APRIL 19, 1949: SEND IN THE CLOWNS

russianSEND IN THE CLOWNS

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 16, 1850: CALL ME MADAME

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 an 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.

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

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.”

 

 

February 4, 1912: The Flying Tailor

Born in Austria, Franz Reichelt moved to Paris in 1898 at the age of 19. There he went into business as a tailor, creating fashionable dresses for the many Austrians who visited Paris. He was quite successful at his chosen trade, but he yearned for something more. He had the mind of an inventor, and we all know what troubles that can get a person into.

As with many such dreamers in the early 20th century, he looked to the skies, which were now filled with magnificent men in their flying machines. Reichelt became obsessed with the idea of a tailor-made suit that would convert to a parachute should a hapless aviator leave his or her flying machine for some reason. Parachutes had been around for ages, but his would be sartorial as well as utilitarian.

He developed his garment and tested it on dummies dropped from his fifth floor apartment. (“Mon Dieu, here comes another falling dummy,” a Parisian pedestrian might be heard to remark.) These experiments were less than successful. What he needed was a higher perch from which to launch his dummies. A lesser man might have moved to a tenth floor apartment, but Reichelt saw the Eiffel Tower gleaming in the distance, a steel siren calling to him.

Reichelt somehow wheedled the Parisian Prefecture of Police to grant him permission to conduct a test from the tower. However, when he arrived at the tower on February 4, 1912, he was not accompanied by a dummy. It quickly became clear that he had duped them, that Reichelt himself would be the dummy. Despite all attempts to dissuade him, Reichelt, about to become known as the flying tailor, jumped from the tower platform, down to the icy ground below and into the history books. Charles Darwin strikes again.

 

January 14, 1500: For the Ass Was a Donkey, You See

The Feast of the Ass held on January 14 from around 1100 until 1500 was meant as much as teach-in as a party-in, a way to present religious doctrine to the illiterati who had no books or Internet access. This festival, held primarily in France as a cousin to the Feast of Fools, celebrated the flight of Joseph, Mary and Jesus into Egypt.

Traditionally, the most beautiful young woman in the village splendidly attired in gold-embroidered cloth, carrying a small child and riding a donkey would be led in a solemn procession through the town to the church. The donkey would stand beside the altar while a mock Mass was performed. Instead of the usual responses to the priest, the congregation would “hee-haw.” At the end of the service, instead of the usual benediction, the priest would bray three times and the congregation would respond with another round of hee-hawing. The choir would then offer up a hymn and everyone would bray along — except for the ass who thought the whole thing rather ridiculous and that these people were all making you know whats of themselves.

Another story from these Years of the Ass featured King Henry IV (of France not England as in yesterday’s post). The king was visiting a small town where he found himself listening to and growing tired of a long and rather stupid being delivered by the mayor. As the mayor spoke a donkey brayed loudly and the king with a tone of the greatest gravity and politeness, said: “Pray, gentlemen, speak one at a time, if you please.”

How Cold Was It?

January 14 is also St. Hilary’s Day which honors 4th century bishop St. Hilarius who sounds like a pretty jolly fellow.  In England, the day is considered the coldest day of the year, probably because of the great frost that began on this day in 1205 and lasted through March.  In many subsequent years, folks would hold festivals with thousands of them stomping around on the frozen Thames.

. . . pickpockets were sticking their hands in strangers’ pockets just to keep them warm.

. . .  politicians had their hands in their own pockets.

. . . the squirrels in the park were throwing themselves at an electric fence.

. . . when I turned on the shower I got hail.

. . . mice were playing hockey in the toilet bowl.

 

January 7, 1785: Jean-Pierre and the Airgonauts

HotAirBalloonBoy-GraphicsFairyBalloonomania was in full swing in Europe by the year 1785, and our intrepid French airgonaut Jean-Pierre Blanchard was right in the middle of it. Since his initial hot-air balloon flight nearly a year earlier, the frenzy had grown with balloon images plastered everywhere and even people adorned in clothing au ballon, a style that made them look like walking hot-air balloons.

But a sort of holy grail of ballooning was still to take place – the crossing of the English Channel. Blanchard had gone to England after his early successes, where he staged several flights in his strange-looking craft propelled by flapping wings and a windmill. Blanchard’s third flight there with American John Jeffries as co-pilot departed Dover Castle on January 7, 1785, bound for the coast of France, and the two men became the first to cross the Channel by air.

It wasn’t a particularly pretty flight; the two men nearly crashed into the Channel along the way. Their balloon was weighed down by questionable extra supplies such as anchors, a hand-operated propeller that didn’t work, and a set of oars with which they planned to row their way through the air. With France in sight but seemingly just out of reach, the two balloonists threw everything they could pry loose out of the balloon. When all looked bleak, Blanchard even threw his trousers overboard, lightening the craft enough to make a terra firma landing. The 2½ hour trip was a success.

Blanchard was awarded a substantial pension by Louis XVI. He later toured Europe, demonstrating his balloons and staging first flights in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and Poland. He ballooned before monarchs, such as his flight at the coronation of Leopold II as king of Bohemia in Prague, and presidents, Washington, Adams. Jefferson, Madison and Monroe in the United States.

Charles Addams, born January 7, 1912:addams

addams1

November 9, 1918: And Mona Lisa Isn’t Talking

Guillaume Apollinaire, who died on this date in 1918, was a French poet and critic of the early 20th century. He was a fan of modern art and is credited with coining the word surrealism. To the French police, however he was just another voleur, but certainly not a petty one. Seven years earlier, they had arrested and jailed him on suspicion monaof aiding and abetting the theft of the Mona Lisa and a number of Egyptian statuettes from the Louvre. It didn’t help his case that he had once called for the Louvre to be burnt down.

The strange case began early on a Monday morning. Before the Louvre was opened for visitors,the Mona Lisa was stolen by a thief who acted quickly when no guards were around. The theft wasn’t reported until Tuesday; guards who noticed that the painting was missing assumed it had been removed to be photographed. Once museum officials realized the truth, however, all hell broke loose. The Louvre went into lock-down. Police arrived to question the staff, re-enact the crime and dust for fingerprints, a newfangled detection technique. The French border was sealed, departing ships and trains thoroughly searched.

By the time the museum re-opened nine days later, the theft was on the front page of newspapers around the world. Tips poured in from amateur sleuths, clairvoyants and your everyday would-be experts. Thousands of people lined up at the Louvre just to see the empty spot where the painting once hung. More it seems than ever viewed the painting itself, which was not widely known outside the art world until it was stolen (Nat King Cole had not yet sung about it). Giving the whole situation a Kafkaesque touch, Franz Kafka was among those who came to view the empty space.

The plot thickened (as plots will) when a mystery man called the Paris-Journal, which was offering a reward for information about the crime. The man showed up at the newspaper’s offices with a small statue, one of several that he claimed to have stolen from the Louvre. The anonymous thief turned out to be a bisexual con man named Honoré Joseph Géry Pieret who had a questionable relationship with Apollinaire. Pieret implicated Apollinaire and he was arrested.

Under pressure, Apollinaire, admitted that Pieret had sold the pilfered works to his friend Pablo Picasso. Thinking they might have discovered a dandy crime ring, police arrested Picasso as well. Although Picasso admitted buying the objects, prosecutors couldn’t build a case that either he or Apollinaire had stolen them, much less the Mona Lisa, and both of them went free.

And what happened to the Mona Lisa? Conspiracy theorists tell us it was never found, that museum officials had to hire Leonardo DaVinci to paint a replacement. “How about a real smile this time,” they suggested.

But She’s Showing It All

This just in:  French experts have determined that a nude portrait that has been hiding at the Conde Museum at the Palace of Chantilly, north of the French capital is actually Mona Lisa herself.  She has been going under the alias Monna Vanna.  Curators have determined that Leonardo himself had a hand in the charcoal work.  Shocking!

October 18, 1963: Space, the Feline Frontier

The story of cats in space is a dramatic tale indeed. It begins in an unlikely place with the 1957 Soviet launch of Sputnik 2, carrying of all felicettethings a dog named Laika. Laika was a stray found on the streets of Moscow who could have been the star of a dandy rags-to-riches shaggy dog story, except that things didn’t go all that well and the pooch perished under mysterious circumstances.

This was viewed as an early skirmish in the superpower space race to which NASA responded by sending a chimp into space and successfully returning him.

The French meanwhile had been plotting their own animal space probe. Fifteen cats had been chosen to undergo extensive training involving centrifuges, compression chambers and other medieval torture devices for a space mission in which the French would prove that they belonged at the table with the big guys and a cat would demonstrate to its fanciers everywhere that cats were superior to dogs in yet another way.

A pretty black and white Parisian chatte was eventually selected for the mission, because she was the only one who hadn’t become overweight during training, something to do with croissants most likely. On October 18, 1963, at 8:09 am, Chatte Félicette boarded a Véronique AGI 47 rocket at a base in the Algerian Sahara Desert and was blasted 97 miles into space. Fifteen minutes later, she parachuted safely to earth and pussycat immortality. Voilà!

 

October 8, 1361: Doggie Justice

A French gentleman traveling through the forest north of Paris was murdered, as French gentlemen traveling through the forest north of Paris were apt to be in 1361. His body was buried dogfightat the foot of a tree. His dog, who was traveling with him, remained beside his grave for several days until hunger caused him to quit his vigil.

The faithful dog made for Paris and presented himself at the house of a good friend of his master’s, where after being fed he carried on so much that the friend was obliged to follow him back to the scene of the crime. There, he tore at the ground until the body of the murdered man was exposed to view.

No trace of the assassin was discovered for some time, but then one day the dog was confronted with a man named Chevalier Macaire. Well, that dog immediately lost his good-natured demeanor and lunged for the man’s throat and had to be restrained at some difficulty.  It happened again on other occasions. The dog spotted Macaire in a crowd and attacked.

Since the dog was normally a gentle soul, suspicions began to be aroused. These suspicions found their way to the king of France who ordered the dog brought before him. The dog remained perfectly behaved until Macaire was brought forward and again the dog attacked. “Hmmm,” thought the king.

During this particular time of history, judicial combat was often used to settle doubtful cases, on the assumption that God would provide victory to the person who was in the right.  Amusing jurisprudence perhaps, but who was to argue with the king when he ruled that a duel between Macaire and the dog would settle the matter.

The confrontation took place on October 8.  Macaire came armed with a large stick; the dog was given a cask into which he could retreat. On being let loose, the dog immediately attacked Macaire from one side then another, warding off the man’s blows. The murderer was quickly seized by the throat and thrown to the ground, where he hastily confessed before the king and the entire court — and was hanged, of course.

It’s Always the Cow

Late one night, when we were all in bed,
Mrs. O’Leary lit a lantern in the shed.
Her cow kicked it over,
Then winked her eye and said,
“There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight!”

Who is this Mrs. O’Leary, whose cow is supposedly responsible for the Great Chicago Fire of 1871? Her legend has been kept alive for 145 years now and her name is synonymous with big fires. She was one Catherine O’Leary, an Irish immigrant, who actually had five cows. The cow named Daisy got the blame for kicking the lantern over, but since no one was in the barn to witness the event, all five cows could have had a hoof in it.

Conspiracy theorists have over the years suggested other scenarios: Naughty boys were sneaking a smoke in the barn. Spontaneous combustion. A meteor broke into pieces as it fell to earth October 8, setting off fires in Michigan and Wisconsin as well as in Chicago. Daisy had an accomplice; Daisy acted alone. A drunken neighbor started the fire. Obama may not have started it, but he should have stopped it.

August 30, 1794: Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

In the late 1800s, many of the unfortunates who found themselves in English prisons were there as a result of debts they could not pay. Benjamin Pope had a different story; he found his way to prison for a debt he could easily have paid. Pope was a tanner and quite successful in his trade, enough so that he gave up tanning and became a money-lender and mortgagee. He proved successful at this endeavor as well, earning the nickname “Plum Pope.”

     Alas, his good fortune began to desert him, in no small part because of his greed. His grasping ways scroogein the lending of money led him afoul of the usury laws, and he was frequently brought before the court. In one particularly blatant case, he was fined £10,000.

Instead of paying the fine, he stole away to France with all his property. There, he complained bitterly to anyone who would listen about the unfairness of the English laws. The French naturally commiserated. Nevertheless, he eventually returned to England, but still refused to pay the fine. He went to prison instead. At one point, he could have secured his release by paying just £1000 of the £10,000 fine. Not Plum Pope.

     While in prison, he carried on his avocation as a money lender, albeit on a more limited and cautious scale. While always a penny-pincher, he became more so and more eccentric about it. He would drink beer with anyone who would give it to him, but would never buy it. He would not eat meat unless it was given to him. He chewed his gum twice. When he died on August 30, 1794, after 12 years in prison, he still owed the debt that had sent him there, even though he left behind more than enough to pay it.

Any man who would walk five miles through the snow, barefoot, just to return a library book so he could save three cents — that’s my kind of guy. — Jack Benny