Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

February 1, 1896: Poor People of Paris

Opera patrons packed the Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy, on the evening of February 1, 1896, for the world premiere of Giacomo Puccini’s latest, La Boheme. Conducting the evening’s performance was a rising young star, Arturo Toscanini. Critics were divided over the opera, but audiences lapped it up, and it remains the world’s most popular opera. It is a timeless story of love among struggling young artists in Paris during the 1830s.

Our Bohemians– a poet, a painter, a musician and a philosopher — share a garret in the Latin Quarter as they try to eke out a living. It’s Christmas Eve; it’s cold. Rodolfo, the poet, and Marcello, the painter, are feeding a small fire with one of Rodolfo’s manuscripts. Their two companions arrive with food and fuel, one having had the good fortune to sell a bit of music. As they eat and drink, the landlord comes looking for their overdue rent. They distract him with wine and, pretending to be offended by his stories, throw him out. The rent money is divided for a night out in the Latin Quarter. Rodolfo stays behind as the other three leave, fortuitously, as a pretty neighbor comes looking for a light for her candle: “They call me merely Mimi.” Merely Mimi faints (she’s not well, folks), she and Rodolfo immediately fall in love, and they head off to the Latin Quarter, singing of their love.

In Act 2, our Bohemians are making merry in the Latin Quarter. Marcello’s one-time sweetheart, Musetta, enters on the arm of the old but wealthy Alcindoro. Trying to get Marcello’s attention, she sings an aria about her own charms (Musetta’s Waltz, recorded as Don’t You Know by Della Reese in 1959). She sends Alcindoro off on a bogus errand and promptly leaps into Marcello’s arms. They all scurry off, stiffing the returning Alcindoro for the check.

Act 3 brings a series of flirtations, jealousies, lovers’ quarrels and, for Mimi, a lot of coughing. At this point, we’re pretty sure she’s not going to make it through Act 4.

Which she doesn’t. After a few attempts at being cheerful, the others leave Mimi and Rodolfo who recall their meeting and happy days together until Mimi is overtaken by violent coughing. The others return, Mimi drifts into unconsciousness and dies.

Enrico Caruso owned the role of Rodolfo during his life, as did Luciano Pavarotti. And Maria Callas was all over Mimi.

Perelman Among Swine

S.J. Perelman was an American humorist, author, and screenwriter, perelmanknown primarily for his humorous short stories, first published in The New Yorker and other magazines in the 1930s and 1940s. He co-authored with Ogden Nash the book for the Broadway musical One Touch of Venus (music by Kurt Weill) which ran for more than 500 performances beginning in 1943. His movie collaborations include a couple of Marx Brothers outings and the award-winning screenplay for Around the World in 80 Days. He recounted his own trip around the world in a collection of humorous vignettes called Westward Ha!. The surrealistic travails on his Pennsylvania farm, were collected into books such as Acres and Pains. Perelman was born on February 1, 1904 and died in 1979.

You’ll have to leave my meals on a tray outside the door because I’ll be
working pretty late on the secret of making myself invisible, which may take me almost until eleven o’clock.

A farm is an irregular patch of nettles bounded by short-term notes, containing a fool and his wife who didn’t know enough to stay in the city.

In pulp fiction it is a rigid convention that the hero’s shoulders and the heroine’s balcon constantly threaten to burst their bonds, a possibility which keeps the audience in a state of tense expectancy. Unfortunately for the fans, however, recent tests reveal that the wisp of chiffon which stands between the publisher and the postal laws has the tensile strength of drop-forged steel.

“Have a bit of the wing, darling?” queried Diana solicitously, indicating the roast Long Island airplane with applesauce. I tried to turn our conversation from the personal note, but Diana would have none of it. Soon we were exchanging gay banter over the mellow Vouvray, laughing as we dipped fastidious fingers into the Crisco parfait for which Diana was famous. Our meal finished, we sauntered into the play-room and Diana turned on the radio. With a savage snarl the radio turned on her and we slid over the waxed floor in the intricate maze of the jackdaw strut.

As one who achieved the symmetry of a Humphrey Bogart and the grace of a jaguar purely on pastry, I have no truck with lettuce, cabbage and similar chlorophyll.

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January 31, 1990: Now This Is Russian Collusion

Continuing severe economic problems and internal political turmoil took a backseat on January 31, 1990, as Muscovites lined up to try a most unRussian guilty pleasure. The Soviet Union might be crumbling around them, but that icon of Western decadence, purveyors of glasnost on a sesame seed bun, was riding high. McDonald’s had come to town.

Those Big Macs, with fries and shakes might cost a day’s wages, but the people of Moscow were eating them up. The notorious golden arches of capitalism were signs that times they were a’changing in the Soviet Union – in fact, within two years the Soviet Union would dissolve. A Soviet journalist saw no great political earthquake but rather an “expression of America’s rationalism and pragmatism toward food.” Could the Quarter Pounder be the ultimate example of the People’s Food?

Whatever it was, they took to it in Moscow like a Bolshevik takes to a putsch. Located in Pushkin Square, this McDonald’s was the world’s largest, boasting 28 cash registers and a seating capacity of 700. Its opening day broke a McDonald’s record with more than 30,000 customers served. It remains the world’s busiest McDonald’s, serving more than 20,000 customers daily.

Moscow resident Natalya Kolesknikova told Russian State Television that when out-of-town guests came to visit, she showed them two things, McDonald’s and the McKremlin.

Squeaky Clean

The first daytime soap opera debuted on NBC January 31, 1949. These Are My Children was broadcast live, fifteen minutes a day, five days a week. Created by Irna Phillips and based on her earlier radio soaps, it was not a rousing success. It ended its run on February 25. One critical review said: There is no place on television for this type of program, a blank screen is preferable.”

Undaunted, Irna Phillips continued to create soaps. She fared much better with such series as Days of Our Lives and As the World Turns.

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Born in Rome on January 3, 1929, Sergio Leone is an Italian film director, producer, and writer whose name has become synonymous with thatfistful-of-dollars-1 peculiar sub-genre of movies known as Spaghetti Westerns. His trio of films released during the sixties, known as the Dollars Trilogy, were not the first of the type but certainly defined it: A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly are the top of the heap of the more than 600 Spaghetti Westerns and are consistently listed among the best rated Westerns in general.
The term Spaghetti Western was coined by critics, particularly in the U.S., unable to accept the fact that the Old West had been co-opted by a bunch of pesky Italians, even though Americans had grown bored with its depiction. Although directed by Italians, the films were actually rather international; the actors and technical staff came from throughout Europe and the U.S. Although originally released in Italian, everything was dubbed since the actors spoke in a variety of languages and the whole enterprise had the sound of a food fight at the United Nations. A Hollywood has-been usually headed the cast, or in the case of the Dollars Trilogy, a yet to be recognized upstart such as Clint Eastwood.
Some argue that the first Spaghetti Western appeared way back in 1910 — Giacomo Puccini’s 1910 opera La fanciulla del West; the first Italian Western movie was La Vampira Indiana in 1913, a Western vampire flick, directed by Sergio Leone’s father. Throughout the following years, several movies fit the category, but it was Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars that established the Spaghetti Western standard for cinematic style, acting and evocative music. In it, an unlikely hero (bounty hunter is the favored occupation) enters a town ruled by two outlaw gangs, where ordinary social norms are non-existent. He cleverly plays the gangs against one another to fleece them of that titular fistful of dollars. His treachery is eventually exposed and he is beaten severely about the head, but he wins out in the end through his cunning and wit.
During the following years, the genre evolved (as genres will), and the Spaghetti Western legacy was transformed almost beyond recognition, giving way to overwrought action and low-brow comedy, a genre that might more appropriately be called Spaghetti-o Western.


Oleo Oleo Oxen Free

In 1871 Henry Bradley received a patent for an amorphous concoction of cottonseed oil and animal fats that had the appearance, texture and perhaps the taste of silly putty. He called his creation oleomargarine (margarine to its close friends) to be used as a substitute for butter.
While Real Butter from Real Cows had a pleasant yellow color, Bradley’s faux butter was a stark, pasty white, more of a lard look alike that turned a lot of people off. No one spreading this white stuff on their toast would ever dream of exclaiming “I can’t believe it’s not butter.”
The answer, of course, was to color the stuff to make it look like Real Butter. But not so fast. It seems that discontented cows saw yellow margarine as a threat to the butter industry. (And this was long before a single crown appeared on a margarine muncher’s head.) They rose up and secured legislation prohibiting the sale of yellow margarine.
Margarine manufacturers used various tactics to bring color to their products. One of the oddest was a method devised by the W.E. Dennison Co. that used a capsule of yellow dye inside a plastic baggie of margarine The consumer would knead the package, breaking the capsule, allowing the dye to eventually spread throughout the margarine. Some consumers were still kneading their first lump of margarine when, in 1955, the ban on yellow margarine was lifted. Today margarine remains a glorious shade of yellow, and the naked eye cannot tell it from Real Butter. It does still taste like silly putty, however.

Stone Cold Dead in de Market, Part 1: Upton Swann’s Demise

stoneUpton Swann sat all alone on the ornate cast iron love seat that had been painted white sometime in the distant past, shaded by a spreading Poinciana, surrounded by chattering merchants with piles of bananas to the right, piles of coconuts to the left — fruits, vegetables, fish and tourists everywhere.  Activity swirled around him, but he didn’t seem to care.  It was noon.  He’d been sitting there since 7 a.m.

On a second floor terrace of the Hotel Vieux Habitant that overlooked the market square, five people sat in a row, leaning over the railing, staring down past the frenzied activity at Upton Swann.  They, too, had been sitting there since seven.

Upton Swann and his audience of five had all been together on the terrace the previous evening, enjoying the serenity of the market square, abandoned in the early evening hours by merchants and tourists alike.  And they enjoyed the soft warmth tempered by the steady breeze off the ocean – at least five of them did; Upton Swann did not.  He found the climate foul ­- too hot — and that was just the tip of his iceberg of complaints about this island in particular and the Caribbean in general.  Unlike the others he could not wait to get back to the sensible climate of New York in March, a desire he did not endeavor to keep to himself.  “What if I get sick here?” he lamented.  “My god, they’ve probably got chickens wandering through the hospital.”

By 8 p.m., he had enjoyed just about as much of the tropical night as he intended to enjoy.  With a harrumph, he marched inside, revved the air conditioner up to its maximum, and sat down on the couch with a tumbler of Scotch.  Within minutes, he would complain no more.

The beginning of Upton Swann’s journey to the great beyond went unnoticed.  In fact, he was about two hours along before the Dexters — Howard and Wilma — came in and thought it odd that the tumbler lay in his lap in the center of a large Scotch stain.  (Later, they would recall that his last words were:  “This is a wretched place; I need Scotch.” Not eloquent enough for his tombstone, but certainly better than Myrna Pomeroy’s first husband’s last words:  “Five minutes on the toilet and I’ll be just fine.”)

The Dexters sounded a general alarm, and Myrna, her current husband Phil Pomeroy, and Upton’s widow Adele all came running in — although Adele didn’t yet realize that she was a widow, not until Howard Dexter said:  “He’s deader than a doornail.”

Adele sobbed, and the others looked on with bewildered expressions.  Howard wasn’t a coroner or a doctor or anything, but he knew a lot of things, and the others accepted his diagnosis.

“Do you suppose he had a heart attack?” asked Myrna Pomeroy.

Howard Dexter picked up the bottle of scotch and ceremoniously sniffed at it.  He might have been selecting a wine for their dinner.  Then he poured a few drops into his palm, wetted a finger and touched it to his tongue.  The others watched in silence.

“Poison,” Howard proclaimed.  “Not a doubt of it.  This Scotch has really been laced with it.”   Howard wasn’t a pharmacologist or detective either, but he knew a lot of things.

Adele sobbed again, and Myrna Pomeroy said:  “How could it be?  We were all here.  How could someone have… no, you’re not suggesting…?”



victor borgeI only know two pieces; one is ‘Claire de Lune’ and the other one isn’t.  –Danish comedian, pianist and conductor Victor Borge, born on January 3, 1909 (died in 2000):




Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

Angelique-o, Part 4: Christmas Dinner

The following morning, Audrey had the Christmas spirit, in spite of everyone – in spite of Grandpa Nathan who had been missing since early morning, in spite of Ron who was sleeping off his santaChristmas rum, in spite of Joey who had been complaining all day about the lack of gifts, and in spite of Kathleen who was in her room feeling sorry for herself. Audrey had the Christmas spirit because, just when the hope for a nice Christmas Day had been lost, when she had sunk to singing cruel Christmas carols about her relatives, a miracle happened – not a big Frank Capra miracle, but a miracle – a little boy who looked like Tiny Tim, bearing a big fish, a gift for the lady who had spared his best friend. And that gift inspired Audrey to cook up the best grilled grouper, fried plantain, breadfruit, callaloo soup Christmas dinner any New Englander had ever had, one that these particular New Englanders damn well better appreciate.

Audrey assigned Joey to rouse Ron and dragged Kathleen along with her to find Grandpa Nathan. They walked the beach shouting his name until they saw two figures approaching in the distance and recognized one of the pair as Grandpa Nathan. Then, as Grandpa and his companion grew nearer, Kathleen’s mouth dropped open to release the gurgle of someone dying inside. Her eyes became swollen orbs as she stared at Grandpa Nathan’s companion, a very young woman with bright eyes, a big grin and only half a bikini.

Kathleen swooned and only Audrey’s intervention kept her on her feet as Grandpa Nathan chuckled, turned around, and pulled down his swimming trunks to reveal bright red buttocks. Kathleen regained her composure enough to pull Grandpa Nathan aside and demand: “Are you, you know, fooling around with . . .”

“Are you mad?” shouted Grandpa Nathan. “She’s 19 and I’m 85. What kind of a sick old man do you think I am, Kathleen?”

Fortunately, Grandpa Nathan and his friend dressed for dinner, and it was served, with Audrey apologizing, even though she knew she shouldn’t. “I’m sorry it’s not turkey, but it’s just impossible to find . . .”

The others scowled but Grandpa Nathan broke in: “Turkey? Why turkey? This grouper is the best fish I’ve ever tasted. And I love plantain. Turkey is for New England. We’re in the Caribbean. Right Angelique-o?” His friend giggled and nodded in agreement. The others, reprimanded, stopped grumbling and picked up forks and knives. And Grandpa Nathan was right. It was a wonderful Christmas dinner, if Audrey didn’t say so herself.

After dinner, Audrey happened to overhear Grandpa Nathan whispering to Angelique-o: “Of course I’ll be back next year. I promise.” And she thought, you’ll be doing it on your own, fella. Then she thought a bit more.

Well, we’ll see.

This story originally appeared in Pitch Weekly.  It is included in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.

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Angelique-o, Part 3: Grandpa Nathan’s Autopsy

Having seen Grandpa Nathan only at breakfast and dinner for two days, the others were not as shocked as they might have been when, on the third, Joey came to the beach with an announcement. santa“Grandpa Nathan’s dead.” Audrey and Kathleen ran back to the house. Ron pretended to be asleep.

When they reached Grandpa Nathan’s darkened room they tiptoed in, stood a few feet from the bed and watched. They did not have Joey’s depth of experience with televised death and could not be so sure. But it looked like Joey was right. Kathleen stretched her arm and index finger toward the bed and poked the old man’s cheek. She pulled her arm back and they watched. Grandpa Nathan ‘s eyelids fluttered and opened to reveal eyes staring at the ceiling. “Why in God’s name are you poking at me, Kathleen?” he demanded.

“Well, we weren’t sure . . .” Kathleen mumbled. “We thought . . . well, Joey said . . .that you were, uh, dead.”

“Young Dr. Kildare said I was dead,” said Grandpa Nathan. “And you, I suppose, were performing the autopsy.”

No need for an autopsy on any chicken. The day they arrived, there had been a chicken in every doorway, a chicken in every pothole. Now the entire chicken population had fled, called to the sea like lemmings, perhaps, or led away by some misguided Pied Piper. The chicken she had rebuffed was the island’s last chicken. But then, as she despaired, a man spoke to her from behind. “You want mountain chickens, lady? They’re very good.”

She swung around. “Mountain chicken? Valley chicken, beach chicken, chicken with lips. If you’ve got a chicken, I want it.”

“Fifteen dollars American?”

“Twenty, if you’ve got one big enough for five people.”

The man looked at her, confused.

“I need enough for five people.” She held up five fingers.

“I got enough for six.”

“Fair enough,” said Audrey. “Nothing wrong with leftovers. Twenty American. There you go. God bless us, every one.”

The man pointed at the cardboard box a few feet to the left, before pocketing the money and shuffling off.

Oh dear, is it going to be alive? She regarded the box as if it might get up and start walking around. She heard no clucking; that was a good sign. She hoped it wasn’t alive. She approached the box and knelt down. She lifted the lid, just enough to peer in, and gasped when she saw the six creatures inside. Not only were the mountain chickens tiny and featherless, they looked just like frogs and, yes, they were alive.

Audrey wondered if maybe Grandpa Nathan hadn’t had some kind of near-death experience that day they thought he was dead. Since that time, he had become a different person. He was almost cheerful at breakfast and dinner. He didn’t complain about the food as much. And he particularly relished insulting Ron in ways that Ron didn’t understand. He no longer slept most of the day, but would disappear with increasing frequency. Audrey discovered that some of the time he spent hanging out with the taxi drivers who were waiting for fares. They discussed politics, religion and island life. He knew them by name, knew how many brothers and sisters they had, and knew of their wives and girlfriends. They all called him big guy.

‘Twas, as they say up north, the night before Christmas, and after the others were in bed with visions of sugarplums no doubt dancing in their heads, Audrey filled their stockings with the little gifts she had picked up here and there. And then she gave the Christmas gift that made her feel best of all. She hiked a short distance up the hillside behind their house and gave the mountain chickens their freedom.


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Angelique-o, Part 2: Eating Tiny Tim’s Friend

Maybe she could pass a really big chicken off as a small turkey.

Last Saturday, they had touched down to sun and warmth still holding the coats they’d had to wear to santathat other airport way up north. Entering paradise, Audrey was hopeful, Kathleen airsick, Ron wobbly on his feet, Joey comparing his fate to that of Robinson Crusoe, and Grandpa Nathan expressing his outrage at the price of airline liquor, fully convinced that the little bottles were meant to be free samples and that the flight attendants were pocketing thousands of dollars.

“Five dollars for a drink. It’s obscene. We may be in a foreign country, but this airline is American and their employees ought to be subject to laws that protect us from this kind of usury.”

“Yes sir,” said the flight attendant forcing a smile. “And you have a nice day.”


“Why didn’t you just let Ron by you a drink like he offered, Daddy,” said Kathleen.

“Right,” said Grandpa. “Shows how much sense he has, paying five dollars for something they’re supposed to give away.” By Audrey’s calculation, Ron had spent at least thirty dollars on his own thirst. “And,” continued Grandpa Nathan, “he’s liable to end up my son-in-law some day, perish the thought, and bankrupt us all.”

“The movie sucked,” said Joey.

“Of course, it did,” said Grandpa Nathan. “Cost a bundle, too. Just so you can be strapped into some infernal headphones like they’re some kind of life support system. And for your generation they probably are. You’re always strapped into those things. Probably being programmed. Subliminal messages: ‘Kill all the old people. Kill all the old people.'”

Let the vacation begin.

When she finally found it, Audrey’s spirits soared. It was a really big chicken. It might actually go pound for pound with some turkeys she’d met. And the nice gentleman with the missing tooth was willing to part with it for a mere forty dollars American, which seemed high, but the man did have a large family in tow and after all it was Christmas Eve and she felt a lot like the Ebeneezer Scrooge at the end of the book – the rehabilitated Scrooge, the Scrooge who had happily forked over a preposterous amount for his Christmas turkey.

But then the smallest of the man’s children – the one who looked just like Tiny Tim – began to wail, because, as luck would have it, the chicken was the kid’s best friend. There was no way Audrey could buy, let alone eat, Tiny Tim’s friend.

And what could you say about the week? On the first day, the highlight of breakfast was Grandpa Nathan asking Ron through a mouthful of corn flakes: “My God, Ron, when do you not drink beer?” Not after two o’clock in the afternoon, after six of them, when Ron fell asleep on the beach and woke up fire engine red at five, in remarkable juxtaposition to the chalky white Kathleen who had lathered herself with sun block and cowered all day in the shade worrying about secondhand sun. Joey had been stunned into a deathlike stupor upon discovering that their accommodations lacked even the most prehistoric form of electronic entertainment. But on the other hand, Grandpa Nathan slept all day, and Audrey spent an idyllic day on the beach finishing a book of the scantest literary value.

At dinner, they were given menus devoid of beef and potatoes. Audrey found the fish chowder quite rewarding, but the others looked upon it as punishment.

Joey’s catatonic silence was brief. Upon regaining speech, he did his best to emulate his grandfather and actually surpassed his skills as a malcontent. Joey was aided by the fact that Grandpa Nathan slept through the second day as well as the first. Ron cowered with Kathleen in the shade, and Audrey got a good start on another really bad book.

Having seen Grandpa Nathan only at breakfast and dinner for two days, the others were not as shocked as they might have been when, on the third, Joey came to the beach with an announcement. “Grandpa Nathan’s dead.”


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Angelique-o, Part 1: Audrey’s Idea

CHRISTMAS IS COMING, the goose is getting fat, Please put an explosive device in the old man’s hat. If you haven’t got a big bomb, then a little one will do. If you haven’t got a little one, then . . .

Stop right there, Audrey, and try to practice what you preach about Christmas spirit toward all, including Grandpa Nathan.

Audrey looked around, hoping she hadn’t been singing out loud, making certain that, if she had been, no one she knew was around to hear her. And no one was – just the chattering strangers in the public market bartering their fruits and vegetables, a man whacking coconuts with a machete, and children playing football with a large jackfruit. Tomorrow was Christmas, an unusual Christmas, one that might well live forevermore in infamy, if they made it back to cold but conventional New England before reverting to their baser selves under an unfettering Caribbean sun.

The idea had originated during a nasty New England February, long after the memories of another family Christmas had slipped into an ethereal haze. As the temperature hovered at eleven degrees, Audrey phoned her sister Kathleen to float a trial balloon, her idea that maybe the family – she and Kathleen, Kathleen’s “friend” Ron and her son Joey – ought to spend next Christmas somewhere south, put the money toward that instead of gifts that would, as likely as not, be inappropriate and unappreciated. “After all,” Audrey argued, “the true spirit of Christmas doesn’t require gifts or chestnuts roasting on an open fire. The true spirit of Christmas is being together as a family, so why not be together somewhere warm. Grandpa Nathan would be happy. He’s always cold, and frankly I don’t think he likes Christmas that much anyway. Let’s just think about it.”

Now, 310 days later, Christmas Eve, the temperature hovered at 83 degrees, and before hanging the damn stockings with care, Audrey scurried about the market in a quixotic attempt to find a turkey to cook for Christmas dinner because Grandpa Nathan had not missed a traditional Christmas dinner since 1943 when he spent Christmas on board a submarine in the South Pacific, saving the free world and everyone in it, including Audrey, Kathleen, Ron, and Joey, even though Joey hadn’t been born.

Back in February, Audrey found a sympathetic audience. Numbed by cold and seduced by individual notions of tropical splendor, the rest of the family had agreed to Audrey’s Idea, as it came to be called, thus giving her full ownership and responsibility. The others had just assumed that when Audrey said south she meant Florida, somewhere within waddling distance of Disney World, but Audrey was far more cosmopolitan than the others and was eying locales much farther south – Aruba or Barbados, perhaps.

After much study, Audrey settled on a little island in the Grenadines because it was “undiscovered” and appealed to her sense of romantic adventure. The others signed on because, being undiscovered, it was cheap. Only Joey balked at the choice, unable to understand why anyone would choose a dumb place like this over Disney World. But Joey wasn’t putting up any money and therefore had no vote.