumbo as an adjective is used today to describe everything from cds to shrimp, the word did not have that meaning when the London zookeeper association gave it to the big fellow. Its derivation could be Indian from jambu (pronouced jumboo) a tree that grows on a mythical island whose fruits were said to be as big as elephants or Swahili from jambo (hello) or jumbe (chief). It is safe to say it has no relation to jambalaya or gumbo.

He-e-e-y Abbott

Radio’s Kate Smith Hour was a mainstay during the 30s and 40s. On February 3, 1938, the comedy duo of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello made their first radio outing on the program and became regular performers. They first performed their classic “Who’s on First?” the following month.

abbott-costelloThe former vaudevillians quickly became major stars in radio, followed by movies and television. They left the Kate Smith show after two years to star in their own radio program, as well as a Broadway revue, The Streets of Paris, and their first film, One Night in the Tropics, in which, although cast in supporting roles, they stole the show with several classic comedy routines and cemented their film careers.

buck-privatesUniversal Pictures signed them to a long-term contract. Their second film, Buck Privates, made them box-office stars and in the process saved Universal from bankruptcy. In most of their films, the plot was not much more than a framework that allowed them to reintroduce comedy routines they had first performed on stage. Universal also added glitzy production numbers to capitalize on the popularity of musical films, featuring such performers as the Andrews Sisters, Ella Fitzgerald, Martha Raye, Dick Powell and Ted Lewis and his Orchestra. The Andrews Sisters hits “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “I’ll Be With You In Apple Blossom Time” were both introduced in Buck Privates.

During the following years, Abbott and Costello “met” many other movie legends – Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Invisible Man, Captain Kidd, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Mummy, the Killer (Boris Karloff).  And they traveled throughout the world (and beyond): in a Harem, in the Foreign Legion, Lost in Alaska, Mexican Hayride, Mars, and Africa Screams, which featured both Clyde Beatty and Frank Buck as themselves. They made a total of 36 films.

On television, they frequently hosted the Colgate Comedy Hour and had their own syndicated television program.

In the 1950s Abbott and Costello’s popularity waned, their place atop the comedy heap taken by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Another reason for the decline was overexposure. They were reluctant to introduce new material, and their familiar routines were glutting the movie and television markets, with two films a year, re-releases of most of their older films; their filmed television series and live TV appearances.

They dissolved their partnership in 1957, with Lou making sporadic appearances until his death in 1959.  Bud died in 1974.

 

 

 

Advertisements
Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

January 23, 1957: Toss That Pluto Platter

Fred Morrison and his future wife Lucille were fooling around on a California beach back in 1938 when Fred had a light bulb over your head eureka moment. The pair were tossing a cake pan back and forth when a bored bystander offered them a quarter for the cake pan. Fred started doing the math — it was pretty simple math — I sell a five-cent cake pan for a quarter and I get to hang out on the beach.

The Morrisons jumped right into their flying cake pan business, but before long a nasty war got in their way, including a stretch for Fred as a prisoner of war. It was the late 40s before he got back into the flying cake pan business. Cake pan prices had gone up but plastic was in, and so, in 1948, Morrison and a partner introduced a plastic disc they called “flyin saucer”to take advantage of the UFO craze.

Morrison designed a new model in 1955 called the “pluto platter,” and on January 23, 1957, he sold the rights to Wham-O. Later that year Wham-O added the name Frisbee. And eventually, the name pluto platter was put out of its misery.

 

Nothing in Moderation

He got his first job in television by showing up for an audition wearing apercydovetonsils barrel and shorts. From there his career took off during a ten-year period that carried him from obscurity to stardom, the ride getting steadily wilder and crazier. Although someone else held the title Mr. Television, Ernie Kovacs, born on January 23, 1919, certainly left his imprint on the medium.

Often referred to as television’s surrealist, the cigar-smoking, poker-playing Hungarian-American comedian could be counted on for the unusual if not the bizarre in any of his many television outings, including It’s Time for Ernie, his first network series; Ernie in Kovacsland; and The Ernie Kovacs Show, featuring characters such as poet Percy Dovetonsils, bumbling magician Matzoh Heppelwhite, Frenchman Pierre Ragout, and the Nairobi Trio. He also hosted the Tonight Show twice a week and had a short stint as a celebrity panelist on What’s My Line?, where he strove more for humor than insight. (When Henry J. Kaiser, the founder of the automobile company, was the program’s mystery guest, and the panel had established that the mystery guest’s name was synonymous with an automobile brand, Kovacs asked, “Are you – and this is just a wild guess – but are you Abraham Lincoln?”

Kovacs was at the peak of his career when he was killed in a late-night automobile accident on his way home from one of the many parties that had become part of his life in California. The inscription on his tombstone reads “Ernie Kovacs 1919 – 1962 — Nothing In Moderation.”

Mama eu Quero, Part 5 (Conclusion): Goodbye Cuba

About the only warning the black-haired couple had of the impending disaster was the  dancing of the olives in their martinis, a nervous samba in time to the music coming from the stage.  It was gentle enough at first, but then the table that gave cadence to the martinis above and shelter to the young lady below shook as energetically as a table at a three-ghost séance.  Delia was out of control.  Carmen Miranda finished her song, the audience roared its approval and Delia jumped to her feet, sending the table and its occupants reeling backward into yet another table and another couple like so many genteel but helpless dominoes.

cuba3The room hushed as waiters bobbed here and there to repair the damage.  Two large men left their posts at a doorway and headed toward Delia.  So did Carmen Miranda, who reached her first and stared at her without speaking.  The Brazilian Bombshell was a little older, a little heavier than the Carmen of Delia’s memory, but her brilliant eyes flashed – with anger, Delia thought.  But then she grinned and said:  “Zank you.  You are boodifool.”

She kissed Delia’s forehead, darted back to the stage and resumed singing as though she were trying to divert attention from the embarrassed young woman now being escorted away from the stage.

Even now, forty years later, observed only by Fidel, Delia’s cheeks reddened at the   recollection of her calamitous faux pas, a Cuban crisis every bit as important to Delia as the Bay of Pigs invasion years later.  Jorge had interceded that night and Delia was allowed to return to her table for the rest of the performance.  But she was watched carefully and escorted out as soon as Carmen finished.

Summer ended as abruptly as Carmen’s performance of “Mama Eu Quero” when her father was summoned back to the United States in late July.  And although Delia had known from the beginning that her summer would end too soon, this shortening of it was somehow unjust, and she said so over and over, but to no avail.  For she and Jorge, that last day together equaled any sweet sorrow of parting ever committed by a romantic to paper, film or television screen.  It was filled with lovemaking, tears and promises – promises to write or phone, to return, to visit, to never forget – all that stuff that tries but can’t take the sting out of the word good-by.

In the plane, somewhere over the Gulf of Mexico, Delia heard the words to a popular song:

. . .though other nights and other days will find us gone our separate ways, we will have these moments to remember.

And she knew, despite trying all she could to believe otherwise, that Jorge and the past two months would be memories and nothing else.

The last few days of July and the first few in August were endless hours of agony.  Her young life had ceased, after sixteen and a half short years, to have meaning.  She mostly listened to music – Latin and melancholy – and stared at the television set, not really watching.  Not until that night when Jimmy Durante had as his special guest, straight from her triumphant Cuban tour, Carmen Miranda.

Delia, cheered for the first time since leaving Cuba, even doffed a hat of fruit as she sat cross-legged in front of the television, watching the interplay between Jimmy and Carmen.  Delia may have been watching with 20 million other Americans, but only she a few short weeks ago had seen Carmen Miranda from underneath a table at the Tropicana, had been smiled at and called boodiful.

After the lights had dimmed at the Club Durant and the star of the show had bade goodnight to Mrs. Calabash, Carmen Miranda returned to her dressing room.  There, shortly after midnight, at 46 years of age, she died of a heart attack.

Ah, look what you’ve done, Fidel.  I hadn’t thought about that summer in a good long time.  For a few months, I thought of nothing else; for a few years, often.  For several Halloweens, I shamelessly dressed my daughter as Carmen.  And for one Halloween, her little brother was you, Fidel.  Delia laughed.  The face on the television screen was now a stranger, but she continued to talk to it.  Several years ago, we all watched that old movie on TV, and they laughed when I cried at the giant bananas.  My husband says I should visit Cuba, but I don’t think that’s allowed. All because of my international incident at the Tropicana, probably.  I hear the Tropicana is still there.  I thought they would have torn it down at once.  Jorge would have.

 Jorge.

Good night, Jorge, wherever you are.

 

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

Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

NOVEMBER 1, 1944: MAN’S BEST FRIEND IS HIS RABBIT

 MAN’S BEST FRIEND IS HIS RABBIT

Elwood P. Dowd first walked onto a Broadway stage at the 48th Street Theatre on November 1, 1944.

Elwood is a good-natured soul who has a friend no one can see – a six-foot, three-harveyand-one-half-inch tall rabbit named Harvey, the titular character in the play by Mary Chase. A film version in 1950 featured James Stewart as Elwood.

Elwood, being outgoing and a perfect gentleman, naturally introduces Harvey to everyone he meets. His sister, Veta, increasingly finds his eccentric behavior embarrassing to her and her daughter Myrtle Mae’s would-be social status. Six foot rabbits are not particularly welcome among the country club set (and since he’s invisible, no telling what color he is). Veta decides to send Elwood packing to a sanitarium to solve the giant rabbit problem, setting in motion a comedy of errors instead.

Actually, according to Elwood, Harvey is a pooka, a deft shapeshifter, able to assume a variety of forms – dog, horse, goat, goblin, and of course rabbit. These forms may be pleasing or terrifying. A good pooka is a benevolent creature with the power of human speech, able to give sound advice and steer you away from evil. The bad pooka, on the other hand, is a blood-thirsty, Donald Trump-like creature who’d just as soon eat you as look at you.  Harvey is presumably the former.

Doctors plan to give Elwood a serum that will stop him from “seeing the rabbit.” As they prepare for the injection, Veta is told by their cab driver about all the other people he has driven to the sanatorium to receive the same medicine, warning her that Elwood will become “just a normal human being.  And you know what bastards they are (stinkers, in the movie).” Veta has a change of heart and halts the procedure after which Veta and Myrtle Mae, Elwood and Harvey all ride off on the bunny trail into the sunset.

A Gallery of Other Notable Rabbits

Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

OCTOBER 2, 1872: A FOGGY DAY IN LONDON TOWN

A FOGGY DAY IN LONDON TOWN

At exactly 8:45 pm on October 2, 1872, a rich British gentleman started out on a lengthy journey accompanied by his French valet, the purpose of the trip being to win a wager he had made with members of his club. To win, he would have to complete his journey before 8:45 pm on December 21.  The gentleman’s name was of course Phileas Fogg and his amazing journey is recounted in Jules Verne’s most popular novel Around the World in 80 Days.

Jules Verne was a French author known for several extraordinary journeys including 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Five Weeks in a Balloon. He is the second most-translated author in the world (following Agatha Christie).

Fogg begins his journey by train from London to Brindisi in southern Italy on the coast of the Adriatic Sea. Here he boards the steamer Mongolia and crosses the Mediterranean Sea to Suez, Egypt. Fogg has correctly calculated this leg of the journey at 7 days. Today the same journey would take just about as long.

The Almanac will check in on Fogg again after his arrival in Suez.

 

 

 

OPEN SAYS ME

It’s the time of year when gardening cooks are busily canning the fruits of their summer-long labors. The idea of canning foods for preservation is certainly not new; the Dutch were preserving fresh salmon in tin cans back in the 1700s. While its not used by home canners, the tin can has been the main method of food preservation for a couple hundred years now.

By the early 1800s, tin cans were in wide use throughout Europe and the United can1States. Trouble was they weren’t that easy to get into. “Cut round the top near the outer edge with a chisel and hammer.” read the instructions on one such can.  Or smash with large boulder, perhaps.

It wasn’t until the 1850s that can openers began to appear, various tools that pierced the can and sawed it open. One interesting device that appeared in 1866 was a tin can with its own opening device attached. Patented by J. Osterhoudt on October 2, it was a can with a slotted key attached. By inserting a tab on the can into the slot and continuously turning the key, the can would peel open. This ingenious and frequently frustrating can and key combo is still in use today, primarily for sardine and Spam-like products.

 

How He Got in My Pajamas I’ll Never Know

Groucho (Julius Henry) Marx was born on October 2, 1890. During his seven-decade career, he was known as a master of quick wit and rapid-fire, impromptu patter, frequently filled with innuendo.  He made 26 movies, 13 of them with his brothers Chico and Harpo, and many with Margaret Dumont as a stuffy dowager and the butt of Groucho’s jokes. The films included such comedy classics as The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, Duck Soup, A Day at the Races, and A Night at the Opera. He also had a successful solo career, most notably as the host of the radio and television game show You Bet Your Life.

groucho

Cheap Halloween Thrills

Michael Keaton is the demonic “bio-exorcist” Beetlejuice coming to the aid of recently deceased Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin as they try to rid their house of its insufferable new owners (Catherine O’Hara and Jeffrey Jones). Winona Ryder is a Gothic teenager in Tim Burton’s 1988 wild ride. Songs by Harry Belafonte add to the fun.

Michael Keaton is the demonic “bio-exorcist” Beetlejuice coming to the aid of recently deceased Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin as they try to rid their house of its insufferable new owners (Catherine O’Hara and Jeffrey Jones). Winona Ryder is a Gothic teenager in Tim Burton’s 1988 wild ride. Songs by Harry Belafonte add to the fun.

1 The Shining
2 The Exorcist

3 Beetlejuice

Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

AUGUST 31, 1928: LOOK OUT FOR LOTTE LENYA

With music by Kurt Weill and words by Bertolt Brecht, Die Dreigoschenoper premiered in Berlin in 1928. By 1933, when Brecht and Weill were forced to leave Germany, the musical comedy which offers a socialist view of a capitalist world had been translated into 18 languages and performed more than 10,000 times. We of course are more familiar with the English title, The Threepenny Opera.  And we’re mostly familiar with the opening song which has been sung by practically everyone, most notably, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald in a grammy-winning performance, and Bobby Darin who made it the top song of 1959 – “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer” (“The Ballad of Mack the Knife”). The song was added just before the premiere, when the actor playing Macheath threatened to quit if his character did not receive an introduction.

 

At the beginning of the play, we meet Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, a London entrepreneur who runs the city’s begging operation, training the beggars and taking a nice chunk of their earnings. He is the perfect capitalist, a man who today would work for Goldman Sachs.

But Peachum has problems: his grown daughter Polly did not return home the previous night, and Peachum fears she has been misbehaving, and worse still, misbehaving with the ne’er-do-well Macheath.  Peachum does what any worried father would do – he determines to thwart this budding relationship by taking away her cell phone and having her paramour hanged.

Fade to Macheath who is preparing to marry Polly once his gang has stolen her trousseau. After the gang has stolen some food and a table, they all enjoy a wedding banquet. Polly entertains with a charming little song about a maid who becomes a pirate queen and executes her former bosses and customers. The Chief of Police, Tiger Brown, joins the party. It seems he had served with Macheath during the wars and had, over the years, exerted his influence to keep Macheath out of jail. He and Macheath sing. Polly returns home and lays the fact that she has married Macheath on her parents who are not amused. She sings a charming little song advising them to go fuck themselves, bringing the first act to a conclusion.

In Act Two, Polly warns Macheath that her father is gunning for British bear and that he must leave London. He agrees and leaves his gang in Polly’s hands. On his way out of town, Macheath stops at his favorite brothel, where he sees his ex-lover, Jenny. They sing a charming little song (“Pimp’s Ballad”) about their days together, but (the plot having thickened) Jenny has been bribed by Mrs Peachum to turn him in. Despite Brown’s apologies, he’s powerless and must drag Macheath away to jail. Macheath sings a charming little song about his life being over.   Another girlfriend, Lucy (Brown’s daughter) and Polly arrive at the same time from stage right and stage left, respectively.  A nasty argument ensues and together they sing a charming little duet about scratching each other’s eyes out. After Polly leaves, Lucy engineers Macheath’s escape, bringing the act to a tidy conclusion.

In Act Three, Jenny selfishly demands her money for the betrayal of Macheath, which Mrs Peachum refuses to pay.  Jenny nevertheless reveals that Macheath is at Suky Tawdry’s house, and he is once again arrested. Back in jail and scheduled to be executed, Macheath desperately tries to raise the bribe money to get out again, even as the gallows are being erected.  But no one comes to his aid, and Macheath prepares to die.  He laments his fate in a charming little song.  But what’s this? A deus ex machina enters stage left. Peachum announces that in this opera mercy will prevail over justice, and in a parody of a happy ending, a messenger from the Queen arrives to pardon Macheath and grant him a title, a castle and a pension. The play then ends with a plea that wrongdoing not be punished too harshly as life is harsh enough.

Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

AUGUST 19, 1902: PARSLEY IS GHARSLEY

PARSLEY IS GHARSLEY

Ogden Nash, an American poet known for his droll and playful verse, wrote over 500 pieces of comic verse, the best of which was published in 14 volumes between 1931 and his death in 1971. He frequently used surprising puns, made up words, and words deliberately misspelled for comic effect.

     His most famous rhyme was a twist on Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Trees” (1913): “I think that I shall never see / a billboard lovely as a tree.  Indeed, unless the billboards fall / I’ll never see a tree at all.”  When Nash wasn’t writing poems, he made guest appearances on comedy and radio shows and lectured at colleges and universities.

I am a conscientious man, when I throw rocks at seabirds I leave no tern
unstoned.

 

A mighty creature is the germ,
Though smaller than the pachyderm.
His customary dwelling place
Is deep within the human race.
His childish pride he often pleases
By giving people strange diseases.
Do you, my poppet, feel infirm?
You probably contain a germ.

 

Progress might have been alright once, but it has gone on too long.

 

The rhino is a homely beast,
For human eyes he’s not a feast.
Farewell, farewell, you old rhinoceros,
I’ll stare at something less prepoceros.

 

The Pig, if I am not mistaken,
Gives us ham and pork and Bacon.
Let others think his heart is big,
I think it stupid of the Pig.

 

There is only one way to achieve happiness on this terrestrial ball, and that is to have either a clear conscience or none at all.

 

Oh, what a tangled web do parents weave when they think that their children are naive.

Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

JULY 26, 1921: EXCELSIOR, YOU FATHEADS

EXCELSIOR, YOU FATHEADS

To many of those who have even heard of Jean Shepherd, he is the voice of the grown-up Ralphie Parker whose childhood struggle to score an Official Red Ryder 200-Shot Range Model Air Rifle for Christmas is the subject of the holiday classic A Christmas Story. The film is based on Shepherd’s stories about growing up in Indiana.

Born July 26, 1921, Shepherd was an American raconteur, radio and TV personality, writer and actor. After several radio gigs, he settled in at WOR radio New York City in 1956 with an overnight slot on which he delighted fans by telling stories, reading poetry, and organizing listener stunts. The most famous of his stunts was the creation of a book, I, Libertine, by an 18th century author. Shepherd suggested that his listeners visit bookstores and ask for a copy of it, which led to booksellers attempting to purchase the book from their distributors.  Fans of the show also planted references to the book and author so widely that demand for the book led to its being listed on The New York Times Best Seller list even though it hadn’t been written.  Shepherd’s radio stories found their way into magazines and were later collected in the books In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash; Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters; The Ferrari in the Bedroom; and A Fistful of Fig Newtons.

 

shep“What the hell time is it?” muttered the old man. He was always an aggressive sleeper. Sleep was one of the things he did best, and he loved it. Some look upon sleep as an unfortunate necessary interruption of life; but there are others who hold that sleep is life, or at least one of the more fulfilling aspects of it, like eating or sex. Any time my old man’s sleep was interrupted, he became truly dangerous.”Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories: And Other Disasters

 

From A Christmas Story:

I had woven a tapestry of obscenity that as far as I know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.

Only I didn’t say “Fudge.” I said THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the “F-dash-dash-dash” word!

Now, I had heard that word at least ten times a day from my old man. He worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium; a master.

And of course:  You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.

July 26, 1895: Say Goodnight

With husband George Burns, Gracie Allen (born on July 26, 1895) made comedy history – in vaudeville, the movies, on radio and television.

The Burns and Allen comedy act began with Allen as the straight man, feeding  lines to Burns who delivered the punchlines. George explained later that he noticed Gracie’s straight lines were getting more laughs than his punchlines, so he reversed their roles. Audiences immediately fell in love with Gracie’s character, a clever combination of ditziness and total innocence.

George attributed their success to Gracie, even though he was a brilliant straight man: “All I had to  graciedo was say, ‘Gracie, how’s your brother?’ and she talked for 38 years.  And sometimes I didn’t even have to remember to say ‘Gracie, how’s your brother?'”

I read a book twice as fast as anybody else. First, I read the beginning, and then I read the ending, and then I start in the middle and read toward whatever end I like best.

 

“Gracie, those are beautiful flowers. Where did they come from?”
“Don’t you remember, George? You said that if I went to visit Clara Bagley in the hospital I should be sure to take her flowers. So, when she wasn’t looking, I did.”

 

Presidents are made, not born. That’s a good thing to remember. It’s silly to think that Presidents are born, because very few people are 35 years old at birth, and those who are won’t admit it.

 

A word of warning: The F-dash-dash-dash word appears on page 3 of Terry and the Pirate.  You could cross it out if you wanted, if you owned your own copy.