Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

February 12, 1924: Now You Has Jazz

Advertised as an educational event, the “Experiment in Modern Music” drew a capacity crowd to New York City’s Aeolian Hall on the afternoon of February 12, 1924. Noted critics were in attendance as were such luminaries as John Phillip Sousa and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Organized by the conductor of the Palais Royal Orchestra, Paul Whiteman, the concert was intended to introduce the new form of music called jazz and show audiences that it was a musical form to be reckoned with. True to its billing as educational, most of the concert had consisted of mind-numbing rather than toe-tapping music, two dozen little lessons that began to dissolve into one another as the audience grew antsier and antsier. At last (second to last, actually) a young Broadway composer sat down at the piano to perform a brand new piece written for the occasion.

His composition had been hastily created.  Just over a month earlier, whilegershwin in a Manhattan pool hall, he had read in a newspaper that he was scheduled to perform a jazz concerto at the Whiteman soiree. Painted into the proverbial corner, he set to work. The framework of his concerto came to him on a train journey: “It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang, that is so often so stimulating to a composer – I frequently hear music in the very heart of the noise . . . And there I suddenly heard, and even saw on paper – the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end.”

The piece opened with an “outrageous cadenza of the clarinet,” now instantly recognizable, and “Rhapsody in Blue” metamorphosed into a showstopper of American music history. George Gershwin himself would, as a New York Times critic lacking restraint put it, “go far beyond those of his ilk.”

And now you has rock

Forty years later, on February 12, 1964, New York City would again be home to musical history.  This time the venue was Carnegie Hall and the occasion a major skirmish in the British invasion as the Beatles held their first concert in the U.S.  And not everyone thought they would go far beyond those of their ilk:  “Visually they are a nightmare, tight, dandified Edwardian-Beatnik suits and great pudding bowls of hair. Musically they are a near disaster, guitars and drums slamming out a merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythms, harmony and melody.” — Newsweek

Sweet Sugar Cane, Part 1: Order in the Court

All of y’rise,” said Victor Clovis who most of the time drove a taxi, shuffling tourists from one island rendezvous to another, but who, on the rare occasions when court was in session, served as whatever court personnel might be needed. Except judge, of course. Those duties fell to the short gentlemen who stood rather pretentiously behind the unpretentious teacher’s desk in one of the three rooms in Ste. Catherine School. Student desks had been pushed to one side of the room to make room for grown-up folding chairs, and court was now in session.

Everyone in the classroom/courtroom did indeed rise as instructed, everyone being Regina Napoleon, her husband Corso, his friend Max Rollo, and a good dozen townspeople who had nothing to do on this hot summer day. Court proceedings were rare on the island, and they were timed to fit into the judge’s semi-annual visits.

Mrs. Napoleon was the plaintiff in this particular case, her husband and his friend Rollo the defendants. She stood before a chair to the judge’s right, facing, at about six feet away on the judge’s left, the two men.

Okay, be seated,” Victor intoned, after the judge had seated himself.

The judge was not long on ceremony. Victor felt a little slighted that he was not given the opportunity to instruct Mrs. Napoleon on the matter of the whole truth and nothing but the truth before the judge started right in with questions.

So you are charging the two defendants with attempted murder, is that correct?”

That’s absolutely correct, your most honorific sir, “ answered Mrs. Napoleon.

Even though one of them is your husband?”

He’s the worst of the two, don’t you know. He’s an animal.”

And they attempted this murder by immersion in a barrel of rum?”

If that means they tried to drown me, that they did. That they did.”

Please explain.”

I was whacking some conch with a board – that makes them tender, perfect for conch chowder. I make a nice conch chowder, lots of conch and good vegetables – well they came in with big grins on their ugly faces and the look of evil in their eyes.”

Defendant Napoleon stood and grinned at the judge. “I was drunk, you see.”

Defendant Rollo rose and added: “So was I, that’s the truth.”

We’ll hear your story by and by,” snapped the judge. “Now please sit. Mrs. Napoleon, you were saying the two defendants had the look of evil in their eyes. Do you agree that they were drunk?”

Oh my yes,” answered Mrs. Napoleon. “They were lit up to their very gills. I never like to see the two of them together, especially not when they’re in their cups. And still they were drinking. ‘There’ll be mischief,’ I said to myself.”


Sweet Sugar Cane is included in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.

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February 11, 1960: Take This Job and Shove It

When the folks at NBC decided to censor Jack Paar’s water closet joke, they must have known the Tonight Show star would be angry. After all, Paar was principled, emotional and a bit unpredictable. But evidently they didn’t gauge the depth of his anger and were certainly unprepared for his reaction. On the night after the joke was cut, February 11, 1960, the Tonight Show went on air as usual. What followed, within minutes, was one of the most unexpected and abrupt goodbyes in the history of television. After his introduction, Paar walked on stage for the live broadcast, announced that he was quitting, and walked promptly off stage, leaving announcer Hugh Downs in charge of the program with nearly 90 minutes to finish.

And he meant it. Paar was gone for three weeks, not returning to the program until NBC apologized and agreed to let him tell the joke on air.


The Water Closet joke

An English lady, while visiting Switzerland, was looking for a room, and she asked the schoolmaster if he could recommend any to her. He took her to see several rooms, and when everything was settled, the lady returned to her home to make the final preparations to move.  When she arrived home, the thought suddenly occurred to her that she had not seen a “W.C.” around the place. So she immediately wrote a note to the schoolmaster asking him if there were a “W.C.” around. The schoolmaster was a very poor student of English, so he asked the parish priest if he could help in the matter. Together they tried to discover the meaning of the letters “W.C.,” and the only solution they could find for the letters was “Wayside Chapel.” The schoolmaster then wrote to the English lady the following note:

Dear Madam:
I take great pleasure in informing you that the W.C. is situated nine miles from the house you occupy, in the center of a beautiful grove of pine trees surrounded by lovely grounds. It is capable of holding 229 people and it is open on Sunday and Thursday only. As there are a great number of people and they are expected during the summer months, I would suggest that you come early: although there is plenty of standing room as a rule. You will no doubt be glad to hear that a good number of people bring their lunch and make a day of it; while others who can afford to go by car arrive just in time. I would especially recommend that your ladyship go on Thursday when there is a musical accompaniment. It may interest you to know that my daughter was married in the W.C. and it was there that she met her husband. I can remember the rush there was for seats. There were ten people to a seat ordinarily occupied by one. It was wonderful to see the expression on their faces. The newest attraction is a bell donated by a wealthy resident of the district. It rings every time a person enters. A bazaar is to be held to provide plush seats for all the people, since they feel it is a long felt need. My wife is rather delicate, so she can’t attend regularly. I shall be delighted to reserve the best seat for you if you wish, where you will be seen by all. For the children, there is a special time and place so that they will not disturb the elders. Hoping to have been of service to you, I remain,
The Schoolmaster

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February 10, 1906: Prince of Pain

Struggling in the long shadow cast by his famous father, Lon Chaney, Jr. (Creighton Tull Chaney), born February 10, 1906, finally found his career in the 1930s after his father’s death. Cast mostly in small supporting roles for several years, his first major film role came in 1939, when he reprised his turn on the stage as Lennie Small in Of Mice and Men, a critical success.

Then in 1941, he starred as the tortured Larry Talbot, a role with which he would always be associated, in The Wolf Man. Like Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, he would be a horror film actor for the rest of his life. (Chaney was the only actor to play all four of Universal’s heavyweight creatures: Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, the Mummy, and the Wolf Man)

Returning to his ancestral home in Wales after the death of his brother, Talbot accompanies a village girl to a gypsy camp. This of course is a big mistake. The young woman is attacked by a wolf. In true hero fashion, Talbot rushes to her aid and slays the beast with his fancy new silver-tipped walking stick although he is bitten in the process. Enter Maleva, a gypsy fortuneteller, in a dandy portrayal by Maria Ouspenskaya, who lays some bad news on Talbot. This was no ordinary wolf; it was her son Bela, played oddly enough by Bela Lugosi. Maleva’s son is a wolf? Not a wolf, a werewolf.

“Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night; May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”

Poor Larry, bitten by a werewolf, becomes a werewolf, cursed to get all shaggy and antisocial whenever the moon is bright, not only in this movie but in four more monster flicks: Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945), and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

Inka Dinka Do

Unlikely star entertainer Jimmy Durante was born February 10, 1893. Saiddurante critic Leonard Maltin about Durante: “The old ‘schnozzola’ was the living embodiment of the term ‘beloved entertainer’: Everyone adored him, but no one could ever really figure out just what it was he did. He sang, he danced, he played the piano and, of course, he clowned — but he wasn’t really great at any of these tasks. Mostly, it was the sheer force of his overbearing personality that won viewers over.”





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February 9, 1909: Den of Iniquity

Thanks to descriptions by authors such as Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde, the opium den became a sinister staple of 19th century literature — an evil place where degenerates, mostly foreigners, mostly Chinese, lounged around on pillows, smoking their pipes, vacant eyes benumbed by clouds of opium fumes. The stories were far more fanciful than reality, but opium dens did exist and they soon drew the wrath of temperance advocates, missionaries and moral reformers.

In the United States, San Francisco, inspired by a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment, outlawed public opium dens in 1875, as did many other communities with Chinese populations. Smoking opium did, however, remain legal. Then in 1909, the U.S. Congress stepped in.

Never mind that only one in a thousand Americans smoked opium. The State Department determined that an initiative against opium smoking would be useful in opening the door to China, which resented British demands to allow opium trade following the two Opium Wars. An international commission instigated by the U.S. signed a treaty banning the opium trade. As a result, the State Department called on Congress to ban the import of opium for smoking favored by Chinese immigrants. And on February 9, 1909, Congress passed the Opium Exclusion Act, creating the first illegal drug in America and unleashing an army of government agents to chase down smugglers, bust dealers and raid dens. The 100-year War on Drugs had begun.

Smoking Leeches

In 1841, doctors tried opium (it was still legal) as well as leeches to save President William Henry Harrison, born on this day in 1773.  To no avail.  Old Tippecanoe (and Tyler Too) became the first president to die in office, turning up his presidential toes just a month after taking office, the shortest tenure of any U.S. president.  He also holds the record for the longest inaugural speech at 31 days which may have been a factor in his death.  Actually it was two hours; it just seemed that long.  And it didn’t contribute to his death, although it might have to members of the audience.

Smoking Bananas

carmenOn the same day, over in Portugal, nowhere near an opium den, Carmen Miranda was born, immigrating to Brazil as an infant.  Larger than life, but tiny in stature, she stood only 5’1” without her tower of bananas.  Nevertheless, she filled a stage with her Latin energy and machine gun delivery, melodic Brazilian bullets ricocheting everywhere.  She and her samba stormed the United States in 1939 – nightclubs, radio, movies – and by 1945 she was a superstar. In 1955, after filming an appearance on the Jimmy Durante television show, at 46 years of age, she died of a heart attack.


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February 5, 1957: One If By Land, Two If By Saxophone

It has been endlessly debated when and with whom rock and roll actually began, but most enthusiasts have pretty much settled on a guy who cut an unlikely figure for a rock artist but who brought rock and roll into the public eye with a bang in 1955. The man was Bill Haley, along with his Comets, and the song was “Rock Around the Clock” introduced in the film Blackboard Jungle. During the next few years a string of hits including “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and “See Ya Later, Alligator” followed.

Time passes quickly and when you’re at the pinnacle of musical stardom, you’re on a slippery slope. Along comes a guy named Elvis and you’re yesterday’s sha-na-na. Who’s going to scream and carry on for a thin-haired, paunchy 30-year-old musician with a silly curl in the middle of his forehead and a garish plaid sports jacket?

The Brits, that who.

By 1957, Bill Haley and the Comets had already enjoyed their golden days of American super-stardom. But the battle of Britain lay ahead. When they stepped off the Queen Elizabeth in Southampton on February 5, they began the first ever tour by an American rock and roll act and launched what rock historians called the American Invasion.

When Haley and the band reached London later that same day, they were greeted by thousands in a melee the press called “the Second Battle of Waterloo.” These were the British war babies just becoming teenagers, and they were ready for American rock and roll. Among those who turned out for Bill Haley and the Comets were a few that would make their own music history.

“I’ve still got the ticket stub in my wallet from when I went to see Bill Haley and the Comets play in Manchester in February 1957—my first-ever concert” said Graham Nash. “Over the years I’ve lost houses . . . I’ve lost wives . . . but I’ve not lost that ticket stub. It’s that important to me.”

“The birth of rock ‘n’ roll for me?” said Pete Townshend, “Seeing Bill Haley and The Comets . . . God, that band swung!”

“The first time I really ever felt a tingle up my spine was when I saw Bill Haley and The Comets on the telly,” said Paul McCartney. “Then I went to see them live. The ticket was 24 shillings, and I was the only one of my mates who could go as no one else had been able to save up that amount. But I was single-minded about it. I knew there was something going on here.”

No Peeping Now

In 1861, Samuel B. Goodale who hailed from Cincinnati received a patent for a clever hand-operated stereoscope device on which still pictures were attached like spokes to an axis which revolved which caused the pictures to come to life in motion — a mechanical peep show that folks viewed through a small hole for a penny a pop.  The usual subjects for peep shows were animals, landscapes,  and theatrical scenes, but they eventually descended into naughtiness.  The term peep show itself comes from Peeping Tom, a sneaky British tailor who made a hole in the shutters of his shop so he might surreptiously spy on Lady Godiva who felt the need to ride naked naked through the streets of the city.  He was struck blind for his effort.




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

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

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

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

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

What’s in a Name

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

He-e-e-y Abbott

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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January 25, 1921: Know Your Robot

As every child of five knows, Karel Capek penned the play R.U.R. which premiered on January 25, 1921, and took the world by storm. Okay, maybe every Czech child of five, since Capek was a Czech writer which, of course, makes R.U.R. a Czech play. Maybe every nerdy Czech child of five who loves science fiction knows that R.U.R. stands for Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti . You’ll want to make special note of that because it’s what the following is all about.

The English translation of R.U.R. is Rossum’s Universal Robots, and it was the first ever use of the word robot, coined by Karel’s brother Josef. The play takes place in a factory that fashions faux people from organic matter. These are not your metallic robots that we’re familiar with today. These are living creatures that look a lot like humans and have minds of their own. At first they’re happy slaving away for their masters, but eventually they realize they’re doing all the work and the one percent are reaping all the benefits (sound familiar?), so they rise up and destroy every last human.

R.U.R. was quite successful and influential in the science fiction world. Within two years, it had been translated into 30 languages. And an army of famous robots followed. A few:

Identities tomorrow.