MAY 7, 1885: COMIN’ THROUGH THE TV, SHOOTIN’ UP THE LAND

COMIN’ THROUGH THE TV, SHOOTIN’ UP THE LAND

An essential player in Hollywood westerns was the leadinggabby man’s sidekick, and many sidekicks became just as famous as their starring partners: Andy Devine was Jingles to Wild Bill Hickock, Pat Buttram and Smiley Burnette were both sidekicks to Gene Autry, Jay Silverheels was Tonto to the Lone Ranger, Leo Carillo was Pancho to the Cisco Kid. The top sidekick was, of course, Gabby Hayes, born May 7, 1885. Through the 1930s and 1940s, he was sidekick to Hopalong Cassidy in 18 films and to Roy Rogers in 41.

 

The third of seven children, George Francis Hayes was born in an upstate New York hotel owned by his father. As a young man, he worked in a circus and played semi-pro baseball while a teenager. He ran away from home at 17, and joined a touring stock company. He married Olive Ireland in 1914 and the duo enjoyed a successful vaudeville career. Although he had retired in his 40s, he lost money in the 1929 stock market crash, and he felt the need to work again.  He and his wife moved to California and he began his movie career, taking various roles until finally settling into a Western career.

 

Hayes first gained fame as Hopalong Cassidy’s sidekick Windy Halliday in many films between 1936-39. He left the Cassidy films in a salary dispute and was legally prevented from using the name “Windy.”   So “Gabby” Hayes was born.  He gained fame as a sidekick to stars such as John Wayne, Randolph Scott, and, of course, Roy Rogers – beginning with Southward Ho in 1939 and ending with Heldorado in 1946.

 

Offstage Hayes was the complete opposite of his screen persona – an elegant bon vivant, man-about-town and connoisseur. He died in 1969.

On the subject of his movies: “I hate ’em. Really can’t stand ’em. They always are the same. You have so few plots – the stagecoach holdup, the rustlers, the mortgage gag, the mine setting and the retired gunslinger.”

“You’re a good-looking boy: you’ve big, broad shoulders. But he’s a man. And it takes more than big, broad shoulders to make a man.” — High Noon

“There are only two things that are better than a gun: a Swiss watch and a woman from anywhere. Ever had a good… Swiss watch?” — Red River

“A gun is a tool, Marian; no better or no worse than any other tool: an ax, a shovel or anything. A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it. Remember that.” –Shane

“You don’t look like the noble defender of poor defenseless widows. But then again, I don’t look like a poor defenseless widow.” –Once Upon a Time in the West

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APRIL 28, 2004: IT WAS SHEAR PLEASURE

IT WAS SHEAR PLEASURE

Some folks will go to great lengths to avoid sitting in a barber’s chair. So it seems will some animals. A New Zealand Merino sheep named Shrek — not to be confused with the bald green guy of the same name — really didn’t want to be shorn. So he went on the lam in the late 90’s, living as a fugitive, hiding in caves, always looking back over his shoulder.  He avoided capture for six years but alas someone finally fingered him and he was apprehended in April 2004. And on April 28, the now incredibly woolly Shrek went under the shears. It took a mere 20 minutes to denude him, and the entire indignity was nationally televised. The suddenly svelte Shrek gave up 60 pounds of wool, enough to suit 20 New Zealanders.

Now famous, he took tea with the Prime Minister on his tenth birthday and was allowed to spurn the shears for another 30 months before being shorn on an iceberg off the New Zealand coast (certainly a jumping the shark event). Shrek bought the sheep farm in 2011.

Sardine in Honorable Tin Can

Following the death of Warner Oland, who had successfully brought the character of Charlie Chan to the screen in 16 films, Twentieth Century Fox began the search for a new Chan. Sidney Toler, who was born in Warrensburg, Missouri, on April 28, 1874, was chosen to play the detective, and filming began less then a week later on Charlie Chan in Honolulu. Through four years and eleven films, Toler played Charlie Chan for Twentieth Century Fox. Fox terminated the series in 1942, following the completion of Castle in the Desert. Sidney Toler went on to star in eleven more Charlie Chan films for Monogram Pictures. Very ill during the filming of his last two Chan pictures in 1946, Toler died in 1947.

The character of Charlie Chan was created for the novel The House Without a Key in 1925 by Earl Derr Biggers. Biggers loosely based Chan on a real-life Honolulu detective named Chang Apana. He conceived of the heroic Chan as an alternative to the many stereotypical villains such as Fu Manchu that typified the so-called Yellow Peril, a prevailing vision of the menace of Asia. Sounding like a turn-of-the-century Donald Trump, Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune intoned: “The Chinese are uncivilized, unclean, and filthy beyond all conception without any of the higher domestic or social relations; lustful and sensual in their dispositions; every female is a prostitute of the basest order.” Luckily, Greeley is remember more for urging young men to go west.

Over four dozen films featuring Charlie Chan were made, beginning in 1926. Movie-goers took to Chan, but in later years critics found that in spite of his good qualities he too was an Asian stereotype. Many also objected to the fact that he was played by Caucasian actors in yellowface (although Keye Luke who played Chan’s number one son in 7 films was a bona fide Chinese-American actor).

In addition to his great detection, Charlie Chan was noted for the aphorisms sprinkled liberally throughout the films. A handful of the very many:

Accidents can happen, if planned that way. (Dark Alibi)

Action speak louder than French. (Charlie Chan at Monte Carlo)

Bad alibi like dead fish – cannot stand test of time. (Charlie Chan in Panama)

Detective without curiosity is like glass eye at keyhole – no good. (Charlie Chan in the Secret Service)

Even wise fly sometimes mistake spider web for old man’s whiskers. (Charlie Chan’s Chance)

 

chan

 

APRIL 23, 1983: SATURDAY MORNING SUPERSTAR

SATURDAY MORNING SUPERSTAR

Athlete turned actor, Buster Crabbe (Clarence Linden Crabbe II), looking back over his career, could easily have said “been there, done that.” After winning Olympic gold in 1932 for freestyle swimming, Crabbe dived into the movies, eventually starring in over a hundred movies, first taking a turn as the jungle hero in Tarzan the Fearless in the 1933 serial and a variety of jungle men in movies such as King of the Jungle that same year,  Jungle Man in 1941, and the 1952 serial King of the Congo.
Leaving the jungle for the far reaches of space, he played both Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. His three Flash Gordon serials were Saturday morning staples in the 30s and 40s. The serials were also compiled into full-length movies. They appeared extensively on American television in the 1950s and 60s, and eventually were edited for release on home video. Later on television, Crabbe also found his way into the French Foreign Legion. As his acting career wound down, he became a spokesman for his own line of swimming pools. He died on April 23, 1983.

Sick in de stomach, Part 2: What to give a man who hates everything

“So old Albert’s a sick’un, is he?” said Basil, downing his first rum of the day. Basil had always thought himself to be a descendent of the pirate, Sir Basil Ringrose, and as each day sailed toward sunset and the rum clouded his horizon, he metamorphosed into the pirate himself.

“That’s too bad,” said Mutton, Basil’s young protégé, whose mind was also clouded, even without the benefit of rum. “Being sick doesn’t feel very good.”

“Albert’s only sick for one reason,” Peaches declared. “Tomorrow’s his birthday.”

“Why would his birthday make him sick?” asked Christian, Peaches’ ward and the youngest and wisest of the three men who sat with her at one of the six tables on the open pavilion that was Albert’s Booby Bay Cafe.

“I don’t know,” said Peaches. “I guess it’s because he’s old and foolish, and birthday’s make him feel older and more foolish. And this one’s his seventieth so he’s really old and really foolish.”

“Old Albert ain’t so foolish,” said Basil, coming to his rescue, which was the proper thing to do since he was drinking Albert’s rum.

“He’ll get over it,” said Peaches. “By Monday, he’ll be himself – for better or worse.”

“Seventy years,” mused Basil, as he lumbered over to the bar and refreshed his rum. “Here’s to old Albert bein’ seventy.” He took a drink. “By rights, we ought to be givin’ the little frog a birthday present of some sorts.”

“What do you give the man who hates everything?” asked Christian.

“A watch,” suggested Mutton. The others had long since given up trying to follow Mutton’s thinking.

“Where would we get a watch?” complained Christian. “We’d have to go to Guadeloupe to get a watch. We don’t have time.”

“If we had a watch, we’d have plenty a’ time,” chortled Basil.

“Besides,” said Christian, not nearly as amused at Basil’s joke as Basil, “he probably would hate a watch.”

Basil chuckled on for a few more minutes, then said: “I know somethin’ Albert don’t hate.” He grinned, smug in his ownership of a piece of knowledge the others lacked.

“What would that be?” asked Peaches, the only one willing to give Basil his satisfaction.

“Turtle soup,” Basil pronounced. “Old Albert likes turtle soup a whole lot.”

“You’re right,” said Christian. “I’ve heard him say how much he loves turtle soup.”

“He loves turtle soup made in Paris,” said Peaches.

“Is turtles of the French persuasion somehow different than ordinary turtles?” Basil scoffed. “A seafarin’ man knows a turtle is a turtle.”

“Unless it’s a terrapin,” said Christian with a smirk.

“Isn’t that a canvas thing?” asked Mutton, looking bewildered.

“Ain’t no such thing as a canvas turtle, boy,” said Basil. “They’d be awful chewy.”

“Turtle soup would be nice,” Peaches mused.

“And medicinal,” added Christian.

“But we don’t know how to make turtle soup,” said Peaches.

“What’s to know?” said Basil. “You gets a turtle and puts him in a soup pot and cooks him up.”

“We can figure it out,” said Christian. “We cook the turtle in water. That makes broth. And vegetables. And bay leaves. I know bay leaves are important in soup. And Albert talks about sherry.”

“Sherry be a sissy drink,” said Basil.

“It goes in the soup, Basil. Albert says it complements the turtle.”

“It’s old Albert what oughtta compliment the turtle,” said Basil.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard Albert compliment turtles or anything else,” said Peaches, not wanting the boys to be disappointed.

“What I meant was . . .” said Christian. “Oh, never mind. This afternoon we’ll go out and find all the ingredients.” Mutton gave him a lost look. “The things we just talked about that go into the soup. Then tomorrow we’ll start cooking, and tomorrow night, turtle soup for Albert’s birthday dinner.”

“Lead on, Cap’n,” said Basil, and the three of them marched off, leaving Peaches with profound doubts about the soup project but unwilling to interfere with their gift to the ailing Gallic gargoyle.

continued

Sick in de Stomach is one of the 15 stories from Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean, available as an ebook or in a print edition with real pages and everything.

APRIL 10, 1953: COMIN’ AT YA

COMIN’ AT YA

The poobahs at Hollywood’s major film studios watched with amazement and envy as the independently produced 3-D movie Bwana Devil wowed audiences in late 1952.  Columbia Pictures quickly threw together a black- and-white thriller that for an hour hurled practically every prop on the set at the beleaguered audience. It was just as quickly forgotten.  Then on April 10, 1953, Warner Brothers released its entry — in color and stereophonic sound — House of Wax, a horror film starring Vincent Price as a sculptor who kills folks, covers them with wax, dresses them up as famous historical figures, and displays them in his wax museum. Audiences loved it, making it one of the biggest hits of the year. Even critics gave it a go. And although it took a while, the Library of Congress selected it in 2014 for inclusion in the National Film Registry, deeming it “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

The film revived Vincent Price’s career, positioning him as the go-to guy when you needed a mad scientist or fiendish psychopath.  Although House of Wax had a couple of classic 3-D effects (the pitchman with a paddleball and a character who seemingly stands up in the audience and runs into the screen), it was not loaded down with them. This might have been because the director was blind in one eye and couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.

And What Do We Suppose Jumbo the Elephant Really Was

On this day in 1985, Lancelot the Unicorn who had been touring with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus — famous for outlandish attractions — was exposed as a fraud.  Audiences were appalled to learn that Lancelot wasn’t a real unicorn at all, just a goat with a horn surgically attached to its forehead.

IF IT HAD ONLY BEEN A NACHO

It would seem that in modern politics every president has been forced to deal with a scandal, big or small –vicuna coat, Watergate, Iran Contra, Stormy Daniels. Gerald Ford’s scandal would probably be trivial in comparison to most. But it may have cost him re-election. It was April 10, 1976, in San Antonio, Texas, at the Alamo, where a tiny faux pas morphed into the Great Tamale Incident as the President attempted to eat a tamale without removing the corn husk, playing into his reputation as a bit of a bumbler.

APRIL 4, 1914: TO BE CONTINUED

TO BE CONTINUED

The Perils of Pauline, one of the earliest American movie serials and a classic example of the damsel in distress genre, premiered in Los Angeles on April 4, 1914. Every week for twenty weeks, actress Pearl White faced imminent danger and sure death at the hands of pirates, hostile Indians, gypsies and various mustachioed villains, escaping at the last possible second through her own ingenuity, resourcefulness and pluck. Her adventures in Pauline and the follow-up Exploits of Elaine were popular movie fare through the 1920s. Neither serial was a true “cliffhanger” in which episodes end with an unresolved danger to be resolved at the beginning of the next installment. Instead White jumped in and out of the jaws of death in each installment.

Like many other silent film stars, Pearl White performed her own stunts for the serial, at considerable risk. During one scene, the hot-air balloon she was piloting escaped and carried her across the Hudson River into a storm, before landing miles away. In another incident, she permanently injured her back in a fall.

And of course White was more than once tied to railroad tracks by a mustache-twirling villain. One such scene was filmed on a curved trestle in New Hope, Pennsylvania on the Reading Company’s New Hope Branch. Now referred to as “Pauline’s Trestle,” it is a tourist attraction offering rides from New Hope to Lahaska, Pennsylvania, across the original trestle.

Wretched Richard’s Little Literary Lessons — No. 6

cliff-hanger

[klif-hang-er]

noun

1. a melodramatic adventure serial in which each installment ends in suspense in order to interest the reader or viewer in the next installment.

2. a situation or contest of which the outcome is suspensefully uncertain up to the very last moment:

Stopping for a moment, she convinced herself that she had to have a good lead over her pursuers, if they were even following her. She had to find Paul. Looking around, however, she realized that not only didn’t she know where Paul was, she didn’t know where she was. She decided to work her way back in the same general direction from which she thought she had come, keeping herself hidden. If they were chasing her, they would not be stealthy. She’d hear them before they saw her. And try to find Paul. Or someone else to help. But who?

Her foot caught the bottom of her sarong, and she fell to the ground. “This damn outfit,” she said aloud as she tried to untangle herself. “I might as well be wearing a strait jacket.”

She pulled herself up to her hands and knees and looked around. There just a few feet ahead of her, two golden eyes blazed in the dark. At first pantherthey were disembodied, hovering in the air, but as they stared at her, she began to discern an outline of whatever it was that possessed the eyes. It was big, really big, and as black as the night around it. It was a cat, at least four feet at its shoulders. And it wasn’t purring.

Get me off this cliff.

APRIL 2, 1902: THE TERRIBLE, TERRIBLE BIDDLE BOYS

THE TERRIBLE, TERRIBLE BIDDLE BOYS

Admission was ten cents. The movie lasted about an hour. There were no cartoons or newsreels. The first theater to show an actual movie was the Electric Theater in Los Angeles on April 2, 1902. The Capture of the Biddle Brothers was an adventure melodrama based on actual events.

A few months earlier, condemned prisoners Jack and Ed Biddle escaped from a Pennsylvania jail using tools and weapons supplied to them by the warden’s wife, Kate Soffel. “Our picture, which is a perfect reproduction of the capture, is realistic and exciting,” the producer exclaimed — breathlessly one might imagine. Two sheriff-filled sleighs pursue pursue the Biddles and Soffel through the white and drifting snow. The dastardly trio turns to make a stand, shotguns and revolvers blazing. Ed Biddle is shot, falls to the ground in a snow bank. On one elbow, he continues to fire shot after shot until he collapses. The second Biddle continues to fire, and he too is shot. Mrs. Soffel seeing the hopelessness of their situation, if not the error of her ways, attempts to shoot herself. All three are captured. The brothers both die of their wounds. Mrs. Soffel survives, but a reconciliation with her warden husband is probably unlikely.

The movie itself did not survive, and the names of the actors are lost to history. Oddly enough a remake — well maybe not exactly a remake — was released in 1984.  Mrs. Soffel starring Diane Keaton and Mel Gibson once again tells the tale of the terrible, terrible Biddle brothers. But not for a dime.

You oughtta be in pictures

He’s a skinny kid with an obnoxious grin, big eyes, and an even bigger appetite.  As a clock relentlessly counts down the minutes, this animated glutton devours a bag of popcorn, a hamburger, a hot dog and ice cream.  With three minutes to go, it’s a candy bar.  Two minutes, pizza.  One minute — not another bag of popcorn!  He licks his fingers one at a time, gives us a final grin, and invites us to enjoy the second feature.  If that kid brings a tear to your eye, a tiny tug at your heartstrings, then you too lived your salad days during the Age of Popcorn with Real Butter — in the America of the drive-in theater.

What a wedding of technology and environment, the drive-in — John Wayne and Grace Kelly and Rock Hudson up there, larger than life, against a starry backdrop that stretched forever.  For me, drive-in theaters provided not only countless evenings of entertainment; one drive-in also gave me my first summer of gainful employment.

They all had names like Star View, Auto View, Park View (or Vu in the spelling fashion of the day) so that you knew right away that it wasn’t a hardtop, a wonderful but not widely-used name for the traditional indoor theater back in the late fifties when the abundance and importance of drive-ins required such distinctions.  My drive-in was the Romantic Motor View, and romantic it was — the entire Salt Lake City valley stretching out beyond its screen, Mount Olympus looming behind.

The Motor View was a family affair, owned and operated by the Petersons — in fact, the Petersons lived in their theatre:  their home formed the base of the massive wide screen.  Old Man Peterson, red-faced and ill-tempered, yelled at people and cooked while his wife and daughters stood behind the counter and worked the hungry crowd.  At intermission, a storm cloud of salt and pepper and more salt and pepper rose over the grill as Old Man Peterson, caring not a whit about hypertension or cholesterol, turned out burger after burger.  They were the best burgers I ever tasted even though each one took a week off your life.  In a nearby room, a brother-in-law ran the projector, and outside, a Peterson son held sway over a two-acre asphalt empire and everything in it, including me.

Upon my arrival each evening, I took up a post near the huge chain-link gate that separated the three-hundred-car auditorium from the nonpaying public.  Between the highway and me stood the double-bayed ticket booth that resembled a drive-up bank teller more than a box office, positioned so that up to fifty cars could wait in line without blocking traffic.  Patrons received tickets at the booth, then drove to the gate where I would deftly tear their tickets in half.  I wondered, of course, why they didn’t place the ticket booth at the gate, dispense half tickets and eliminate an extra step, but I was making thirty-five cents an hour and I wasn’t about to speak up and abolish my own job.

Tearing tickets was mindless activity at best, so I otherwise occupied my mind by trying to guess which car would hit which little kid on his or her way to the playground, access to which required fighting incoming traffic.  I also pondered big questions such as why so many teenagers came to drive-ins alone until I began to hear the giggling from the trunk.  Perhaps I should have said something, but I found anyone old enough to drive quite intimidating.  The playground closed twenty minutes before showtime, freeing the Peterson son from his duties as operator of the four-horse carousel, so he could relieve me at the gate.  This in turn allowed me to wander through the rows of cars, squeegee in hand, ready and willing to wash windshields.

During the first movie, I was expected to stay near the exit to somehow prevent anyone who was determined to sneak in without paying from doing so.  I was also to watch for signs of clandestine entry over the six-foot fence that ringed the Motor View.  Then, as the first movie ended, I would stand at the center of the exit, waving a flashlight, directing outbound traffic, as if a  95-pound kid could control a stampede of Fords and Chevys and Plymouths, each with some kind of special permission to be the first car out.

During the second feature, I continued to keep an eye peeled for signs of illegal entry while roaming the drive-in as kind of a trouble-shooter whose main concern was turning off speakers when cars left.  The Petersons believed that leaving them on was wasting sound.  Frequently though, I’d just sit down against a speaker post and watch Sayonara for the fifth time or To Catch a Thief for the third.  Occasionally, I’d sleep.

I worked there just that summer of ’56, but I became a regular patron of the Motor View and many other Views and Vus.  And yes, I would occasionally enter via the trunk of an automobile, but I didn’t like it one bit.  I fully expected to die there in the darkness because Psycho had already started and my friends in the front of the car had forgotten me.  Or that if the trunk lid did open, I would find myself facing the entire Salt Lake police force, guns drawn, trigger fingers itching.

Summer after summer, the drive-in experience gradually evolved from that of trying not to park next to prying adults who disapproved of what you were doing in the privacy of your own (parent’s) DeSoto to trying not to park next to libidinous teenagers who were doing God knows what (and how) in the back seat of that VW bug.  Over the summers, drive-in film fare changed as well:  Sayonara and To Catch a Thief gave way to Teenage Cannibals Eat Peoria and Sexual Fantasies of a Swedish Meatball  –a death knell to come.

There are few drive-ins left, and they are endangered.  The kids prefer cineplexes in malls, and their families watch cable or stream Netflix. No one seems to find stuffing three or four adolescent bodies into the trunk of a car or watching a movie through moving windshield wipers fun anymore.  Maybe the drive-in really does belong to another era, those years that marked the height of America’s love affair with the automobile, when gas stations commanded all four corners of busy intersections and no one yielded to pedestrians — they’re mostly gone, like the faithless lover’s kiss that was (to quote the movie I saw six times) written on the wind.

And somewhere that little kid with the obnoxious grin sits, watching TV, stuffing himself with popcorn.  He’s fat now, and there’s fake butter on the popcorn.

MARCH 21, 1867: ON A SHOW BOAT TO BROADWAY

ON A SHOW BOAT TO BROADWAY

“Curtain! Fast music! Light! Ready for the last finale! Great! The show looks good, the show looks good!”

American Broadway impresario, Florenz “Flo” Ziegfeld, Jr. was born March 21, 1867 (died July 22, ZigfeldFollies19121932). The theater bug came to Ziegfeld early; while still in his teens, he was already running variety shows. In 1893, his father, who was the founder of the Chicago Music College, sent him to Europe to find classical musicians and orchestras. Flo returned with the Von Bulow Military Band — and Eugene Sandow, “the world’s strongest man.”

Ziegfeld was particularly noted for his series of theatrical revues, the Ziegfeld Follies, inspired by the Folies Bergère of Paris – spectacular extravaganzas, full of beautiful women, talented performers, and the best popular songs of the time – and was known as the “glorifier of the American girl”.

“Let us grant that a girl qualifies for one of my productions. It is interesting to note what follows. First, it is clearly outlined to her what she is expected to do. She may be impressed at the outset that the impossible is required, but honest application and heroic perseverance on her part plus skillful and encouraging direction by experts very seldom fail to achieve the desired results. But it is only through constant, faithful endeavor by the girl herself that the goal eventually is reached.”

He also produced musicals in his own newly built Ziegfeld Theatre – Rio Rita, which ran for nearly 500 performances, Rosalie, The Three Musketeers, Whoopee! and Show Boat. Several of his musicals hit the movie screens, including three different versions of Show Boat. William Powell played Flo in the 1932 biopic, The Great Ziegfeld, and a 1946 film recreated the flamboyant Ziegfeld Follies.

Yellow Bird, Part III: Parrot Lust

The English ornithologist did not wear tweed; he wore casual island attire and was tan, not pasty. Rachel, Antoine noted, was doing her level best toYELLOW hide her beauty. Prim shirt and slacks hid beaux nichons; dowdy glasses framed dark eyes; and her hair was pulled up into one of those buns that so titillate the English. She was attired for her fellow ornithologist, not Antoine. They sat at a table near the edge of the patio looking out at the tamarind tree.

Antoine brought a bottle of wine to the table and placed it between them. “Compliments of the house.”

“Please,” said Rachel with a disarming smile that softened the severity of the glasses and bun, “sit with us.”

“Thank you,” said Antoine. “But only for a moment. The lunch patrons will be arriving shortly and I must prepare.”

“Antoine,” said Rachel, “this is Arnold Covington. Arnold, this is my friend Antoine.” The two men nodded at each other, as Antoine sat and poured wine for his guests. He filled Rachel’s glass, then turned to Covington, but Covington stretched his hand over the top of the glass and said: “None for me, thank you. I don’t drink.”

Antoine clucked as he pulled Covington’s glass back and filled it for himself. “You are from Martinique, I am told. A lovely place.”

“Do you think so?” said Covington. “I’m afraid I find it wanting.”

“There’s the parrot,” said Rachel. She pointed toward the top of the tamarind tree. “See? Up there.”

Covington looked up at the tree and hummed. On those rare occasions when the English mind works, thought Antoine, it’s noisy. Antoine stared at the staring Covington without attempting to hide his disgust, but then he felt Rachel’s hand resting on his knee. He turned to her and her smile at once melted his anger, and it said to him: “I know this man’s a complete ass. He’s a bore and I’m sorry I brought him. He’s a colleague and nothing more. He’s not half the man you are. But that’s to be expected isn’t it.” And Antoine felt better.

Covington continued to stare at the tree.

“Do you think he’ll fly down here, Antoine?” asked Rachel. “He did yesterday.”

Antoine shrugged. “Who’s to say? The bird has a mind of its own.” But he was now satisfied that the bird had no intention of cooperating with the English ornithologist. Undaunted, Covington pulled a small pair of binoculars from his pocket, put them to his eyes, and continued to study the bird.

“Psittacus antilles vulgaria,” said Covington after a few minutes. “The pronounced yellowness of the head, the squareness of the tail – no question about it, it’s an Antilles Parrot.”

“Voila!” said Antoine, raising hands and eyes skyward. “I always thought it was a parrot.” Rachel giggled, but Covington just glowered at him. “I told the silly bird he was a parrot. He thought he was an eagle; but he’s merely a sittingwhatsis with delusions of grandeur.”

“He’s not merely anything,” Covington said with a sniff. “That’s a very rare bird. Very rare. They’re virtually extinct. We have four females in captivity on Martinique. But no males. Of course, I must take him to Martinique.” Rachel and Covington both stared at Antoine who looked out between them at the tamarind tree.

“I doubt that the bird would want to go to Martinique,” said Antoine, emphasizing each word. “I think he likes it here. I think he finds Martinique wanting.” Antoine’s remarks were lost on Covington who once again stared at the parrot through his binoculars. Rachel shook her head, and Antoine shrugged in return. Then, spotting a young couple sitting down at a table behind them, he jumped up and excused himself.

During the next two hours, diners came, diners dined and diners departed, singing the praises of Antoine and Bistro Francaise. The proprietor himself bustled here and there, keeping himself far busier than normal, never admitting to himself that he was avoiding the odious Covington and his parrot lust. Finally, only one table remained occupied, and Antoine was delighted to see that it was occupied by only one person – Rachel. They didn’t discuss Covington or the parrot again until later that afternoon when they had departed the cafe in favor of a pretty, black-sand beach – a secluded stretch of paradise where, Antoine pointed out, one could take the sun in the French manner if one chose to. Rachel took freely to the French manner, and now Antoine sat admiring the subtle movements of her body as she talked.

“He’s not that bad,” she said. “A little short on manners, perhaps, but so are some others.” Her dark eyes flashed at Antoine who just grinned. “And he is very intelligent. He’s right about the parrot. If they aren’t bred, they’ll disappear forever.” She leaned back to let the sun and Antoine’s steady gaze caress her.

“Do you have a relationship?” asked Antoine.

“Do you care?”

“I asked, did I not?”

“Professional.”

“You have rebuffed him?”

“There hasn’t been any need to. He’s never attempted to move the relationship beyond professional.”

“He is a fool.”

Rachel leaned toward him and let the deep dark eyes do their thing. “Thank you,” she said. “At least I think that was a compliment.”

“A statement of fact. The man must be nearly dead to ignore such a companion to study a wretched bird in a tree.”

“A Frenchman, however, would ignore the bird, lure her to a romantic beach, coax her out of her clothes . . .”

“But of course,” said Antoine, clapping his hands.

“And?” said Rachel, letting her dark eyes drop downward in mock innocence.

“Beaches are for lovemaking,” said Antoine.

“Are they now?” said Rachel, looking at him again. “You’re a forward fellow, aren’t you?”

“Life is short. So is your holiday. It leaves little time for a cat-and-mouse courtship.”

“So we skip right to the seduction?”

“Seduction is such a harsh word. I find you amazingly attractive. I think that you perhaps do not find me distasteful. Given those circumstances, I believe a liaison is appropriate. Do you disagree?”

“What about your bird?” asked Rachel, pulling back.

“I do not find my bird that attractive.”

Rachel laughed and said: “No, I mean what about your bird going to Martinique?”

“Am I to assume that our liaison depends on it?”

“Of course not,” said Rachel, riveting her dark eyes on him.

“I must think about it,” said Antoine. “It is a difficult decision.”

“That’s all I ask,” said Rachel, leaning into him until their warm skin touched and their liaison on the black-sand beach enveloped them.

Antoine was working at his papers when the bird made its usual showy entrance, once more sending a flurry of papers into the air.

“Damn you,” said Antoine.

“Damn you,” said the bird.

Antoine looked up at the bird and smiled an apologetic smile. “I’m afraid I have betrayed you, mon ami.”

The bird cocked its head and looked back at Antoine. “You’re a frog.”

“Hurl your insults, little feathered friend. I deserve them. I am a beast. Base sexual desire has led me to cruel infidelity. Like a drug addict that will do anything to satisfy his craving. Willing to pay any price for a moment’s pleasure.”

Beaux nichons,” said the parrot.

“I’m afraid so,” said Antoine. “I’m afraid so.” He stared at the parrot, then broke into a grin. “But why do I say such things. It is not so. I have done you a great favor.” He clapped his hands, and the parrot lifted its wings and stepped backward as though about to retreat to the tamarind tree. “My selfless liaison with the ornithologist with the deep dark eyes and beaux nichons has created for you a grand opportunity. You, lucky bird, are going to Martinique – a beautiful place – for a liaison with, not one, but four yellow birds with deep dark eyes and beaux nichons. “What do you say to that, ungrateful bird?”

“God save the Queen.”

This story is included in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.

 

March 6, 1941: The Bigger They Are

If asked to name an important sculptor, the name John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum, would not come tripping off most people’s lips, although his most important work certainly would. Borglum died on March 6, 1941, leaving the monument he had worked on since 1927 uncompleted.

Borglum sculpted big: a portrait of Abraham Lincoln carved from a six-ton block of marble, a 76 by 158 foot bas-relief of Confederate heroes, and what would have been his biggest ever, the 60-foot heads of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt carved into the granite face of Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.

Although his work remains admired his legacy was tarnished by his strong nativist leanings, including membership in the Ku Klux Klan.

Mount Rushmore is home to 2 million visitors and has been extensively depicted throughout popular culture, probably most famously in the climactic chase scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 thriller North by Northwest with Cary Grant swatting at secret agents from Lincoln ‘s forehead. Hitchcock later admitted: “I wanted Cary Grant to hide in Lincoln’s nostril and then have a fit of sneezing . . . the Department of Interior was rather upset at this thought. I argued until one of their number asked me how I would like it if they had Lincoln play the scene in Cary Grant’s nose. I saw their point at once.”

The Nose Knows

Cyrano de Bergerac, born in 1619, is of course best known in the modern times for his nose. According to legend, it was quite large. Depending on which account you accept, Cyrano was either a French aristocrat, author and military hero with a big nose or the descendant of a Sardinian fishmonger who suffered from syphilis with a big nose. He was an early writer of science fiction, and in his most famous work, The Other World, Cyrano travels to the moon using rockets powered by firecrackers where he meets the inhabitants who have four legs, musical voices, and firearms that shoot game and cook it — the TV rights are still available, if you’re interested.  A  lesser known work, Noses from Mars, is self-explanatory.

Then we come to the story of Cyrano himself and how he courted the fair Roxanne on behalf of his friend Christian.  Although these people are real, the story is alas! pure fiction, which is probably just as well, for Roxanne was Cyrano’s cousin and had they ever consummated their relationship, their children would have been half-wits with big noses.

 

Here (in a very clever segue) is a little story about big noses:

All Day, All Night Marianne, Part I: Roberto’s Dilemma

Toussaint conned his small motorboat to the empty spot at the pier, near where Roberto lolled, dangling his big bare feet in the warm water. The boat, like Toussaint’s shirt and shorts, had the scars of a life well lived. On each side, the hand-lettered word taxi just above the waterline made it an official vehicle for transporting passengers up, down, and around the island’s seven-mile coastline.

Toussaint nodded and took up a cross-legged position next to Roberto.

Roberto grunted in reply.

“What’s the matter?” asked Toussaint.

“Nothing,” answered Roberto in a child’s whine, the kind that begs for additional prodding. “Nothing. I was at Pigeon Beach today.”

Toussaint sighed. “Man, you gotta get over this.”

“I can’t. She’s just so beautiful. She was there playing with the children again. And again she didn’t even see me. When she looked in my direction, it was like I wasn’t even standing there. She just looked through me like I was invisible, a ghost or something. Perhaps if she wasn’t so beautiful, she could see me.”

“Perhaps,” said Toussaint, turning it over in his mind. “But if she could see you, maybe she would see you ugly.”

“I’m not so ugly.”

“Of course not,” said Toussaint with a reassuring grin. “But you’re no Jean Paul either.” Jean Paul was the young man held up as an example of what young manhood was all about. The other men didn’t like him much – he was so knowledgeable and so arrogant – but they had to grudgingly agree that he was the handsomest of them all. And he paraded his handsomeness and pursued all the young women on the island, even many of the tourists. His only notable failure was with Marianne, Roberto’s young woman at Pigeon Beach, and this gave Roberto some small satisfaction. But as Toussaint tactfully pointed out, if Jean Paul couldn’t win Marianne, what possible chance could Roberto have?

“You should say something to her,” Toussaint argued. “You can’t expect her to pay you no mind, standing there like the ghost of Albert Verra.” In island history, Albert Verra had the dubious distinction of being the ultimate coward, selling out his island once to the French and once to the Spanish.

“I try, but I am afraid.”

“Maybe I have an idea for you, Roberto,” said Toussaint, lowering his voice even though there was no one within thirty yards of the pier. “You know the fine gentleman from that city I can’t remember that’s very close to London, the one who takes my water taxi wherever he goes and pays me very generously? Him and me, we’re friends now. He talks to me about all sorts of things. He’s very educated in literacy – that’s reading important books by dead people and looking at pictures and listening to music, all by dead people. It seems people who write books and paint pictures and make music become important when they die.”

“What good is being important if you’re dead? Doesn’t sound all that educated to me.”

“How would you know educated, man?” said Toussaint, just a little miffed at Roberto’s effrontery in questioning him. “His name is Herbert and he’s got two last names. Now, do you want me to help you, or do you want to spend your life on the beach staring at her with your mouth open and your brain shut until you both get old and die?”

continued

 

This story originally appeared in American Way, the inflight magazine of American Airlines.  It is included in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.

 

February 22, 1956: Not Your Typical Barbarian

You can pretty much be certain you’ve got a turkey on your hands when you’ve got actors such as Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead (Endora on Bewitched), and John Wayne (!) playing Mongolians, when the entire film is shot in one location in a desert in southern Utah (haven’t we seen that rock before?) and when you have such dialogue as:

“Joint by joint from the toe and fingertip upward shall you be cut to pieces, and each carrion piece, hour by hour and day by day, shall be cast to the dogs before your very eyes until they too shall be plucked out as morsels for the vultures . . . pilgrim.”

The Conqueror, released on February 22, 1956, was the epic story of a 12thconqueror century Mongol warlord who worked his way up the barbarian ladder to become the infamous Genghis Khan. Produced by Howard Hughes, it was meant to be his crowning cinematic masterpiece. The film cost $6 million to film in Cinemascope and Technicolor and is frequently ridiculed in the same breath as Plan 9 from Outer Space, another 50s flop which cost about $2.99 to make. Hughes spent another $12 million to buy back every single print of the film after its disastrous release.

The Conqueror not only destroyed RKO, the studio that made it, but wiped out a good number of the cast and crew. The shooting location turned out to be downwind from Yucca Flats, Nevada, where the government was merrily testing atomic bombs, and the cast and crew received far more than the recommended daily allowance of radioactive fallout. Nearly half of them, including Wayne, were later diagnosed with cancer (although Wayne also smoked six packs a day).

February 22, 1907: Hey Youse

sheldon_leonardThose who remember his screen appearances at all are most likely to recognize him as Nick, the surly bartender who gives George Bailey and Clarence the heave-ho in  It’s a Wonderful Life. As an actor, Sheldon Leonard, born on February 22, 1907, specialized in playing supporting characters, most often gangsters or or other tough guys with names like Pretty Willie, Lippy, Jumbo, Blackie, or, notably, Harry the Horse in the 1955 film of Guys and Dolls. He spoke with a thick New York accent, usually delivered from the side of his mouth.

His many appearances in movies and television spanned six decades. But it was as a producer and director that Sheldon Leonard really made his mark. He began a new career as a television producer in the early 50s and turned out a succession of hit series — The Danny Thomas Show (Make Room for Daddy), Gomer Pyle: USMC, The Andy Griffith Show, and The Dick Van Dyke Show (winner of 21 Emmys). He had another success in the mid 60s with I Spy, the first series to cast a black actor (Bill Cosby) as an equal co-star with a white actor in a dramatic role.  Leonard is also informally credited with having invented the spin-off,  the practice of using an episode of a series as a backdoor pilot for a new series.The character of Sheriff Andy Taylor was introduced in an episode of The Danny Thomas Show, which led to the series The Andy Griffith Show. 

Sheldon Leonard died in 1997.

 

February 18, 1953: Leaping from a Screen Near You

An exciting new kind of movie opened in New York City on February 18, 1953, and quickly took the entire nation by storm. It promised each and every theater patron the cinematic excitement of a lion in his or her lap. It was the latest attempt by desperate movie studios to pry people away from those insidious television sets that had popped up in living rooms everywhere, to get them back into theaters.  In a frenzy they had tried to beat the little box with Cinerama, Cinemascope and a host of other Deadly Cins.

The new kind of movie was of course 3-D, complete with those funny little glasses (sadly lacking a big nose and mustache), and this first film was called Bwana Devil. Not only did audiences have to sit through a newsreel and a featurette about folk dancing in a remote Himalayan village to get to the good stuff, they also had to endure an opening lecture on just how this modern marvel worked. A very serious scientist in a lab coat delivered this lecture. He described the 3-D process in numbing detail while the antsier members of the audience chewed Necco wafers and stared at him through those special glasses, wondering why he remained flat as a pancake in a lab coat.

Bwana Devil was a jungle flick (in case you wondered), obviously chosen so that it could feature lions and tigers and elephants and giraffes leaping from the screen onto the unsuspecting audience, causing most of the ten-year-olds to pee their pants. “Let’s see your 15 inch, black and white TV do that,” Messieurs Metro, Goldwyn and Mayer snickered.

And they continued to do that, with westerns, in which Indians would shoot flaming arrows indiscriminately into the audience – one of them right into the forehead of a kid sitting in the third row. Or creepy horror films in which a mad scientist reached into the audience plucking a comely teenager by the throat, pulling her out of her seat, sucking her into the screen never to be seen again.  And Cat-Women on the Moon — sexy moon maidens in black tights leaping into the aisles and luring ogling men into the lobby for who knows what? Hollywood had struck back.

To experience the sheer terror of 3-D, tape red cellophane over your left eye and blue cellophane over your right eye.  Then look at the picture below and Omigod! Look out for the tiger!.

tiger-large

 

Born on this day in 1745, Italian physicist Alessandro Volta, inventor of the electric battery (What is a flashlight?  A place to store dead batteries.) for whom the volt was named.  And in 1838, Ernst Mach, an Austrian physicist who gave his name to a unit of speed.  And way back in 1516, English physicist/queen Mary Tudor, who gave her name to the popular cocktail, the Tudor.