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February 1, 1896: Poor People of Paris

Opera patrons packed the Teatro Regio in Turin, Italy, on the evening of February 1, 1896, for the world premiere of Giacomo Puccini’s latest, La Boheme. Conducting the evening’s performance was a rising young star, Arturo Toscanini. Critics were divided over the opera, but audiences lapped it up, and it remains the world’s most popular opera. It is a timeless story of love among struggling young artists in Paris during the 1830s.

Our Bohemians– a poet, a painter, a musician and a philosopher — share a garret in the Latin Quarter as they try to eke out a living. It’s Christmas Eve; it’s cold. Rodolfo, the poet, and Marcello, the painter, are feeding a small fire with one of Rodolfo’s manuscripts. Their two companions arrive with food and fuel, one having had the good fortune to sell a bit of music. As they eat and drink, the landlord comes looking for their overdue rent. They distract him with wine and, pretending to be offended by his stories, throw him out. The rent money is divided for a night out in the Latin Quarter. Rodolfo stays behind as the other three leave, fortuitously, as a pretty neighbor comes looking for a light for her candle: “They call me merely Mimi.” Merely Mimi faints (she’s not well, folks), she and Rodolfo immediately fall in love, and they head off to the Latin Quarter, singing of their love.

In Act 2, our Bohemians are making merry in the Latin Quarter. Marcello’s one-time sweetheart, Musetta, enters on the arm of the old but wealthy Alcindoro. Trying to get Marcello’s attention, she sings an aria about her own charms (Musetta’s Waltz, recorded as Don’t You Know by Della Reese in 1959). She sends Alcindoro off on a bogus errand and promptly leaps into Marcello’s arms. They all scurry off, stiffing the returning Alcindoro for the check.

Act 3 brings a series of flirtations, jealousies, lovers’ quarrels and, for Mimi, a lot of coughing. At this point, we’re pretty sure she’s not going to make it through Act 4.

Which she doesn’t. After a few attempts at being cheerful, the others leave Mimi and Rodolfo who recall their meeting and happy days together until Mimi is overtaken by violent coughing. The others return, Mimi drifts into unconsciousness and dies.

Enrico Caruso owned the role of Rodolfo during his life, as did Luciano Pavarotti. And Maria Callas was all over Mimi.

Perelman Among Swine

S.J. Perelman was an American humorist, author, and screenwriter, perelmanknown primarily for his humorous short stories, first published in The New Yorker and other magazines in the 1930s and 1940s. He co-authored with Ogden Nash the book for the Broadway musical One Touch of Venus (music by Kurt Weill) which ran for more than 500 performances beginning in 1943. His movie collaborations include a couple of Marx Brothers outings and the award-winning screenplay for Around the World in 80 Days. He recounted his own trip around the world in a collection of humorous vignettes called Westward Ha!. The surrealistic travails on his Pennsylvania farm, were collected into books such as Acres and Pains. Perelman was born on February 1, 1904 and died in 1979.

You’ll have to leave my meals on a tray outside the door because I’ll be
working pretty late on the secret of making myself invisible, which may take me almost until eleven o’clock.

A farm is an irregular patch of nettles bounded by short-term notes, containing a fool and his wife who didn’t know enough to stay in the city.

In pulp fiction it is a rigid convention that the hero’s shoulders and the heroine’s balcon constantly threaten to burst their bonds, a possibility which keeps the audience in a state of tense expectancy. Unfortunately for the fans, however, recent tests reveal that the wisp of chiffon which stands between the publisher and the postal laws has the tensile strength of drop-forged steel.

“Have a bit of the wing, darling?” queried Diana solicitously, indicating the roast Long Island airplane with applesauce. I tried to turn our conversation from the personal note, but Diana would have none of it. Soon we were exchanging gay banter over the mellow Vouvray, laughing as we dipped fastidious fingers into the Crisco parfait for which Diana was famous. Our meal finished, we sauntered into the play-room and Diana turned on the radio. With a savage snarl the radio turned on her and we slid over the waxed floor in the intricate maze of the jackdaw strut.

As one who achieved the symmetry of a Humphrey Bogart and the grace of a jaguar purely on pastry, I have no truck with lettuce, cabbage and similar chlorophyll.

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JANUARY 3, 1929: CIAO, PILGRIM

Born in Rome on January 3, 1929, Sergio Leone is an Italian film director, producer, and writer whose name has become synonymous with thatfistful-of-dollars-1 peculiar sub-genre of movies known as Spaghetti Westerns. His trio of films released during the sixties, known as the Dollars Trilogy, were not the first of the type but certainly defined it: A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly are the top of the heap of the more than 600 Spaghetti Westerns and are consistently listed among the best rated Westerns in general.
The term Spaghetti Western was coined by critics, particularly in the U.S., unable to accept the fact that the Old West had been co-opted by a bunch of pesky Italians, even though Americans had grown bored with its depiction. Although directed by Italians, the films were actually rather international; the actors and technical staff came from throughout Europe and the U.S. Although originally released in Italian, everything was dubbed since the actors spoke in a variety of languages and the whole enterprise had the sound of a food fight at the United Nations. A Hollywood has-been usually headed the cast, or in the case of the Dollars Trilogy, a yet to be recognized upstart such as Clint Eastwood.
Some argue that the first Spaghetti Western appeared way back in 1910 — Giacomo Puccini’s 1910 opera La fanciulla del West; the first Italian Western movie was La Vampira Indiana in 1913, a Western vampire flick, directed by Sergio Leone’s father. Throughout the following years, several movies fit the category, but it was Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars that established the Spaghetti Western standard for cinematic style, acting and evocative music. In it, an unlikely hero (bounty hunter is the favored occupation) enters a town ruled by two outlaw gangs, where ordinary social norms are non-existent. He cleverly plays the gangs against one another to fleece them of that titular fistful of dollars. His treachery is eventually exposed and he is beaten severely about the head, but he wins out in the end through his cunning and wit.
During the following years, the genre evolved (as genres will), and the Spaghetti Western legacy was transformed almost beyond recognition, giving way to overwrought action and low-brow comedy, a genre that might more appropriately be called Spaghetti-o Western.

 

Oleo Oleo Oxen Free

In 1871 Henry Bradley received a patent for an amorphous concoction of cottonseed oil and animal fats that had the appearance, texture and perhaps the taste of silly putty. He called his creation oleomargarine (margarine to its close friends) to be used as a substitute for butter.
While Real Butter from Real Cows had a pleasant yellow color, Bradley’s faux butter was a stark, pasty white, more of a lard look alike that turned a lot of people off. No one spreading this white stuff on their toast would ever dream of exclaiming “I can’t believe it’s not butter.”
The answer, of course, was to color the stuff to make it look like Real Butter. But not so fast. It seems that discontented cows saw yellow margarine as a threat to the butter industry. (And this was long before a single crown appeared on a margarine muncher’s head.) They rose up and secured legislation prohibiting the sale of yellow margarine.
Margarine manufacturers used various tactics to bring color to their products. One of the oddest was a method devised by the W.E. Dennison Co. that used a capsule of yellow dye inside a plastic baggie of margarine The consumer would knead the package, breaking the capsule, allowing the dye to eventually spread throughout the margarine. Some consumers were still kneading their first lump of margarine when, in 1955, the ban on yellow margarine was lifted. Today margarine remains a glorious shade of yellow, and the naked eye cannot tell it from Real Butter. It does still taste like silly putty, however.

Stone Cold Dead in de Market, Part 1: Upton Swann’s Demise

stoneUpton Swann sat all alone on the ornate cast iron love seat that had been painted white sometime in the distant past, shaded by a spreading Poinciana, surrounded by chattering merchants with piles of bananas to the right, piles of coconuts to the left — fruits, vegetables, fish and tourists everywhere.  Activity swirled around him, but he didn’t seem to care.  It was noon.  He’d been sitting there since 7 a.m.

On a second floor terrace of the Hotel Vieux Habitant that overlooked the market square, five people sat in a row, leaning over the railing, staring down past the frenzied activity at Upton Swann.  They, too, had been sitting there since seven.

Upton Swann and his audience of five had all been together on the terrace the previous evening, enjoying the serenity of the market square, abandoned in the early evening hours by merchants and tourists alike.  And they enjoyed the soft warmth tempered by the steady breeze off the ocean – at least five of them did; Upton Swann did not.  He found the climate foul ­- too hot — and that was just the tip of his iceberg of complaints about this island in particular and the Caribbean in general.  Unlike the others he could not wait to get back to the sensible climate of New York in March, a desire he did not endeavor to keep to himself.  “What if I get sick here?” he lamented.  “My god, they’ve probably got chickens wandering through the hospital.”

By 8 p.m., he had enjoyed just about as much of the tropical night as he intended to enjoy.  With a harrumph, he marched inside, revved the air conditioner up to its maximum, and sat down on the couch with a tumbler of Scotch.  Within minutes, he would complain no more.

The beginning of Upton Swann’s journey to the great beyond went unnoticed.  In fact, he was about two hours along before the Dexters — Howard and Wilma — came in and thought it odd that the tumbler lay in his lap in the center of a large Scotch stain.  (Later, they would recall that his last words were:  “This is a wretched place; I need Scotch.” Not eloquent enough for his tombstone, but certainly better than Myrna Pomeroy’s first husband’s last words:  “Five minutes on the toilet and I’ll be just fine.”)

The Dexters sounded a general alarm, and Myrna, her current husband Phil Pomeroy, and Upton’s widow Adele all came running in — although Adele didn’t yet realize that she was a widow, not until Howard Dexter said:  “He’s deader than a doornail.”

Adele sobbed, and the others looked on with bewildered expressions.  Howard wasn’t a coroner or a doctor or anything, but he knew a lot of things, and the others accepted his diagnosis.

“Do you suppose he had a heart attack?” asked Myrna Pomeroy.

Howard Dexter picked up the bottle of scotch and ceremoniously sniffed at it.  He might have been selecting a wine for their dinner.  Then he poured a few drops into his palm, wetted a finger and touched it to his tongue.  The others watched in silence.

“Poison,” Howard proclaimed.  “Not a doubt of it.  This Scotch has really been laced with it.”   Howard wasn’t a pharmacologist or detective either, but he knew a lot of things.

Adele sobbed again, and Myrna Pomeroy said:  “How could it be?  We were all here.  How could someone have… no, you’re not suggesting…?”

continued

 

victor borgeI only know two pieces; one is ‘Claire de Lune’ and the other one isn’t.  –Danish comedian, pianist and conductor Victor Borge, born on January 3, 1909 (died in 2000):

 

 

 

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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.

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November 29, 1924: Don’t Shoot the Soprano

Giacomo Puccini, who died on November 29, 1924, was a giant in Italian opera, unrivaled in orchestration and a sense of theater. Passion, sensuality, tenderness, pathos and despair infused such operas as Manon Lescaut, La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, and Turandot.

Tosca was one of Puccini’s greatest operas, but it seems to have taken on a bit of a curse, like that Scottish play whose title shall not be uttered in the theater. More things have evidently gone awry in Tosca than in any other opera.tosca  A few vivid examples:

Exit Stage Left . . . Exit Damnit: In Act II of a performance of Tosca featuring Maria Callas in the title role, Tosca stabs her tormentor Scarpia, and then leaves the stage. After doing the deed, Callas who suffered from myopia but couldn’t wear contact lenses wandered the stage, unable to find her way out. Baritone Tito Gobbi, our Scarpia, while lying dead, tried to discreetly point out the exit, but started laughing so much that both his laughing and his pointing were obvious to the audience. The next morning, newspapers raved about his memorable portrayal of Scarpia’s death.

They Shoot Divas, Don’t They?: In another performance, a firing squad is called upon to execute Tosca’s lover Mario in the final act. The players were instructed to enter and shoot the person they found onstage, and then to exit with the principals. But when the players got onstage, they discovered two people and didn’t know which one to shoot. They aimed at one then the other as both principals said not to shoot them. They finally chose Tosca, but when they shot her, Mario keeled over dead. They stood there, further bewildered; they had been told to exit with the principals but neither of the principals were exiting. Mario remained lifeless while Tosca tried to shoo them away. Finally, when Tosca jumped to her death from the castle parapet, they seized the opportunity to exit with at least one principal, and they jumped after her, adding immeasurably to the tragedy.

Follow the Bouncing Diva: Tosca’s leap to her death  from the parapet of the Castel Sant’Angelo is the dramatic conclusion to the opera. Various methods have been employed to keep the jumping soprano safe; usually a mattress does the trick. In a Lyric Opera of Chicago performance,  stage hands replaced the usual mattress with a trampoline to provide added safety for a British soprano. They also added some unintended encores as Tosca bounced back into view several times.

 

One thing kids like is to be tricked. For instance, I was going to take my little nephew to Disneyland, but instead I drove him to an old burned-out warehouse. ‘Oh, no,’ I said, ‘Disneyland burned down.’ He cried and cried, but I think that deep down he thought it was a pretty good joke. I started to drive over to the real Disneyland, but it was getting pretty late. — Jack Handey