February 13, 1937: No Prince Valentine, This One

Hal Foster had been drawing the Tarzan comic strip based on the books by Edgar Rice Burroughs for several years, but itched to create his own original strip. He began work on a feature called Derek, Son of Thane, set in Arthurian England. Before the strip had its coming out party on February 13, 1937, it had gone through a couple of name changes, first to Prince Arn and eventually to Prince Valiant.

Prince Valiant was five years old when his story began, a continuous story that has been told through 4,000 Sunday episodes. Without a whole lot of deference to historical accuracy, Val’s adventure’s take him throughout Europe, Africa, the Far East and even the Americas in a time frame covering hundreds of years. He does battle with Huns, Vikings, Sorcerers, witches and a slew of monsters from prehistoric to modern, but always big.

Foster drew the strip until 1971 and wrote the continuity until 1980. Since then, other artists have kept it alive. Foster died in 1982, at age 89.

Thaw Out the Holly

With the giving and getting of gifts growing to a crescendo in late valentines-day3December, it is to many a glass of cold water in the face when the merriment suddenly gives way to a bleak long winter with scarcely a box or a bow in sight. The people of Norwich, a city on England’s east coast, a couple of centuries ago found a way to keep on giving by elevating February 13, St. Valentine’s Eve to a Christmas-like celebration.

According to an 1862 account, this Victorian tradition was evidently peculiar to Norwich: visitors to the city were often puzzled to find the shop windows crammed with gifts in early February and newspapers full of advertisements for ‘Useful and Ornamental Articles Suitable for the Season’ available from local retailers.

As soon as it got dark on St. Valentine’s Eve, the streets were swarming with folks carrying baskets of treasures to be anonymously dropped on doorsteps throughout the city. They’d deposit a gift, bang on the door, and rush away before anyone inside could reach the door. Indoors there were excited shrieks and shouts, flushed faces, sparkling eyes and laughter, a rush to the door, examination of the parcels.

Practical jokers  were everywhere as well, ringing doorbells and running off, leaving mock parcels that were pulled away by string when someone attempted to pick them up. Large parcels that dwindled to nothing as the recipient fought through layer after layer of wrapping, and even larger parcels containing live boys who would jump out, steal a kiss, and run away.

As with most holidays that involve children out after dark and mischief, the celebration of St. Valentine’s Eve fell out of favor, to be replaced by the Hallmark-inspired and saintless Valentine’s Day.

February 13, 1971

Golf is thought of as relatively safe sport.  But for the safety of others, there are just some people who should not be allowed on a golf course.  Vice President Spiro Agnew had the dubious distinction of beaning not just one but three spectators on this day during the Bob Hope Desert Classic.  On his very first drive, he sliced into the crowd for a two-bagger, bouncing off a man to nail his wife as well.  On his next shot, he hit a woman, sending her to the hospital.  The previous year, Agnew had managed to hit his partner in the back of the head.




January 31, 1990: Next Day on Your Dressing Room They’ve Hung a Tsar

mcdonalds-russiaContinuing 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.


coconut woman Harriet Forrester was no fool. For one thing, she gave no heed to Everett Limpole’s bodeful warning that this stretch of beach would be completely underwater within five years – four-and-one-half feet below sea level in 1,856 days, to be exact – a prediction he reiterated after each session of poring over a loft full of books and charts, in a loft owned by Harriet for which Everett promptly paid the first of every month. Harriet Forrester was no fool.

Nor did she pay much attention to Malachi Thorpe, an Everett Limpole cohort, who had his own set of books and charts, with maps as well, but an entirely different hobbyhorse – namely, that the pirate Henri Caesar had plundered these parts and that some of his treasure lay buried and still undiscovered, possibly on this very beach. Malachi also accepted the Everett Limpole rising ocean scenario, thereby giving a certain sense of urgency to his treasure hunt. Harriet Forrester did not share either his belief in pirate treasure or his urgency. She was no fool.

Harriet did, however, have her own hobbyhorse, the Coconut House – her bed and breakfast inn, her first love, her world. It sat right on one of the prettiest beaches on the entire island against a backdrop of sea grapes and frangipani. It had, in addition to the Limpole loft, which brought in just ninety dollars a month (but steady, month in, month out), three small suites that fetched ninety dollars a night, albeit more sporadically.

Harriet’s rental units had become microcosms of her own ideas, travels and interests. The Casablanca Suite revolved around its ceiling fan. Persian and Oriental rugs were scattered over a tile floor and, in some places, up the walls; fifty-four strings of bright beads served as the bathroom door; a jeweled music box played a tinny version of As Time Goes By; and portraits of Bogart, Bergman, Greenstreet, and Lorre were simply framed and grouped on one wall, looking very much like members of the family. The New Orleans Suite was all that jazz, from a 1980’s stereo flanked by a vinyl who’s who of the Dixieland world to the trumpets, trombones and banjos Harriet had rescued from pawnshops and second-hand stores. And the Coconut Suite looked as though the Marx brothers had washed up during high tide.

Despite detailed literature warning what one would encounter at the Coconut House, guests would often arrive only to refuse to stay in any one of the three rooms. It didn’t bother Harriet any. It was her place, and if folks didn’t like it, they weren’t her kind of folks anyway. And those that did stay loved it, and they came back, and they told friends who came and told other friends, and Harriet kept pretty busy.

Harriet would frequently sit with her guests on the big front porch that faced the beach. There they could talk while waves tumbled in, pelicans cruised in perfect formation inches above the water, and sandpipers darted here and there like tiny wind-up toys. Everett Limpole would more than likely join them, and Malachi often did as well.   continued

Coconut Woman is one of 15 (count ’em) stories featured in Calypso: Stories of the Caribbean. Every story at least 78 degrees Fahrenheit.  Warm up at  Amazon  or Barnes and Noble.  Or order it through you favorite book store.



January 23, 1957: Tossing Around a Pluto Platter

Fred Morrison and his future wife Lucille were fooling around on a California beach back in 1938 when Fred had a light bulb over your head eureka moment. The pair were tossing a cake pan back and forth when a bored bystander offered them a quarter for the cake pan. Fred started doing the math — it was pretty simple math — I sell a five-cent cake pan for a quarter and I get to hang out on the beach.

The Morrisons jumped right into their flying cake pan business, but before long a nasty war got in their way, including a stretch for Fred as a prisoner of war. It was the late 40s before he got back into the flying cake pan business. Cake pan prices had gone up but plastic was in, and so, in 1948, Morrison and a partner introduced a plastic disc they called “flyin saucer”to take advantage of the UFO craze.

Morrison designed a new model in 1955 called the “pluto platter,” and on January 23, 1957, he sold the rights to Wham-O. Later that year Wham-O added the name Frisbee. And eventually, the name pluto platter was put out of its misery.


Nothing in Moderation

He got his first job in television by showing up for an audition wearing apercydovetonsils barrel and shorts. From there his career took off during a ten-year period that carried him from obscurity to stardom, the ride getting steadily wilder and crazier. Although someone else held the title Mr. Television, Ernie Kovacs, born on January 23, 1919, certainly left his imprint on the medium.

Often referred to as television’s surrealist, the cigar-smoking, poker-playing Hungarian-American comedian could be counted on for the unusual if not the bizarre in any of his many television outings, including It’s Time for Ernie, his first network series; Ernie in Kovacsland; and The Ernie Kovacs Show, featuring characters such as poet Percy Dovetonsils, bumbling magician Matzoh Heppelwhite, Frenchman Pierre Ragout, and the Nairobi Trio. He also hosted the Tonight Show twice a week and had a short stint as a celebrity panelist on What’s My Line?, where he strove more for humor than insight. (When Henry J. Kaiser, the founder of the automobile company, was the program’s mystery guest, and the panel had established that the mystery guest’s name was synonymous with an automobile brand, Kovacs asked, “Are you – and this is just a wild guess – but are you Abraham Lincoln?”

Kovacs was at the peak of his career when he was killed in a late-night automobile accident on his way home from one of the many parties that had become part of his life in California. The inscription on his tombstone reads “Ernie Kovacs 1919 – 1962 — Nothing In Moderation.”

January 5, 2018: It’s My Bean, It’s My Bean

January 5 marks the last of the 12 days of Christmas, also collectively known as Christmastide, although some folks would have January 5 the 11th day of Christmas with January 6 being the 12th day of Christmas, their having started counting on the day after Christmas rather than Christmas Day. For these folks, Twelfth Day comes after Twelfth Night, which one would think might be rather confusing. The confusion is easily mastered for Twelfth Night is celebrated with a prodigious amount of drinking.

Once everyone is pleasantly plastered, they all head out into the fields where they toast oxen and trees and rocks until they get cold and decide to go back inside only to find that they’ve been locked out and will not be admitted until they sing a few songs. Those that don’t sing freeze to death. Everybody else goes back inside where they divide up a cake that someone has baked a bean into. Whoever gets the bean gets to be King or Queen of the Bean and boss everyone around until everyone passes out.

And the twelve drummers finally stop drumming.

An Ode to Snow

Warning – the following is quite lyrical.

O glorious snow surrounding me with immense drifty mounds!  What do thy mounds conceal?  How many cocker spaniels, small children, miniCoopers have you swallowed, not to be seen again until May.  I am quite conscious of those mounds surrounding me, looming, as I go to fetch the mail, keeping close to the shoveled path lest I too be lost in the mounds ‘til May.  But the path is icy (for that’s what winter is about – snow and ice, ice and snow) and my feet, which have been more accustomed to soft earth, grassy carpeting, fly out from neath me. I fall to the cruel ice.  And here I am in a place from which I never thought I’d be needing to shout:  “Help me.  I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.”  But I’m not going to shout, for it seems my mouth is frozen to the icy path.  O glorious ice!  Ice that holds me close to its vast but damn cold bosom.  I wait, hoping that someone will come along – a girl scout  peddling cookies, a hot dog vendor, or the UPS man delivering a package of lip warmers.  Or have they too been swallowed by the shifting, whispering mounds of snow?  I tell myself it could be worse; I could be in Chicago.  It doesn’t help.  Now my life flashes before me, especially the part where I’m on a beach in the Caribbean.   But what’s this?  My face is stuck in the sand.  Children frolic nearby, pointing and laughing.  “Hey, mon, why’s your face in the sand?”  Tanned beauties stroll by at a safe distance whispering about senility and too many pina coladas.    A sand crab sidles up and pinches my nose, and I’m suddenly back in frozen Vermont.  But help seems to be at hand.

Two Jehovah’s Witnesses approach.   They look down at me and ask,  “Are you ready to be saved?”  “Doesn’t it look like I’m ready to be saved?” I shout, but no words come out.   They chip me free from the ice with their Watchtowers.  I thank them, accept an armload of their publications, and they ask me if I’m ready for the end of the world.  You betcha.

January 4, 2018: Come Down, Come Down from Your Ivory Tower

If you’ve been keeping track of the Christmas season, you’ll be fully aware that January 4 is the eleventh day of Christmas, kind of an also-ran as far as days of Christmas go, although eleven pipers piping does make a rather dramatic gift from your true love (especially this year as frozen pipes are busting out all over).

In addition to celebrating plumbers, the eleventh day celebrates a saint, as each of the twelve days does. Day eleven is dedicated by those folks who dedicate such things to Saint Simeon Stylites also known as Saint Simeon Stylites the Elder to distinguish him from Simeon Stylites the Younger. He is known primarily for spending 37 years on a platform atop a pillar outside of Aleppo in what is now Syria (one could make a pretty good case that in Syria on top of a pillar might be a good place to be).

Why did Simeon choose to live up there like an Arabian Rapunzel, you ask? Simeon was very likely a wise man or at least people thought he was, because they kept coming to him for advice. Many folks would be honored to be sought out for guidance. Not Simeon. Seekers annoyed him. He wanted to be left alone to pray his private prayers and possibly entertain other thoughts as well.

So he went out and found a pillar. His first pillar was a mere nine feet tall and he soon realized that people could easily shout their entreaties to him. He thus began a series of relocations, each pillar being taller than its predecessor. His final pillar was really up there, some 50 feet above the ground and its many pests.

Sort of gets you back in the Christmas spirit, doesn’t it?

Party Hearty

If the twelve days of Christmas are not exciting enough for your celebratory desires, party1 January is pregnant with potential excuses for partying, no matter how far one has to push the envelope.

Already we’ve had, in addition to New Year’s, national days devoted to both hangovers and Bloody Marys. You no doubt caught sight of the festivities as hordes of devotees took part in National Fruitcake Toss Day or sat on the sidelines during National Humiliation Day. Perhaps you were one of the three giddy participants in National Mew Year for Cats Day. And will you observe the dining protocols today as pasta lovers birdseverywhere pig out on National Spaghetti Day. Those of us who prefer cheeper pursuits, can flock together on National Bird Day, January 5. And National Feed a Bird Spaghetti Day is surely waiting in the wings, possibly coming to a January 6 near you.

If you think that most of these holidays created by people with little else to do are a tad trivial, you’re in luck. Today just happens to be National Trivia Day. Get out the pretzels and beer, the party hats and noisemakers, and contribute a nugget of trivia (one person’s trivia is another person’s essential information, you know).


If, at the close of business each evening, I myself can understand what I’ve written, I feel the day hasn’t been totally wasted. ~ S. J. Perelman



December 23, 2009: Kids Say the Darnedest Things

Reality television reached new heights in October of 2009, as viewers around the world were tethered to their sets by the saga of the “Balloon Boy.” It started shortly before noon when Richard Heene, a Fort Collins, Colorado, handyman, dabbling scientist and father of three boys, called the Federal Aviation Administration to report that a large balloon that had been tied in his family’s backyard  had gotten loose and taken flight. Heene was certain his six-year-old son Falcon had crawled aboard the craft before its takeoff. Heene also phoned a local TV station, requesting a helicopter to track the balloon, and his wife Mayumi called 911.

The homemade dirigible was soon being pursued by two Colorado National Guard helicopters and by search-and-rescue personnel, as well as reporters, on the ground. A runway at Denver International Airport was shut down as the balloon traveled into its flight path. The runaway blimp finally touched down in a Colorado field after a joyride of some 50 miles. Rescue officials quickly discovered the balloon was empty, prompting fears that poor little Falcon Heene had plummeted from on high during the flight. A ground search was initiated. But later that afternoon, Richard Heene made an oops! statement that the boy had been found safe at home, where he supposedly had been hiding.

Conspiracy theorists came out of the woodwork all afternoon and into the evening, voicing their suspicions that the entire incident had hoax written all over it. Then dear little blabbermouth Falcon Heene told his parents during a live interview on CNN: “You guys said we did this for the show.”

In November, Richard Heene pleaded guilty to a felony charge of attempting to influence a public official to initiate a search-and-rescue mission which in turn would attract media attention, frowned on in Colorado; Mayumi Heene pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of making a false report. Falcon Heene pleaded guilty to being a sniveling six-year-old dupe (permissible under Colorado law). They confessed that they staged the incident in an attempt to get their own reality TV show, having gotten the entertainment bug when previously appearing on a program, called “Wife Swap.”

On December 23, 2009, the Heenes were sentenced to perform community service not involving flying objects, and ordered to pay $36,000 in restitution for the search effort. Falcon, it is rumored, will have his own reality TV show, “Throw In Your Parents.”



December 4, 1872: Took a Trip on a Sailing Ship

Was the Mary Celeste a cursed ship? Three owners of the brigantine built in Nova Scotia in 1861 didn’t fare so well; they all died during voyages. The ship also suffered a damaging fire and a collision in the English Channel. But it was the voyage from New York harbor headed for Genoa, Italy in November 1872 that is the stuff of legends.

On December 4, 1872, the Dei Gratia, a small British brig spotted the Mary Celeste, sailing marycerratically but at full sail near the Azores Islands in the Atlantic Ocean. The captain and crew of the Dei Gratia boarded the ship. The ship was seaworthy although its sails were slightly damaged and there was some water in the hold. Its cargo of 1,700 barrels of crude alcohol was mostly untouched.  Six months’ worth of food and water remained on board, and the crew’s personal belongings were still in place, including valuables. But the ten persons who had been aboard the Mary Celeste had vanished.

The Mary Celeste had sailed into nautical history as one of its most tantalizing mysteries, a classic ghost ship.

Through the years, a dearth of hard facts has created endless speculation and a host of theories as to what might have taken place. Mutiny? Piracy? Killer waterspouts? Just a few of the least bizarre explanations. In an 1884 short story, Arthur Conan Doyle suggested a capture by a vengeful ex-slave. A 1935 movie featured the irrepressible Bela Lugosi as a homicidal sailor killing off the other passengers.


The more logical speculators agree that for unknown reasons, the ten passengers (the captain, his wife and daughter, and seven crew members) abandoned the ship in the ship’s lifeboat (which was missing) and disappeared at sea. Hardcore conspiracy theorists are having none of that; they’re sticking with the Bermuda Triangle, sea monsters, and the ever-popular alien abductions.

The Mary Celeste, lived to sail another day, but presumably the curse remained. Her last owner intentionally wrecked her off the coast of Haiti in 1885 in an unsuccessful attempt at insurance fraud.


I have no truck with lettuce, cabbage, and similar chlorophyll. Any dietitian will tell you that a running foot of apple strudel contains four times the vitamins of a bushel of beans. ~ S. J. Perelman




November 28, 1922: Ghost Writers in the Sky

It didn’t take long after the advent of flying for crafty marketing types to come up with a way to use it for advertising.   Skywriting was the way showing the most promise: a small airplane spits out magic smoke during a flight, creating text able to be read by someone on the ground.sky Messages naturally run the gamut from the inane to the weighty. Advertisers had a field day.

The first use of skywriting for advertising came on November 28, 1922, when Captain Cyril Turner of the Royal Air Force flew over New York City, spelling out, “Hello USA. Call Vanderbilt 7200.” Within just a few hours, 47,000 people had done just that. And of course operators were standing by at sky1Vanderbilt 7200 to take their orders although no one had any idea what was being sold.

Pepsi-Cola became the first major brand to use skywriting as a medium to reach a mass market with thousands of flights through the 1930s into the mid-1940s. During the following years, skywriting became more sophisticated with the use of coordinated flights by fleets of planes that could deliver longer and more clearly written text messages.

At one point, rumor has it, an ambitious skywriter produced Pride and Prejudice in its entirety, but most observers fell asleep during the first three paragraphs.

November 23, 1889: Put Another Nickel In

The scene is the Palais Royale Saloon in San Francisco, November 23, 1889. Entrepreneur Louis Glass has installed a machine destined to become an overnight sensation, and find a permanent spot in the psyche of the nation, even the world. He called his device the “nickel-in-the-slot player” a name that would certainly need a bit of massaging in the future.

What it played was music. Inside a handsome oak cabinet was an electric phonograph.  Four stethoscope-like tubes were attached to it, each operating individually after being activated by the insertion of a coin. Four different listeners could be plugged into the same song at the same time! In a nod to sanitation, towels were supplied to patrons so they could wipe off the end of the tube after each listening.

The success of the “nickel-in-the-slot player” eventually spelled the demise of the player piano, then the most common way of providing popular music to saloon patrons, notorious for their love of music.

Most machines were capable of holding only one musical selection, the automation coming from the ability to play that one selection at will. Obviously, after each patron had listened to that one song several times, the novelty wore off and the player went idle. In 1918, another entrepreneur solved that problem with an apparatus that automatically changed records. Ten years later, enter Justus P. Seeburg, who combined an electrostatic loudspeaker with a coin-operated record player that gave the listener a choice of eight records.

This machine was pretty cumbersome: it had eight separate turntables mounted on a rotating Ferris wheel-like device, allowing patrons to select from eight different records. Later versions included Seeburg’s Selectophone, with 10 turntables mounted vertically on a spindle. By maneuvering the tone arm up and down, the customer could select from 10 different records.

There was still no decent name for these devices. That came in the 1940s, when person or persons unknown dubbed it a jukebox, a reference to juke house, slang for a bawdy house, a favorite location for the devices. All that remained necessary in the evolution of the jukebox was the addition of a healthy helping of rock and roll.


November 6, 1982: Antifreeze and Old Lace

In Arsenic and Old Lace, a delightfully dark stage play adapted into a movie by Frank Capra, Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) has an eccentric family that includes two brothers – one of whom thinks he’s Theodore Roosevelt digging the Panama Canal in the basement, the other a killer who’s had plastic surgery to make him look like Boris Karloff – and two spinster aunts who have taken to murdering lonely old men by poisoning them with home-made elderberry wine laced with arsenic, strychnine, and “just a pinch” of cyanide. Generally, poisoners aren’t as sweet as these two old ladies.

Take the case of Shirley Allen, arrested on November 6, 1982, charged with murdering her sixth husband Lloyd. Shirley certainly wasn’t as sweet as the two old ladies, nor nearly as successful. Her first attempt at poisoning was believed to be an early husband, Joe Sinclair, back in 1968. When his coffee began to taste odd, he didn’t buy the idea that it was the newest flavor of the month, reasoning that Juan Valdez Free Trade Almond Praline Decaf should not give him internal injuries.  Joe went to the police, but no charges were filed. He filed for divorce, however.

Another husband, John Gregg, was not so lucky. He died a year after he married Shirley. He must have sensed that something was amiss because he changed the beneficiary of his insurance policy shortly before he died. Shirley got nothing. As you might guess, she was miffed. A pink-haired, large-bosomed barfly was rather happy, however.

Lloyd Allen was Shirley’s sixth husband. He began to complain of a strange taste in his beer. When Shirley said that it was an iron supplement that would put a tiger in his tank, Lloyd believed her and promptly died. This time she was named as beneficiary of a $25,000 life insurance, but alas her daughter told police about the doctored beers. Toxicology reports confirmed that Lloyd’s body tissue contained a lethal amount of ethyl glycol – antifreeze. Shirley went to prison for life. She was never allowed to work in the prison cafeteria.