October 18, 1963: 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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April 19, 1949: Send In the Clowns

russianWith 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.”

 

Food is an important part of a balanced diet. ― Fran Lebowitz

 

April 6, 1722: And Two Rubles for a Five O’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).

 

I can picture in my mind a world without war, a world without hate. And I can picture us attacking that world because they’d never expect it. ~ Jack Handey

 

 

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.

 

January 31, 1990: Next Day on Your Dressing Room They’ve Hung a Tsar

mcdonalds-russiaContinuing 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.

 

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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.

 

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September 19, 1959: They Say Goofy Is a Fellow Traveler

The Cold War took a heated turn during a visit to the United States by Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev was several days into an extended visit for a summit meeting with President Eisenhower, when at the Soviet leader’s request, a visit to Hollywood was arranged. On September shirley119, 1959, Khrushchev and his wife arrived in Los Angeles, where the day started with a tour of the Twentieth Century Fox Studios in Hollywood and a visit to the sound stage of  Can-Can. Meeting stars Shirley MacLaine and Juliet Prowse pleased the roly-poly dictator even though he had to nyet a chance to dance with MacLaine (probably something to do with the Siberian stare coming from Mrs. K)   A lunch hosted by Frank Sinatra was also a big success even though Sinatra didn’t sing “That Old Bolshevik Magic,” as Nikita requested.

The day headed downhill when Twentieth Century Fox President Spyros P. Skouras, who wore his anticommunism on his sleeve, got into a bit of a who-will-bury-whom brouhaha with the Russian leader who was known for his temper tantrums.

Shortly afterward, it began to look as though a nuclear exchange were imminent. Meeting Frank Sinatra was nice, but who Nikita really wanted to meet was Mickey Mouse.  His American hosts told him it couldn’t happen.  Security concerns.   Perhaps he’d like to see Cape Canaveral, the White House War Room, the Strategic Air Command. But no Disneyland.  Nicky exploded. “And I say, I would very much like to go and see Disneyland. But then, we cannot guarantee your security, they say. Then what must I do? Commit suicide? What is it? Is there an epidemic of cholera there or something? Or have gangsters taken hold of the place that can destroy me?”

Khrushchev left Los Angeles the next morning, and the Cold War returned to deep freeze.