December 14, 1977: You Are the Dancing King

He was just another juvenile delinquent in a television sit-com, before he became a superstar playing a nobody by day who blossoms at night on the dance floor.  John Travolta strutted his Saturdaystuff as Tony Manero, a paint-store clerk who dons a dashing white suit to ride the disco craze out of his dead-end existence in Saturday Night Fever. The film premiered on December 14, 1977, already guaranteed success thanks to its soundtrack, released months before the movie.

The disco songs recorded by the Bee Gees (including “Stayin’ Alive”) were all over the pop charts, sparking intense interest in the film before its release, with the film then popularizing the entire soundtrack after its release – the first (but certainly not the last) use of cross-media marketing.

Travolta plays Tony Manero, a Brooklyn paint-store clerk who’d give anything to break out of his humdrum life. The movie follows his foray, along with his partner Stephanie, into the Manhattan world of flashing lights and sweaty bodies. Disco and the culture of the disco era also star in the movie – the symphonic orchestration over a steady beat and disciplined choreography, the high style in clothing, and the sexuality of it all.

“Travolta on the dance floor is like a peacock on amphetamines,” said movie critic Gene Siskel, who bought Travolta’s famous white suit at a charity auction. “He struts like crazy.”

The film had an R-rating when it was originally released in 1978. Several years later it was edited down to PG with naughty bits removed to make it more “family-friendly” and suitable for television.

Some critics complain that the film was regressive, refashioning disco, which began as an underground social scene for gays, blacks and Latinos, as a vehicle for white masculinity and the heterosexual hunt for a willing partner. Picky, picky, picky.




December 11, 1969: The Naked Cold War

Relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were generally confrontational through most of the second half of the last century.  In the United States, Communist plots were everywhere, and the Soviet Union blamed American capitalists for most of the ills of the world. calcuttaOn December 11, 1969, a noted Russian author lashed out against western decadence in one of the more unusual cold war recriminations.

On December 11, 1969, Sergei Mikhailkov, secretary of the Moscow writer’s union, known for his books for children, weighed in against the production of “Oh! Calcutta!” that was currently an off-Broadway hit. Performers in their “birthday suits,” he fumed, were proof of the decadence and “bourgeois” thinking in Western culture.  American nudity was an assault on Soviet innocence.

Oddly enough, those Americans throughout the Midwest who didn’t think the play was about India were convinced it was a Communist plot.

More disturbing, Mikhailkov raged on, was the fact that this American abomination was affecting Russian youth. These vulgar exhibitions were “a general striptease that is one of the slogans of modern bourgeois art.” Soviet teens were more familiar with “the theater of the absurd and the novel without a hero and all kinds of modern bourgeois reactionary tendencies in the literature and art of the West” than with “the past and present of the literature of their fatherland.”

Mikhailkov’s outburst came at the end of a conference of Russian intellectuals, who applauded his remarks without visible enthusiasm before returning to their clandestine copies of Fanny Hill.



December 10, 1851: Decimal Dalliance

Wild and crazy guy Melvil Dewey was born on December 10, 1851. It’s pretty well known that librarians are party animals, and Melvil was a librarian at no less a place than Amherst College. It was there that he made a name for himself and had his groupies screaming in the aisles.dewey

Back in the Dewey day, ordinary people visiting the library weren’t allowed to go rummaging willy-nilly through the stacks – that’s library lingo for the shelves of books. So your librarians could do pretty much what they wanted to do back there in the stacks, and rumor has it they wanted to do quite a lot.

Melvil was a pretty popular guy back there in the stacks. He had invented this neat numbering system for library books which allowed them to be found without an exhaustive search through the stacks. Book searches could last days (even without fooling around). “I think I last saw Moby Dick down at that end across from the Dictionary of Republican Ideas Unabridged.” Under Dewey’s system each book was cataloged by its subject matter, first with a general number and then additional numbers after the decimal to get more specific – a place for every book, every book in its place. The more places after the decimal, the more important the book, or so authors were led to believe.

Well, when Dewey showed his system to groups of librarians they just got all excited and swooned right there on the spot – we all know how sexy decimals are. Dewey’s reputation grew and pretty soon everyone wanted to wander the stacks with Melvil the Hunk. He just had to whisper “shhh” (the mating call of the wild librarian) and unsuspecting librarians would follow him anywhere, even down to 613.9, and we know what goes on down there.

Dewey was also into spelling reform; that’s why he changed his name from the usual “Melville” to “Melvil,” eliminating redundant letters. For a while, he even changed his surname to “Dui.” Was there no limit to this guy’s depth?


December 8, 1959: Battle of the Smellies

During the 1950s, movie studios were grasping at any gimmick to lure eyeballs away from television and back into theaters. One gimmick that seemed to be a favorite among movie-makers,  judging by the frequent attempts (usually unsuccessful) to use it was the sense of smell.

Individual theater owners had played around with smells off and on aromafor years, using various makeshift techniques such as spraying perfume in front of an electric fan. But the first use of odor as created by the producers of the film itself didn’t come until the December 8, 1959, premiere of Behind the Great Wall, a travelogue featuring the sights, sounds and, yes, odors of China. The odors were provided by a process called AromaRama. On the heels of this movie, came another film cleverly titled the Scent of Murder, touting the wonders of Smell-O-Vision. (We also had Scentovision and Smell-O-Rama.) Variety called the competition “the battle of the smellies.”

In an interview, the inventor of AromaRama gushed: “More than 100 different aromas will be injected into the theater during the film. Among these are the odors of grass, earth, exploding firecrackers, a river, incense, burning torches, horses, restaurants, the scent of a trapped tiger and many more. We believe, with Rudyard Kipling, that smells are surer than sounds or sights to make the heartstrings crack.”

Well, maybe. There were a few glitches early on. Faulty timing might give you a picture of a steaming bowl of jasmine rice that smelled like that trapped tiger. And the distraction of a hundred or so members of the audience simultaneously and loudly sniffing. Even though most of the bugs were ironed out, the whole idea never caught on, despite occasional attempts to revive it (including one notable high tech process that provided audiences with scratch and sniff cards along with instructions on when to scratch and sniff).

Those fun-loving folks at BBC jumped on the bandwagon in 1965, airing an April 1 interview with the inventor of a process that allowed viewers at home to experience aromas produced in the television studio. In a vivid demonstration, he chopped onions and brewed a pot of coffee, then took calls from viewers who had experienced the transmitted smells.

Even BBC couldn’t slow the demise of AromaRama et al, however. In 2000, a Time magazine survey listed it as one of the “Top 100 Worst Ideas of All Time.”


If you are a dog and your owner suggests that you wear a sweater, suggest that he wear a tail. ~ Fran Lebowitz

December 5, 1933: Let the Good Times Roll

At 3:32 p.m., Mountain Standard Time, on December 5, 1933, Utah ratified the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, the 36th state to do so (close on the heels of Pennsylvania and Ohio). It was the magic number required to repeal the 18th Amendment. Booze was back. The so-called noble experiment, 13 years worth of national prohibition of alcohol in America, had ended, having been pretty much a dismal failure.

Prohibition was supposed to reduce crime and corruption, solve social problems, reduce the tax burden created by prisons and poorhouses, and improve health, hygiene and good manners throughout the country. Instead it ushered in the likes of Al Capone and made a lot of ordinarily law-abiding citizens petty criminals. We got bootlegging and speakeasies, moonshine and bathtub gin.

By the early 1930s the electorate had pretty much demonstrated a profound distaste for abstinence. When Franklin Roosevelt ran for President in 1932 pledging repeal, it was bye-bye tee-totaling Herbert Hoover. The new President celebrated with his own dirty martini.

Alas, it wasn’t freedom from sobriety for everyone. Several states continued Prohibition with state temperance laws. Mississippi didn’t join Tipplers Unanimous until 1966.

A few observations overheard on the occasion:

“I think the warning labels on alcoholic beverages are too bland. They should be more vivid. Here is one I would suggest: “Alcohol will turn you into the same asshole your father was.” ― George Carlin

“We were not a hugging people. In terms of emotional comfort it was our belief that no amount of physical contact could match the healing powers of a well made cocktail.”― David Sedaris

“I like to have a martini,
Two at the very most.
After three I’m under the table,
after four I’m under my host.”
― Dorothy Parker

“When a man who is drinking neat gin starts talking about his mother he is past all argument.” ― C.S. Forester

“In wine there is wisdom, in beer there is Freedom, in water there is bacteria.” ― Benjamin Franklin

“It’s 4:58 on Friday afternoon. Do you know where your margarita is?” ― Amy Neftzger

December 3, 1926: Lords of the Rings

German -born Heinrich Friedrich August Ringling and Marie Salome Juliar of France tied the knot back in the mid-19th century. Theirs was a rather productive union in the offspring department, bringing the world seven sons and a daughter.

Five of the brothers – August, Otto, Alfred, John, and Charles, who died on December 3, 1926 – were all entertainers of sorts, performing skits and juggling routines in town halls and other local venues around the state of Wisconsin. They called themselves the “Ringling Brothers’ Classic and Comic Concert Company.” In 1884, they teamed up with a well-known showman, Yankee Robinson to create a one-ring circus that toured the Midwest. It was a good season for the Ringling Brothers; not so much for Yankee Robinson who died halfway through it.

The Ringlings did another circus in 1887, bigger and better, if you accepted its name: “Ringling Brothers United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan, and Congress of Trained Animals.”

In 1889, they purchased railroad cars and parade equipment, allowing them to move around farther and faster, playing larger towns every day, substantially increasing their profits. On a real roll, they purchased the Barnum & Bailey Circus, running both circuses until they merged them into the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus – skipping right over two rings to become a three-ringer, modestly known as the Greatest Show on Earth.





December 2, 1941: Here’s Looking at You, Kid *

World War II had engulfed most of Europe and refugees everywhere were searching for the exits. The most popular way out was through Lisbon, Portugal, but getting there was a bit of a do. A long, roundabout refugee trail led desperate refugees from Paris to Marseilles, across the Mediterranean to Algeria, then by train or auto or even by foot across northern Africa to Casablanca in French Morocco.

Once in Casablanca, those with enough cash or influence could scare up exit visas and scurry off to Lisbon, then the Americas. Ah, but those unlucky ones, those without means, would wait in Casablanca “and wait and wait and wait.”

casablanca2Picture yourself in an open-air city market, dripping with intrigue, teeming with black marketeers, smugglers, spies, thieves, double agents, and assorted ne’er-do-wells, all loudly engaged in their business activities. And of course there’s the aforementioned refugees attempting to deal and double-deal their way out. It’s December 2, 1941. The news spreads quickly through the market that two German couriers on their way to casablanca3Casablanca have been murdered. They were carrying “letters of transit” allowing the bearers to travel freely around German-controlled Europe and to neutral Portugal. You better believe these papers are to kill for.

Now walk into a cafe owned by an American expatriate named Rick. It’s the place in Casablanca where everybody and everything eventually show up. And right on cue, the letters of transit do, in the casablanca4possession of Ugarte, the town weasel. And so does everyone else who is anyone else: There’s Czech resistance leader, Victor Lazlo, Norwegian Ilsa Lund (Rick’s former lover), nasty German Major Strasser, Vichy syncophant Louis Renault, rival club owner and black marketeer Senor Ferrari, Sam the piano player, and a cast of, if not thousands, dozens. Of course, all of this is taking place not in Casablanca but on the lot of Warner Brothers studio in Hollywood, California.

The story line is well-known by most movie-goers, and the cast is like one large dysfunctional family. If you haven’t seen Casablanca during its first 75 years, chances are you never will. But if you have, you’ll probably see it again and again. And you probably have your favorite scene. Maybe it was this one:

  • No.5 on the AFI list of top movie quotes


December 1, 1929: Gimme a B, Gimme an I . . .

Edwin Lowe is credited as being the Father of the game Bingo, but it’s abingo murky paternity. Lowe was a toy merchandiser in the late 1920s. At a traveling carnival near Atlanta, on December 1, 1929, he noticed players involved tooth and nail in a game called Beano in which they placed beans on numbers on a card as the numbers were called by an official number caller. Lowe took the idea back to New York with him where he amazed his friends with it. It’s popularity grew, and Lowe’s finances grew with it. The name Bingo was said to have originated when an excited player yelled “Bingo” instead of “Beano,” although some conspiracy theorists say the word had been used in England for some 150 years.

Further clouding the picture are the French (as the French will do). They created a similar game called Le Lotto back in in 1778. And they probably plagiarized the Italian Il Giuoco del Lotto d’Italia from the 1500s.

For those who may be in the Bingo dark, today’s typical game uses the numbers 1 through 75 arranged on a card in five columns headed by the letters B – I -N- G – O. Each column has five numbers arranged vertically The B’ column contains only numbers between 1 and 15, the ‘I’ column contains 16 through 30 and so on. When a player covers five numbers, horizontally, vertically or diagonally, the lucky devil shouts “Bingo!” to the great dismay of everyone else.

The game is now pretty much the province of little old ladies who command dozens of Bingo cards and whom you’d better not mess with if you know what’s good for you. Last year an 18-year-old Kentucky lad was barred by a judge from uttering the word “bingo” for six months after he falsely did that while working security at a Bingo hall. A police officer arrested him for his disorderly conduct which delayed the game by several minutes, causing alarm and real consternation to patrons. Chances are, he was taken into protective custody when the patrons, primarily elderly women, began yelling, cussing and threatening him. The officer explained that you can’t shout “out” in a ballpark or “fire” in a crowded theater.

And in England, two grandmothers were permanently banned from a local Bingo club after an argument over a ‘lucky’ seat led to a broken nose and two black eyes.


She looked away. Her attitude seemed to suggest that she had finished with him, and would be obliged if somebody would come and sweep him up. ~ P. G. Wodehouse

November 30, 1667,1835: Have Wit, Will Travel

Jonathan Swift, born on November 30, 1667, was an Anglo-Irish satirist and essayist, remembered for such works as Gulliver’s Travels, A Modest Proposal, A Journal to Stella, Drapier’s Letters, The Battle of the Books, An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity, and A Tale of a Tub. Swift is considered by many to be the foremost prose satirist in the English language.

Swift originally published all of his works under pseudonyms – such as Lemuel Gulliver, Isaac Bickerstaff, MB Drapier – or anonymously.

In 1729, Swift published A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland Being a Burden on Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick, a satire in which the narrator, with bizarre arguments, suggests that Ireland’s poor  could relieve their poverty by selling their children as food to the rich: “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food…”

Gulliver’s Travels, published in 1726, is regarded as his masterpiece. As with his other writings, the Travels was published under a pseudonym, the fictional Lemuel Gulliver, a ship’s surgeon and later a sea captain. Although it has often been mistakenly thought of as a children’s book, it is a brutal satire on human nature and the so-called Enlightenment of the time.

He had been eight years upon a project for extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers, which were to be put in vials hermetically sealed, and let out to warm the air in raw inclement summers.

America’s greatest humorist also went by several names while seeking the right moniker: He was Josh through the penning of several humorous sketches; he also wrote letters which he signed Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass. By the time he wrote “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras MarkTwain.LOCCounty,” the short story that brought him international acclaim, he was Mark Twain.

Twain was born on November 30, 1835, shortly after a visit by Halley’s Comet, and he predicted that he would “go out with it,” as well. Which he did, dying the day following the comet’s return in 1910.

Celebrated for much of what he wrote, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn remains his crowning achievement, the Great American Novel. William Faulkner called Twain “the father of American literature.” His wit and satire, in prose and in speech, earned praise from critics and peers, and he hobnobbed with artists, presidents, titans of industry, and European royalty.

I am said to be a revolutionist in my sympathies, by birth, by breeding and by principle. I am always on the side of the revolutionists, because there never was a revolution unless there were some oppressive and intolerable conditions against which to revolute.

There is one notable thing about our Christianity: bad, bloody, merciless, money-grabbing, and predatory as it is–in our country particularly and in all other Christian countries in a somewhat modified degree–it is still a hundred times better than the Christianity of the Bible, with its prodigious crime–the invention of Hell. Measured by our Christianity of to-day, bad as it is, hypocritical as it is, empty and hollow as it is, neither the Deity nor his Son is a Christian, nor qualified for that moderately high place. Ours is a terrible religion. The fleets of the world could swim in spacious comfort in the innocent blood it has spilled.


November 28, 1922: Ghost Writers in the Sky

It didn’t take long after the advent of flying for crafty marketing types to come up with a way to use it for advertising.   Skywriting was the way showing the most promise: a small airplane spits out magic smoke during a flight, creating text able to be read by someone on the Messages naturally run the gamut from the inane to the weighty. Advertisers had a field day.

The first use of skywriting for advertising came on November 28, 1922, when Captain Cyril Turner of the Royal Air Force flew over New York City, spelling out, “Hello USA. Call Vanderbilt 7200.” Within just a few hours, 47,000 people had done just that. And of course operators were standing by at sky1Vanderbilt 7200 to take their orders although no one had any idea what was being sold.

Pepsi-Cola became the first major brand to use skywriting as a medium to reach a mass market with thousands of flights through the 1930s into the mid-1940s. During the following years, skywriting became more sophisticated with the use of coordinated flights by fleets of planes that could deliver longer and more clearly written text messages.

At one point, rumor has it, an ambitious skywriter produced Pride and Prejudice in its entirety, but most observers fell asleep during the first three paragraphs.