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.

 

June 6, 1971: The Shew Must Go On

Ed Sullivan was to the golden age of television what Google is to searching.  He ruled Sunday night TV for 23 years – from 1948 to his very last broadcast on this day in 1971. Sullivan presented acts from the era’s biggest stars to acrobats, dancing bears, puppets, contortionists, you name it.  Ten thousand in all – if they were entertainers, an appearance on the Sullivan show was their holy grail.

Musical performances from rock to opera were a staple of the program. Even its first broadcast, when it was known as Toast of the Town, made music history as Broadway composers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II previewed the score of their upcoming musical, South Pacific. And after that, West Side Story, Cabaret, Man of La Mancha – if it was on Broadway, it was on Sullivan. One of those Broadway musicals, Bye Bye Birdie, was all about making it on the Sullivan show.

Sullivan also chronicled the history of rock and roll from Elvis Presley’s appearance in 1956 through the Supremes, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, the Mamas and the Papas, and on June 6, 1971, the last program, Gladys Knight and the Pips.

When CBS canceled the show, the network let it end with a whimper.  But in the 33 years since cancellation, numerous tribute shows and DVDs have kept Sullivan in the public eye.

dday-620x488Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force! You are about to embark upon a great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers in arms on other fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world. — General Dwight D. Eisenhower, June 6, 1944

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 12, 1812: Poetry Without Naughty Words, Naughty Words Without Poetry

Edward Lear, born in England in 1812, was a true dabbler — artist, illustrator, musician, author, poet. Starting off his career as an illustrator, he was employed to illustrate birds and animals first for the Zoological Society and then for Edward Stanley, the Earl of Derby, who had a private menagerie. He also made drawings during his journeys that later illustrated his travel books. and illustrations for the poetry of Alfred Lord Tennyson. As a musician, Lear played the accordion, flute, guitar, and piano (not simultaneously). He also composed music for a number of Romantic and Victorian poems, most notably those of Tennyson.

Lear is remembered chiefly for his work as a writer of literary nonsense. He might easily have been given the title Father of the Limerick for bringing the much maligned form into popularity (without the raunchiness that later found its way into the form). LearIn 1846, he published A Book of Nonsense, a volume of limericks that went through three editions. In 1871 he published Nonsense Songs, Stories, Botany and Alphabets, which included his most famous nonsense song, The Owl and the Pussycat, which he wrote for the children of the Earl of Derby.

Lear’s nonsense books were successful during his lifetime, but he found himself fighting rumors that he was just a pseudonym and that the books were actually written by the Earl of Derby. Conspiracy theorists cited as evidence the facts that both men were named Edward, and that Lear is an anagram of Earl. A few even suggested he was born in Kenya, not England.

The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
‘O lovely Pussy! O Pussy my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
You are,
You are!
What a beautiful Pussy you are!’

Pussy said to the Owl, ‘You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?’
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-tree grows
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood
With a ring at the end of his nose,
His nose,
His nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.

‘Dear pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?’ Said the Piggy, ‘I will.’
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

May 12, 1937

Stand-up comedian, social critic, satirist, actor, writer/author George Carlin was born on May 12, 1937 (died 2008). Noted for his black humor as well as his thoughts on politics, the English language, psychology, religion, and various taboo subjects, he won five Grammy Awards for his comedy albums. Carlin and his classic “Seven Dirty Words” comedy routine were central to the 1978 U.S. Supreme Court case in which the justices affirmed the government’s power to regulate indecent material on the public airwaves.

In his own words:

george

Swimming is not a sport. Swimming is a way to keep from drowning. That’s just common sense!

Honesty may be the best policy, but it’s important to remember that apparently, by elimination, dishonesty is the second-best policy.

george-carlin2

The very existence of flamethrowers proves that sometime, somewhere, someone said to themselves, “You know, I want to set those people over there on fire, but I’m just not close enough to get the job done.”

Religion has convinced people that there’s an invisible man…living in the sky, who watches everything you do every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a list of ten specific things he doesn’t want you to do. And if you do any of these things, he will send you to a special place, of burning and fire and smoke and torture and anguish for you to live forever, and suffer and burn and scream until the end of time. But he loves you. He loves you and he needs money.

April 21, 1986: Seems Like We Struck Out

Notorious gangster Al Capone moved to Chicago in 1919 where he built a career in gambling, alcohol, and prostitution rackets, eventually becoming Chicago’s go-to guy in the world of crime. He oversaw his various enterprises from a suite at the Lexington Hotel until his arrest in 1931.  He died in 1947.

The Lexington Hotel outlasted Capone by a good many years. In the 1980s, a construction Al-Capone-psd53402company undertook a renovation of the historic hotel. While surveying the building, the company made some unusual discoveries, including a shooting range and an elaborate series of hidden tunnels connecting to taverns and brothels and providing escape routes should the Chicago police get frisky and raid Capone’s headquarters. Most intriguing of all was a secret vault beneath the hotel, where rumor had it, Capone hid vast sums of his ill-gotten gains.

These discoveries were just too tempting for “investigative reporter” Geraldo Rivera to let pass by.  So on April 21, 1986, Geraldo planned to open the vault on live TV in a much ballyhooed special, The Mystery of Al Capone’s Vaults. What would the two-hour media event reveal? Piles of plunder? Bodies of Capone competitors? Jimmy Hoffa? Judge Crater? Among those who stood by Geraldo as the whole world watched were a medical examiner and agents of the Internal Revenue Service, lending the entire undertaking an aura of grim importance.

The vault was opened, and there . . . ? A lot of dirt and a couple of empty bottles. Geraldo did his best to snatch something out of the rubble, suggesting to 30 million disappointed viewers that the bottles were exciting because they had been used for bathtub gin during Prohibition. A nice try, but he summed up the evening by saying: “Seems like we struck out.”

 

April 20, 1935: Splish Splash, Snooky Was Taking a Bath

A music staple of the 40s and 50s, Your Hit Parade, made its radio debut on April 20, 1935. It lasted for nearly 25 years before being done in by rock and roll music – and perhaps Snooky Lanson. It began as a 60-minute program with 15 songs played in a random format, and eventually moved to television where the seven top-rated songs of the week were presented each week in elaborate production numbers requiring constant set and costume changes.  The list of top songs was compiled through a closely guarded top secret algorithm that involved record sales, quarters plunked into jukeboxes, shoplifted sheet music and the divination of an unidentified mystic in Memphis, Tennessee.

Dorothy Collins , Russell Arms, Snooky Lanson and Gisèle MacKenzie were top-billed during the show’s peak years. And Lucky Strike cigarettes starred throughout its run.

As the rock and roll era took over, the program’s chief fascination became seeing a singer like Snooky Lanson struggle with songs like Splish Splash and Hound Dog.

 

Every good idea sooner or later degenerates into hard work. ~ Calvin Trillin

March 20, 1854: Deciders Unite

The Whigs didn’t last long as as political party. Formed in the 1830s out of annoyance with Andrew Jackson, they gave us four presidents — William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary republicanTaylor and Millard Fillmore, commonly known by their nickname, Who? (not to be confused with the rock group of the same name). As is the case with many political parties, they had disagreements over tents, finding themselves unable to deal with the concept of big ones, and eventually tore themselves asunder with internal disagreements.

The semi-official date of the party’s actual death was March 20, 1854. On that date, a number of don’t wanna-be Whigs met in Ripon, Wisconsin, and the result of that meeting was the birth of the Republican party. Six years later the Republicans elected their first president, Abraham Lincoln. The South promptly seceded and the Civil War followed. Though the party may have been born out of chaos (the Democrats quickly co-opted chaos as their own guiding principle), the Republicans dominated presidential politics until the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932.

Not surprisingly, a few people have made known their opinions of the party over the years:

Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a Republican. But I repeat myself.  — Harry S. Truman

There are two political truisms: Old people vote and Republicans eat their young. — Eddie Whitlock

Republicans understand the importance of bondage between a mother and child. — Dan Quayle

 

March 20, 1922

Born in 1922 in the Bronx, the son of immigrants from Romania and Austria, Carl Reiner is an actor, film director, producer, writer, and comedian. He has won twelve Emmy Awards and a Grammy Award during his long career.Carl_Reiner-1976

His career took off in 1950 when he joined Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, appearing on air in skits and working with writers such as Mel Brooks and Neil Simon.

In 1959, Reiner developed a television pilot based on his experience on the Caesar shows. However, the network didn’t like Reiner in the lead role so, in 1961, it was recast as the hit series The Dick Van Dyke Show, starring Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore. In addition to writing many of the episodes, Reiner occasionally joined the cast as Alan Brady, a temperamental television host. In 1960, on The Steve Allen Show, Reiner teamed with Mel Brooks as the straight man to Brooks’ 2000 Year Old Man character.

He has also appeared in many films including his starring role in The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.

Carl Reiner, Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca and Howie Morris in” The Clock,”  from the Caesar shows:

February 22, 1956: Not Your Typical Barbarian

You can pretty much be certain you’ve got a turkey on your hands when you’ve got actors such as Susan Hayward, Agnes Moorehead (Endora on Bewitched), and John Wayne (!) playing Mongolians, when the entire film is shot in one location in a desert in southern Utah (haven’t we seen that rock before?) and when you have such dialogue as:

“Joint by joint from the toe and fingertip upward shall you be cut to pieces, and each carrion piece, hour by hour and day by day, shall be cast to the dogs before your very eyes until they too shall be plucked out as morsels for the vultures . . . pilgrim.”

The Conqueror, released on February 22, 1956, was the epic story of a 12thconqueror century Mongol warlord who worked his way up the barbarian ladder to become the infamous Genghis Khan. Produced by Howard Hughes, it was meant to be his crowning cinematic masterpiece. The film cost $6 million to film in Cinemascope and Technicolor and is frequently ridiculed in the same breath as Plan 9 from Outer Space, another 50s flop which cost about $2.99 to make. Hughes spent another $12 million to buy back every single print of the film after its disastrous release.

The Conqueror not only destroyed RKO, the studio that made it, but wiped out a good number of the cast and crew. The shooting location turned out to be downwind from Yucca Flats, Nevada, where the government was merrily testing atomic bombs, and the cast and crew received far more than the recommended daily allowance of radioactive fallout. Nearly half of them, including Wayne, were later diagnosed with cancer (although Wayne also smoked six packs a day).

February 22, 1907: Hey Youse

sheldon_leonardThose who remember his screen appearances at all are most likely to recognize him as Nick, the surly bartender who gives George Bailey and Clarence the heave-ho in  It’s a Wonderful Life. As an actor, Sheldon Leonard, born on February 22, 1907, specialized in playing supporting characters, most often gangsters or or other tough guys with names like Pretty Willie, Lippy, Jumbo, Blackie, or, notably, Harry the Horse in the 1955 film of Guys and Dolls. He spoke with a thick New York accent, usually delivered from the side of his mouth.

His many appearances in movies and television spanned six decades. But it was as a producer and director that Sheldon Leonard really made his mark. He began a new career as a television producer in the early 50s and turned out a succession of hit series — The Danny Thomas Show (Make Room for Daddy), Gomer Pyle: USMC, The Andy Griffith Show, and The Dick Van Dyke Show (winner of 21 Emmys). He had another success in the mid 60s with I Spy, the first series to cast a black actor (Bill Cosby) as an equal co-star with a white actor in a dramatic role.  Leonard is also informally credited with having invented the spin-off,  the practice of using an episode of a series as a backdoor pilot for a new series.The character of Sheriff Andy Taylor was introduced in an episode of The Danny Thomas Show, which led to the series The Andy Griffith Show. 

Sheldon Leonard died in 1997.

 

It’s hard to lead a cavalry charge if you think you look funny on a horse. ~ Adlai E. Stevenson

February 11, 1960: Take This Job and Shove It

When the folks at NBC decided to censor Jack Paar’s water closet joke paar_jack(February 10), they must have known the Tonight Show star would be angry. After all, Paar was principled, emotional and a bit unpredictable. But evidently they didn’t gauge the depth of his anger and were certainly unprepared for his reaction. On the night after the joke was cut, February 11, 1960, the Tonight Show went on air as usual. What followed, within minutes, was one of the most unexpected and abrupt goodbyes in the history of television. After his introduction, Paar walked on stage for the live broadcast, announced that he was quitting, and walked promptly off stage, leaving announcer Hugh Downs in charge of the program with nearly 90 minutes to finish.

And he meant it. Paar was gone for three weeks, not returning to the program until NBC apologized and agreed to let him tell the joke on air.

 

 

 

If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month. ~ Theodore Roosevelt

February 10, 1960: Two Holes, No Waiting

Depending on the age of the viewer, The Tonight Show is synonymous with Jay Leno, Johnny Carson, or perhaps Jack Paar. Paar was at its helm from 1957 to 1962. About halfway through his tenure on February 10, 1960, Paar, a gifted storyteller, told what became known as his infamous water closet story (water closet, a British term for toilet):

An English lady, while visiting Switzerland, was looking for a room, and paar_jackshe asked the schoolmaster if he could recommend any to her. He took her to see several rooms, and when everything was settled, the lady returned to her home to make the final preparations to move.  When she arrived home, the thought suddenly occurred to her that she had not seen a “W.C.” around the place. So she immediately wrote a note to the schoolmaster asking him if there were a “W.C.” around. The schoolmaster was a very poor student of English, so he asked the parish priest if he could help in the matter. Together they tried to discover the meaning of the letters “W.C.,” and the only solution they could find for the letters was “Wayside Chapel.” The schoolmaster then wrote to the English lady the following note:

Dear Madam:
I take great pleasure in informing you that the W.C. is situated nine miles from the house you occupy, in the center of a beautiful grove of pine trees surrounded by lovely grounds. It is capable of holding 229 people and it is open on Sunday and Thursday only. As there are a great number of people and they are expected during the summer months, I would suggest that you come early: although there is plenty of standing room as a rule. You will no doubt be glad to hear that a good number of people bring their lunch and make a day of it; while others who can afford to go by car arrive just in time. I would especially recommend that your ladyship go on Thursday when there is a musical accompaniment. It may interest you to know that my daughter was married in the W.C. and it was there that she met her husband. I can remember the rush there was for seats. There were ten people to a seat ordinarily occupied by one. It was wonderful to see the expression on their faces. The newest attraction is a bell donated by a wealthy resident of the district. It rings every time a person enters. A bazaar is to be held to provide plush seats for all the people, since they feel it is a long felt need. My wife is rather delicate, so she can’t attend regularly. I shall be delighted to reserve the best seat for you if you wish, where you will be seen by all. For the children, there is a special time and place so that they will not disturb the elders. Hoping to have been of service to you, I remain,
Sincerely,
The Schoolmaster

No one saw the four-minute tale that evening. NBC censors decided the story was unfit for consumption by its audiences, late-night though they were, and cut it from the broadcast. They did so without consulting or even notifying Paar of their action. A mistake? Stay tuned.

 

Unlikely star entertainer Jimmy Durante was born February 10, 1893. Saiddurante critic Leonard Maltin about Durante: “The old ‘schnozzola’ was the living embodiment of the term ‘beloved entertainer’: Everyone adored him, but no one could ever really figure out just what it was he did. He sang, he danced, he played the piano and, of course, he clowned — but he wasn’t really great at any of these tasks. Mostly, it was the sheer wolfman-3force of his overbearing personality that won viewers over.”

Fuzzy-faced film star Lon Chaney Jr. was born on February 10, 1906, In addition to owning the character of the Wolf Man, he also took a turn at fellow monsters Frankenstein and the Mummy.

 

 

I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by. ~Douglas Adams