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.

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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.

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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