October 22, 1883: When the Fat Lady Sang

In April of 1880, a group of 22 men met at New York’s Delmonico’s restaurant. These were men of considerable wealth – Morgans, Vanderbilts, Roosevelts – nineteenth century industrialists, bankers, and builders.  Nevertheless, they were men excluded from the inner circles of the One Percent, because they were not “old money”: they were the nouveau riche, “brazen new money.” They met that April with the goal of upsetting the Big Apple cart.

 

 

The Academy of Music opera house was the opera venue in New York City; subscribers to its limited number of private boxes represented the highest stratum in New York society.  And it was a place where the old money families had circled the upper crust wagons. Tired of being excluded, the insurrectionists at Delmonico’s determined to build a new opera house that would outshine the old Academy in every way. The new theater would include three tiers of private boxes in which New York’s powerful new industrial families could flaunt their wealth and reinforce their social prominence. Their vision became reality on October 22, 1883, when the Metropolitan Opera opened for business with a production of Gounod’s Faust.

 

The Academy of Music’s opera season folded just three years after the Met opened.  The building became a vaudeville house.  One hundred and thirty years later, The Metropolitan Opera is the largest classical music organization in North America, presenting more than two dozen operas each year in a season which lasts from late September through May. The operas are presented in a rotating repertory schedule with four different works staged each week. Several operas are presented in new productions each season, while the balance are revivals of productions from previous seasons — in all, over 200 performances in a season.

 

And today’s audiences are a blend of old money, new money and no money at all.

 

What’s Opera, Doc?:  A Wretched Richard Cheat Sheet

I’ve found that when I speak to friends, acquaintances, or strangers on street corners about opera, their eyes glaze over (or they run away).  I see this as a fundamental lack of understanding on their part, rather than any tediousness on my part.  The road to opera should not be paved with jagged rocks.  It should be an easy ride, a gentle ride.

Opera is really not that difficult.  Pretty much every opera goes something like this:  The Tenor loves the Soprano.  The Soprano loves the Tenor.  Should be easy – a couple of arias and they live happily ever after.  But the Baritone also loves the Soprano.  Here come the drama, here come the drama.  The Soprano’s daddy, a Bass, promises her to the Baritone – it’s never clear why; it just seems that daddies are not keen on Tenors.  Of course, everyone on stage (except maybe the chorus) is now heartbroken, angry or lustful.  They sing of their sadness, anger and lust, and Act One ends.

Act Two is all about mistaken identities.  To have a secret rendezvous with the Soprano, our Tenor will pretend to be her uncle, another Bass.  Because she suspects the Tenor of being unfaithful with a Mezzo-soprano, the Soprano will pretend to be her own sister and attempt to seduce him.  The Baritone will pretend to be a vagabond and attempt to seduce the chorus.  The audience will pretend to know what’s going on, except for a guy in the fifth row who will attempt to seduce the stranger next to him.

In Act Three, everyone is revealed for who he or she really is. The old Bass is subject to ridicule, and the Baritone is banished. The Tenor and Soprano consummate their love in the opera’s signature aria.  Then they die.  That’s pretty much it – unless it’s Wagner, in which case, you have valkyries and giants and dwarves, and pretty much everyone wears horns and marches off to Valhalla.

Here are the plots of a few popular operas to illustrate:

Carmen – A passionate gypsy seduces a young soldier, tosses him aside for a matador, then she dies.

Madame Butterfly – An American naval officer seduces an innocent Japanese geisha.  She has his kid.  He dumps her.  She dies.

La Boheme – Young bohemians fall in love. He’s a poet; she has tuberculosis. They enjoy Paris. She dies.

Rigoletto – A nasty nobleman seduces his hunchbacked jester’s innocent daughter. The jester tries to get even.  She dies.

So you see, it’s really just gratuitous sex and violence with beautiful music.  And that’s still rock and roll to me.

 

Advertisements

October 5, 1983: 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.

tupper1

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.

 

I found it all about as arousing as a Tupperware party.  — Stephen Fry

 

October 3, 1874: Pathetic Earthlings, You Know Who You Are

Although the name Charles Middleton (born in Kentucky, October 3, 1874) doesn’t invite instant recognition, his face — or at least one of his faces — certainly does. He worked in vaudeville, on the legitimate stage, and in traveling circuses before striking out as a motion picture actor in 1920. His career took off when sound came to the movies, thanks to a deep, menacing voice that dripped villainy.

To many generations he will always be the villain he played for the first time in 1936, one of film’s most notable nasties — Ming the Merciless. The evil enemy of the entire universe first appeared in the serial Flash Gordon, battling wits with Buster Crabbe’s Flash. He reprised his role in Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (1938) and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940).

Middleton appeared in 200 movies. He died in 1949.

Pathetic earthlings. Hurling your bodies out into the void, without the slightest inkling of who or what is out here. If you had known anything about the true nature of the universe, anything at all, you would’ve hidden from it in terror.

 

Scared Shepless

Standing on a chair to reach the microphone, the ten-year-old kid was as nervous as a chicken surrounded by dumplings.  After all, it was his first time in front of an audience, and the folks at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show looked like one pretty tough audience (nobody had told him to imagine them naked).

It was all his fifth-grade teacher’s fault; she was the one who had pushed him into this appearance after hearing him sing Red Foley’s “Old Shep” one morning during prayers. The kid was praying now, Shepdogpraying he wouldn’t pee the pants of his spiffy little cowboy outfit. He did make it all the way through “Old Shep” that October 3 in 1945. And he came in fifth place in the competition, winning five dollars and a free pass to all the fair rides.

A few months later, for his eleventh birthday, his parents gave him a guitar. He had wanted a rifle (you’ll shoot your eye out, kid).

But he did apply himself to learning the guitar with the help of his uncle Vester and the pastor at the family’s church. Then when he was twelve, his mentor arranged an on-air performance for him. This one didn’t go so well; this time he was “scared Shepless.” and unable to sing.  Fortunately, he was able to overcome his fear and sing the following week. And he went on to have a decent career singing.  As an adult, he returned to “Old Shep” and pretty much conquered it.  It went something like this:

September 29, 1913: And That Spells Gladiolus

“G-L-A-D-I-O-L-U-S,” said 11-year-old Frank Neuhauser with just a bit of apprehension. After all, eight of the final nine competing super-spellers had crashed and burned before Frank faced his inquisitor. His spellingspelling was right on; he was the winner of the first ever National Spelling Bee, the last kid standing out of some two million competitors. His victory earned Frank $500 and a meeting with President Calvin Coolidge. Fortunately, the President did not ask him to spell “executive privilege.”

It was a big time for a little boy. Folks in his hometown Louisville held a parade in his honor. Schoolmates gave him a new bicycle.

That was back in 1925. Today, the bee, now known as the Scripps National Spelling Bee, features 11 million children in local contests throughout the United States and abroad. The field is reduced to some 270 finalists who convene in Washington for two days of competition.

Frank Neuhauser who was born on September 29, 1913, went on to become a successful patent attorney. During his later years, he was frequently a guest of honor at the spelling bees. He died in 2011 at the age of 97.

The National Spelling Bee has certainly become more challenging over the years. One might argue that Frank Neuhauser’s “gladiolus” was a piece of cake — or, for that matter, “cerise” in 1926 or “knack” in 1932. Try “syllepsis” from 1958 or “esquamulose.” There’s “vivisepulture” from 1996 and “appoggiatura” from 2005 — words our spell checker couldn’t handle.

Sing Cowboy, Sing

If you were a cowboy with the name Orton Grover, you’d probably change your name. Orton did, and became a legendary singing cowboy gene-autry-quotes-2with the more melodic name Gene Autry. Born September 29, 1907, Autry became a major presence in the movies and on radio and television, beginning in the 1930s and stretching into the 1950s.

He was the ultimate straight-shooter — brave and honest with impeccable manners and good posture. He distilled his philosophy into the Ten Cowboy Commandments:

  1. The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.
  2. He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.
  3. He must always tell the truth.
  4. He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals.
  5. He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.
  6. He must help people in distress.
  7. He must be a good worker.
  8. He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits.
  9. He must respect women, parents, and his nation’s laws.
  10. The Cowboy is a patriot.

Autry was also influential in the evolution of country music, his movies bringing cowboy music to a national audience with hits such as “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine,” “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” “South of the Border,” and “You Are My Sunshine.” He also owned such Christmas classics as “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Here Comes Santa Claus.”

And no, we did not forget his signature song:

 

 

 

September 12, 1970: Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out

Richard Nixon called him the most dangerous man in America, an honor usually reserved by Republicans for figures such as Charles Darwin and Al Gore. Timothy Leary wasn’t always so “dangerous.” He had a distinguished military service and academic psychology career timothy-leary-until he started thinking way outside the box, promoting the therapeutic use of psychedelic substances. It was your basic slippery slope, as he quickly evolved during the wild and woolly 60’s to a self-described performing philosopher and hippie guru. He used LSD himself and developed a philosophy of mind expansion and personal truth through LSD with such heady concepts as space migration and intelligence increase. Eventually, it was all about turning on, tuning in, and dropping out.

As a result, Leary also came to spend more time in jail than out of it, becoming intimate with 36 prisons throughout the world. In January 1970, he received a 20-year prison sentence for a pair of earlier transgressions. Upon his reporting for prison duty, Leary was given a series of psychological tests meant to help determine what work duties he was suited to. Having himself designed such tests, he found it quite easy to manipulate the results so that they would show him to be a model citizen with an interest in forestry and gardening, pursuits that would conveniently keep him out of doors.

Leary was assigned to work as a gardener in a minimum security prison. On September 12, 1970, leaving a farewell note, he climbed over the prison wall along a telephone wire to a waiting pickup truck supplied by the Weather Underground. For $25,000 (paid by the Brotherhood of Eternal Love), the weathermen smuggled Leary and his wife out of the United States and into Algeria. From there, they traveled to Switzerland, Vienna and Beirut. In 1972, they headed for Afghanistan which had no extradition policy with the U.S. Unfortunately, they traveled aboard an American airline, and were arrested before they could deplane.

Leary was returned to prison where he remained until his release in 1976. He died in 1996.

Come Together

“Come Together,” written by John Lennon, became a big hit for the Beatles and an anti-war anthem. It was originally written as a campaign song for Timothy Leary’s aborted run for governor against Ronald Reagan.

Said Lennon: “The thing was created in the studio. It’s gobbledygook; “Come Together” was an expression that Leary had come up with for his attempt at being president or whatever he wanted to be, and he asked me to write a campaign song. I tried and tried, but I couldn’t come up with one. But I came up with this, “Come Together,” which would’ve been no good to him—you couldn’t have a campaign song like that, right?

 

twain

September 8, 1892: Pledge, Salute, Sing Out the Chorus

Daniel Sharp Ford was a bit of a flag-waver. He thought the country needed a little more patriotism, and so launched a crusade to get flags into every school in the country. As the owner of the magazine Youth’s Companion he had a ready-made platform for the promotion of his ideas. As part of his patriotism package, he asked a socialist minister, Francis Bellamy, to create a pledge to the flag of one’s country, a pledge that could be used throughout the world.

Bellamy came up with a pledge that was simplicity itself, and Ford published it in the September 8, 1892, issue of his magazine. The Pledge of Allegiance, as it was called, read:

“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

The pledge was incredibly popular, repeated in schools, public gatherings, government meetings, in Congress. However, Ford and Bellamy found it awkward that folks just stood there while pledging, so they came up with a nifty salute. Pledgers would face the flag, extend their right arm forward and slightly upward — the Bellamy Salute.

Years passed and folks were happily pledging, but then the tinkering began. In 1923, the words, “the Flag of the United States” were added, thanks to the efforts of the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution who fretted that immigrant children might be confused about just which flag they were pledging allegiance to. A year later, the worriers added “of America.”

Then the Bellamy Salute came under fire; it looked a little too much like the German Nazi salute.

Come 1954, Congress got into the act, adding the words “under God” as a way of thumbing their noses at those godless communists, and giving the pledge its current form.

September 8, 1956

BelafontecalypsoHarry Belafonte is an American singer, songwriter, actor, activist, and of course the King of Calypso. His third album, Calypso, hit the top of the charts on September 8, 1956, and had everyone singing out the chorus “Day-o.” It became the first album by a single artist to sell a million copies. In addition to “Day-o (Banana Boat Song),” the album included such calypso standards as “Jamaica Farewell,” “Man Smart,” and “Will His Love Be Like His Rum?” Discerning readers will note that some of those calypso standards serve as titles for short stories included in Calypso: Stories of the Caribbean.

September 6, 1916: And They Immediately Squeezed the Charmin

Before September 6, 1916, if you needed groceries, you would head to your local store and present your list to the friendly grocer standing behind the counter. The grocer would then fetch the items you requested. This could be time consuming and of course you always ended up behind the person who didn’t have a proper list or felt the need to chat for a bit. Clarence Saunders changed all that when he opened the very first Piggly Wiggly in Memphis, Tennessee. In his amazing store, you could wander throughout four aisles gathering your own goodies at your own pace, pausing to study the nutrition labels if you wished, or zipping through at a breakneck pace. The store’s 605 items were carefully organized into departments of like products. You worked your way through this shopping wonderland to where a cashier waited to check you out.

Saunders patented this self-service concept which was also known as a groceteria, and during the next few years issued franchises to hundreds of grocers throughout the Midwest and South. This little Piggly Wiggly went to market and grew up into an empire of 2,660 stores with annual sales of $180 million.

Saunders of course grew wealthy as well, but wouldn’t you know it he got greedy. He attempted to play funny with Piggly Wiggly stock, squeezing short interest and tripling its price. The stock exchange folks got wind of his scheme, and Saunders got caught, losing $9 million as a result. His company was broken up with stores being sold to such other players as Krogers and Safeway.

Saunders attempted to stage a comeback with fully automated grocery shopping in his Keedoozle stores but the concept failed to catch on (or was it the name? Would any serious shopper admit he or she was going to run down to the local Keedoozle?). Saunders died in 1953. A replica of his original store has been constructed in the Memphis Pink Palace Museum and Planetarium.

Ernest Tubb (1914-1984)

Known throughout his career as the Texas Troubadour, Ernest Tubb was a pioneer of country music who helped to popularize the honky tonk style with his major 1941 hit “Walking the Floor Over You.” His career went on to span another four decades. He died on September 6, 1984.

martin1

September 2, 1838: Lei Lady Lei

Her name didn’t exactly come tripping off Hawaiian tongues, but the islands’ last queen, Lydia Kamehameha Liliuokalani was a beloved leader during her short royal stint. She became queen in 1891 upon the death of her brother King David Kalakaua.

Liliuokalani-hero-H

Government ministers demanded that Liliuokalani immediately sign an oath to uphold the constitution that had been previously forced upon her brother. It pretty much made her queen in name only. She tried unsuccessfully to form a cabinet several times. She drafted a royalist constitution but it went nowhere. Finally, just two years later, pro-American forces overthrew the government and named as president Sanford B. Dole, a name that lives on in infamy and pineapples.

Liliuo — we’ll call her Lydia — petitioned President Grover Cleveland who said the coup was probably illegal and certainly not very nice. But Dole just thumbed his nose at the pronouncement. Eventually, after an attempted uprising for which she was blamed, Lydia was placed under house arrest. During her confinement, she penned Hawaii’s most famous song, “Aloha Oe” (other than Don Ho’s “Tiny Bubbles” perhaps).

Lydia Kamehameha Liliuokalani was pardoned in 1896 and died in 1917 at the age of 79.

 

Carry a Big Shtick

Vice President Theodore Roosevelt delivered a speech at the Minnesota State Fair On September 2, 1901 in which he publicly used the phrase with which he would always be associated:  Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.  Four days later, President William McKinley was shot by an assassin and following his death eight days later, Roosevelt became President.

“My father always wanted to be the center of attention.  When he went to a wedding, he wanted to be the bridegroom.  When he went to a funeral, he wanted to be the corpse.” — Alice Roosevelt Longworth

 

 

inspirea

August 31, 1928: Look Out for Lotte Lenya

With music by Kurt Weill and words by Bertolt Brecht, Die Dreigoschenoper premiered in Berlin in 1928. By 1933, when Brecht and Weill were forced to leave Germany, the musical comedy which offers a socialist view of a capitalist world had been translated into 18 languages and performed more than 10,000 times. We of course are more familiar with the English title, The Threepenny Opera.  And we’re mostly familiar with the opening song which has been sung by practically everyone, most notably, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald in a grammy-winning performance, and Bobby Darin who made it the top song of 1959 – “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer” (“The Ballad of Mack the Knife”). The song was added just before the premiere, when the actor playing Macheath threatened to quit if his character did not receive an introduction.

At the beginning of the play, we meet Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, a London entrepreneur who runs the city’s begging operation, training the beggars and taking a nice chunk of their earnings. He is the perfect capitalist, a man who today would work for Goldman Sachs.

But Peachum has problems: his grown daughter Polly did not return home the previous night, and Peachum fears she has been misbehaving, and worse still, misbehaving with the ne’er-do-well Macheath.  Peachum does what any worried father would do – he determines to thwart this budding relationship by taking away her cell phone and having her paramour hanged.

Fade to Macheath who is preparing to marry Polly once his gang has stolen her trousseau. After the gang has stolen some food and a table, and they all enjoy a wedding banquet. Polly entertains with a charming little song about a maid who becomes a pirate queen and executes her former bosses and customers. The Chief of Police, Tiger Brown, joins the party. It seems he had served with Macheath during the wars and had, over the years, exerted his influence to keep Macheath out of jail. He and Macheath sing. Polly returns home and lays the fact that she has married Macheath on her parents who are not amused. She sings a charming little song advising them to go fuck themselves, bringing the first act to a conclusion.

In Act Two, Polly warns Macheath that her father is gunning for British bear and that he must leave London. He agrees and leaves his gang in Polly’s hands. On his way out of town, Macheath stops at his favorite brothel, where he sees his ex-lover, Jenny. They sing a charming little song (“Pimp’s Ballad”) about their days together, but (the plot having thickened) Jenny has been bribed by Mrs Peachum to turn him in. Despite Brown’s apologies, he’s powerless and must drag Macheath away to jail. Macheath sings a charming little song about his life being over.   Another girlfriend, Lucy (Brown’s daughter) and Polly arrive at the same time from stage right and stage left, respectively.  A nasty argument ensues and together they sing a charming little duet about scratching each other’s eyes out. After Polly leaves, Lucy engineers Macheath’s escape, bringing the act to a tidy conclusion.

In Act Three, Jenny selfishly demands her money for the betrayal of Macheath, which Mrs Peachum refuses to pay.  Jenny nevertheless reveals that Macheath is at Suky Tawdry’s house, and he is once again arrested. Back in jail and scheduled to be executed, Macheath desperately tries to raise the bribe money to get out again, even as the gallows are being erected.  But no one comes to his aid, and Macheath prepares to die.  He laments his fate in a charming little song.  But what’s this? A deus ex machina enters stage left. Peachum announces that in this opera mercy will prevail over justice, and in a parody of a happy ending, a messenger from the Queen arrives to pardon Macheath and grant him a title, a castle and a pension. The play then ends with a plea that wrongdoing not be punished too harshly as life is harsh enough.

 

August 26, 1851: Doo-da, Doo-da

Picture a young man sitting on an elaborate veranda on a warm afternoon. Off to his right a beautiful river languidly flows on its journey from the swamps of Georgia to the Gulf Mexico; on the left, fields of cotton stretch into the distance. He is sipping a mint julep perhaps, and listening to the lilting voices of the slaves as they sing a happy song while picking cotton for their beloved “massa.” Life is good, everyone thinks, and hopes it will stay just like this forever.

The young man is inspired to pen a song: “Way down upon de Swanee Ribber, Far, far away. Dere’s wha my heart is turning ebber, Dere’s wha de old folks stay.”

The young man is, of course, Stephen C. Foster, one of America’s best-loved musical storytellers, who wrote “Old Folks at Home” (or Swanee River) in 1851, one of about 200 songs he authored during his prolific career.

While working as a bookkeeper in Cincinnati, Foster wrote his first successful songs — among them “Oh! Susanna,” and “Nelly Was a Lady”, made famous by the blackface Christy Minstrels. During the following years, Foster wrote most of his best-known songs for the Christy Minstrels: “Camptown Races,” “Nelly Bly,” “Old Folks at Home”, “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair.”

Many of Foster’s songs were not original; he was a “Songcatcher,” writing down songs that had been passed down for generations. And about him sitting on that southern veranda – erase that. Foster chose the Suwannee River that flows through Florida because it fit the meter of the song; he never set foot in the state. Nor the south. He visited only once, on a riverboat voyage down the Mississippi – after he had written the songs.

Swanee River became the Florida state song in 1935. In an episode of Jackie Gleason’s “Honeymooners” called The $99,000 Answer, Ed Norton warms up on the piano by playing the opening to “Swanee River.” Later, on the game show of the title, the first question asked is, “Who is the composer of “Swanee River?” Ralph nervously responds with “Ed Norton,” and loses the game.

Chances are, those slaves picking cotton were not all that happy either.

Slaves are generally expected to sing as well as to work. ― Frederick Douglass