OCTOBER 31, LONG AGO: THE DEVIL MADE HIM DO IT

THE DEVIL MADE HIM DO IT

One might assume that the carving of jack-o’-lanterns was a clever promotion by the Association of Pumpkin Growers because there just weren’t enough pumpkin pies being eaten in this world. But as it turns out, folks have been making jack-o’-lanterns at Halloween for centuries. And that there’s a proper legend to explain the practice.

It all started with an Irish fellow called Stingy Jack. In addition to being cheap, Jack was a drunkard and a ne’er-do-well. During one of Jack’s benders, the Devil came calling on him with every intention of claiming his miserable soul. As a last request, Jack asked the Devil to have a  drink with him. (It’s a relief to learn the Devil drinks; Hell might not be so bad after all.)

Naturally, Stingy Jack being Stingy Jack had no intention of paying for the drinks, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use to buy their drinks, and the Devil agreed. (It would appear that the Devil is not the brightest candle in Hell.) Once the Devil had changed himself into a coin, Jack stuffed him into his pocket next to a crucifix, which prevented the Devil from changing back into his original form. Jack, now having all the chips in this game, agreed to free the Devil, on the condition that he would not bother Jack for ten years and that, should Jack die during this time, he would not claim his soul. (Jack wasn’t all that shrewd either.)

Drunkenness tends to make time fly, and before Jack knew it, ten years had passed.   And the Devil, ever prompt, came calling for Jack’s soul once again. And no last drink this time, the Devil said. Then perhaps just one small apple before I go, Jack begged. The Devil acquiesced. Jack lamented that he was in no condition to climb the apple tree, and would the Devil be so kind as to fetch the apple for him? (The Devil is a lot like Charlie Brown and his football. You’d think, being the Evil One, he wouldn’t be so trusting.) So the Devil climbed the tree, and while he was up in the tree, Jack carved a sign of the cross into the tree’s bark. To earn his release this time, the Devil agreed never to take Jack’s soul.

Wouldn’t you know, little time passed before Jack turned up his toes. Jack’s soul foolishly made it’s way toward Heaven where everyone had a good laugh before telling him to get lost. Then Jack journeyed to the Gates of Hell where the Devil, finally wise to Jack’s tricks,  also sent him packing —  to roam the world between good and evil, with only a burning ember inside a hollowed out turnip to light his way.  Jack of the Lantern. Obviously, the Association of Turnip Growers botched this one. Had they been on their toes, we’d all be celebrating Halloween with carved-out rutabagas.

 

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OCTOBER 30, 1938: JUST ME AND MY RADIO

JUST ME AND MY RADIO

It’s easy from the comfort of our 21st century recliners to dismiss the mass hysteria of an earlier generation as so many Chicken Littles or Turkey Lurkeys, afraid of their own shadows. We’ve seen it all, any horror one can imagine, right there on the screen in front of us, and should it become too squirmy, well we can always just hit a button. The remote is there to protect us.

But what if you were at home, alone perhaps, on that October night back in 1938. It’s dark out; Halloween and all its spookiness is just a day away. But there’s the radio to keep you company. Like millions of other Americans, you’ll tune in to Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. That should lighten up a dark night. They finish their comedy routine at ten after eight. A singer you’ve never heard of follows so, like millions of Americans, you surf the radio stations (Wasn’t there supposed to be a dramatic program on?) pausing to hear an unenthusiastic announcer: “. . . the Meridian Room in the Hotel Park Plaza in downtown New York, where you will be entertained by the music of Ramon Raquello and his orchestra.” You listen for a minute; it’s not that great. You’re all set to surf again when the announcer interrupts, reporting that a Professor Farrell of the Mount Jenning Observatory has detected explosions on the planet Mars. The music returns, but only for a minute. The announcer is back with the news that a large meteor has crashed into a farmer’s field in Grovers Mills, New Jersey.

Now your ears are glued to the radio, as announcement after announcement confirms the impossible – a Martian invasion. “Good heavens, something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. Now here’s another and another one and another one. They look like tentacles to me … I can see the thing’s body now. It’s large, large as a bear. It glistens like wet leather. But that face, it… it … ladies and gentlemen, it’s indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it, it’s so awful. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is kind of V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate.”

Now’s the time to surf the radio. If you do, you’ll quickly realize that everything is normal on other radio stations, that you’ve been listening to a realistic but fictional radio drama. But if you don’t, chances are you’ll join the thousands of people jamming highways, trying to flee the alien invasion.

Orson Welles was just 23 years old when his Mercury Theater company broadcast its update of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds with no idea of the uproar it would cause. He employed sophisticated sound effects and top notch acting to make the story believable.

And believed it was. In Indianapolis, a woman ran into a church where evening services were being held, yelling: “New York has been destroyed! It’s the end of the world! Go home and prepare to die!”

When the actors got wind of the panic, Welles went on the air as himself to remind listeners that it was just fiction. Afterward, he feared that the incident would ruin his career, but three years later he was in Hollywood working on Citizen Kane.

OCTOBER 24, 1901: WE’LL HAVE A BARREL OF FUN

WE’LL HAVE A BARREL OF FUN

Annie Edson Taylor was born on, October 24, 1838, in Auburn, New York. One of eight children, she led a typical if uneventful life. She became a schoolteacher, married, became widowed, spent her working years in a variety of jobs and locales from Bay City, Michigan to Mexico City.

The century turned, and she found herself in her early 60s with a less than secure financial future. How she reached the decision that would make the next stage of her life far from typical is anyone’s guess. But by 1901, she had become determined to be the first person to ride over Niagara Falls in a barrel.

barrelTaylor had a barrel custom made for her trip; it was fashioned out of oak and iron, and padded with a mattress. There was a curious lack of enthusiasm for her project among other folks – no one wanted to take part in what they viewed as certain suicide. The domestic cat that became her assistant probably shared those concerns, but lacked the means to express its doubts. So two days before the day designated for Taylor’s own attempt, kitty went over Horseshoe Falls to test the barrel’s strength. Kitty lived through the ordeal and posed with Taylor in photographs to prove it, though she wasn’t purring.

On October 24, 1901, Taylor’s 63rd birthday, the barrel was put over the side of a rowboat, and Taylor climbed in, taking with her a lucky pillow. The lid of the barrel was secured, and Taylor was set adrift, bobbing along near the American shoreline. The cooperative Niagara River carried the barrel and its passenger toward the Canadian Horseshoe Falls, and over she went.

Rescuers reached her barrel shortly after the plunge. Taylor emerged from the barrel, bruised but alive, although she wasn’t purring. The trip had taken a mere twenty minutes.  After the journey, Annie Taylor told the press: “I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces than make another trip over the Fall.”

Although she earned money from speaking engagements, she was never able to accumulate much wealth.  And to add insult, her manager made off with her barrel. She spent her final years posing for photographs with tourists, planning another plunge, dabbling with a novel, attempting to reconstruct her 1901 plunge on film, and working as a clairvoyant.

Annie Taylor died on April 29, 1921, at the age of 82.

 

Niagara Falls is very nice. I’m very glad I saw it, because from now on if I am asked whether I have seen Niagara Falls I can say yes, and be telling the truth for once. ~ John Steinbeck

OCTOBER 11, 1983: DON’T YANK THE CRANK

DON’T YANK THE CRANK

No, the title doesn’t refer to the Trump Administration. It refers to a movement that took place in Maine back in 1981. Movement is probably a pretty strong word for laid-back Maine where crankdemonstrators tend not to get worked up into a chanting frenzy over things. And even less so in a sleepy little town like Woodstock whose population squeaked by 1,200 a couple of years ago.

Bryant Pond is Woodstock’s largest settlement and as much of an urban center as you’re likely to find. It captured its fifteen minutes of national fame and media attention during the mid1970s when its family-owned Bryant Pond Telephone Company became the last telephone exchange in the United States to use hand-cranked phones. Then in 1981, the two-position magneto switchboard in the living room of the owners was purchased by the Oxford County Telephone & Telegraph Company, a larger company in the Maine neighborhood. The Bryant Pond Telephone Company was swallowed like so many krill off the shores of Maine.

Two Bryant Pond residents started the “Don’t Yank The Crank” movement to save their crank telephones, financed by the sale of tee shirts – a valiant effort but nonetheless futile. At a meeting in the local school gymnasium warmed by a wood stove, townsfolk spoke out. “We have the oldest pay station in the United States,” said one resident, either complaining or bragging. “You put in a nickel and wind it up.” “You are a person instead of a number.” And did they mention no robocalls?

Alas, to no avail. The last “crank calls” took place on October 11, 1983, and the beloved telephones slipped into history like so much Americana.

 

Cheap Halloween Thrills

Our list of 31 films features three silents. In the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), an insane hypnotist uses a somnambulist to commit a series of murders. This German Expressionist film had a profound influence on American horror films. Phantom of the Opera is the 1925 classic starring the amazing Lon Chaney as a badly disfigured recluse who lives in the catacombs beneath the Paris opera house. It inspired several remakes and the hit musical. Nosferatu (1929) was the first film portrayal of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (the name was changed to avoid a legal battle with the Stoker estate) and he’s a tormented soul, a far cry from the suave and sophisticated Count in the many films that followed.

The three previous films are the oldest on the list. Get Out is the most recent. Released in 2017, this much acclaimed film tells the story of a black man who discovers a terrifying secret during a visit with his white girlfriend’s family.

1 The Shining

2 The Exorcist

3 Beetlejuice

4 Invasion of the Body Snatchers

5 Ghost Story

6 Ghostbusters

7 Freaks

8 Ichabod and Mr. Toad

9 Hound of the Baskervilles

10 I Walked with a Zombie

11 Diabolique

12 Alien

13 Rosemarys Baby

14The Birds

15 Psycho

16 Phantom of the Opera

17 Nosferatu

18 Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

19 Get Out

 

OCTOBER 5, 1983: BURPING IN POLITE COMPANY

Cheap Halloween Thrills

In 1984, Ghostbusters was the most expensive comedy ever filmed. Wildly successful, it paid for itself and then some. Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd, and Harold Ramis are the titular paranormal investigators/exterminators. They have their hands full: An ancient Babylonian demon (channeling himself through Sigiourney Weaver) has unleashed an entire army of nasty spirits on New York City.  It’s a wild, over-the-top comedy, ranked number 28 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 best.

1 The Shining

2 The Exorcist

3 Beetlejuice

4 Invasion of the Body Snatchers

5 Ghost Story

6 Ghostbusters

BURPING IN POLITE COMPANY

Noted American businessman and inventor, Earl Silas Tupper died on October 5, 1983. He was buried in a 100-gallon Tupperware container whose lid was “burped”to get an airtight seal before being lowered into the ground. Thousands paid their respect at a memorial Tupperware Party held earlier.

For indeed this was the man who invented and gave his name to Tupperware, a line of plastic containers in an almost infinite array of shapes and sizes that changed the way Americans stored their food. Tupper invented the plasticware back in the late 30s, but it didn’t really start worming its way into every household until the 50s when Tupper introduced his ingenious and infamous marketing strategy, the Tupperware Party. This clever gambit gave women the opportunity to earn an income without leaving their homes and to simultaneously annoy their friends and relatives.

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Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

The rock musical Hair has played pretty much continuously since its Broadway debut at the Biltmore Theatre in the late 60s, its mix of sex, drugs and rock and roll more or less guaranteeing hairan avid following. It’s been translated into many languages and produced throughout the world. But back on October 5, 1967, it looked a lot like a colossal failure.

After rejections by producer after producer, the musical was accepted by Joseph Papp, who ran the New York Shakespeare Festival, to open the new Public Theater in New York City’s East Village for a six-week engagement.

Hair depicts a group of hippies living the bohemian life in New York City, rebelling against the Vietnam War, conservative parents and other societal ills while diving into the sexual revolution and the drug culture. Its protagonist Claude must decide whether to resist the draft or give in to conservative pressures and risk his principles (and his life) by serving in Vietnam.

Production did not go well. Perhaps the theater staff was too close to conservative America; the material seemed incomprehensible, rehearsals were chaotic, casting confusing. The director quit during the final week of rehearsals and the choreographer took charge. The final dress rehearsal was a disaster.

But the show did go on. Critics were not particularly kind, but it found an audience. During the six-week engagement, a man from Chicago was attracted to the show by its poster with a picture of five American Indians on it. He thought Hair was all about Native Americans, a favorite subject of his. He was surprised to discover it was actually about hippies, but he nevertheless liked it so much that, he bankrolled its move to a discotheque in midtown Manhattan. The show had to start at 7:30 pm instead of the normal curtain time of 8:30 and play without intermission so dancing could begin at 10 pm. But Hair was getting closer to Broadway.

In 1968, the play’s creators reworked it into the musical that everyone knows, adding additional songs, the infamous nude scene, and an upbeat ending — it was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

 

AUGUST 28, 1963: I HAVE A DREAM

I HAVE A DREAM

In Washington DC, on  August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to a crowd stretching from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument.

“Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back King_Jr_Martin_Luther_093.jpgto Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.”

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’ I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.”

“When we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'”

 

Part of that is when they try and demean me unfairly, because we had a massive crowd of people. We had a crowd… I looked over that sea of people, and I said to myself, ‘wow’, and I’ve seen crowds before. Big, big crowds. That was some crowd. — Donald Trump

AUGUST 23, 1618: THIS LITTLE PIG HAD ROAST BEEF

THIS LITTLE PIG HAD ROAST BEEF

There is no dearth of stories in the realm of pig-faced lady literature; a 17th century Dutch account typifies the genre. This particular pig-faced lady was born at Wirkham on the Rhine in 1618. Her name was Tanakin Skinker. Miss Skinker was a near perfectly formed little girl – one might say beautifully constructed – except that her face (some say her entire head) was that of a swine. She was a dead ringer for a pig.

     The child grew to be a woman and a source of great discomfort to her parents, for although her disposition and carriage were in general unoffending, her table manners fell a bit short of those desirous in a lady. Her voracious and indelicate appetite was appeased by placing large amounts of food in a silver trough to which she would vigorously apply her entire face, accompanied by grunts, snorts and squeals. The maid who served her had to be paid handsomely for enduring this and risking her limbs to the wildly snapping jaws.

     A fortune awaited the man who would consent to marry Miss Skinker, and many suitors came calling, gallants from Italy, France, Scotland, and England – fortune hunters all, naturally – but ultimately they all refused to marry her. Were there no pig-faced men in the world?  Or even a dog-faced boy?  Apparently not, at least not one who saw himself as such.

In this particular account, our pig-faced lady was sadly left to die an old maid (or sow, if you prefer). Other accounts have happier, if less likely, conclusions. The woman’s pig-like appearance was the result of witchcraft.  A husband was found, and he was granted the choice of having her appear beautiful to him but pig-like to others, or pig-like to him and beautiful to others. When the husband told her that the choice was hers, the enchantment was broken and her pig-like appearance vanished. And in some modern accounts, the pig-faced lady is abducted by aliens.

 

AUGUST 3, 1946: THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS

THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS

Louis J. Koch, an Indiana family man and father of nine children, was disappointed when a family trip took him to Santa Claus, Indiana, and he found no Santa Claus, no elves, no reindeer, no workshop –  Indiananothing. Why they named the place Santa Claus was a bit of a mystery.  And he fixated upon the town named Santa Claus that had no Santa Claus, and upon the many (thousands?) of children who would suffer the same disappointment. Lying in bed at night perhaps (or working on a third martini), he envisioned a park where children could have fun and visit Santa all year round.

     And he did something about it.  Santa Claus Land opened on August 3, 1946. At no cost, children could visit Santa, a toy shop, toy displays, a restaurant, and themed children’s rides, such as The Freedom Train. Though skeptical, Koch’s son Bill took over as head of Santa Claus Land and continued to add to the park, including the first Jeep-Go-Round ever manufactured, a new restaurant, and a deer farm.

     And it continued to grow, evolving into a huge theme park divided into sections celebrating Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July with rides, live entertainment, games, and attractions, including three wooden roller coasters: The Raven, The Legend, and The Voyage. Just how many times could a kid throw up in one day? Then came the obligatory water park featuring the world’s two longest water coasters: Wildebeest and Mammoth, slides, pools, a river, and water-play attractions. Whew!

Of course, all of this became too much for a place called Santa Claus Land. Today it goes by the name Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari.  And good luck finding Santa Claus.

 

JULY 8, 1898: SQUEAKY CLEAN IN SKAGWAY

SQUEAKY CLEAN IN SKAGWAY

Soapy Smith, “king of the frontier con men” died in a gunfight celebrated as the Shootout on Juneau Wharf on the evening of July 8, 1898. His last words, while not particularly memorable and certainly not effective, were nevertheless appropriate to the situation: “My God, don’t shoot!”

Soapy’s career began soon after the death of his mother in Fort Worth, Texas. He formed a highly disciplined cadre of ne’er-do-wells to work for him, and rose rapidly to criminal super stardom. He built three major evil empires: in Denver, Colorado, from 1886 to 1895); Creede, Colorado in 1892; and Skagway, Alaska, from 1897 to 1898. It was in Skagway that he finally made his dramatic exit.

Starting off with small-time cons such as three-card monte and shell games, he eventually employed the big con that gave him his nickname. On a busy street corner, Smith would go into an ordinary sales pitch extolling the wonders of his soap cakes. But he proceeded to wrap money around the cakes of soap – ones, tens, a hundred dollar bill.   He then wrapped plain paper around them to hide the money.

soapyHe mixed the money-wrapped packages with bars containing no money and began selling the soap for a dollar a cake. Immediately, one of his shills would buy a bar, tear it open, and begin waving around the money he had supposedly won.  People began buying soap, usually several bars. Every few minutes, someone would shout that he had won, always a confederate. Eventually, Smith would announce that the hundred-dollar bill remained unpurchased and began auctioning off the remaining soap bars to the highest bidders. Naturally, the only money was “won” by members of the gang.

Smith used this swindle successfully for twenty years. The proceeds from this scam and others gave him the money to pay graft to police, judges, and politicians, and live as a somewhat shady swell until his comeuppance on the Juneau Wharf at the hand of a man he had cheated.

 

 

 

JUNE 20, 1890: PAINTING OUTSIDE THE LINES

PAINTING OUTSIDE THE LINES

Oscar Wilde’s only published novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, appeared as the lead story in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in the July 1890 issue, released on June 20.

In the novel, the title character is the subject of a painting by artist Basil Hallward. Basil is impressed by Dorian’s beauty and becomes infatuated with him. Dorian is also infatuated by Dorian’s beauty, especially the beauty in the painting, and more than annoyed that the man in the painting will remain the same, while Dorian himself will get old and wrinkled and forget people’s names and so forth. Obviously the only answer is to put his soul on the market, which he does, with the purchaser (you know who) promising that the painting will age while Dorian himself stays the same.

In an apparent effort to make the painting age as quickly as possible, Dorian embarks on a life of debauchery, and each sin takes its toll on the portrait.

The book had about the same effect on British critics as Dorian’s naughtiness had on the painting. “Vulgar”, “unclean”, “poisonous” and “discreditable” were a few of their nicer comments. “A tale spawned from the leprous literature of the French Decadents – a poisonous book, the atmosphere of which is heavy with the mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction,” said the Daily Chronicle.   And this was after Wilde’s editor had already deleted a lot of “objectionable” text before it made its first appearance in Lippincott’s, eliminating titillating bits of debauchery and elements of homosexuality.

Deciding that the novel contained things that might upset an innocent woman, the editor cut further, removing many more decadent passages before the book was published in 1891.

MAN THE TOMATOES, FULL SPEED AHEAD

It’s a battlefield out there. Each morning I prepare my weaponry and fortify myself to better face the enemy.  Then it’s out into the morning mist, bellying my way through the trenches, my trusty trowel at my right, my insecticidal soap at my left. Half a league, half a league, half a league onward, into the valley of Death – mine not to reason why, mine but to do or die.  “Huzzah, huzzah,” I shout,  “Be valiant, stout and bold.”

With scant warning, they attack!  Tufts of crabgrass pop up behind every rock, aphids to the right of me, weevils to the left of me. A slug squadron advances relentlessly head on.   Japanese beetles at four o’clock.  The battle is joined.  Almost at once, I’m ambushed by an elite corps of exotic man-eating weeds, snapping at my ankles and calves, while trash-talking thistles peek out from between tomatoes, taunting me with Donald Trump slogans.

But I’ll not be intimidated.

“Forward,” I shout and storm into the mouth of Hell. I manage to free a tiny pepper plant being held prisoner by a half dozen stinging nettle goons.  Moments after I make a clearing to let the cucumbers once again see sunlight, the neighbor’s cat claims it for his own and begins his morning toilette.  He glowers at me, unflinching, as I try to encourage him to move on, his eyes saying I may not be big but I can bring down a gazelle and I can bring down you.  Enjoying the moment, knotweeds laugh merrily and loudly insult my gardenerhood.

I jump in with both feet, hacking and pulling and spraying.  When I’m done, a pile of green debris lies all around me shattered and sundered.  The day is mine.  The tomatoes, cucumbers and beans all nod in appreciation as I holster my trowel and spray bottle and ride off into cocktail time.

Later, exhausted, I’ll sleep, perchance to dream – of late potato blight.