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.





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



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.



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.


Cheap Halloween Thrills

In 1984, Ghostbusters was the most expensive comedy ever filmed. Wildly successful, it paid for itself and then some. Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd, and Harold Ramis are the titular paranormal investigators/exterminators. They have their hands full: An ancient Babylonian demon (channeling himself through Sigiourney Weaver) has unleashed an entire army of nasty spirits on New York City.  It’s a wild, over-the-top comedy, ranked number 28 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 best.

1 The Shining

2 The Exorcist

3 Beetlejuice

4 Invasion of the Body Snatchers

5 Ghost Story

6 Ghostbusters


Noted American businessman and inventor, Earl Silas Tupper died on October 5, 1983. He was buried in a 100-gallon Tupperware container whose lid was “burped”to get an airtight seal before being lowered into the ground. Thousands paid their respect at a memorial Tupperware Party held earlier.

For indeed this was the man who invented and gave his name to Tupperware, a line of plastic containers in an almost infinite array of shapes and sizes that changed the way Americans stored their food. Tupper invented the plasticware back in the late 30s, but it didn’t really start worming its way into every household until the 50s when Tupper introduced his ingenious and infamous marketing strategy, the Tupperware Party. This clever gambit gave women the opportunity to earn an income without leaving their homes and to simultaneously annoy their friends and relatives.


Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

The rock musical Hair has played pretty much continuously since its Broadway debut at the Biltmore Theatre in the late 60s, its mix of sex, drugs and rock and roll more or less guaranteeing hairan avid following. It’s been translated into many languages and produced throughout the world. But back on October 5, 1967, it looked a lot like a colossal failure.

After rejections by producer after producer, the musical was accepted by Joseph Papp, who ran the New York Shakespeare Festival, to open the new Public Theater in New York City’s East Village for a six-week engagement.

Hair depicts a group of hippies living the bohemian life in New York City, rebelling against the Vietnam War, conservative parents and other societal ills while diving into the sexual revolution and the drug culture. Its protagonist Claude must decide whether to resist the draft or give in to conservative pressures and risk his principles (and his life) by serving in Vietnam.

Production did not go well. Perhaps the theater staff was too close to conservative America; the material seemed incomprehensible, rehearsals were chaotic, casting confusing. The director quit during the final week of rehearsals and the choreographer took charge. The final dress rehearsal was a disaster.

But the show did go on. Critics were not particularly kind, but it found an audience. During the six-week engagement, a man from Chicago was attracted to the show by its poster with a picture of five American Indians on it. He thought Hair was all about Native Americans, a favorite subject of his. He was surprised to discover it was actually about hippies, but he nevertheless liked it so much that, he bankrolled its move to a discotheque in midtown Manhattan. The show had to start at 7:30 pm instead of the normal curtain time of 8:30 and play without intermission so dancing could begin at 10 pm. But Hair was getting closer to Broadway.

In 1968, the play’s creators reworked it into the musical that everyone knows, adding additional songs, the infamous nude scene, and an upbeat ending — it was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.




Although the name Charles Middleton (born in Kentucky, October 3, 1874) doesn’t invite instant recognition, his face — or at least one of his faces — certainly does. He worked in vaudeville, on the legitimate stage, and in traveling circuses before striking out as a motion picture actor in 1920. His career took off when sound came to the movies, thanks to a deep, menacing voice that dripped villainy.

To many generations he will always be the villain he played for the first time in 1936, one of film’s most notable nasties — Ming the Merciless. The evil enemy of the entire universe first appeared in the serial Flash Gordon, battling wits with Buster Crabbe’s Flash. He reprised his role in Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938) and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940).

Middleton appeared in 200 movies. He died in 1949.

Pathetic earthlings. Hurling your bodies out into the void, without the slightest inkling of who or what is out here. If you had known anything about the true nature of the universe, anything at all, you would’ve hidden from it in terror.

Cheap Halloween Thrills

If Ming doesn’t get us pathetic earthlings, these guys might. There’s something terribly strange going on in tiny Santa Mira, California. Friends and loved ones have suddenly become emotionless body doubles, all thanks to those strange pods that have been popping up everywhere. Kevin McCarthy has discovered the truth, an alien invasion of human duplicates. Trouble is, no one believes him. As much a horror film as sci-fi, the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers is also a political allegory with most of the scariness in its theme.

1 The Shining
2 The Exorcist
3 Beetlejuice
4 Invasion of the Body Snatchers


Scared Shepless

Standing on a chair to reach the microphone, the ten-year-old kid was as nervous as a chicken surrounded by dumplings.  After all, it was his first time in front of an audience, and the folks at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show looked like one pretty tough audience (nobody had told him to imagine them naked).

It was all his fifth-grade teacher’s fault; she was the one who had pushed him into this appearance after hearing him sing Red Foley’s “Old Shep” one morning during prayers. The kid was praying now, Shepdogpraying he wouldn’t pee the pants of his spiffy little cowboy outfit. He did make it all the way through “Old Shep” that October 3 in 1945. And he came in fifth place in the competition, winning five dollars and a free pass to all the fair rides.

A few months later, for his eleventh birthday, his parents gave him a guitar. He had wanted a rifle (you’ll shoot your eye out, kid).

But he did apply himself to learning the guitar with the help of his uncle Vester and the pastor at the family’s church. Then when he was twelve, his mentor arranged an on-air performance for him. This one didn’t go so well; this time he was “scared Shepless.” and unable to sing.  Fortunately, he was able to overcome his fear and sing the following week. And he went on to have a decent career singing.  As an adult, he returned to “Old Shep” and pretty much conquered it.



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.





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.


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



Nintendo, the consumer electronics giant was founded on September 23, 1889. No, it wasn’t the first video gaming company, a hundred years ahead of its time. Super Mario Brothers and Pokémon were not evennintendo1 glints in some developer’s eyes. The company was founded to produce playing cards. Playing cards had been introduced to Japan centuries earlier, but each time a card game became popular, folks began gambling on it, and the government banned it. One card game, hanafuda, resisted this trend. It used Western style cards with images but no numbers. The lack of numbers and the fact that the game was quite complicated limited its appeal to gambling types.

Nintendo founder Fusajiro Yamauchi produced and sold handcrafted hanafuda cards painted on mulberry tree bark — hardly high tech. The company hummed along happily producing its cards for another fifty years or so until an antsy grandson of the founder began to expand. His expansion efforts were rather haphazard and for the most part less than successful. There was a taxi company and a TV network, a food company selling instant rice. Then there was the chain of “love hotels,” offering accommodations for “resting” at hourly rates with such amenities as unseen staff members and hidden parking lots.

Nintendo stock soon bottomed out. In 1966, Nintendo got into the toy business with such products as Ultra Hand, Ultra Machine and Love Tester. During the 1970s, the company moved into electronics and arcade games. Then in 1981, it introduced Donkey Kong and the rest is — well, you know what they say.

Nintendo still makes hanafuda cards.

Madame Would-Be President

Born on September 23, 1838, Victoria Woodhull, although rather woodhullfamous or infamous in her day, does not jump readily to mind today. She wore many hats: newspaper publisher, stock broker, lobbyist, traveling clairvoyant, public speaker on women’s suffrage. She was also the first woman to run for president in the United States. That was in 1872 as the candidate of the Equal Rights Party. Noted abolitionist Frederick Douglass was selected as her running mate. However, he never acknowledged it, and campaigned for Republican Ulysses S. Grant.

She had a few things going against her. Women couldn’t vote, so she couldn’t even vote for herself. She was not old enough to serve as president. And just a few days before the election she was arrested on obscenity charges for publishing an account of an adulterous affair between the minister Henry Ward Beecher and Elizabeth Tilton.

She didn’t receive any electoral votes, and no one knew her popular vote total since her votes weren’t counted. One gentleman in Texas did publicly admit voting for her.

One of the world’s most popular entertainments is a deck of cards, which contains thirteen each of four suits, highlighted by kings, queens and jacks, who are possibly the queen’s younger, more attractive boyfriends.”
― Lemony Snicket



In 1769 London, a gentleman died at the ripe old age of 97. Although little is known about the gentleman himself, his name has traveled down through the years and is more familiar to us today Bridge-Playersthan to those who might have rubbed elbows with the man back in the eighteenth century. His name was Edmond Hoyle, and although he was a barrister by trade, he is now known for law only as it applies to games of chance. And he is much more recognized by his nickname ‘According to.”

     Hoyle laid down the law for the game of Whist in a widely circulated treatise on the subject. He also had a great deal to say about backgammon, quadrille, piquet, and chess. He was, we might surmise, one of those wet blankets who must rain on card-game parades (to jumble metaphors, about which Hoyle had nothing to say) with their whining “but the rules say” or “according to Hoyle.”

     But Whist was his long suit. This venerable game provides ample material on which to pontificate, and pontificate Hoyle did. A forerunner of Bridge, Whist is all about taking tricks. Who takes them, and when and how and why gives the game a wide variety of flavors from which to choose. There’s Knockout Whist, a game in which a player who wins no trick is eliminated, sent to stand in a corner; Solo Whist, a game where individuals can bid to win 5, 9 or 13 tricks or to lose every trick; Kleurenwiezen, an elaborate Belgian version of the game, filled with Gallic mischief; Minnesota Whist, played to win tricks or to lose tricks (talk about flexibility); Romanian Whist, a game in which players try to predict the exact number of tricks they will take; German Whist for two very aggressive players who take tricks from Poland without prior warning; Bid Whist in which players bid to determine trump and one player is a dummy who sits out the hand; and Danish Whist, in which the dummy brings pastries to the other players.  But England lays claim to most of the true Whist players. It is easy to imagine a group of eighteenth century British aristocrats at their club. “Shall we have a go at a spot of Whist?” “Capital idea.” “Jolly.” “According to Hoyle . . .”




Starting his career as an anonymous young storyboard artist for Walt Disney Productions on Donald Duck cartoons and other shorts, the cartoonist who would later be compared to everyone from Lewis Carroll and James Joyce to Aesop and Uncle Remus moved to the animation department in 1939. There, during the next five years he contributed to such Disney classics as Pinocchio (Gepetto in the whale), Fantasia (a drunk Bacchus riding a donkey), and Dumbo (the crow sequence).  Walt Kelly was doing pretty well at $100 a week.

During the 40s, Kelly devoted himself more and more to comic book art at Dell. The little possum with whom he is now most closely associated came on the scene in 1943 in Dell’s Animal Comics. Pogo would go on to star in 16 issues of his own comic book and 26 years as a syndicated newspaper comic strip.  Along with Pogo, there were  Albert the Alligator, Churchy LaFemme (a turtle), Howland Owl, Beauregard (Houndog), Porkypine, and Miz Mamzelle Hepzibah (a skunk).

Kelly’s liberal political and social views were rarely disguised as he used the strip to champion the powerless and the oppressed and to satirize political dogmas and figures such as Senator Joseph McCarthy (Simple J. Malarkey, a gun-toting bobcat), Vice President Spiro Agnew, and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. Many newspapers dropped Pogo, and others moved it to the editorial page. Walt and Pogo were probably most remembered for their campaign on behalf of the environment and the battle cry: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Walt Kelly died in 1973.