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.

 

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November 23, 1889: Put Another Nickel In

The scene is the Palais Royale Saloon in San Francisco, November 23, 1889. Entrepreneur 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.

 

November 20, 1907: Before There Were Muppets

The name Frances Allison probably doesn’t ring a bell with most people. The radio comedienne and singer was born on November 20, 1907, and became well known to a segment of the television viewingKFOstamp audience in the days of live programming and test patterns. To those who huddled around the TV set early evenings during the late 40s and early 50s, she was better known simply as Fran, and she was one-third (and the only human) of the trio Kukla, Fran and Ollie.

Created by puppeteer Burr Tillstrom, the show got its start as Junior Jamboree locally in Chicago, Illinois, in 1947. Renamed Kukla, Fran and Ollie, it transferred to WNBQ in November 1948 and aired nationally on NBC a few months later. Although the show, all puppets except for Fran, was originally targeted to children, it was soon watched by more adults than children. It was entirely ad-libbed.

Fran assumed the role of big sister and cheery voice of reason as the puppets engaged each other in life’s little ups and downs. It was a Punch and Judy kind of show but with less slapstick and broad caricature. Kukla was the earnest leader of the troupe, a bit of a nerd, and Ollie (short for Oliver J. Dragon) was his complete opposite, a devilish one-toothed dragon who would roll on his back when sucking up or slam his chin on the stage when annoyed. Joining them were Madame Oglepuss, a retired opera diva; Beulah, a liberated witch; Fletcher Rabbit, a fussbudget, and several others.

KFOs fan base included Orson Welles, John Steinbeck, Tallulah Bankhead, and Adlai Stevenson among many others.  James Thurber wrote that Tillstrom and the program were “helping to save the sanity of the nation and to improve, if not even to invent, the quality of television.”

Kukla, Fran and Ollie ran for ten years until 1957.

 

Your life story would not make a good book. Don’t even try. ~ Fran Lebowitz

October 11, 1983: Don’t Yank the Crank

No, the title doesn’t refer to Steve Bannon or one of his playmates. It refers to a movement that took place in Maine back in 1981. Movement is probably a pretty strong word for laid-back Maine where crankdemonstrators tend not to get worked up into a chanting frenzy over things. And even less so in a sleepy little town like Woodstock whose population squeaked by 1,200 a couple of years ago.

Bryant Pond is Woodstock’s largest settlement and as much of an urban center as you’re likely to find. It captured its fifteen minutes of national fame and media attention during the mid1970s when its family-owned Bryant Pond Telephone Company became the last telephone exchange in the United States to used hand-cranked phones Then in 1981, the two-position magneto switchboard in the living room of the owners was purchased by the Oxford County Telephone & Telegraph Company, a larger company in the Maine neighborhood. The Bryant Pond Telephone Company was swallowed like so many krill off the shores of Maine.

Two Bryant Pond residents started the “Don’t Yank The Crank” movement to save their crank telephones, financed by the sale of tee shirts – a valiant effort but nonetheless futile. At a meeting in the local school gymnasium warmed by a wood stove, townsfolk spoke out. “We have the oldest pay station in the United States,” said one resident, either complaining or bragging. “You put in a nickel and wind it up.” “You are a person instead of a number.” And did they mention no robocalls?

Alas, to no avail. The last “crank calls” took place on October 11, 1983, and the beloved telephones slipped into history like so much Americana.

September 6, 1916: And They Immediately Squeezed the Charmin

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

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

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

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

Ernest Tubb (1914-1984)

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

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September 1, 1878: 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.

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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.

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.