SEPTEMBER 6, 1916: THIS LITTLE PIGGLY WIGGLY

THIS LITTLE PIGGLY WIGGLY

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.

 

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SEPTEMBER 1, 1878: PRINCE ALBERT IN A CAN

PRINCE ALBERT IN A CAN

As if Alexander Graham Bell had not done enough to harm the telegraph industry by inventing that infamous device known as the telephone, he compounded the offense by poaching telegraph employees to work as telephone operators. One such poachee made history upon reporting for work at the Edwin Holmes Dispatch Company on September 1, 1878. Emma Nutt was the first woman telephone operator and would certainly not be the last. Just a few ringy ding dings later, her sister Stella became the second woman telephone operator.

Up to this time telephone operators had mostly been teenage boys, also stolen from the telegraph industry. But although the boys had been fine as telegraph operators, they were less desirable as telephone operators where they had to actually have contact with real human beings. They were teenage boys, a churlish lot at best — unpleasant, swearing even, and fond of clever jokes such as “Do you have Prince Albert in a can?” and “Is your refrigerator running?”

Emma, on the other hand, was pleasant, intelligent and easy to talk to. Not only that, she was a walking telephone directory, having memorized every number served by the New England Telephone Company.

By the end of the next decade, most telephone operators were women. And in addition to being pleasant and easy to talk to, they were between the ages of 17 and 26, unmarried, with high moral standards. No callers need worry that the women assisting them were immoral. Nor were they African American or Jewish, two groups evidently given to clever jokes such as “Do you have Prince Albert in a can?” and “Is your refrigerator running?”

Jungle Swingers

Tarzan_of_the_Apes_1918Born on September 1, 1875, Edgar Rice Burroughs enjoyed a successful career as a pencil sharpener salesman. An honest occupation, but what do you do when you’re on the road, stuck in some cheesy motel with a bunch of sharp pencils? You either see how many you can fit into your ears or you write. Burroughs wrote. Prodigiously. In 1912, his most famous creation swung through a jungle near you in Tarzan of the Apes. And he kept on swinging through the decades, in two dozen books, including a few released after Burroughs’ death in 1953.

Tarzan became the star of radio, television, comics, stage, video and computer games, action figures and over 200 movies. Elmo Lincoln was the first of a whole gaggle of Tarzans which included Johnny Weissmuller, Buster Crabbe, and Lex Barker.

tar4

The Wisdom of Charlie Chan

cspeak4

JUNE 26, 1927: LOOK MA, NO HANDS

LOOK MA, NO HANDS

In 1927, thrill-seekers plunked down their quarters to take a ride on the Cyclone, a new attraction at Brooklyn’s Coney Island. Noting the success of the Thunderbolt in 1925 and the Tornado in 1926, Jack and Irving Rosenthal jumped into the roller coaster business to the tune of about $175,000, and the Cyclone was built.   It would take only 700,000 riders to recoup their investment. The Cyclone was built on the site of America’s first roller coaster, known as Switchback Railway, which had opened in 1884.

The Cyclone remained extremely popular through the years and has accumulated its share of legends. One is from 1948, when a coal miner with aphonia, the loss of speaking ability, took a ride. He had not spoken in years, but screamed as the Cyclone plummeted down the first drop, and said “I feel sick” as his train returned to the station, whereupon he fainted.

Statistics were never kept to tell us how many other people got sick on the Cyclone or how many threw up.  And of course there were more serious incidents. Two men were killed in separate incidents during the 1980s, both Darwin Award contenders who felt the need to stand up during the ride. One fell out and the other was whacked by a crossbeam.

The Cyclone began to deteriorate during the 1960s and was shut down in 1969. Two years later, the city of New York bought it for one million dollars. It was condemned a short time later and, in 1972, it was nearly destroyed to make way for an expansion of the New York Aquarium. A “Save the Cyclone” campaign did just that, and it was refurbished and reopened in 1975. The Cyclone was declared a city landmark in 1988 and a National Historic Landmark in 1991.

That quarter ticket now costs nine dollars.

 

TRUE CONFESSIONS: MY DARK DAYS AS A REPUBLICAN

I used to be a Republican.  There, it’s out in the open.  It was a long time ago, and I was too young to see the error of my ways.  At the time, our family was pretty much all Republican – not avid table thumping Republicans, but Republicans all the same.  Truman was a swear word, and we all liked Ike.  Ike was like a grandfather, and my grandmother loved him.

As long as I’m confessing, I might as well admit that I probably would have voted for Nixon over Kennedy.  Fortunately, I was not old enough to vote.  It was a couple of years later  in college that I began to change.  See, the conservatives are right.  Colleges take our respectable fresh-faced Republican youths and teach them unsavory liberal things like literature and philosophy and science.

Honest John

It happened to me, and I never saw it coming.  For a few days, I was just an independent.  But it’s a slippery slope indeed, and the leftward lurch was inevitable.  And by the time I graduated from the halls of propaganda, my mind had been molded into the liberal quagmire it is today.

In the space of time between my Republican innocence and my liberal decadence, I did my mandated military time.  Since I was a Republican and Republicans love guns, I naturally opted for service that dealt with guns.  I joined the artillery because they had big guns, guns they didn’t have to carry over their shoulders.

After my six mouths of basic gun toting, I became a typical weekend warrior spending some miserable hungover Sunday mornings doing my thing for my country.  And every summer I did my two weeks duty, even as I was fast becoming a liberal.   Being an artillery sort of guy, we got into big guns, really big guns during our summer mission.  This really big sucker of a gun we toted was called an Honest John, and I guess it was technically a rocket not a gun.  One summer we got to fire the thing.  Actually we didn’t get to pull a trigger or anything; we just stood around while it was fired.  It was a holy shit moment when that thing took off, like a launch at Cape Canaveral only lots faster.

During the rest of the two weeks, we got to tote the sucker around the woods of Washington, pretending we were in pitched battle with an unseen enemy (probably Mexican rapists and murderers).  For me, the high point of the exercise was the day we camouflaged Honest John so well we couldn’t find it for several hours.

Our Honest John rocket, hidden

Yes, you can see it happening: I was morphing into nasty liberalism, and liberals like nothing better than to hide guns from conservatives.   Sad but true.  I don’t really like guns any more, little or big, or rockets. As Johnny Cash sang:  “Don’t take your rockets to town son, leave your rockets at home, Bill.  Don’t take your rockets to town.”

Or perhaps as Waylon Jennings sang: “Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be liberals.”

 

APRIL 25, 1926: HERE THE MAESTRO DIED

HERE THE MAESTRO DIED

The world premier of Giacomo Puccini’s last opera “Turandot” was held at Milan’s La Scala on April 25, 1926, two years after his death. Arturo Toscanini conducted. Toward the end of the third act, Toscanini laid down his baton, turned to the audience and announced: “Here the Maestro died.”  Puccini had died before finishing the opera. Subsequent performances at La Scala and elsewhere included the last few minutes of music composed by Franco Alfano using Puccini’s notes.  A highlight of the opera is “Nessun Dorma,” probably the most famous aria in all of opera.

Down at the End of Lonely Street

Elvis Presley scored his first number one hit on the Billboard Pop 100 on this date in 1956.  Recorded and released as a single in January, “Heartbreak Hotel” marked Presley’s debut on the RCA Victor record label . It spent seven weeks at number one, became his first million-seller, and was the best-selling single of 1956. The song was based on a newspaper article about a lonely man who committed suicide by jumping from a hotel window.

Sick in de Stomach, Part 4: Happy Birthday, Dear Albert

TURTA full hour passed before Christian shouted to Basil. “Is it done yet?”

“This pesky turtle won’t stick his head out so’s I can bop it.”

Basil remained seated next to the tortoise for the rest of the afternoon, leaving only to refill his glass of rum every fifteen minutes or so. Christian and Mutton finally rejoined him.

“Y’know,” Basil confessed, “I sort of forgot which end this turtle’s head is suppose to come outten. Another thing. I got sort of hungry here smellin’ that soup cookin’ so I been having a few tastes now and then and y’know, it tastes sorta good. I think this here turtle’s been sitting next to it so long that it kinda got some turtle taste. I’ll bet if we just add a little sissy sherry, even ol’ Albert’ll like it.”

“Turtle, you say,” said Albert, taking another sip from the bowl that sat on the table in front of him. The others ringed the table, watching in anticipation.

“Caught ‘im myself,” said Basil, grinning.

“It tastes more like sherry with a lot of pepper in it,” said Albert, forcing another sip. By the time they had added the sherry, all that remained of the soup, thanks to the prolonged boiling and Basil’s frequent tasting, were a few charred leaves. Peaches had tried to perk up the bowl of hot sherry and leaves with a healthy dose of pepper. “Interesting leaves,” Albert mused. “My good sherry, I suspect.”

“Only the best for ol’ Albert.”

“I always preferred sherry in a glass, accompanied by a good cigar,” said Albert. “But it’s so much more delicate served hot with leaves floating in it. Perhaps you’ll let me savor it in solitude. I’m afraid I might spill a precious droplet or two with everyone watching. If you’d be so good as to bring a cigar when you return.”

They marched out, and when they returned five minutes later, all that remained of Albert’s birthday soup was a little dampness on the lips of his satisfied smile. Only Peaches noticed the curious puddle underneath the table.

“Thank you, my friends,” said Albert, lighting a cigar. “I only wish there were another bowlful, such is my appetite for turtle soup. Perhaps I’ll go to Guadeloupe tomorrow.”

“Here’s to ol’ Albert bein’ seventy,” said Basil, downing a glass of rum. “Happy birthday, Albert,” chorused the others. Albert smiled, and Peaches was compelled to recite: “Tiger, tiger, burning bright . . .”

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 24, 1819: WHERE’S THE SODA, JERK?

WHERE’S THE SODA, JERK?

Samuel Fahnestock was given a patent for the first soda fountain in 1819. Carbonated mineral water was all the rage at the time.  Joseph Priestley had created the first man-made carbonated water back in 1767, and Jacob Schweppes had developed a method of mass producing it, quickly leading to the production of different brands of soda and different flavors. Fahnestock’s soda fountain allowed these drinks to be sold by the glass. Oddly enough, it took more than fifty years for someone to create the first ice cream soda, even though ice cream had been around since at least the 10th century.

At the peak of their popularity in the 1940s and 1950s, soda fountains were everywhere – in pharmacies, ice cream parlors, candy stores, department stores, and five-and-dimes. They were public meeting places (or hangouts, when occupied by teenagers).

Soda fountains required the services of a soda jerk. The name referred not to the personality of the person serving sodas but to the jerking action used to swing the soda fountain handle back and forth when dispensing soda. The position of jerk was actually quite sought after and usually came only after an extended period of service in less desirable positions. The soda jerk was the star of the soda fountain show.

The decline of the soda fountain began in the early 1950s when the Walgreens chain introduced full self-service drug stores. Hello Dairy Queen and McDonalds and supersizing; goodbye chocolate soda with two straws and two cents plain.

sick in de stomach, part 3: turtle lust

“I’ve got a dandy soup pot and loads of vegetables – onions, carrots, potatoes,” said Christian, when they reconvened at noon the next day in Albert’s Booby Bay Cafe.

“I got lots of leaves,” said Mutton. “I couldn’t find very many in the bay, so I got a bunch from out back.”

“That stuff you got there is just fine and all that,” said Basil, grinning. “But it ain’t turtle soup yet. Old Basil’s got the turtle goods.” He pulled his hand from behind his back and held before them, by its tail, a three-inch turtle.

“I don’t think that will make much broth,” said Christian, inspecting the turtle. “Say, isn’t that little Gustave’s pet turtle?”

“What kind of a pet is a turtle for a young lad? Won’t fetch nothin’.”

“It’s too small anyway,” said Christian.

“Now you didn’t say nothin’ ’bout how big a turtle you wanted, did ya? How much turtle d’ya need? Albert’s just one little Frenchie. Okay, okay, you start cookin’ them onions. Mutton, take this little critter back to Gustave, and I’ll go find a big turtle, which I would’ve found before, if someone had only said as such.” Basil made a trip to the bar for a refill, then headed off alone, the rum sloshing in his glass, mumbling as he went: “The lad won’t never make a seafarer, I’ll warrant, not ’til he learns how to give directions proper.”

The vegetables and leaves were boiling violently in the pot of water when Basil returned two hours later, dragging a bulky burlap bag behind him. “Got us a right fine turtle here,” he said. “A big’un like old Moby Dick, ‘cept he was a whale and Ahab only had one leg where I got two legs, and this here’s a turtle.” Basil ripped open the burlap bag to reveal a 200-pound tortoise. The tortoise took one look at them and retreated into his shell.

“That’s a lot of turtle,” said Christian.

“First he’s too little, now he’s too big. You’re bein’ mighty picky about the size of turtles. This here one’s the only other one on the whole island.”

“I think these turtles are endangered,” said Christian.

“I know this here turtle’s endangered.”

“He won’t fit in the pot,” argued Christian.

“He wouldn’t want to anyway,” said Mutton. “It’s pretty hot in there.”

“First, we gotta dismember ‘im.”

“What’s dismember?” asked Mutton.

Basil shook his head. “It’s just like rememberin’ except, in this case, we cut him into little pieces.”

“Won’t that hurt?” asked Mutton.

“It would if we didn’t bop him on the head first.”

“Have you ever bopped a turtle on the head, Basil?” Christian asked.

“Never bopped no turtle. Bashed me a scalawag though.”

“What’s it like?” asked Mutton. “Does it hurt a lot?”

“Well,” said Basil, “first he looks at you all twirly like, eyes wigglin.’ And sometimes they just stays open and keeps wigglin’ while the brains squirts outen ‘is skull and flies all over tarnation.”

Christian blanched.

“But it don’t hurt none,” Basil concluded.

Christian shook his head. “Okay, go ahead and do it. I’m going to wait over there.”

“Me too,” said Mutton, and he followed Christian away. Basil found a good size rock and sat down next to the tortoise.

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 14, 1999: THE FUTURE WILL BE BETTER TOMORROW

THE FUTURE WILL BE BETTER TOMORROW

Fireworks, rock music and chants of “Q2K” punctuated the April 14 announcement by former Vice President Dan Quayle that he was tossing his hat into the Republican ring for the 2000 presidential race. He offered himself as the antidote for “the dishonest decade of Bill Clinton and Al Gore.” He promised to restore integrity, responsibility and more malaprops to the White House.

And he came out swinging against television character Murphy Brown (even though she wasn’t running for anything). She and her ilk contribute to a “poverty of values,” he intoned. “A character who supposedly epitomizes today’s highly intelligent, highly paid, professional woman — mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another lifestyle choice.”

Quayle’s candidacy was greeted by a thunderous silence. He exited the race a few months later, after finishing eighth in the first Republican straw poll. Maybe too many folks were confused by that Q2K campaign slogan.

In any event, the world was cheated out of future Quayle gems such as these:

If we don’t succeed we run the risk of failure.

Republicans understand the importance of bondage between a mother and child.

A low voter turnout is an indication of fewer people going to the polls.

It isn’t pollution that’s harming the environment. It’s the impurities in our air and water that are doing it.

When I have been asked during these last weeks who caused the riots and the killing in L.A., my answer has been direct and simple: Who is to blame for the riots? The rioters are to blame. Who is to blame for the killings? The killers are to blame.

Bank failures are caused by depositors who don’t deposit enough money to cover losses due to mismanagement.

I deserve respect for the things I did not do.

I love California, I practically grew up in Phoenix.

The global importance of the Middle East is that it keeps the Far East and the Near East from encroaching on each other.

I believe we are on an irreversible trend toward more freedom and democracy – but that could change.

The Radish That Broke My Mother’s Heart

We were the first on our block to have a television set.  Perhaps today that’s more a confession, an admission of weakness, than a source of pride.  But back then it was a source of great pride.  This, of course, was way back then — when we got our first television set, television programming didn’t invade our living rooms until four in the afternoon, and it exited by eleven, wrapping things up and signing off with the Star Spangled Banner and a test pattern, a device that tested the clarity of your vision or something like that.  (The late night part is hearsay; I was not allowed, early on, to stay up that late.)  But even though it was a mere seven hours of television, we flaunted it.

One problem with that early television schedule quickly surfaced – it stretched right through dinnertime.  But technology would solve that problem for us, too.  One night, with great ceremony, my father brought home the devices that would allow us to watch “Super Circus” and “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet,” without culinary interruption — TV trays.  What a marvelous idea.  They were tinny, vulgar and liable to collapse under anything heavier than roast beef, but night in, night out, my mother would slap a full meal right onto those trays.

Bless her.  Given diners who never once dropped their eyes to look at their plates and a husband with the narrowest of gastronomic parameters, she still put that dinner on those TV trays every night, making certain that every meal, no matter how meat and potato it might be, was accompanied by a healthy salad.  Little wooden bowls brimmed with lettuce, onion, carrot, celery and radish. We were partial to radishes – round and ruby red until cut by my mother into slices so uniform that, if they were placed side by side, you’d need a micrometer to measure the difference in thickness.

Though they all look pretty much the same, radishes can vary widely in their intensity of flavor, so it was not unusual that on one night our salads contained some particularly potent radishes.  Nor was it unusual that a person such as myself who never checked to see what was on the salad fork before plunging it into his mouth might inadvertently bite into several radish slices at once.  The resulting assault on tender ten-year-old taste buds was dramatic.  And any adolescent gourmand in the same situation would, after the fire died down, shriek:  “What are trying to do, kill us?”

My mother quickly and quietly, with mumbled apologies, removed the offending salad and went to the kitchen, where she remained, sitting in the shadows, most likely sobbing, while her selfish loved ones blithely watched television, unaware that a heart had been broken.

I thought nothing of my thoroughly ignoble behavior at the time; it was just one more carelessly tossed off cruelty.  But as the years passed, that single unpleasant act began to haunt me more and more.  My early visions of my mother sitting in the kitchen sniffling intensified as I aged.  And finally my mother was wailing at the top of her lungs and beating her breast before finally flinging herself in anguish against the refrigerator door.  And it was all my doing.

When I reached the age she would have been on that day of infamy and then some, I finally had to face my personal devils.  One night over martinis, during a visit with my mother, I broached the subject, and words of remorse began to tumble from my mouth like ills from Pandora’s box.  My mother looked at me as though I were crazy or something and said in her understanding, gray-haired way:  “Are you crazy or something?”

Classic denial.  My mother had buried the Day of the Radish deep within some crevice of her mind, denying it, and she continued to do so for the rest of her days.  Nevertheless, I have cleansed my conscience, and I can eat radishes once again.

 

 

APRIL 11, 1938: GIVE ME AN ALTO OR GIVE ME DEATH

GIVE ME AN ALTO OR GIVE ME DEATH

Call it destiny. Two men stranded in Kansas City when a storm closed the airport met in a hotel lobby, engaged in conversation, and – go figure – discovered they each had profound worries about the future of the barbershop quartet. This was not just empty lamenting on the part of Owen C. Cash and Rupert I. Hall; these founding fathers acted, and the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America was born. They wrote a letter that became a mission statement:

“In this age of dictators and government control of everything, about the only privilege guaranteed by the Bill of Rights not in some way supervised or directed is the art of barbershop quartet singing. Without a doubt, we still have the right of peaceable assembly which, we are advised by competent legal authority, includes quartet singing.

“The writers have, for a long time, thought that something should be done to encourage the enjoyment of this last remaining vestige of human liberty. Therefore, we have decided to hold a songfest on the roof garden of the Tulsa Club on Monday, April 11, 1938, at 6:30 pm.”

Twenty-six men attended that first rooftop meeting. Attendance at subsequent meetings multiplied rapidly, and at the third meeting, 150 harmonizers stopped traffic on the street below. A reporter for the Tulsa Daily World put the story on the national news wires and the rest is history.

Today the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America (SPEBSQSA, as it’s more familiarly known) has 25,000 members,. That acronym SPEBSQSA was the founders’ way of demonstrating that one could  be a barbershop quartet enthusiast and still have a sense of humor; it was a parody of the New Deal’s “alphabet soup” of acronyms, and the society has said “attempts to pronounce it are discouraged.”

Wretched Richard’s Little Literary Lessons — No. 7

Imagery

img·ery \ˈi-mij-rē, -mi-jə-\

A literary device in which the author uses words and phrases to create “mental images” that help the reader better imagine the world the author has created.

With Huey at the wheel, South Miami, Key Largo and Marathon had been blurs in a landscape littered with condominiums and palm trees and then longer and longer stretches looking out to sea. Squadrons of pelicans flying in Blue Angel formation patrolled the waters offshore. Occasionally one would break ranks and swoop down to make an arrest. The perp quickly disappeared into the pelican’s private holding tank, demanding perhaps a phone call to his lawyer. But he was quickly swallowed without benefit of counsel like so much seafood. A large billboard urged them to “go all the way” to Key West, and Huey announced that they would make it in time for the sunset.

 

Put yourself in the picture: Voodoo Love Song

 

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 19, 2009: BYE, BYE, BIRDIE

BYE, BYE, BIRDIE

When the swallows come back to Capistrano/ That’s the day I pray that you’ll come back  to me.

And the day is today, St. Josephs Day, although St. Joseph has nothing to do with swallows. Like feathered clockwork, cliff swallows year after year migrated from Goya, Argentina, to the Mission San Juan Capistrano in southern California. Every year the good townsfolk of San Juan Capistrano welcomed them back with an annual Swallows’ Day Parade and other festive events. And the tourists would flock as well. Yes, the past tense is appropriate.

Since 2009, the fabled swallows have failed to return to San Juan Capistrano, no matter how often folks sang that song they inspired. They have instead begun migrating to and nesting in the Chino Hills of Southern California, north of San Juan Capistrano. And they have built their nests in the eaves of the Vellano Country Club, next to a golf course. Will tourists now have to pay greens fees to watch the event? The picture just isn’t that powerful, and “when the swallows come back to the Vellano Country Club . . .” doesn’t cut it as a romantic song. An era has ended.

And what of the song? Written by Leon René and first recorded by The Ink Spots in 1940, reaching #4 on the charts, it has been recorded by Glenn Miller, Xavier Cugat, Gene Krupa, Fred Waring, Guy Lombardo, Billy May, the Five Satins, Elvis Presley, and Pat Boone, whose 1957 version reached # 80 on the Billboard Hot 100. Is it now headed for the scrapheap of forgotten music? Back to the Bluebirds of Happiness – they can be trusted.

 

2012: The Swallow Saga Continues

After a few swallowless years, the mission took steps to lure their fickle feathered friends birds back. A Cliff Swallow expert from the University of Tulsa led the effort. At first he tried seducing them with song — not their theme song (imagine being wooed by a continuous Pat Boone vocal) but a loop of swallow impersonations. A few birds swooped in to investigate, but didn’t fall for it.

In 2016, the mission added artificial nests, since it’s known that Barn Swallows, and probably Cliff Swallows, are attracted to sites that have old nests. The faux nests were attached to a large temporary wall in hopes that the birds would move in and eventually spill over and start using the actual mission structures.

Swallow alert:  Last year two real nests were discovered at the mission and several swallows were spotted in flight.  Stay tuned.

 

Now here’s a bird that is truly trustworthy:

Yellow Bird, Part I: Their Eyes Met, Sort of

A feathered kamikaze ablaze in reds, oranges and yellows, Antoine’s bird plunged from the top branches of the tamarind tree. But then, at the last possible moment, it reversed avian gears YELLOWand landed with a certain grace at the edge of the table where Antoine worked at his papers. It might have been a perfect landing were it not for the papers, but fluttering parrot wings scattered them.

Antoine grabbed several out of midair and, reaching down to the ground for the others, shouted: “Damn you.”

“Damn you,” responded the bird.

“Feathered fiend,” said Antoine, stacking the papers.

“Damn you,” said the bird.

Antoine suddenly grinned at the bird. “Voila! Your lack of vocabulary betrays your basic stupidity and demonstrates very well why I am at the top of the food chain and you are very near the bottom. At any time, should I tire of you, you are soup.”

“Damn you,” said the parrot, its voice crackling with defiance.

Fou!” said Antoine, and went back to his papers. The papers pleased him, and he whistled as he shuffled them. The bird swaggered back and forth along the edge of the table. Other birds, coached by their owners, might declare themselves “pretty birds.” Not this one. He knew damn well he was pretty and remained smugly silent on the subject. His human companion was himself quite smug; the papers on the table proved that he was profiting from the café against odds. Located at the center of the island, five kilometers from the nearest beach, Bistro Francaise nevertheless attracted a steady stream of customers. They came to sit under the fifty-foot tamarind tree for lunch and on his small patio for dinner. At lunch, the parrot swooped out of the tamarind to a tree pregnant with bunches of light green bananas, past a pawpaw, and over the diners’ heads. He strutted on their tables and spoke to the lucky ones, sending them away remarking on the wonder of that bird. At dinner, Antoine strutted past their tables just to be sure they were in awe of his culinary ability. And after dinner he would sip cognac with them before sending them away remarking on the wonder of that man.

Not only tourists made the pilgrimage to the middle of the island; many locals dropped in to dine or just pass the time with a bottle or two of fine French wine. In a short time, Bistro Francaise had become something of an institution. Antoine was certain that this was a result of his congeniality as well as his culinary ability. Others, however, maintained that they frequented the Bistro Francaise because of the admittedly good food and the ambience of starry skies, crisp night air and the natural cacophony that surrounded them, untouched by manufactured sound, and that they did so in spite of the owner’s “congeniality.”

“You’re a frog,” said Antoine’s bird, annoyed at the lack of attention. “God save the queen.”

“I wish I could identify the swine who twisted your tiny parrot mind with this English prattle,” Antoine hissed. “God save the queen, indeed. It takes a very backward country to not only retain a monarchy but to dote and gush over it.”

“Jolly good.”

“Go. Go fly away before I pluck your feathers. You annoy me.” Antoine pushed his papers into neat little stacks and slipped an elastic band around each stack. He stacked the stacks, stood and marched toward the kitchen. Taking its cue, the parrot lifted off and ascended to the heights of the tamarind tree.

The Cuban black bean soup, amply fortified with sherry, was velvet on the diners’ lips. The grilled grouper with hearts of palm stopped conversations short. And the gateau led to an almost reverential silence. Antoine beamed. He paced the periphery of the patio, sipping at a glass of the same sherry that had so transformed the soup, and puffed at a hand-rolled eight-inch cigar, always keeping a watchful eye on the two young women who hurried back and forth bewitching the diners that crowded around every one of the cafe’s sixteen tables with not only their efficiency but their bashful smiles and the native lilt of their voices.

Antoine paused at a table occupied by four young men who were just finishing up. “Good fish,” said one.

“Good fish,” harrumphed Antoine as though the compliment were an insult.

“Did you catch them yourself?” asked another.

“Catch them myself indeed,” said Antoine, shaking his head and resuming his circumnavigation of the patio. As he neared the end of the short journey, he spotted an attractive young woman sitting alone, sipping at a glass of white wine and staring out into the night instead of the book that lay open on the table. She had dark hair and dark eyes and the pale skin of a new arrival. A soft white blouse embraced breasts that inspired staring.

“Good evening,” said Antoine with a slight bow. “I am Antoine, the proprietor and chef. I hope my efforts met with your approval.”

She turned toward him with a tentative smile and examined him with deep dark eyes that rendered him impotent, tethered by her gaze. “It was delicious, thank you.”

He paused, waiting to speak, afraid he might babble. “You had the grouper, I believe?” Easy assumption – only one person didn’t have grouper – an American, naturally.

“Yes, it was wonderful.”

His self-confidence was fighting its way back into the game. “Simplicity is the key with fresh island seafood. A subtle blend of lemon, wine and herbs, and searing heat. You are on holiday?”

“A little business, then a lot of beach. And, of course, dining.” She raised her glass to him, and he beamed before giving his little cough that was meant to indicate a modesty that didn’t exist.

“I hope you will be able to dislodge yourself from business and beaches long enough to join us for lunch. It really is a beautiful spot during the day. So peaceful, so unhurried.”

“It must be. It’s certainly beautiful at night.” She looked out into the darkness once again and Antoine let his eyes drop to where the slit in her dress plunged between her breasts to somewhere below the top of the table. When he looked up again, he discovered that he had been caught. She was now looking directly at him, and her expression suggested she was fully aware of his indiscretion.

“Ah, yes, the night. It is beautiful. And you bring additional beauty to it, if I may say so.”

She laughed a little and said: “Thank you.”

“It is my pleasure, mademoiselle, my pleasure. But I must disturb your reverie no longer. I will excuse myself and return to my duties.” He pulled to attention and stood as though awaiting dismissal, then said: “Au revoir,” and turned away.

A demain,” she said, and as he turned his head back, winked.

“A demain,” Antoine said to himself as he strutted back across the patio, threading his way through the remaining diners without seeing them. “A demain.”

continued

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

 

February 26, 1928, 1932: I Found My Thrill, I Walk the Line

Two legends of early rock and roll share birthdays on February 26. One was born in New Orleans in 1928, the youngest of eight children; the other in Arkansas in 1932, one of seven siblings. One started as a boogie-woogie jazz musician, the other singing country music. They both burst onto the pop scene in a big way in the mid50s with the songs they remain identified with — “Blueberry Hill” and “I Walk the Line.”

fats_dominoAntoine Domino was the son of a Creole fiddler who began playing professionally in New Orleans honky-tonks at the age of 10. It was there he picked up the name Fats and the foot-stomping, driving piano sound that would become his signature as demonstrated in his first recording, “The Fat Man” in 1949. In

1955, his career got a boost from an unlikely source, Pat Boone, whose white cover version of “Ain’t That a Shame” helped Fats Domino’s version cross over to the pop charts where he remained. From then on, he needed no help from anyone — “Blueberry Hill”, “Blue Monday”, “I’m Walkin'”, “Walking to New Orleans” and on — 65 million records worldwide, until retiring back to New Orleans in the 1980s with only an occasional local appearance.

 

Johnny Cash moved to Memphis in 1954, hoping to become a radio

02 Aug 1970 — 8/2/1970: Close-up publicity portrait of singer Johnny Cash. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

announcer. At night he played with guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant, known as the Tennessee Two. Cash visited Sun Records where he auditioned for Sam Phillips, singing gospel songs. Although Phillips had no interest in gospel, he eventually gave Cash a contract singing country. Cash recorded “Hey Porter,” “Cry Cry Cry,” and “Folsom Prison Blues,” which had some success on the country hit parade.  Then in 1956, “I Walk the Line” became No. 1 on the country charts and crossed over to the pop charts. Cash left the label in 1958 to sign a lucrative offer with Columbia Records, where his single “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town” became one of his biggest hits. Hit followed hit, many with his wife June Carter Cash, right into the next century.

Both Fats Domino and Johnny Cash have won just about every musical recognition there is. The Man in Black died in 2003, shortly after the death of his wife June: Fats died in 2017.