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APRIL 19, 1949: SEND IN THE CLOWNS

russian

With the threat of nuclear annihilation hanging over the world, cold war adversaries were nonetheless able to find glimmers of humor. At the opening night of the Moscow Circus, noted Russian clown, Konsantin Berman, demonstrated who had the upper hand in the clown cold war, launching barb after barb in the direction of the United States.

Tossing a boomerang, he likened it to the U.S. Marshall Plan that was pumping economic recovery aid into Western Europe. “American aid to Europe,” he said, “Here is the dollar.” as the boomerang returned to his hand, delighting the audience. Producing a radio that bellowed out the sound of barking dogs, he announced: “That’s the Voice of America.”

Meanwhile American clowns were dumping buckets of water on each other and slipping on banana peels.

Speaking of Banana Peels

The Vagabond King a 1925 operetta by Rudolf Frimi was already an American success when it opened in London on April 19, 1927.  It’s success in England was probably assured given its theme of foibles of the French.  Its hero is a braggart, thief and rabble-rouser who attempts to steal an aristocratic lady from the king himself.  Not only that, he openly mocks the king, boasting about what he would do if he were king.  The angry king gives him royal powers for 24 hours — king for a day — during which he must solve all France’s problems or go to the gallows (the guillotine had not yet been invented).  He succeeds, wins the lady’s hand and lives happily ever after in exile — probably in England.  The operetta was the inspiration for a couple of movies and, of course, the popular radio and television program “Queen for a Day.”

 

 

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APRIL 6, 1722: AND TWO RUBLES FOR A FIVE 0’CLOCK SHADOW

In 1722, Peter the Great of Russia abolished a tax he had introduced some twenty years earlier, it having proved to be a rather hairy source of national income. The tax had been the result of an 18-month European tour to seek the aid of European monarchs, and to observe how other militias and armies were trained. During the tour, he learned that many European customs and styles were far superior to the antiquated ways in Russia. One of the first rulings he made upon his return was that all of his courtiers and officials shave off their long beards, as being clean-shaven was the European style. Anyone who kept their beard was subject to an annual Beard Tax of 100 rubles. Upon payment of the tax, bearded Russians were given a token; on one side of the token was an image of the lower part of a face with a full beard and the inscription “the beard is a superfluous burden.”

The idea of a beard tax had a bit of a history. Nearly 200 years earlier, King Henry VIII of England, who wore a beard himself, had introduced a tax on beards, although he probably didn’t pay the tax himself (it’s good to be the king). The tax was a graduated tax, varying with the wearer’s social position, not the length of his beard. Some years later, his daughter, Elizabeth I, reintroduced the beard tax, taxing every beard of more than two weeks’ growth, although she probably didn’t pay the tax herself (it’s good to be the queen).

Don’t Hurry Worry Me, part 1: blue denim temptation

As Chicken Avery liked to put it, “Clarence Henry’s pants had a more exciting life than Clarence hurryhimself did.”  Chicken told the story of Clarence’s wandering trousers with relish, and he told it frequently, because it was a good story and a story with a proper moral.

The story ended when Mango, Clarence’s faithful dog, brought Clarence’s pants to him a week after they had disappeared.  The pants were soiled and wrinkled and just a little chewed up.  Well, Clarence punished that poor mutt but he should have been thanking him because Mango was a hero not a villain.  Of course, Clarence didn’t know the details of that week during which his pants were gone.  How Chicken Avery knew is anybody’s guess, but he knew, and he loved to tell about it.  And Chicken swore it was all true.

The story began when Clarence’s wife washed his favorite pants, a pair of pale blue denims that had been brushed until they were as soft and smooth as the pink sands of Paradise Beach.  She washed his pants, then hung them out on the clothesline to dry, out near the road where they were bound to tempt passers-by, being the fine pants they were.

And those pants did tempt a lot of folks who passed by, but those folks were honest, law-abiding citizens, and they resisted blue-denim temptation.  All except that rogue Randall.  He didn’t resist.  No, when he saw that no one was about, he snatched the pants right off the line, draped them over one arm and sauntered on down the road where he caught the bus that took him all the way to Port Elizabeth.  From there, he walked up the road that led out of Port Elizabeth toward Titus Simeon’s farm.  Before he reached the farm, he ducked behind a bush where he slipped out of his tattered jeans and into his purloined blue denims.

“My oh my,” he said aloud, as the softness of the blue denim caressed his legs and as he imagined how these pants would help impress Titus’ beautiful young daughter, Ismelde, and how maybe she would want to touch the supple fabric and, thereby, the man within.  He got quite excited thinking of Ismelde, her pouting lips and innocent eyes, and he quickened his pace.

When he reached the farm, he did not approach it straight on, knowing that he should avoid Ismelde’s father who disliked the young men of the island in general and Randall in particular and who held the unreasonable notion that Ismelde should not carry on with young men, she being but seventeen and quite naive.  Randall spotted Ismelde.  She spotted him as well and pointed to the barn.  Randall understood and quickly skulked into the barn where he waited with some impatience for Ismelde to join him.

continued

This story originally appeared in American Way, the inflight magazine of American Airlines.  It is included in Calypso, Stories of the Caribbean.

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MARCH 18, 1902: ITALIAN TENORS ARE A LIRE A DOZEN

Tenor Enrico Caruso recorded ten arias for the Gramophone & Typewriter Company in Milan, Italy. He was paid 100 pounds sterling, and was not required to do any typing. These acoustic recordings, recorded in a hotel room on March 18, 1902, created a win-win situation for both Caruso and the Gramophone Company. The gramophone, and its flat circular discs, quickly became victorious in the recording competition, besting both Thomas Edison’s phonograph cylinders and eight-track tapes. The gramophone recordings became best-sellers, helping to spread the 29-year-old Caruso’s fame.

Caruso was signed by London’s Royal Opera House for a season of appearances in eight different operas ranging from Verdi’s Aida to Don Giovanni by Mozart. His successful debut at Covent Garden occurred just two months after his recording session. The following year, Caruso traveled to New York City to take up a contract with the Metropolitan Opera.

By 1920, Caruso had made nearly 300 recordings. His 1904 recording of “Vesti la giubba” from Leoncavallo’s opera Pagliacci was the first sound recording to sell a million copies. All of these recordings are available today on CD, as digital downloads, and in garages throughout the world on eight-track tapes.

 

Ivan Was Probably a Baritone

Ivan IV Vasileyevich, known to his friends as Ivan the Terrible, died in 1584 while engaged in a particularly wicked game of chess. He rose to prominence, and some might say infamy, as the Grand Prince of Moscow a position he held from 1533 to 1547, when he declared himself the first ever Tsar of All the Russias, a title he held until his death. He was succeeded by his son, Feodor the Not So Terrible.

Historians disagree on the exact nature of his enigmatic personality. He was described as intelligent and devout, yet paranoid and given to rages, episodic outbreaks of mental instability, and late-night tweet storms.

He was also know as Ivan the Fearsome but is not to be confused with Ivan the Gorilla.

Wretched Richard’s Little Literary Lessons – No. 3

plot

plät/  noun

~ the sequence of events of a play, novel, movie, or similar work that develops a story.

Use it in a sentence perhaps?

“What do you do when you’re not floating around the West Indies?” asked Albert.

“I write mostly.”

“A writer, says he,” Basil had returned from the bar and sat across the table from Terry. “I was a writer meself once upon. Never made any money at it, though. I was always a poor writer what never had a plot to piss on.”

Here’s where the plot thickens.

 

 

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January 31, 1990: Now This Is Russian Collusion

Continuing severe economic problems and internal political turmoil took a backseat on January 31, 1990, as Muscovites lined up to try a most unRussian guilty pleasure. The Soviet Union might be crumbling around them, but that icon of Western decadence, purveyors of glasnost on a sesame seed bun, was riding high. McDonald’s had come to town.

Those Big Macs, with fries and shakes might cost a day’s wages, but the people of Moscow were eating them up. The notorious golden arches of capitalism were signs that times they were a’changing in the Soviet Union – in fact, within two years the Soviet Union would dissolve. A Soviet journalist saw no great political earthquake but rather an “expression of America’s rationalism and pragmatism toward food.” Could the Quarter Pounder be the ultimate example of the People’s Food?

Whatever it was, they took to it in Moscow like a Bolshevik takes to a putsch. Located in Pushkin Square, this McDonald’s was the world’s largest, boasting 28 cash registers and a seating capacity of 700. Its opening day broke a McDonald’s record with more than 30,000 customers served. It remains the world’s busiest McDonald’s, serving more than 20,000 customers daily.

Moscow resident Natalya Kolesknikova told Russian State Television that when out-of-town guests came to visit, she showed them two things, McDonald’s and the McKremlin.

Squeaky Clean

The first daytime soap opera debuted on NBC January 31, 1949. These Are My Children was broadcast live, fifteen minutes a day, five days a week. Created by Irna Phillips and based on her earlier radio soaps, it was not a rousing success. It ended its run on February 25. One critical review said: There is no place on television for this type of program, a blank screen is preferable.”

Undaunted, Irna Phillips continued to create soaps. She fared much better with such series as Days of Our Lives and As the World Turns.

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OCTOBER 18, 1963: SPACE, THE FELINE FRONTIER

SPACE, THE FELINE FRONTIER

The story of cats in space is a dramatic tale indeed. It begins in an unlikely place with the 1957 Soviet launch of Sputnik 2, carrying of all felicettethings a dog named Laika. Laika was a stray found on the streets of Moscow who could have been the star of a dandy rags-to-riches shaggy dog story, except that things didn’t go all that well and the pooch perished under mysterious circumstances.

This was viewed as an early skirmish in the superpower space race to which NASA responded by sending a chimp into space and successfully returning him.

The French meanwhile had been plotting their own animal space probe. Fifteen cats had been chosen to undergo extensive training involving centrifuges, compression chambers and other medieval torture devices for a space mission in which the French would prove that they belonged at the table with the big guys and a cat would demonstrate to its fanciers everywhere that cats were superior to dogs in yet another way.

A pretty black and white Parisian chatte was eventually selected for the mission, because she was the only one who hadn’t become overweight during training, something to do with croissants most likely. On October 18, 1963, at 8:09 am, Chatte Félicette boarded a Véronique AGI 47 rocket at a base in the Algerian Sahara Desert and was blasted 97 miles into space. Fifteen minutes later, she parachuted safely to earth and pussycat immortality. Voilà!

 

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OCTOBER 12, 1960: DIPLOMACY 101

DIPLOMACY 101

On the last day of the 1960 meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, Lorenzo Sumulong head of the Philippine delegation had the floor. During his remarks he took the Soviet Union to task, at one point referring to “the peoples of Eastern Europe and elsewhere which have been deprived of the free exercise of their civil and political rights and which have been swallowed up . . . by the Soviet Union.”

Nikita Khrushchev must have taken umbrage at the statement for he hied himself to the rostrum, where he begged to differ with Sumulong, suggesting that he was “a jerk, a stooge, a lackey and a toady of American imperialism.” Before returning to his seat, Khrushchev demanded that Assembly President Frederick Boland of Ireland call Sumulong to order.

When Sumulong continued to speak, Khrushchev began pounding his fist on his desk, and when that didn’t seem forceful enough, he took off a shoe (a loafer or sandal because he hated tying laces, according to Khrushchev’s son) and waved it in the air. He then proceeded to bang it on the desk, louder and louder until everyone in the hall was abuzz with shouts and jeers.

The chaos finally ended when a red-faced Boland declared the meeting adjourned and banged his gavel so hard it broke, sending the head flying through the air.

Afterward Khrushchev was said to have remarked: “It was such fun!”

Berlin is the testicle of the West. When I want the West to scream, I squeeze on Berlin. — Nikita Khrushchev

Cheap Halloween Thrills

The big daddy of all monsters is of course the one we insist on calling Frankenstein rather than Henry Frankenstein’s Monster. The big guy is featured in four of the films on our list. The first is not surprisingly Frankenstein (not Frankenstein’s monster, you’ll note), and Boris Karloff’s (billed as just Karloff) portrayal became pretty much the gold standard. The central theme, Dr. Frankenstein’s misguided attempt to create life by assembling a creature from body parts of the dead, recurs in our next three films, although with a much different approach.

With Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, the comic duo joined the Universal horror mill in the first of their many encounters with monsters and other villains. As baggage handlers delivering a couple of suspicious crates to a horror museum, they have run-ins with not only Frankenstein but Dracula, the Wolf Man, and the Invisible Man as well.

Gene Wilder is a Frankenstein grandson (“that’s Frahnkensteen”) in the hilarious 1974 Mel Brooks film Young Frankenstein. He’s joined by Marty Feldman as Igor (“that’s eyegor”), Peter Boyle as the Monster, Terri Garr, Madeline Kahn, and Cloris Leachman in a loving parody of the original movie.

Tim Burton’s 1990 film Edward Scissorhands is a romantic fantasy about an artificial man whose creator dies before his completion, leaving his with scissor blades instead of hands. While neither a parody nor a retelling of the Frankenstein story, the similarities are obvious. Johnny Depp is Edward and Vincent Price, in his last role, is his creator.

1 The Shining

2 The Exorcist

3 Beetlejuice

4 Invasion of the Body Snatchers

5 Ghost Story

6 Ghostbusters

7 Freaks

8 Ichabod and Mr. Toad

9 Hound of the Baskervilles

10 I Walked with a Zombie

11 Diabolique

12 Alien

13 Rosemarys Baby

14The Birds

15 Psycho

16 Phantom of the Opera

17 Nosferatu

18 Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

19 Get Out

20 Frankenstein

21 Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein

22Young Frankenstein

23 Edward Scissorhands

 

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December 11, 1969: The Naked Cold War

Relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were generally confrontational through most of the second half of the last century.  In the United States, Communist plots were everywhere, and the Soviet Union blamed American capitalists for most of the ills of the world. calcuttaOn December 11, 1969, a noted Russian author lashed out against western decadence in one of the more unusual cold war recriminations.

On December 11, 1969, Sergei Mikhailkov, secretary of the Moscow writer’s union, known for his books for children, weighed in against the production of “Oh! Calcutta!” that was currently an off-Broadway hit. Performers in their “birthday suits,” he fumed, were proof of the decadence and “bourgeois” thinking in Western culture.  American nudity was an assault on Soviet innocence.

Oddly enough, those Americans throughout the Midwest who didn’t think the play was about India were convinced it was a Communist plot.

More disturbing, Mikhailkov raged on, was the fact that this American abomination was affecting Russian youth. These vulgar exhibitions were “a general striptease that is one of the slogans of modern bourgeois art.” Soviet teens were more familiar with “the theater of the absurd and the novel without a hero and all kinds of modern bourgeois reactionary tendencies in the literature and art of the West” than with “the past and present of the literature of their fatherland.”

Mikhailkov’s outburst came at the end of a conference of Russian intellectuals, who applauded his remarks without visible enthusiasm before returning to their clandestine copies of Fanny Hill.

 

calvin-mood