Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

APRIL 19, 1949: SEND IN THE CLOWNS

russian

With the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over the world, cold war adversaries were nonetheless able to find glimmers of humor. At the opening night of the Moscow Circus, noted Russian clown, Konsantin Berman, demonstrated who had the upper hand in the clown cold war, launching barb after barb in the direction of the United States.

Tossing a boomerang, he likened it to the U.S. Marshall Plan that was pumping economic recovery aid into Western Europe. “American aid to Europe,” he said, “Here is the dollar.” as the boomerang returned to his hand, delighting the audience. Producing a radio that bellowed out the sound of barking dogs, he announced: “That’s the Voice of America.”

Meanwhile American clowns were dumping buckets of water on each other and slipping on banana peels.

Speaking of Banana Peels

The Vagabond King a 1925 operetta by Rudolf Frimi was already an American success when it opened in London on April 19, 1927.  It’s success in England was probably assured given its theme of foibles of the French.  Its hero is a braggart, thief and rabble-rouser who attempts to steal an aristocratic lady from the king himself.  Not only that, he openly mocks the king, boasting about what he would do if he were king.  The angry king gives him royal powers for 24 hours — king for a day — during which he must solve all France’s problems or go to the gallows (the guillotine had not yet been invented).  He succeeds, wins the lady’s hand and lives happily ever after in exile — probably in England.  The operetta was the inspiration for a couple of movies and, of course, the popular radio and television program “Queen for a Day.”

 

 

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APRIL 17, 1610: SOMEWHERE A RIVER BEARS YOUR NAME

Back at the dawn of the 17th century, the holy grail among explorers was the Northwest halfPassage, that elusive sea route that Europeans had been seeking ever since they discovered that North America stood right in the middle of their way to China. (For some reason, they longed to go west to China even though it was a lot closer going east.)

On April 17, 1610, intrepid British explorer Henry Hudson. already famous for having discovered and explored a river that just happened to share his last name, set sail on his latest attempt to find the passage that would at last allow Europeans to take (as the popular song tells us) a slow boat to China.

It was his fourth expedition, financed by adventurers from England. Sailing across the Atlantic, slipping between Greenland and Labrador, he entered the Hudson Strait (another remarkable coincidence) and soon reached (you’re not going to believe this) Hudson Bay. Unfortunately after all this seeming good luck, the expedition took a nasty turn.  After three months dawdling around the bay, Hudson was surprised by the onset of winter. Why winter north of Labrador in November would be a surprise is anyone’s guess. Nevertheless, Hudson and his crew were forced to set up a winter camp. The next few months were not pleasant, and many of the crew members were not amused. They grumbled and held their tongues throughout the winter until June. But once they were sailing again, they up and mutinied, setting Hudson, his son and seven friends adrift.  Although Hudson was never seen again, England laid claim to everything that shared his name — river, strait, bay and even a funny looking vehicle that seemed to have no useful purpose.

 

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APRIL 16, 1850: CALL ME MADAME

Madame (Marie) Tussaud is arguably the world’s most famous wax sculptor. Born in France in 1761, she began her artistic career during the French Revolution, searching through corpses to find the heads of noted guillotine victims from which she made death masks. She herself was imprisoned for three months awaiting execution, but an influential friend intervened and she was released. She and her waxwork friends toured throughout Europe for 33 years before settling into a permanent exhibition in 1835 on Baker Street in London. There she gained prosperity and fame, managing her wax museum until her death on April 16, 1850.
Throughout Madame Tussaud’s long existence, its most popular feature has been the Chamber of Horrors (as pictured here).

Perhaps they could install a great big one in the white house

Inventor Walter Pichler is the genius behind the amazing TV helmet of 1967. This device allows a user to leave the outside world and slip into his or her own little world of information and entertainment. The user simply inserts his or her head into a capsule that resembles a small submarine and hopes that he or she doesn’t bump into something while enjoying the “virtual world” of Gilligan’s Island.

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APRIL 13, 1360: HAIL, HAIL, THE GANG’S ALL HERE

It was the 14th century and once again England was out to conquer France. The hostilities had been going on for nearly 20 years, when England’s King Edward III sailed across the Channel with a huge army — a cast of thousands.  The dead of winter set in, and the inconsiderate French refused to face the English invaders in direct combat. Instead they huddled in their warm and cozy castles, drinking cafe au lait while the English plundered the countryside and got frostbite. Come April of 1360, having lasted through the winter, Edward and his men fought and torched their way through the Paris suburbs, and readied themselves to have at Chartres.

Then, on April 13, a sudden violent storm came up. Lightning killed several soldiers, and then the heavens opened up and hailstones the size of pommes de terre began hammering the hapless army, killing a thousand men. Naturally, they took this as a sign that God was annoyed. Edward declared the invasion “my bad” and negotiated a peace with the French. The English renounced all claims to the throne of France, and the French gave them croissants.

But wouldn’t you know it, a few years later, the King of France declared war on England ( this was, after all, the Hundred Years’ War, scheduled to last another 75 years or so.)

Historians assure us that this was not the origin of the phrase “Hail to the Chief.”

Ifs, Ands or Butts

Alfred Mosher Butts was born in Poughkeepsie, New York, on April 13, 1899. Who, you ask, is Alfred Mosher Butts? He became an architect when he grew up, though not a famous one. He dabbled in art to no great success. His colorful last name is worth a pathetic seven points in a certain word game that can be found in one-third of American homes. 150 million sets have been sold worldwide in 29 languages. Yes, the game is the ubiquitous Scrabble. And Al Butts is the guy who invented it.

For those who may be new to the planet, Scrabble is a game where players place tiles on a board to spell words and earn points determined by the numerical value of individual letters. Butts determined the values of the individual letters by studying how often each letter appeared on the front page of The New York Times (fake letters in fake words in fake news, some might say).

A street sign in Jackson Heights (where Butts lived when he invented the game) memorializes the creation of the game.

 

 

 

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APRIL 8, 1832: TAKE MY WIFE . . . PLEASE

Earlier centuries saw a great many practices that were commonplace then but which would be considered inappropriate in our more enlightened age. Nowhere was this truer than in (merry old) England — purchasing a plump Irish child for special dinner occasions in the 18th century, for instance, or in the 19th century, selling a spouse one had grown weary of.  One such sale took place on April 8, 1832, an account of which was recorded for the amusement of generations that followed.  Joseph Thompson, a farmer, had been married for three unhappy years when he and his wife decided to call it quits.  As was customary, Thompson took his wife to town and set her up for public auction.  At noon, the sale commenced with Thompson delivering a short speech:

“Gentlemen, I have to offer to your notice my wife, Mary Ann Thomson . . . whom I mean to sell to the highest and fairest bidder.  Gentlemen, it is her wish as well as mine to part for ever.  She has been to me only a born serpent.  I took her for my comfort, and the good of my home; but she became my tormentor, a domestic curse, a night invasion, and a daily devil.  Gentlemen, I speak truth from my heart when I say — may God deliver us from troublesome wives and frolicsome women!  Avoid them as you would a mad dog, a roaring lion, a loaded pistol, cholera morbus, Mount Etna, or any other pestilential thing in nature.”

What a sales pitch!  This guy could sell anything. The asking price for Mary Ann was 50 shillings. Eventually, the price was knocked down and a deal was made — 20 shillings and a Newfoundland dog.

Everyone satisfied, they parted company, Mary Ann and a gentleman named Henry Mears in one direction, Joseph and the dog in the other.

Don’t Hurry Worry Me, Part 3:  Blue Denim Ahoy

hurry“Does anyone here need some pants?” Ismelde asked the three sailors sitting on the dock, amusing themselves with beer and cigars.  They eyed Ismelde with suspicion at first, then stared intently, their seafaring eyes inspecting her from stem to stern.

“I’d be needing some pants,” said the largest and swarthiest of the three.

“Oh dear,” said Ismelde,  “I don’t think they’ll fit you, sir.”

The youngest of the three spoke up.  “I reckon they’d fit me.”  Ismelde studied him.  He was of much the same build as Randall.

“Why don’t you try them on?” suggested the other sailor with a big, toothless grin.

The young sailor stood and grinned back at his mates.  “Let’s do that.  Couldn’t take them if they didn’t fit.  Come on.”  He pulled a reluctant Ismelde aboard their sloop, leaving the other two sailors chuckling and speculating.  A few moments later, a very red-faced Ismelde emerged from the sloop and hurried away.  Just behind her the young sailor zipping his newly acquired, tight-fitting blue denims swaggered ashore, boasting to the others:  “I guess she’s never put pants on a sailor before.”

Randall couldn’t have told you this part of the story, someone would complain.  Chicken Avery just shrugged them off.  Now don’t you hurry me, he’d say.  Don’t worry me.  Someone told me this, someone else told me that.  I just put it all together.

Three hours later, the young sailor was still swaggering, promenading the length of the deck, as the sloop plied the choppy waters off the windward side of the island.  And perhaps it was that swaggering that rendered his sea legs useless against the lurching of the sloop, that threw him off balance and allowed him to be tossed off the starboard side, blue denims and all.

Elton Sinclair’s hours of sobriety were few.  And he spent those few hours combing the beach for clues to the buried treasure that would lift him out of the drudgery of island life and whisk him away to the upper strata of European society, where he would drink cognac instead of rum.  The corpse in the blue denim trousers lying in a heap on Pigeon Beach presented Elton with a bit of a moral dilemma.  Should he report the body to the authorities and subject himself to all their suspicious interrogation or just let someone else discover the body and deal with the fuss.  He realized that, if everyone who happened onto the body were to save themselves the fuss, the body would never be officially discovered even though everyone on the island must know about it.    On the other hand, he was a busy man; there were others with more time to waste on fuss.

Having faced the first moral dilemma and making a sound decision, Elton face a second moral dilemma.  Would the authorities, once the body had been discovered by someone other than Elton, care whether the corpse was attired in a pair of handsome blue denims or in a pair of shabby brown pants much like those that Elton wore?  Of course not.  Elton knelt down next to the sailor and peeled the pants from his lifeless body.  He was about to remove his own pants and put them on the body when it struck him that the poor wretch lying there was free of all care and certainly any care about whether or not he wore pants at all.  So Elton saluted the naked corpse, slung the blue denims over one arm and headed down the beach, keeping watch for any telltale signs of treasure.

continued

This story originally appeared in American Way, the inflight magazine of American Airlines.  It is included in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.

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APRIL 6, 1722: AND TWO RUBLES FOR A FIVE 0’CLOCK SHADOW

In 1722, Peter the Great of Russia abolished a tax he had introduced some twenty years earlier, it having proved to be a rather hairy source of national income. The tax had been the result of an 18-month European tour to seek the aid of European monarchs, and to observe how other militias and armies were trained. During the tour, he learned that many European customs and styles were far superior to the antiquated ways in Russia. One of the first rulings he made upon his return was that all of his courtiers and officials shave off their long beards, as being clean-shaven was the European style. Anyone who kept their beard was subject to an annual Beard Tax of 100 rubles. Upon payment of the tax, bearded Russians were given a token; on one side of the token was an image of the lower part of a face with a full beard and the inscription “the beard is a superfluous burden.”

The idea of a beard tax had a bit of a history. Nearly 200 years earlier, King Henry VIII of England, who wore a beard himself, had introduced a tax on beards, although he probably didn’t pay the tax himself (it’s good to be the king). The tax was a graduated tax, varying with the wearer’s social position, not the length of his beard. Some years later, his daughter, Elizabeth I, reintroduced the beard tax, taxing every beard of more than two weeks’ growth, although she probably didn’t pay the tax herself (it’s good to be the queen).

Don’t Hurry Worry Me, part 1: blue denim temptation

As Chicken Avery liked to put it, “Clarence Henry’s pants had a more exciting life than Clarence hurryhimself did.”  Chicken told the story of Clarence’s wandering trousers with relish, and he told it frequently, because it was a good story and a story with a proper moral.

The story ended when Mango, Clarence’s faithful dog, brought Clarence’s pants to him a week after they had disappeared.  The pants were soiled and wrinkled and just a little chewed up.  Well, Clarence punished that poor mutt but he should have been thanking him because Mango was a hero not a villain.  Of course, Clarence didn’t know the details of that week during which his pants were gone.  How Chicken Avery knew is anybody’s guess, but he knew, and he loved to tell about it.  And Chicken swore it was all true.

The story began when Clarence’s wife washed his favorite pants, a pair of pale blue denims that had been brushed until they were as soft and smooth as the pink sands of Paradise Beach.  She washed his pants, then hung them out on the clothesline to dry, out near the road where they were bound to tempt passers-by, being the fine pants they were.

And those pants did tempt a lot of folks who passed by, but those folks were honest, law-abiding citizens, and they resisted blue-denim temptation.  All except that rogue Randall.  He didn’t resist.  No, when he saw that no one was about, he snatched the pants right off the line, draped them over one arm and sauntered on down the road where he caught the bus that took him all the way to Port Elizabeth.  From there, he walked up the road that led out of Port Elizabeth toward Titus Simeon’s farm.  Before he reached the farm, he ducked behind a bush where he slipped out of his tattered jeans and into his purloined blue denims.

“My oh my,” he said aloud, as the softness of the blue denim caressed his legs and as he imagined how these pants would help impress Titus’ beautiful young daughter, Ismelde, and how maybe she would want to touch the supple fabric and, thereby, the man within.  He got quite excited thinking of Ismelde, her pouting lips and innocent eyes, and he quickened his pace.

When he reached the farm, he did not approach it straight on, knowing that he should avoid Ismelde’s father who disliked the young men of the island in general and Randall in particular and who held the unreasonable notion that Ismelde should not carry on with young men, she being but seventeen and quite naive.  Randall spotted Ismelde.  She spotted him as well and pointed to the barn.  Randall understood and quickly skulked into the barn where he waited with some impatience for Ismelde to join him.

continued

This story originally appeared in American Way, the inflight magazine of American Airlines.  It is included in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.

Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

APRIL 3, 1667: THE LIONS ARE COMING, THE LIONS ARE COMING

In addition to being a member of the British peerage, Edward, Marquis of Worcester, who died on April 3, 1667, was a bit of a dabbler, a sort of ersatz inventor, and author of an odd little book called A Century of Inventions. The book, written some ten years earlier, describes, as the title suggests, a hundred speculative projects, none of them, however, detailed enough to allow a reader to actually put them into practice: secret writing with peculiar inks, explosive devices that would sink any ship, ships that would resist any explosive devices, floating gardens, a method to prevent sands from shifting, automatic assault pistols and cannons, a timer for lighting candles at any time during the night, a hundred-foot pocket ladder, flying machines.

Although many of his ideas foreshadowed later inventions, it is unclear whether he had thought through the methods by which they would work. One idea was put to work with success although unusually so. As the owner of Raglan Castle, he had constructed some hydraulic engines and wheels for bringing water from the moat to the top of the castle tower.  During the Civil War, Roundheads had approached the castle with not the best of intentions. The Marquis had his waterworks put into play. “There was such a roaring,” he later wrote, “that the unwelcome visitors stood transfixed, not knowing what to make of it.” On cue, one of the Marquis’ men came running toward them shouting that the lions were loose. The intruders tumbled over one another down the stairs in an effort to escape, never looking back until the castle was out sight.

Fifty more clever ideas

The Marquis’ 100 nifty inventions most likely did not inspire Time Magazine to create its list of inventions at the turn of this century, although it could have.  The Time list heralded fifty creations that it called the worst of all time.  Wretched Richards Almanac has visited some of these in the past and will visit others in the future (like on April 5).  The list includes such sure-fire ideas as Hair in a Can, Tanning Beds, Venetian-Blind Sunglasses, Smell-o-Vision, Hula Chair and many more.