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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.

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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.

Matilda, Part 5: Push Comes to Shove

“I haven’t finished my drink yet,” said Matilda. “But boy I’m starting to get anxious.”

“How about another toast?” said Humberto, winking at Odus, then turning to wink at Matilda as well.

“Okay,” said Matilda, raising her glass. “To the new owners of the Pooh-bah.”

Odus raised his glass, rum sloshing, and said: “To my dipstick what’s about to check some oil.” He chugged the rum and leered at Matilda. “Momma, you ain’t gonna know what hit you.” He stumbled toward her, reaching out, fell to his knees in front of her and let his head slump into her lap. He remained there, motionless, until Matilda pushed him and he collapsed to the floor.

“Thank goodness,” said Matilda, gulping the rest of her rum. Humberto roared with laughter.

“Just the two of us now,” he said, also stumbling as he plopped onto the chaise lounge next to her.

“You and me,” she said with a wicked smile. She pulled a small bottle from under the chaise lounge pillow, untwisted the cap and shook a small capsule into the palm of her hand. She tossed the pill into her mouth as Humberto watched.

“What’s that?” he asked suspiciously.

“It’s a real turn on,” said Matilda. “These little things make sex cosmic. Want one?”

“I don’t do that stuff,” said Humberto.

“Okay,” said Matilda. “I hope you can keep up with me.”

“Give me one,” said Humberto. “No, give me two.”

“Two?” said Matilda. “I don’t know. I’ve done two, and it’s really a knockout, but I don’t think you should. Not your first time.”

“Two,” Humberto demanded. She shook two capsules into his palm. He tossed them into his mouth and washed them down with the remaining rum. Then he began pawing at her.

“No wait,” she said, standing. “I don’t want to ruin the dress. Let’s take our clothes off first.” She pushed her dress off one shoulder. “Are you ready for more?” Humberto didn’t respond. He sat, the fingers of both hands frozen to the top button of his shirt, and stared straight ahead.

 

Humberto floated through space, doing his best to control the gossamer ship, but he couldn’t, and large objects that were not gossamer slammed into his head, one after another. He was dying. If only he could open his eyes, maybe he would survive. He concentrated on his eyes and, with great pain, willed them slowly open. He could see only a shadowy blur within the blinding brightness. As the blur sharpened, incrementally in time to the pounding of his head, he recognized Odus, retching over the side at the other end of the baby blue dinghy. Beyond, nothing but water.

 

After leaving Sweet Leilani ‘s Saloon, Matilda went to the train station, where she fed coins into the slot on a storage locker until the door swung open. Over five dollars. What bandits, she thought, as she pushed the bag filled with $100,000 U.S. dollars into the locker and shut the door. Then she returned to the harbor. She noticed that the Pooh-Bah was already gone as she mussed her hair, ripped her blouse a bit, and staggered toward a policeman. Collapsing against him, she looked up into surprised eyes and wailed: “Call my Daddy, please.”

Matilda 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.

 

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APRIL 14, 2019: Right Out Loud

It’s okay to laugh out loud today. You don’t even need a reason because today is International Moment of Laughter Day and that ought to be reason enough. The day is the brainchild of Izzy Gesell, a self-described humorologist.

“Laughter comes right after breathing as just about the healthiest thing you can do,” he says. “It relieves stress, instills optimism, raises self-confidence, defuses resistance to change, and enhances all your relationships.”

To help you celebrate the day, here is a list of ways you can laugh. You can titter, giggle, chuckle or chortle. You can cackle or crow. You can snicker, snigger or snort. Ha-ha, hee-haw, ho-ho, tee-hee, yuk-yuk. You can guffaw, belly laugh or horselaugh. You can roar or shake with laughter. Split your sides, bust a gut, roll in the aisles and perhaps die laughing. And of course there’s the ever-popular laughing until you pee your pants.

THE FUTURE WILL BE BETTER TOMORROW

Fireworks, rock music and, yes, laughter punctuated the April 14, 1999, 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.  He exited the race a few months later, after finishing eighth in the first Republican straw poll, cheating the world 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 — Now That’s a Funny Vegetable

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.

 

 

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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.”

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

 

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APRIL 2, 1902: 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 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.

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MARCH 19, 1789: Crime and Punishment, Russki Style

The March 19 edition of the London Evening Post had a rather unusual account on the subject of crime and punishment in which the writer lamented the lack of comeuppance for certain offenses such as libel. The writer pointed to Russia as an exemplar of punishment fitting the crime.

A gentleman in Petersburgh had thought fit to publish a pamphlet reflecting upon the abuse of power by the Czar. This was probably a mistake, for the Czar did not take kindly to the criticism, and upon the publication hitting the street, the authorities arrested the gentleman charging him with libel and convicting him summarily.

A scaffold was erected in the public square to which the condemned prisoner was conveyed, there to face the Imperial Provost, his “executioner.” The offending book was brought forth, its pages were severed from the binding and each and every page was rolled up into cylindrical shape. One page at a time, the author was forced to eat his own words. It took three days, but the author actually devoured every page of his book, and seemed to feel little discomfort, except when swallowing those pages that contained his strongest arguments.

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.  An era had ended.

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 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.Last year two real nests were discovered at the mission and several swallows were spotted in flight.  Hopes are running high that we’ll once again be singing that song.

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.

 

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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.