January 20, 1961: To Air Is Human

Here’s an idea for a television game show: Get four contestants – makebikini them celebrities – have them stick their heads through a life-sized illustration of a famous scene or a song lyric and then take turns asking the host yes/no questions and try to figure out what scene they’re a part of.  Just for insurance, get a big star to be the host. Sound like a winner?

The scenario played out for the first time on CBS at 9:30 pm EST on January 20, 1961, the evening of the inauguration on John F. Kennedy. The program was called You’re in the Picture. The guest celebrities were Pat Harrington Jr., Pat Carroll, Jan Sterling, and Arthur Treacher. The host was Jackie Gleason, who’d been around television for a while hosting his own variety shows and a little number called The Honeymooners. That first episode was also the last episode.

Talk about a bomb. “The biggest bomb in history” said Jackie Gleason, adding that it “would make the H-Bomb look like a two-inch salute.” Time later called it proof that the 1960-61 TV season was the worst in the history of U.S. network television.

The following week, instead of the game show, the broadcast consisted of Gleason sitting in a chair on a bare stage, delivering a lengthy apology for the previous week’s show and a post-mortem noting that more than 300 combined years’ worth of show business experience had been involved in the flop. He ended his commentary by saying “I don’t know what we’ll do, but I’ll be back.”

Gleason’s half-hour apology got much better reviews than the game show, and Gleason returned to finish his series commitment by changing the program’s name to The Jackie Gleason Show and the format to a talk/interview show.

However, he continued without the program’s original sponsor Kellogg’s which pulled out after Gleason, during his apology, referred to the cup of coffee he was sipping as Chock Full O’Booze.


Born January 20, 1922, Ray Anthony became a successful band leader during the 1950s, despite composing “The Bunny Hop.”


It seems only fair:  During a 1982 concert in Des Moines, Iowa, heavy-metal musician Ozzy Osbourne was bitten by a bat as he tried to bite the bat’s head off as part of the evening’s entertainment.  Osbourne was hospitalized and treated for rabies, living on to further entertain us.  History does not record the fate of the bat.


On January 20, 2001, Donald Rumsfeld became the oldest Secretary of State in U.S. history.  And possibly the most senile.  Exactly two years later he declared: 



January 19, 1944: Patriotism and Prosmiscuity

miracleA movie released for national distribution back on January 19, 1944, depicted the predicament of a young woman named Trudy Kockenlocker. It’s seen today as a rather tame screwball comedy — and a good one at that, listed by the American Film Institute as #54 on it’s list of all-time best comedies. Yet it’s a wonder it was ever released.

Miracle at Morgan’s Creek starred Betty Hutton and Eddie Bracken and was directed by Preston Sturges. It tells how Trudy wakes up one morning after a farewell party for a group of soldiers to discover that, while drunk, she married one of them whose name she can’t remember. A short time later, she discovers she is pregnant.

Well, didn’t the alarms go off at the Hays Office, that noble outfit charged with protecting Americans from perversion through diligent censorship. The script was sent to the office in 1942, and Paramount quickly received a seven-page catalog of complaints, starting with the fact that Trudy was drunk and working its way up to the possible comparison of Trudy’s dilemma with the virgin birth of Jesus. When the Hays Office had finished its snipping, only ten pages of the script remained in tact. The War Department weighed in about the conduct of the departing soldiers. A pastor in the film who delivers the moral warning against mixing patriotism with promiscuity got the hook as well.

The film was finally released, the Hays Office was bombarded with complaints, including one critic’s suggestion that the office had been “raped in its sleep” for allowing the film to be released, (evidently, Sturges had somehow forgotten to share the film’s ending with the Hays Office). and it became Paramount’s highest-grossing film of the year. It also won an Oscar for Best Screenplay.

January 19, 1953

A lot of folks would spin the channel to CBS in 1953 to catch  another birth, this one a tad less controversial as Lucy gave birth to Little Ricky (Ricky Ricardo Jr.) – 71.7% of all television sets in the United States were tuned into the I Love Lucy program. On the same day, Lucy gave birth to a nonfictional son, Desi Arnaz Jr.



January 18, 1948: The Kid’s Got Talent?

As the program began, the spinning of a wheel would determine the contestants’ order of appearance. As the wheel spun, Ted Mack would chant the magic words: “Round and round she goes, and where she stops nobody knows.” It was January 18, 1948, and The Original Amateur Hour, episode number one, was on the air. And each week, we would be informed how many episodes had aired. The final broadcast in 1970 was number 1,651.

Ted Mack brought the Amateur Hour to television from radio where it amateurhourhad been a fixture for over a decade under the command of Major Edward Bowes. Mack’s television version was one of only six shows to appear on all four major TV networks – ABC, CBS, NBC, and DuMont. (the others were The Arthur Murray Party; Down You Go; The Ernie Kovacs Show; Pantomime Quiz; and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet).

Contestants were often singers and other musicians, although acts included jugglers, tap dancers, baton twirlers, and such. The television audience voted for their favorites by postcard or by calling JUdson 6-7000. Winners returned for another appearance, and three-time winners became eligible for the annual championship and the chance to win a $2000 scholarship.

During 22 years on television, you might guess that the program would discover a throng of celebrities, but you’d be wrong. Gladys Knight, Ann-Margret, Irene Cara, and Tanya Tucker were a few of the handful of future stars. Pat Boone was a winner, but his appearances caused a bit of a tempest in a TV pot. After his winning appearances, it was discovered that he had appeared on the rival program Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, and was therefore not an “amateur” singer. He was booted from the program, but his fame was already a given, and within a few years he was hosting his own variety show The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom (and Ted Mack was never a guest).

Elvis Presley, on the other hand, was turned down for the show.



January 17, 1893: Wanna Go Back To My Little Grass Shack

Back in the eighth century, simple Polynesian voyagers in their handmade sailing vessels arrived on the islands of Hawaii, not known then as the Hawaiian Islands or even the Sandwich Islands. They led an idyllic existence – hula dancing, surfing, exchanging leis, trading banter: “Kulikuli, Ku’uipo” or “Hau‘oli Makahiki Hou” and occasionally chanting.

hawaiiFor nearly a thousand years, Hawaiians lived like this (not the same ones, but many generations), and then came the pesky European explorers and – the Americans. American traders came to Hawaii for the islands’ sandalwood, which they sold to China. Then came the sugar industry followed naturally by missionaries. They moved right in and immediately upended Hawaiian political, cultural, economic, and religious life. In 1840, the monarchy, which had given us such notables as Kamehameha and Kamehameha II and Kamehameha III, became constitutional and lost much of its grandeur.

Four years later, a man name of Sanford B. Dole was born in Honolulu to American parents.

During the next four decades, Hawaii’s ties to the United States grew closer thanks to a number of treaties, and in 1887, a U.S. naval base was established at Pearl Harbor as part of a new Hawaiian constitution. Sugar exports to the United States grew, and U.S. investors and American sugar planters broadened their dominion over Hawaiian affairs. Queen Liliuokalani, who ascended to the throne in 1891, wanted none of this and said hele along with a Hawaiian gesture involving a ukulele.

The Americans were above trading unpleasantries. Instead on January 17, 1893, a revolutionary “Committee of Safety,” organized by the aforementioned Sanford B. Dole, staged a coup against Queen Liliuokalani. The United States turned a blind eye to the Hawaiian troubles, but 300 Marines who just happened to be in the neighborhood watched from offshore.

Shortly afterward, the US annexed Hawaii and sixty years later it became the 50th state. The Dole family – well, just think pineapple.


fuchsia January 17, 1501

German botanist Leonhard Fuchs was born in 1501. He died in 1566, but not before giving his name to the shrub that remains popular today.

No, it’s not the Rose of Leonhard.



January 16, 1777: We’re Outta Here

It would appear that the state of Vermont got kicked around a lot back in Revolutionary times. After it had been governed as a part of New Hampshire for 15 years, King George III decided in 1764 that the territory should belong to New York. It didn’t take long for Vermonters (they weren’t really called that yet) to realize they didn’t want to be a part of the Empire State (it wasn’t called that yet), so in 1777 they got together and declared their independence from everybody — New York, Britain and New Hampshire.

They called their independent state New Connecticut (they had some identity problems). After a few months, they renamed the state Vermont, a bastardized translation of the French for Green Mountain. A month later, they wrote themselves a constitution, the first written in North America and the first to prohibit slavery.

Throughout the 1780s the U.S. Congress refused to recognize their independence (kind of snarky for someone having just fought a war for independence). In 1784, the governor of New York asked the U.S. Congress to declare war on Vermont, but Congress (probably sick of war) did not oblige.  Vermonters turned to the British, requesting readmittance to the empire as part of Canada. Finally, in 1791, Vermont was admitted to the new American nation as the 14th state.

There’s No Business Like Show Business

Born on January 16, 1908, Ethel Merman was the Queen of Broadway for three decades, belting out song after song in a voice described as trumpet-clean, penny whistle-piercing, Wurlitzer-wonderful.”  When she was not appearing on Broadway, Merman enjoyed a successful movie and television career.

Merman was also known for her salty language, never delivered in a whisper. Once while rehearsing for an appearance on the Loretta Young television show, she was told it would cost her a dollar each time she swore since Young disapproved of foul language. As she was fighting to get into an ill fitting gown, Merman shouted: “Oh shit, this damn thing’s too tight.” Young held out her curse box and said, “Come on Ethel, put a dollar in. You know my rules.” Merman is said to have replied: “Ah, honey, how much will it cost me to tell you to go fuck yourself?”

January 15, 1919: One If by Treacle

It was midway through the lunch hour on an unseasonably warm day inmolasses Boston, Massachusetts. Folks outside taking in the nice weather were the first to hear the loud rumbling sound and feel the ground beneath them shake as if a train were passing by. And then they were suddenly engulfed by a sweet tsunami, a 25-foot wall of molasses moving faster than molasses ought to move. The goo rolled relentlessly through the streets of Boston just like the creature in The Blob (with nary a Steve McQueen to save the day).

Some conspiracy theorists (before they were swallowed) thought it might be an invasion from outer space. But no, this was a locally spawned terror. The culprit was the Purity Distilling Company, producer of molasses used primarily as a sweetener throughout the United States but also fermented to produce rum and ethanol, and a key component in the manufacturing of munitions. The wayward molasses was stored in a large tank holding over 2 million gallons, awaiting transfer to a plant in Cambridge when the tank burst on January 15, 1919.

The result was devastating. Molasses, waist deep, covered the streets,swirling and bubbling about the wreckage of automobiles, trucks and even a passenger train. People and animals alike were trapped like flies on sticky fly-paper. Twenty-one people and several horses were killed; 150 were injured. The more they struggled, the deeper in the mess they were engulfed.

Cleaning up the gooey mess took several weeks and over 87,000 man-hours. The harbor was brown with molasses for months. Purity, despite its innocent-sounding name, was held responsible, even though the company tried to blame the whole thing on anarchists. Turns out the molasses tank leaked so badly that it was painted brown to hide the leaks.

Some local residents in the true spirit of enterprise made lemonade, collecting enough molasses to sweeten their tea for years to come.


January 15, 1870 – First depiction of Democratic Party as a donkey (by Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly)



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 13, 1404: Silver Threads and Golden Needles

On January 13, 1404, the British Parliament under the guidance of King Henry IV signed into law an act that would endear them all to millions of today’s schoolkids — the Act Against Multipliers. Oops. Turns out he wasn’t outlawing multiplication tables. Back then multipliers were what we know as alchemists.

Alchemy actually had a somewhat noble background. Alchemists sought to purify, mature and perfect certain things — an elixir of immortality here, a cure-all for disease there, perfection of the human body, perfection of the human soul. But what really got the alchemists’ juices flowing was the use of philosopher’s stone to transform base metals into “noble metals” such as gold and silver.

And that’s exactly what Henry was making illegal — the possibility of some commoner making himself very rich, causing a redistribution of wealth and income equality that would bring ruin on the state. It would be as if in the U.S. today any Tom Dick or Harry could own as large and garish hotel as a president.

Therefore “none from henceforth should use to multiply gold or silver, or use the craft of multiplication, and if any the same do, they incur the pain of felony.” Off with their heads, most likely.

Philosopher’s stone is available from Amazon.

Where’s a Henry IV When You Need Him?

On January 13, 1854, alchemist turned musical inventor Anthony Foss received a patent for his accordion, a strange device shaped like a box with a bellows that is compressed or expanded while pressing buttons or keys which cause pallets to open and air to flow across strips of brass or steel, creating something that vaguely resembles music. It is sometimes called a squeezebox. The person playing it is called an accordionist (or squeezeboxer?)

The harmonium and concertina are cousins. And, yes, there is a World Accordion Day.

M – I – C.  K – E – Y . . .

The first Mickey Mouse comic strip appeared on January 13, 1930:


January 12, 1896: I Can See Clearly Now

x-rayDr. Henry Louis Smith was a professor of physics at Davidson College in North Carolina where he was pioneering the use of X-rays in America. He planned to duplicate the work of the German physicist who discovered x-rays.  Smith made the mistake of telling his students about his plans.  On the night of January 12, 1896, three of Smith’s students bribed a janitor to let them into the medical laboratory on campus, where they played around until the wee hours, finally producing an X-Ray photograph of two .22 caliber rifle cartridges, two rings and a pin inside a pillbox,some pills, a magnifying glass and a human finger they had sliced from a cadaver with a pocketknife — a historical first in the United States.  Smith went on to create his own images and to spread the use of x-rays throughout the medical community.  The students kept their little adventure a secret until years later when they decided they would probably be forgiven for their naughtiness if they revealed their part in making history.

xrayvisionX rays have since then become an important tool in medicine, saving many lives and other such noble stuff, but what has been more important to generations of boys is the concept of x-ray vision — the ability to see what’s on the other side of a wall, in a box, or under various articles of clothing.  Most boys learned about x-ray vision from Superman, easily the most famous employer of the art  (preceded by xrayvision1another comic book hero, Olga Mesmer, although wasted to some degree, her being female).  Superman only used his powers of x-ray vision for completely innocent pursuits such as the apprehension of bad guys.  However, those bad boys who sent for the x-ray spectacles advertised in comic books are quite another story.xspecs


January 10, 49 BC: Wade in the Water

Back in 49BC, Julius Caesar was a mere governor commissioned by the Roman Senate to oversee a portion of the empire that stretched from Gaul to Illyricum (pretty much most of today’s Europe except Italy). When his term of governorship ended, the Senate ordered Caesar to disband his army and return to Rome. Whatever you do, Julie baby, don’t bring that army across the Rubicon River for that is treason and insurrection and very bad manners. Oh, and the punishment is death.

Caesar may have misunderstood for didn’t he just up and cross the Rubicon into Italy on January 10. His biographer suggests that he was under the control of a supernatural apparition (the Devil made him do it). Willful or not, Caesar is said to have shouted “alia iacta est” as he and his merry men waded across the shallow river (or ‘the die has been cast,” certainly more dramatic in Latin).

Crossing the Rubicon was a declaration of war, but instead of arresting Caesar the Roman Senate fled Rome in fear. Caesar, far from being condemned to death, became dictator for life. Sometimes it’s good to cross the Rubicon. Crossing the Rubicon has endured as a phrase meaning passing a point of no return.

The Hole in My Record Is Bigger Than the Hole in Your Record

RCA Victor it might be said crossed the Rubicon when on January 10, 1949, it introduced a new kind of record — a vinyl disc, just seven inches in diameter with a great big hole in the middle, the 45 (referring to its revolutions per minute). The 45 replaced the big noisy shellac disc that rotated at a breakneck 78 rpm. The first 45 rpm single was “Peewee the Piccolo.” Remember it?