September 29, 1913: And That Spells Gladiolus

“G-L-A-D-I-O-L-U-S,” said 11-year-old Frank Neuhauser with just a bit of apprehension. After all, eight of the final nine competing super-spellers had crashed and burned before Frank faced his inquisitor. His spellingspelling was right on; he was the winner of the first ever National Spelling Bee, the last kid standing out of some two million competitors. His victory earned Frank $500 and a meeting with President Calvin Coolidge. Fortunately, the President did not ask him to spell “executive privilege.”

It was a big time for a little boy. Folks in his hometown Louisville held a parade in his honor. Schoolmates gave him a new bicycle.

That was back in 1925. Today, the bee, now known as the Scripps National Spelling Bee, features 11 million children in local contests throughout the United States and abroad. The field is reduced to some 270 finalists who convene in Washington for two days of competition.

Frank Neuhauser who was born on September 29, 1913, went on to become a successful patent attorney. During his later years, he was frequently a guest of honor at the spelling bees. He died in 2011 at the age of 97.

The National Spelling Bee has certainly become more challenging over the years. One might argue that Frank Neuhauser’s “gladiolus” was a piece of cake — or, for that matter, “cerise” in 1926 or “knack” in 1932. Try “syllepsis” from 1958 or “esquamulose.” There’s “vivisepulture” from 1996 and “appoggiatura” from 2005 — words our spell checker couldn’t handle.

Sing Cowboy, Sing

If you were a cowboy with the name Orton Grover, you’d probably change your name. Orton did, and became a legendary singing cowboy gene-autry-quotes-2with the more melodic name Gene Autry. Born September 29, 1907, Autry became a major presence in the movies and on radio and television, beginning in the 1930s and stretching into the 1950s.

He was the ultimate straight-shooter — brave and honest with impeccable manners and good posture. He distilled his philosophy into the Ten Cowboy Commandments:

  1. The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.
  2. He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.
  3. He must always tell the truth.
  4. He must be gentle with children, the elderly, and animals.
  5. He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.
  6. He must help people in distress.
  7. He must be a good worker.
  8. He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action, and personal habits.
  9. He must respect women, parents, and his nation’s laws.
  10. The Cowboy is a patriot.

Autry was also influential in the evolution of country music, his movies bringing cowboy music to a national audience with hits such as “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine,” “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” “South of the Border,” and “You Are My Sunshine.” He also owned such Christmas classics as “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Here Comes Santa Claus.”

And no, we did not forget his signature song:

 

 

 

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July 26, 1921: Excelsior, You Fatheads

To many of those who have even heard of Jean Shepherd, he is the voice of the grown-up Ralphie Parker whose childhood struggle to score an Official Red Ryder 200-Shot Range Model Air Rifle for Christmas is the subject of the holiday classic A Christmas Story. The film is based on Shepherd’s stories about growing up in Indiana.

Born July 26, 1921, Shepherd was an American raconteur, radio and TV personality, writer and actor. After several radio gigs, he settled in at WOR radio New York City in 1956 with an overnight slot on which he delighted fans by telling stories, reading poetry, and organizing listener stunts. The most famous of his stunts was the creation of a book, I, Libertine, by an 18th century author. Shepherd suggested that his listeners visit bookstores and ask for a copy of it, which led to booksellers attempting to purchase the book from their distributors.  Fans of the show also planted references to the book and author so widely that demand for the book led to its being listed on The New York Times Best Seller list even though it hadn’t been written.

Shepherd’s radio stories found their way into magazines and were later collected in the books In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash; Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters; The Ferrari in the Bedroom; and A Fistful of Fig Newtons.

 

shep“What the hell time is it?” muttered the old man. He was always an aggressive sleeper. Sleep was one of the things he did best, and he loved it. Some look upon sleep as an unfortunate necessary interruption of life; but there are others who hold that sleep is life, or at least one of the more fulfilling aspects of it, like eating or sex. Any time my old man’s sleep was interrupted, he became truly dangerous.”Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories: And Other Disasters

 

From A Christmas Story:

I had woven a tapestry of obscenity that as far as I know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.

Only I didn’t say “Fudge.” I said THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the “F-dash-dash-dash” word!

Now, I had heard that word at least ten times a day from my old man. He worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium; a master.

And of course:  You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.

July 26, 1895: Say Goodnight

With husband George Burns, Gracie Allen (born on July 26, 1895) made comedy history – in vaudeville, the movies, on radio and television.

The Burns and Allen comedy act began with Allen as the straight man, feeding  lines to Burns who delivered the punchlines. George explained later that he noticed Gracie’s straight lines were getting more laughs than his punchlines, so he reversed their roles. Audiences immediately fell in love with Gracie’s character, a clever combination of ditziness and total innocence.

George attributed their success to Gracie, even though he was a brilliant straight man: “All I had to  graciedo was say, ‘Gracie, how’s your brother?’ and she talked for 38 years.  And sometimes I didn’t even have to remember to say ‘Gracie, how’s your brother?'”

I read a book twice as fast as anybody else. First, I read the beginning, and then I read the ending, and then I start in the middle and read toward whatever end I like best.

 

“Gracie, those are beautiful flowers. Where did they come from?”
“Don’t you remember, George? You said that if I went to visit Clara Bagley in the hospital I should be sure to take her flowers. So, when she wasn’t looking, I did.”

 

Presidents are made, not born. That’s a good thing to remember. It’s silly to think that Presidents are born, because very few people are 35 years old at birth, and those who are won’t admit it.

 

A word of warning: The F-dash-dash-dash word appears on page 3 of Terry and the Pirate.  You could cross it out if you wanted, if you owned your own copy.

 

May 30, 1908: That’s All Folks

Although Mel Blanc, “the Man of a Thousand Voices,” is most often remembered as the voice of Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Woody Woodpecker, Tweety Bird, Sylvester, Yosemite Sam, Speedy Gonzales, Foghorn Leghorn, Pepé Le Pew, the Tasmanian Devil and many of the other characters from theatrical cartoons and Hanna-Barbera’s television cartoons, he had a long career as a comedian and character actor in radio and television. He was born on May 30, 1908, and died in 1989.

Blanc was a regular on The Jack Benny Program in various roles, and appeared on many other shows (Fibber McGee and Molly, Great Gildersleeve, Abbott and Costello, Burns and Allen), including his own which ran from September 1946 to June 1947. In the Jack Benny radio show he was Carmichael, the irascible polar bear who guarded the comedian’s underground vault; his outspoken parrot; his violin teacher, Monsieur Le Blanc; his Mexican gardener, Sy; and even his Maxwell automobile.

Blanc was easily the most prolific voice actor in the history of the industry and the first to be melgraveidentified in the ending credits. In his 60-year career, he helped develop nearly 400 characters and provided voices for some 3,000 animated cartoons. During the cartoon heydays of the 1940’s and 50’s, he voiced 90 percent of the Warner Brothers cartoon empire. As movie critic Leonard Maltin said, “It is astounding to realize that Tweety Bird and Yosemite Sam are the same man!”

A gem from The Jack Benny Program:

May 2, 1932: Benny and Bing

benny3Although he was first heard on radio as a guest of Ed Sullivan, Jack Benny debuted his own radio show for NBC on May 2, 1932. After six months he moved to CBS and then in 1933 back to NBC. Although he continued to jump back and forth on networks, his radio program lasted until 1955, some five years after his television program appeared.

Benny was a fixture on radio and TV for three decades, and is still considered one of the best. He was a master of comic timing, creating laughter with pregnant pauses or a single expression, such as his signature “Well!

Appearing with him over the years were Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Don Wilson, Dennis benny2Day, Mary Livingston, Phil Harris, Mel Blanc and Sheldon Leonard. Leonard helped Benny produce what was said to be the longest laugh in radio history. Leonard as a holdup man approached Benny and demanded “your money or your life.” Benny remained silent. Finally, Leonard said “Well!?” and Benny answered “I’m thinking it over!”

Bing Crosby was born May 2, 1904. A jackdaw with a cleft palate could have sung it successfully,” he said.

If lawyers are disbarred and clergymen defrocked, doesn’t it follow that electricians can be delighted, musicians denoted?  – George Carlin

March 24, 1990: The Two and Only

After a lifelong career on radio with partner Bob Elliott, beginning in 1946 at WHDH in Boston and ending in 1987 on National Pubic Radio, Ray Goulding died on March 24, 1990.

Bob and Ray created and gave voice to such offbeat characters as domestic advisor Mary Margaret McGoon; adenoidal reporter Wally Ballou, Matt Neffer, boy spot-welder; and cowboy singer Tex Blaisdell who did radio rope tricks. The duo also parodied radio and television with spoofs that often outlasted the programs they were based on —  Mr. Trace, Keener Than Most Persons; Jack Headstrong, The All-American American; and the soap operas One Fella’s Family and Mary Backstage, Noble Wife.  They  successfully adapted their comedy to other media, including stage and television.

One enduring routine features Goulding as a rather dense reporter interviewing Elliott as an expert on the Komodo dragon.

February 16, 1923: Mummies for Dummies

This could be the mother of all conspiracy theories. On February 16, 1923, mummy_2in Thebes, Egypt, English archaeologist Howard Carter entered the burial chamber of the Egyptian ruler King Tutankhamen — Tut to his friends and hangers on. As every schoolgirl knows, Tut died and was mummified back in 1324 B.C., give or take a year, while still a teen idol. As every schoolboy knows anyone foolish enough to enter Tut’s burial chamber would become subject to a pretty nasty curse — involving but not limited to crocodiles, snakes and scorpions.

Tut was the first mummy found in tact and with all his wealth untouched by tomb raiders. And his discovery left scientists scratching their heads. No one knew what had caused the young king’s death. Theories have popped up during the years — genetic disorders, disease, foul play.

An Egyptologist at California State University, Dr. Benson Harer, has come up with a dandy new idea: Tut was done in by an angry hippopotamus. Well, we all know what nasty tempers hippos have. They kill more people each year than lions, gorillas, you-name-it. And ancient Egypt was lousy with hippos — capsizing boats, stomping crops, stampeding through villages, chomping people in half with a single bite.

King Tut loved to hunt hippos, and every schoolgirl knows what dummies hippo hunters can be. We can imagine Tut happening upon a baby hippo: “Isn’t he cute? Let’s get closer. I wonder if his mother’s around somewhere.” Dr. Harer has a lot of scientific stuff that goes along with his theory, but what’s most interesting is the good doctor’s speculation that a coverup took place, with authorities stonewalling and concealing the pharaoh’s death by hippo for political reasons, fearing that the common folk might see Tut as less Trumplike, more Bushlike — or that the gods always liked hippos best.. There you have it, slippery slopers — Hippogate!

Radio for Dummies

edgarbergenandcharliemccarthyBorn February 16, 1903, Edgar Bergen, along with his cohorts, Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, got his start in vaudeville and one-reel movie shorts, but his real success came on radio of all places. The popularity of a ventriloquist on radio, when no one could see the dummies or even whether Bergen’s mouth moved, is a puzzler. But popular they were. Seen at a New York party by Noel Coward, who recommended them for an engagement at the famous Rainbow Room, they were discovered by two producers who booked them for a guest appearance on Rudy Vallee’s radio program. That quickly led to their own show which, under various sponsors, was on the air from 1937 to 1956.  Bergen died in 1978.

 

If you’re going to do something tonight that you’ll be sorry for tomorrow morning, sleep late.

~ Henny Youngman

February 3, 1938: He-e-e-y Abbott

Radio’s Kate Smith Hour was a mainstay during the 30s and 40s. On February 3, 1938, the comedy duo of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello made their first radio outing on the program and became regular performers. They first performed their classic “Who’s on First?” the following month.

abbott-costelloThe former vaudevillians quickly became major stars in radio, followed by movies and television. They left the Kate Smith show after two years to star in their own radio program, as well as a Broadway revue, The Streets of Paris, and their first film, One Night in the Tropics, in which, although cast in supporting roles, they stole the show with several classic comedy routines and cemented their film careers.

buck-privatesUniversal Pictures signed them to a long-term contract. Their second film, Buck Privates, made them box-office stars and in the process saved Universal from bankruptcy. In most of their films, the plot was not much more than a framework that allowed them to reintroduce comedy routines they had first performed on stage. Universal also added glitzy production numbers to capitalize on the popularity of musical films, featuring such performers as the Andrews Sisters, Ella Fitzgerald, Martha Raye, Dick Powell and Ted Lewis and his Orchestra. The Andrews Sisters hits “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “I’ll Be With You In Apple Blossom Time” were both introduced in Buck Privates.

During the following years, Abbott and Costello “met” many other movie legends – Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Invisible Man, Captain Kidd, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the Mummy, the Killer (Boris Karloff).  And they traveled throughout the world (and beyond): in a Harem, in the Foreign Legion, Lost in Alaska, Mexican Hayride, Mars, and Africa Screams, which featured both Clyde Beatty and Frank Buck as themselves. They made a total of 36 films.

On television, they frequently hosted the Colgate Comedy Hour and had their own syndicated television program.

In the 1950s Abbott and Costello’s popularity waned, their place atop the comedy heap taken by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Another reason for the decline was overexposure. They were reluctant to introduce new material, and their familiar routines were glutting the movie and television markets, with two films a year, re-releases of most of their older films; their filmed television series and live TV appearances.

They dissolved their partnership in 1957, with Lou making sporadic appearances until his death in 1959.  Bud died in 1974.

 

Love can sweep you off your feet and carry you along in a way you’ve never known before. But the ride always ends, and you end up feeling lonely and bitter. Wait. . . It’s not love I’m describing. I’m thinking of a monorail. – Jack Handey

January 29, 1880: Always Carry a Small Snake

Born as William Claude Dukenfield, W. C. Fields was an iconic American comedian, actor, misanthrope, egotist, drunkard, writer, juggler, and writer who loudly declared his contempt for women, children and small animals. Americans adored him. The publicity departments at Paramount and Universal studios did their best to conceal the fact that he had a happy childhood, had been married, supported two sons, and doted on his grandchildren.

Fields got his start as a juggler in vaudeville and on Broadway. When he found that he could get laughs by adding dialogue to his routines, he developed the mumbling patter and sarcastic asides that became his trademarks. It was in the movies and on radio that he eventually found stardom. A handful of silent films in the 20s led to such classics as You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, The Bank Dick and My Little Chickadee with Mae West. He also became a popular guest on many radio shows, most notably perhaps Edgar Bergen’s Chase and Sanborn Hour, where he traded barbs with Charlie McCarthy, calling him among other things a woodpecker’s pin-up boy.

Fields always professed to hate Christmas, and to show his disdain for the holiday, he died on Christmas Day in 1946.

 

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Everybody’s got to believe in something. I believe I’ll have another beer.

I am free of all prejudice. I hate everyone equally.

I never hold a grudge. As soon as I get even with the son-of-a bitch, I forget it.

I always keep some whiskey handy in case I see a snake…which I also keep handy.

Reminds me of my safari in Africa. Somebody forgot the corkscrew and for several days we had to live on nothing but food and water.

I like my films to influence the audience. Even if it means tripping their aged grandparents with a cane when they get home.

 

December 12, 1937: Is That a Snake in Your Fig Leaf?

Mae West was certainly not a stranger to controversy. But on December 12, 1937, she brought her outrageous humor to radio and in less than a half hour managed to get herself banned from the air waves for good – or at least, as it turned out, for a dozen years until finally invited to perform on Perry Como’s Chesterfield Supper Club in 1950.

The vehicle of Mae’s descent into disgrace was ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s radio show The Chase and Sanborn Hour. She went on the show to promote her latest movie, Every Day’s a maewHoliday, and playing herself, appeared in two sketches with Charlie McCarthy. As usual she was all wit and double entendre, referring to Charlie in the first sketch as “all wood and a yard long” and commenting that his kisses gave her splinters.

But it was the second sketch that started the phones ringing. Mae played Eve and Don Ameche was Adam in the Garden of Eden.  Charlie McCarthy entered as the snake and the dialog got dicey.

Eve: Listen, what are you — my friend in the grass or a snake in the grass?

Snake: But, forbidden fruit.

Eve: Are you a snake or are you a mouse?

Snake: I’ll — I’ll do it [hissing laugh].

Eve: Now you’re talking. Here — right in between those pickets.

Snake: I’m, I’m stuck.

Eve: Oh — shake your hips. There, there now, you’re through.

Snake: I shouldn’t be doing this.

Eve: Yeah, but you’re doing all right now. Get me a big one. I feel like doin’ a big apple.

For days after the broadcast, the studio received calls and letters labeling the show immoral and obscene. Women’s clubs and Catholic groups went after the show’s sponsor for “prostituting” their services and being far from good to the last drop. The Federal Communications Commission weighed in, finding the broadcast “vulgar and indecent.”

Standing a little less than tall, NBC personally blamed West for the incident and banned her (and the mention of her name) from their stations. It was not the content of the skit (which the network had provided), but the way she delivered it. Charlie McCarthy and Don Ameche escaped punishment.  Just like in the Bible, it was all Eve’s fault.

 

handey3

October 30, 1938: Just Me and My Radio

It’s easy from the comfort of our 21st century recliners to dismiss the mass hysteria of an earlier War-Of-The-Worldsgeneration as so many Chicken Littles or Turkey Lurkeys, afraid of their own shadows. We’ve seen it all, any horror one can imagine, right there on the screen in front of us, and should it become too squirmy, well we can always just hit a button. The remote is there to protect us.

But what if you were at home, alone perhaps, on that October night back in 1938. It’s dark out; Halloween and all its spookiness is just a day away. But there’s the radio to keep you company. Like millions of other Americans, you’ll tune in to Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. That should lighten up a dark night. They finish their comedy routine at ten after eight. A singer you’ve never heard of follows so, like millions of Americans, you surf the radio stations (Wasn’t there supposed to be a dramatic program on?) pausing to hear an unenthusiastic announcer: “. . . the Meridian Room in the Hotel Park Plaza in downtown New York, where you will be entertained by the music of Ramon Raquello and his orchestra.” You listen for a minute; it’s not that great. You’re all set to surf again when the announcer interrupts, reporting that a Professor Farrell of the Mount Jenning Observatory has detected explosions on the planet Mars. The music returns, but only for a minute. The announcer is back with the news that a large meteor has crashed into a farmer’s field in Grovers Mills, New Jersey.

Now your ears are glued to the radio, as announcement after announcement confirms the impossible – a Martian invasion. “Good heavens, something’s wriggling out of the shadow like a gray snake. Now here’s another and another one and another one. They look like tentacles to me … I can see the thing’s body now. It’s large, large as a bear. It glistens like wet leather. But that face, it… it … ladies and gentlemen, it’s indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it, it’s so awful. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is kind of V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate.”

Now’s the time to surf the radio. If you do, you’ll quickly realize that everything is normal on other radio stations, that you’ve been listening to a realistic but fictional radio drama. But if you don’t, chances are you’ll join the thousands of people jamming highways, trying to flee the alien invasion.

Orson Welles was just 23 years old when his Mercury Theater company broadcast its update of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds with no idea of the uproar it would cause. He employed sophisticated sound effects and top notch acting to make the story believable.

And believed it was. In Indianapolis, a woman ran into a church where evening services were being held, yelling: “New York has been destroyed! It’s the end of the world! Go home and prepare to die!”

When the actors got wind of the panic, Welles went on the air as himself to remind listeners that it was just fiction. Afterward, he feared that the incident would ruin his career, but three years later he was in Hollywood working on Citizen Kane.

Inspiration for 10/30/16

gracie2