April 25, 1926: 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.

Here’s a version of the song that didn’t make number one.  http://youtu.be/PD7IELAvleY

April 24, 1819: 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.

April 11, 1938: 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.”

April 9, 1940: Your Shopping Cart Is Empty

Sylvan Goldman was an idea man. One of his more persistent ideas led to his choice of careers. Actually, it was more than an idea — a concept, an eternal truth perhaps. “The wonderful thing about food is that everyone uses it — and uses it only once.”

Born in the Oklahoma Territory, he and his brother went into wholesale produce only to be wiped out by plunging oil prices.  After studying all the latest methods for retailing groceries, they bounced back with a chain of self-service stores featuring woven baskets for  carrying groceries. The stores were a big success, and they were bought out by the Safeway chain. Once again hard luck hit; their Safeway stock tanked during the Depression. And once again they bounced back; by the mid-30s they were half owners of the Piggly Wiggly chain.

Goldman continued to dream about customers moving more and more groceries. And one night in 1936 he had a eureka moment — inspired by a wooden folding chair. Put wheels on the legs and a big basket on the seat and you have a shopping cart.

Goldman and a mechanic friend began tinkering. They devised a metal cart with not one but two wire baskets. For efficient storage, the carts could be folded and the baskets nested. Goldman called his invention a folding basket carrier, receiving a patent on April 9, 1940.

When the carriers were introduced to the public, Goldman encountered one tiny problem. Customers didn’t want to use them. Men thought they would look like sissies pushing a cart. Women felt like they were pushing a baby carriage.  And older shoppers thought it made them look helpless. Goldman was always ready with another idea. He hired attractive models, both men and women, to push the carts around, as well as charming greeters urging customers to take one for a spin.

By the 1940s, the carts had become so much a part of the American shopping experience that the Saturday Evening Post devoted its cover to them. And they got bigger and bigger until they got tiny as little icons on websites everywhere.

Goldman’s Folding Carrier Basket Company is still in business today. Goldman isn’t. He died in 1984.

March 19, 2009: 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.

 

March 19, 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 will move in and eventually spill over and start using the actual mission structures.  Stay tuned.

March 13, 1930: Gonna Find Me a Planet

An advanced civilization inhabited Mars, but the times were desperate. The planet was becoming arid, and the Martians had constructed a series of canals and oases in an attempt to tap the polar ice caps. This was the theory espoused by Percival Lowell based on studies from his observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, during the early 20th century. Lowell was born on March 13, 1855, and after many years traveling in and studying the Far East, he turned his attention to the far reaches of space. He was all over Mars, writing three books on the red planet that captured the public imagination and helped give rise to the notion of men from Mars.

The existence of canals was later disproved by more powerful telescopes and space flights, but Lowell would make a more important contribution to planetary studies during the last years of his life. Turning from Mars to Neptune and Uranus, Lowell became convinced that their positions were affected by a hypothetical Planet X. Lowell began searching for the mystery planet in 1906. Dying in 1916, Lowell himself did not witness the discovery, but the Lowell Observatory announced on what would have been his 75th birthday — March 13, 1930 — that they had discovered the planet Pluto.

Sadly, after nearly a century as our ninth planet, Pluto was cruelly downgraded to the status of dwarf planet in 2006.  And the name Pluto will become more associated with the Disney hound dog of that name.

Of Which You Ain’t Nothing But a

Mike Stoller (right), born March 13, 1933, working with his partner Jerry Leiber, helped shape rock leiberand roll with an amazing list of hit songs beginning with Hound Dog in 1952. Elvis Presley , the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, John Lennon, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, and Frank Sinatra top the list of the many artists who have recorded their songs. More than three dozen of their hits were featured in the Broadway production Smokey Joe’s Cafe including the title tune, Young Blood, Dance With Me, Searchin’, Kansas City, Poison Ivy, On Broadway, Yakety Yak, Charlie Brown, Loving You, Jailhouse Rock, Spanish Harlem and Stand by Me.

In an interview, Stoller was asked to compare Elvis Presley’s 1956 version of Hound Dog with the original recorded by Big Mama Thornton. “It sounded kind of stiff and a bit too fast, a little nervous,” he answered. “It didn’t have that insinuating groove like on Big Mama’s record.”

Eventually, he grew to like the Presley version.   After it sold seven million copies it began to sound better.”

 

Eventually, I believe, everything evens out. Long ago, an asteroid hit our planet and killed our dinosaurs. But, in the future, maybe we’ll go to another planet and kill their dinosaurs. ~ Jack Handey

February 26, 1928, 1932: I Found My Thrill Walking 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.

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

Johnny Cash moved to Memphis in 1954, hoping to become a radio 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. Although Fats Domino almost bought the levee in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, he returned to his home as soon as he could after the hurricane and remains there today.

 

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February 17, 1895: New Kid on the Block

Mickey Dugan, a bald, snaggle-toothed kid with a silly grin who always wore an over-sized yellow hand-me-down nightshirt, was right at home in the 19th century New York slum known as Hogan’s Alley, and beginning on February 17, 1895, became right at home in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.
yellowkid
In the neighborhood filled with quirky characters that was home to R. F. Outcalt’s comic strip, Mickey, also know as the Yellow Kid was the quirkiest. The Hogan’s Alley comic strip gradually became a full-page Sunday color cartoon with the Kid as its main character. He spoke in a muddled slang that was practically his own language, and everything he said was printed on his nightshirt as though he were a walking billboard.

yellow_kidIt may have been a cartoon, but Outcault’s comic strip aimed its humor and social commentary squarely at an adult audience. It has been described as a turn-of-the-century theater of the city, in which a group of mischievous ragamuffins act out the class and racial tensions of their urban environment.

As the Kid’s popularity  grew, the strip’s presence actually increased paper sales for the World, and led to all sorts of merchandising from dolls to playing cards to cigarettes.  It also earned Outcault the appellation ‘father of the comic strip.’

Several years later, Outcault created the character Buster Brown who became a spokesboy for the Brown Shoe Co with the immortal line “Hi! I’m Buster Brown and I live in a shoe. This is my dog, Tige, and he lives there, too.”

 

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December 21, 1946: Don’t You Know Me, Bert? Ernie?

Frank Capra said that it was his favorite of the many movies he made throughout a phenomenal career. He screened it for his family every Christmas season. Yet it’s initial 1946 release at the Globe Theatre in New York did not bring about yuletide euphoria and visions wonderfullifed1018of sugar plums. It’s a Wonderful Life premiered to mixed and sometimes dismissive reviews, but it went on to become one of the most critically acclaimed films ever made, garnering a permanent spot in every list of the top films of the last century.

From its very beginning, it did not inspire great expectations. It was based on an original story “The Greatest Gift”written by Philip Van Doren Stern in 1939. After being unsuccessful in getting the story published, Stern made it into a Christmas card, and mailed 200 copies to family and friends in 1943.  In 1944, RKO Pictures ran across the story and bought the rights to it for $10,000, hoping to turn the story into a vehicle for Cary Grant. Grant made another Christmas movie, The Bishop’s Wife, instead, and the story languished on a shelf until RKO, anxious to unload the project, sold the rights to Capra in 1945.

Capra, along with several other writers, including Dorothy Parker, created the screenplay that Capra would rename It’s a Wonderful Life.

The town of Seneca Falls, New York claims that Capra modeled Bedford Falls after it. The town has an annual “It’s a Wonderful Life festival” in December, a Hotel Clarence, and the “It’s a Wonderful Life” Museum. The town of Bedford Falls itself, however, was built in Culver City, California, on a 4-acre set originally designed for the western Cimarron. Capra added a working bank and a tree-lined center parkway, planted with 20 full grown oak trees. Pigeons, cats, and dogs roamed at will.

The dance scene where George and Mary end up in the swimming pool was filmed at the Beverly Hills High School. The pool still exists.

 

itsa-wonderfulll

 

 

November 23, 1889: Put Another Nickel In

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

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

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

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

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

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

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