NOVEMBER 2, 1887: ODE TO A NIGHTINGALE

Wild and crazy entrepreneur, P.T. Barnum was known for bringing audiences such high-brow entertainers as Tom Thumb, the Feejee

Jenny Lind (50-kronorssedel)
Jenny Lind (50-kronorssedel)

Mermaid, and Zip the Pinhead. As he said, “Nobody ever lost a dollar by underestimating the taste of the American public.” and “There’s a sucker born every minute.” But Barnum went all respectable in 1850 when he booked one of the most celebrated singers in Europe, the Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind, for a series of 150 American performances. Without even hearing her sing, Barnum contracted to pay her an amazing $1,000 per performance.

Born Johanna Maria Lind in 1820, Jenny became famous in Sweden and throughout Europe during the 1840s. She was still  pretty much unknown in the United States, but that was about to change as Barnum put his promotional prowess to work. “A visit from such a woman who regards her artistic powers as a gift from Heaven and who helps the afflicted and distressed will be a blessing to America. It is her intrinsic worth of heart and delicacy of mind that produces Jenny’s vocal potency.”

Barnum’s relentless publicity made her a celebrity before she even arrived. As a result of what the press called Lind Mania, her initial appearances were in such demand that Barnum auctioned tickets. Her tour was such a rousing success that, after just a handful of performances, she renegotiated her contract with Barnum, with him willingly giving her a percentage of ticket sales in addition to her original payment per performance. He still cleared close to a half million dollars himself.

For her part, Jenny found Barnum’s over-the-top commercial promotion of her distasteful, and they parted ways in 1851, though still on friendly terms. She continued touring in the U.S. until May 1852. By the time she left for home, she had reached super-stardom here, and her performances had established opera as a lasting form of entertainment in the U.S.

Jenny Lind died on November 2, 1887.

 

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OCTOBER 31, LONG AGO: THE DEVIL MADE HIM DO IT

THE DEVIL MADE HIM DO IT

One might assume that the carving of jack-o’-lanterns was a clever promotion by the Association of Pumpkin Growers because there just weren’t enough pumpkin pies being eaten in this world. But as it turns out, folks have been making jack-o’-lanterns at Halloween for centuries. And that there’s a proper legend to explain the practice.

It all started with an Irish fellow called Stingy Jack. In addition to being cheap, Jack was a drunkard and a ne’er-do-well. During one of Jack’s benders, the Devil came calling on him with every intention of claiming his miserable soul. As a last request, Jack asked the Devil to have a  drink with him. (It’s a relief to learn the Devil drinks; Hell might not be so bad after all.)

Naturally, Stingy Jack being Stingy Jack had no intention of paying for the drinks, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use to buy their drinks, and the Devil agreed. (It would appear that the Devil is not the brightest candle in Hell.) Once the Devil had changed himself into a coin, Jack stuffed him into his pocket next to a crucifix, which prevented the Devil from changing back into his original form. Jack, now having all the chips in this game, agreed to free the Devil, on the condition that he would not bother Jack for ten years and that, should Jack die during this time, he would not claim his soul. (Jack wasn’t all that shrewd either.)

Drunkenness tends to make time fly, and before Jack knew it, ten years had passed.   And the Devil, ever prompt, came calling for Jack’s soul once again. And no last drink this time, the Devil said. Then perhaps just one small apple before I go, Jack begged. The Devil acquiesced. Jack lamented that he was in no condition to climb the apple tree, and would the Devil be so kind as to fetch the apple for him? (The Devil is a lot like Charlie Brown and his football. You’d think, being the Evil One, he wouldn’t be so trusting.) So the Devil climbed the tree, and while he was up in the tree, Jack carved a sign of the cross into the tree’s bark. To earn his release this time, the Devil agreed never to take Jack’s soul.

Wouldn’t you know, little time passed before Jack turned up his toes. Jack’s soul foolishly made it’s way toward Heaven where everyone had a good laugh before telling him to get lost. Then Jack journeyed to the Gates of Hell where the Devil, finally wise to Jack’s tricks,  also sent him packing —  to roam the world between good and evil, with only a burning ember inside a hollowed out turnip to light his way.  Jack of the Lantern. Obviously, the Association of Turnip Growers botched this one. Had they been on their toes, we’d all be celebrating Halloween with carved-out rutabagas.

 

halloween

OCTOBER 30, 1938: JUST ME AND MY RADIO

JUST ME AND MY RADIO

It’s easy from the comfort of our 21st century recliners to dismiss the mass hysteria of an earlier generation as so many Chicken Littles or Turkey Lurkeys, afraid of their own shadows. We’ve seen it all, any horror one can imagine, right there on the screen in front of us, and should it become too squirmy, well we can always just hit a button. The remote is there to protect us.

But what if you were at home, alone perhaps, on that October night back in 1938. It’s dark out; Halloween and all its spookiness is just a day away. But there’s the radio to keep you company. Like millions of other Americans, you’ll tune in to Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. That should lighten up a dark night. They finish their comedy routine at ten after eight. A singer you’ve never heard of follows so, like millions of Americans, you surf the radio stations (Wasn’t there supposed to be a dramatic program on?) pausing to hear an unenthusiastic announcer: “. . . the Meridian Room in the Hotel Park Plaza in downtown New York, where you will be entertained by the music of Ramon Raquello and his orchestra.” You listen for a minute; it’s not that great. You’re all set to surf again when the announcer interrupts, reporting that a Professor Farrell of the Mount Jenning Observatory has detected explosions on the planet Mars. The music returns, but only for a minute. The announcer is back with the news that a large meteor has crashed into a farmer’s field in Grovers Mills, New Jersey.

Now your ears are glued to the radio, as announcement after announcement confirms the impossible – a Martian invasion. “Good heavens, something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. Now here’s another and another one and another one. They look like tentacles to me … I can see the thing’s body now. It’s large, large as a bear. It glistens like wet leather. But that face, it… it … ladies and gentlemen, it’s indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it, it’s so awful. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is kind of V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate.”

Now’s the time to surf the radio. If you do, you’ll quickly realize that everything is normal on other radio stations, that you’ve been listening to a realistic but fictional radio drama. But if you don’t, chances are you’ll join the thousands of people jamming highways, trying to flee the alien invasion.

Orson Welles was just 23 years old when his Mercury Theater company broadcast its update of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds with no idea of the uproar it would cause. He employed sophisticated sound effects and top notch acting to make the story believable.

And believed it was. In Indianapolis, a woman ran into a church where evening services were being held, yelling: “New York has been destroyed! It’s the end of the world! Go home and prepare to die!”

When the actors got wind of the panic, Welles went on the air as himself to remind listeners that it was just fiction. Afterward, he feared that the incident would ruin his career, but three years later he was in Hollywood working on Citizen Kane.

OCTOBER 28, 1913: PRESENT BRICKS

 

krazzee2

PRESENT BRICKS

  The editors of the New York Evening Journal did not think it suitable for the comics section. The public didn’t much care for it. But publisher William Randolph Hearst liked it and gave it a permanent place in the Journal, beginning October 28, 1913.

   Krazy Kat was a carefree, simple-minded, gender-confused cat (sometimes a he, sometimes a she), desperately in love with a mouse. It isn’t just unrequited love; Ignatz Mouse, a rather despicable little rodent, positively hates Krazy and endlessly schemes to throw bricks at Krazy’s head. Poor Krazy sees this as a sign of affection.

   Add a dog – Officer Bull Pupp, a police officer who dotes on Krazy and makes it his purpose in life to prevent Ignatz from throwing bricks and to haul him off to jail when he’s caught in the act. This peculiar love triangle takes place in a surreal Arizona (or is Arizona naturally surreal?), where the strip’s creator George Herriman had a vacation home.

   The premise was simplistic, the humor slapstick, but critics have loved it for 100 years. During it’s thirty-year run, it gained such admirers as H.L. Mencken, Jack Kerouac, E.E. Cummings and Willem de Kooning, and many modern cartoonists have cited the strip as a major influence on their work.

krazy-kat-19190211-s

 

OCTOBER 26, 2010: WELL-ARMED SOOTHSAYER

WELL-ARMED SOOTHSAYER

Paul the Oracle was somewhat of a child prodigy, demonstrating a marked intelligence right from the get-go. “There was something about the way he looked at our visitors,” said the adult in Paul’s early life. “It was so unusual, so we tried to find out what his special talents were.”

Paul was hatched from an egg at the Sea Life Centre in Weymouth, England, then moved to his permanent home, a tank at a center in Oberhausen, Germany.  Paul took his name from a German children’s poem, Der Tintenfisch Paul Oktopus. He quickly became a celebrity by virtue of his divination of the outcome of international football matches, choosing the winners through a stratagem typical of German engineering in its complexity — picking boxes of oysters emblazoned with competing nations’ flags.

Octopuses are some of the most intelligent of invertebrates, with complex thought processes, memory, and different personalities (good octopus, bad octopus). They can use simple tools, learn through observation, and are particularly sensitive to pain. This according to PETA, the animal rights group. PETA argued that it was cruel to keep Paul in permanent confinement. Sea Life Centres contended that releasing him would be dangerous, because being born in captivity, he was only accustomed to sitting around a tank, popping oysters and using a remote, not fending for himself.

Paul’s accurate choices for the 2010 World Cup, broadcast live on German television, made him a star. Paul predicted the winners of each of seven matches that the German team played, against Australia, Serbia, Ghana, England, Argentina, Spain, and Uruguay. His prediction that Argentina would lose prompted Argentine chef Nicolas Bedorrou to post an octopus recipe on Facebook.

“There are always people who want to eat our octopus,” said Paul’s keeper. “He will survive.”

Paul’s correct prediction of the outcome of the semi-final, with Germany losing to Spain, led to death threats. Spain’s prime minister offered to give Paul safe haven in Spain.

Paul died on October 26, 2010, at the age of two-and-a-half, a normal lifespan for an octopus.  German attempts to find other oracles have never fared well. The animals at the Chemnitz Zoo were wrong on all their predictions.  Leon the porcupine incorrectly picked Australia, Petty the pygmy hippopotamus failed to be swayed by Serbia’s pile of hay topped with apples , and Anton the tamarin mistakenly ate a raisin representing Ghana.

The E-ri-e Was Arisin’

Back at the beginning of the 19th century, shipping goods from one end of New York to the other was a costly and cumbersome. Thereerie2 was no railroad, no trucking, no Thruway — just a two-week ordeal by stagecoach to get from New York City to Buffalo. The New York State Legislature leaped into this transportation breach. They proposed and Governor DeWitt Clinton enthusiastically endorsed a proposal to build a canal from Buffalo, at the eastern point of Lake Erie, to Albany, and the Hudson River. By 1817, they had authorized $7 million for the construction of what would laughingly be referred to as Clinton’s Ditch, 363 miles long, 40 feet wide, and four feet deep.

Work began in August 1823. Teams of oxen plowed the ground, and Irish workers did the digging, using only basic hand tools. It was a lot of work for $10 a month, but officials cleverly left barrels of whiskey alsong the route as an added inducement.

Governor Clinton opened the 425-mile Erie Canal on October 26, 1825, sailing from Buffalo in the Seneca Chief.  News of his departure was relayed to New York City by cannons placed along the entire length of the canal and river, each within hearing distance of the next cannon. The firing of each signaled the next to fire. It took 81 minutes to get the word to New York— the fastest communication the world had yet known. Clinton arrived in New York on September 4, where he ceremoniously emptied a barrel of Lake Erie water into the Atlantic Ocean — the “Marriage of the Waters” of the Great Lakes and the Atlantic.

The canal put New York on the map as the Empire State, transformed New York City into the nation’s principal seaport, and opened the interior of North America to settlement. It has been in continuous operation longer than any other constructed transportation system on the North American continent.

OCTOBER 22, 1883: WHEN THE FAT LADY SANG

WHEN THE FAT LADY SANG

In April of 1880, a group of 22 men met at New York’s Delmonico’s restaurant. These were men of considerable wealth – Morgans, Vanderbilts, Roosevelts – nineteenth century industrialists, bankers, and builders.  Nevertheless, they were men excluded from the inner circles of the One Percent, because they were not “old money”: they were the nouveau riche, “brazen new money.” They met that April with the goal of upsetting the Big Apple cart.

 

 

The Academy of Music opera house was the opera venue in New York City; subscribers to its limited number of private boxes represented the highest stratum in New York society.  And it was a place where the old money families had circled the upper crust wagons. Tired of being excluded, the insurrectionists at Delmonico’s determined to build a new opera house that would outshine the old Academy in every way. The new theater would include three tiers of private boxes in which New York’s powerful new industrial families could flaunt their wealth and reinforce their social prominence. Their vision became reality on October 22, 1883, when the Metropolitan Opera opened for business with a production of Gounod’s Faust.

 

The Academy of Music’s opera season folded just three years after the Met opened.  The building became a vaudeville house.  One hundred and thirty years later, The Metropolitan Opera is the largest classical music organization in North America, presenting more than two dozen operas each year in a season which lasts from late September through May. The operas are presented in a rotating repertory schedule with four different works staged each week. Several operas are presented in new productions each season, while the balance are revivals of productions from previous seasons — in all, over 200 performances in a season.

 

And today’s audiences are a blend of old money, new money and no money at all.

 

What’s Opera, Doc?:  A Wretched Richard Cheat Sheet

I’ve found that when I speak to friends, acquaintances, or strangers on street corners about opera, their eyes glaze over (or they run away).  I see this as a fundamental lack of understanding on their part, rather than any tediousness on my part.  The road to opera should not be paved with jagged rocks.  It should be an easy ride, a gentle ride.

Opera is really not that difficult.  Pretty much every opera goes something like this:  The Tenor loves the Soprano.  The Soprano loves the Tenor.  Should be easy – a couple of arias and they live happily ever after.  But the Baritone also loves the Soprano.  Here come the drama, here come the drama.  The Soprano’s daddy, a Bass, promises her to the Baritone – it’s never clear why; it just seems that daddies are not keen on Tenors.  Of course, everyone on stage (except maybe the chorus) is now heartbroken, angry or lustful.  They sing of their sadness, anger and lust, and Act One ends.

Act Two is all about mistaken identities.  To have a secret rendezvous with the Soprano, our Tenor will pretend to be her uncle, another Bass.  Because she suspects the Tenor of being unfaithful with a Mezzo-soprano, the Soprano will pretend to be her own sister and attempt to seduce him.  The Baritone will pretend to be a vagabond and attempt to seduce the chorus.  The audience will pretend to know what’s going on, except for a guy in the fifth row who will attempt to seduce the stranger next to him.

In Act Three, everyone is revealed for who he or she really is. The old Bass is subject to ridicule, and the Baritone is banished. The Tenor and Soprano consummate their love in the opera’s signature aria.  Then they die.  That’s pretty much it – unless it’s Wagner, in which case, you have valkyries and giants and dwarves, and pretty much everyone wears horns and marches off to Valhalla.

Here are the plots of a few popular operas to illustrate:

Carmen – A passionate gypsy seduces a young soldier, tosses him aside for a matador, then she dies.

Madame Butterfly – An American naval officer seduces an innocent Japanese geisha.  She has his kid.  He dumps her.  She dies.

La Boheme – Young bohemians fall in love. He’s a poet; she has tuberculosis. They enjoy Paris. She dies.

Rigoletto – A nasty nobleman seduces his hunchbacked jester’s innocent daughter. The jester tries to get even.  She dies.

So you see, it’s really just gratuitous sex and violence with beautiful music.  And that’s still rock and roll to me.

 

OCTOBER 13, 1917: GOD TO EARTH: SHAPE UP

GOD TO EARTH: SHAPE UP

It was an “aeroplane of light, an immense globe flying westward at moderate speed,” according to one of the many witnesses who were assembled that cloudy October 13. Many were certain they had seen amiracle-of-the-sun_cosmo-code figure within the globe — not some strange looking extraterrestrial creature, but rather a human form, a woman. Had this been the 1950s, this occurrence may have been commonplace; people were seeing flying saucers, flying doughnuts and other strange alien craft everywhere. But this was 1917, and UFOs were the stuff of speculative science fiction. Therefore, witnesses did not attribute this to an invasion from Mars or some far-off galaxy; they said it was a miracle.

The number of witnesses was rather phenomenal for a UFO sighting — some 30,000 or more descended on the little Portuguese village of Fatima. Nor had an alien invasion ever been scheduled in advance. It was three children who announced the visit of the lady. The kids had seen apparitions off and on for several months leading up to this day, apparitions bringing the message that folks upstairs were annoyed at all the war mongering that was going on and that if things didn’t change for the better, annihilation was next on the agenda. (This was not unlike the message Klaatu — as in “Klaatu barada niktu” — delivered to earthlings several decades later. It’s a message that never seems to not get through to us, however.)

Although the accounts of the appearance were wildly contradictory, leading some naysayers to suggest people saw what they wanted to see, the consensus was that it was raining when the clouds suddenly parted and the sun appeared. It was duller than usual and resembled a spinning globe as it careened toward the earth. Its lady passenger appeared to some but not all in the assembly and shot an admonishing glance before her chariot zigzagged away.

Many remained skeptical, having not seen anything themselves and suggesting that some of the others may have stared at the sun a bit too long. Nevertheless, some 13 years later the Roman Catholic Church declared that maybe it was a miracle after all. It’s official designation is now the Miracle of the Sun.

 

Cheap Halloween Thrills

Universal Pictures, knowing a good thing when they had it, cranked out horror pictures at a breakneck speed during the 30s and 40s. Along with the Frankenstein franchise and many others there were these three gems:Dracula (1931) with Bela Lugosi beginning his reign as the Count; The Invisible Man (1933) with Claude Rains as the man who wasn’t there, sort of;  and The Wolf Man (1941) with Lon Chaney Jr. as the hairy tortured soul.

1 The Shining

2 The Exorcist

3 Beetlejuice

4 Invasion of the Body Snatchers

5 Ghost Story

6 Ghostbusters

7 Freaks

8 Ichabod and Mr. Toad

9 Hound of the Baskervilles

10 I Walked with a Zombie

11 Diabolique

12 Alien

13 Rosemarys Baby

14The Birds

15 Psycho

16 Phantom of the Opera

17 Nosferatu

18 Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

19 Get Out

20 Frankenstein

21 Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein

22Young Frankenstein

23 Edward Scissorhands

24 Dracula

25 The Invisible Man

26 The Wolf Man

 

OCTOBER 11, 1983: DON’T YANK THE CRANK

DON’T YANK THE CRANK

No, the title doesn’t refer to the Trump Administration. It refers to a movement that took place in Maine back in 1981. Movement is probably a pretty strong word for laid-back Maine where crankdemonstrators tend not to get worked up into a chanting frenzy over things. And even less so in a sleepy little town like Woodstock whose population squeaked by 1,200 a couple of years ago.

Bryant Pond is Woodstock’s largest settlement and as much of an urban center as you’re likely to find. It captured its fifteen minutes of national fame and media attention during the mid1970s when its family-owned Bryant Pond Telephone Company became the last telephone exchange in the United States to use hand-cranked phones. Then in 1981, the two-position magneto switchboard in the living room of the owners was purchased by the Oxford County Telephone & Telegraph Company, a larger company in the Maine neighborhood. The Bryant Pond Telephone Company was swallowed like so many krill off the shores of Maine.

Two Bryant Pond residents started the “Don’t Yank The Crank” movement to save their crank telephones, financed by the sale of tee shirts – a valiant effort but nonetheless futile. At a meeting in the local school gymnasium warmed by a wood stove, townsfolk spoke out. “We have the oldest pay station in the United States,” said one resident, either complaining or bragging. “You put in a nickel and wind it up.” “You are a person instead of a number.” And did they mention no robocalls?

Alas, to no avail. The last “crank calls” took place on October 11, 1983, and the beloved telephones slipped into history like so much Americana.

 

Cheap Halloween Thrills

Our list of 31 films features three silents. In the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), an insane hypnotist uses a somnambulist to commit a series of murders. This German Expressionist film had a profound influence on American horror films. Phantom of the Opera is the 1925 classic starring the amazing Lon Chaney as a badly disfigured recluse who lives in the catacombs beneath the Paris opera house. It inspired several remakes and the hit musical. Nosferatu (1929) was the first film portrayal of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (the name was changed to avoid a legal battle with the Stoker estate) and he’s a tormented soul, a far cry from the suave and sophisticated Count in the many films that followed.

The three previous films are the oldest on the list. Get Out is the most recent. Released in 2017, this much acclaimed film tells the story of a black man who discovers a terrifying secret during a visit with his white girlfriend’s family.

1 The Shining

2 The Exorcist

3 Beetlejuice

4 Invasion of the Body Snatchers

5 Ghost Story

6 Ghostbusters

7 Freaks

8 Ichabod and Mr. Toad

9 Hound of the Baskervilles

10 I Walked with a Zombie

11 Diabolique

12 Alien

13 Rosemarys Baby

14The Birds

15 Psycho

16 Phantom of the Opera

17 Nosferatu

18 Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

19 Get Out

 

OCTOBER 7, 1916: WHAT IT WAS WAS FOOTBALL

WHAT IT WAS WAS FOOTBALL

Back in the days when football was still known as that game with the pointy ball, the son of German immigrants became the coach at the Georgia Institute of Technology (known to its friends as Georgia Tech). John Heisman became the first coach in college football to be paid for his services. They got their money’s worth. He led the school to its first national championship and had a career winning percentage of .779 which remains the best in Tech history.

The most memorable — or perhaps infamous — game in Heisman’s Georgia Tech career was played on October 7, 1916, with Tech playing host to Tennessee’s Cumberland University. Talk about a nail biter! The plucky Cumberland Bulldogs got off to a bad start, losing the coin toss.  Georgia Tech returned the Bulldogs’ first punt for a touchdown. Score 7-0 in less than a minute played. Cumberland fumbled on its first play after the following kickoff. 14-0, with just seconds off the clock.   On their next possession, the Bulldogs fumbled once again on their first play.  21-0. It went pretty much the same until the game mercifully ended with a score of 222-0.  A record, of course, that still stands.

In Cumberland’s defense, it should be pointed out that the college, on the verge of bankruptcy, had eliminated its football program at the beginning of the season. The school was forced to field a team (fraternity brothers of the team’s student manager) to avoid a $3,000 forfeit fee.

Heisman, who went on to be elected to the Football Hall of Fame and give his name to the trophy for the outstanding college football player of the year, up by 18 touchdowns at the half, told his players not to relent. “We’re ahead, but you just can’t tell what those Cumberland players have up their sleeves.”

Cheap Halloween Thrills

After a movie like Freaks, a light diversion might be in order. How about a guy with no head? That should be amusing, especially when he’s terrorizing our plucky hero who was probably warned not to walk through the forest at midnight. The story is the classic by Washington Irving, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” The not-so-nightmarish film version dished up by Disney is the Ichabod half of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. And if you get too scared, you can always cavort with Mr. Toad.  Another place you shouldn’t be wandering around late at night — the Moors.  Who knows what you’re liable to encounter.  The Hound of the Baskervilles, perhaps.  This 1939 Sherlock Holmes outing features Basil Rathbone as the detective.

1 The Shining

2 The Exorcist

3 Beetlejuice

4 Invasion of the Body Snatchers

5 Ghost Story

6 Ghostbusters

7 Freaks

8 Ichabod and Mr. Toad

9 Hound of the Baskervilles

As it progresses, you’ll see that it’s a highly subjective list, reflecting a few of my own biases. You won’t see Halloween Chainsaw Bloodbath on Elm Street or any movie featuring flesh-eating zombies.

OCTOBER 6, 1962: YOU CAN COME OUT FROM UNDER YOUR SEAT

YOU CAN COME OUT FROM UNDER YOUR SEAT

When one thinks of offbeat film-making, directors Tim Burton and David Lynch come to mind. You’d be hard pressed, however, to find a more offbeat body of cinematic work than that of Tod Browning. Who?, most people would be asking. Tod Browning’s strange macabre films were a pulp-fiction parade of crooks, carnies, lowlifes, deadbeats, wretches, wastrels, scoundrels and, of course, vampires and freaks. And they helped to define the horror film genre.

Browning came to this career honestly. Born in Louisville, Kentrucky, he gave up his comfortable home life at 16 to immerse himself in the world of carnivals, sideshows and circuses. His resume included stints as S Ringling Brothers clown, a barker for the Wild Man of Borneo and the “Living Corpse” for which he was buried alive. He also worked as a magician, dancer and actor before finding his niche as a director of dozens of silent films, including a 10-film collaboration with Lon Chaney. When sound came to the movies, he made his mark with two of his most notable films: Dracula starring Bela Lugosi and Freaks, his master work and the film that destroyed his career. Freaks was so grotesque and unnerving that it was banned in the United Kingdom for three decades. In the U.S., MGM took the film away from Browning and chopped it by almost a third. It performed miserably.

His career on the skids, Browning made a handful of films during the 1930s before “retiring” at the end of the decade. He died on October 6, 1962.

 

Cheap Halloween Thrills

You were expecting this of course. Freaks is a love triangle set in a bizarre carnival world, featuring Hans, a wealthy dwarf, Cleopatra, a gold-digging trapeze artist, and Hercules, a strongman. Cleopatra and Hercules plan to trick Hans into marrying Cleopatra and then poison him. All the performers are real sideshow “freaks” — Koo Koo, the bird girl, Daisy and Violet, the Siamese twins, Johnny Eck, the Half Boy, Schlitzie, the Pinhead, to name a few, but the beauty of the film is Browning’s portraying them as the real human beings they are. The film remains frightening and grotesque, even after MGM’s “editing.” The deleted scenes were trashed, so it’s likely that no one still living today has seen the original version.

1 The Shining

2 The Exorcist

3 Beetlejuice

4 Invasion of the Body Snatchers

5 Ghost Story

6 Ghostbusters

7 Freaks

As it progresses, you’ll see that it’s a highly subjective list, reflecting a few of my own biases. You won’t see Halloween Chainsaw Bloodbath on Elm Street or any movie featuring flesh-eating zombies. (I’ll forgo the soapbox.)

 

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb

Cold war and nuclear fears had been ramping up for years, when President John F. Kennedy took to the tube on October 6, 1961, to suggest that American families build bomb shelters to protect them from atomic fallout when those pesky Communists of the Soviet Union attacked the Homeland with their nuclear missiles. Just a year later, the Cuban Missile Crisis raised the stakes even higher.

While folks like Nelson Rockefeller and Edward Teller were outlining grandiose plans for an enormous network of concrete lined underground fallout shelters to shelter millions of people, civil defense authorities were talking up concrete block basement shelters that could be constructed by home handifolk for a couple of hundred bucks. Exactly how much protection they might actually provide was an open question.

Most people calmed down during the mid-1960s,  and fallout shelters pretty much went the way of duck and cover.  They were converted into wine cellars, recreation rooms or mushroom gardens. For others, the fallout shelter notion has been kept alive by internet sites devoted to nuclear hysteria. You can survive a nuclear or dirty bomb attack, shouts one such site.  It will not be the end of the world. But, you must be prepared!

Being prepared naturally involves purchasing a fallout shelter from one of the many firms that still market them — Acme Survival Shelters, Hardened Structures Inc., Safecastle.  Taking it over the top is a company called Zombie Gear whose motto is Be prepared for anything.