November 20, 1907: Before There Were Muppets

The name Frances Allison probably doesn’t ring a bell with most people. The radio comedienne and singer was born on November 20, 1907, and became well known to a segment of the television viewingKFOstamp audience in the days of live programming and test patterns. To those who huddled around the TV set early evenings during the late 40s and early 50s, she was better known simply as Fran, and she was one-third (and the only human) of the trio Kukla, Fran and Ollie.

Created by puppeteer Burr Tillstrom, the show got its start as Junior Jamboree locally in Chicago, Illinois, in 1947. Renamed Kukla, Fran and Ollie, it transferred to WNBQ in November 1948 and aired nationally on NBC a few months later. Although the show, all puppets except for Fran, was originally targeted to children, it was soon watched by more adults than children. It was entirely ad-libbed.

Fran assumed the role of big sister and cheery voice of reason as the puppets engaged each other in life’s little ups and downs. It was a Punch and Judy kind of show but with less slapstick and broad caricature. Kukla was the earnest leader of the troupe, a bit of a nerd, and Ollie (short for Oliver J. Dragon) was his complete opposite, a devilish one-toothed dragon who would roll on his back when sucking up or slam his chin on the stage when annoyed. Joining them were Madame Oglepuss, a retired opera diva; Beulah, a liberated witch; Fletcher Rabbit, a fussbudget, and several others.

KFOs fan base included Orson Welles, John Steinbeck, Tallulah Bankhead, and Adlai Stevenson among many others.  James Thurber wrote that Tillstrom and the program were “helping to save the sanity of the nation and to improve, if not even to invent, the quality of television.”

Kukla, Fran and Ollie ran for ten years until 1957.

 

Your life story would not make a good book. Don’t even try. ~ Fran Lebowitz

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November 17, 1968: A Girl, a Goat and a Football

The New York Jets were leading the home team Oakland Raiders by a skinny three points, 32-29, on the afternoon of November 17, 1968. NBC was airing the game for sports fans throughout the country.heidi1 It was a game between two formidable adversaries, and a hard fought one. The intensity of the play had led to injuries, penalties, extra timeouts and lots of scoring, with the lead changing eight times. As a result, the game ran longer than usual, longer than the three hours NBC had allotted for it. That meant that on the East Coast the game ran right into the 7 p.m. time slot when the evening’s prime time schedule was set to begin.

With just minutes left in the game, eastern viewers were switched to Switzerland for the television movie Heidi, the heartwarming story of a sweet little girl and her kindly grandfather, filled with Alps and yodeling and stuff, but no football. Worse, still, as Heidi cavorted with her goats, the Raiders scored two touchdowns in nine seconds to win the game. Football fans were not pleased.

As it turns out, NBC executives had decided to postpone the start of the film, but they couldn’t get through to the studio because the switchboard was jammed with irate football fans.

The Heidi Game, as it came to be called, led to a change in the television broadcasting of football; the NFL inserted a clause into its TV contracts that guaranteed all games would be broadcast completely. Television networks had separate telephone exchanges installed (known lovingly as Heidiphones) to prevent such incidents from happening in the future.

In 1997, the Heidi Game was voted the most memorable regular season game in U.S. professional football history. Heidi remains the most memorable film about little girls and mountain goats.

 

I always advise people never to give advice. ~ P. G. Wodehouse

 

November 8, 1965: It’s Way Bigger Than a Breadbox

To most people, Dorothy Kilgallen was known as a long-time panelist on the television game show What’s My Line? (Does ‘Is it bigger than a breadbox?’ ring a bell?) or as a high society New York newspaper columnist. She was also throughout her career a rather enterprising reporter. Her journalism coming out party was a 1936 race around the world against two male colleagues. Her cabled columns and a book Girl Around the World made her a celebrity.

In 1963, she once again took up the role of daring reporter. According to a biographer, Kilgallen was devastated when President Kennedy was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald. She was among those who refused to believe that Oswald acted alone. She spent the next two years in her own investigation of the assassination, gathering evidence and conducting interviews. She was the only reporter to interview Jack Ruby, and she somehow got hold of an advance copy of the Warren Commission report even before President Lyndon Johnson had seen it. He was miffed.

So was J. Edgar Hoover. The FBI and CIA both began to follow her and her friends. She was interrogated, and her phone was tapped. In 1965, she told her lawyer that she was going to break the real story and that it would be the scoop of the century. She planned to meet a secret informant in New Orleans.

On November 7, she appeared on What’s My Line? as usual, and afterward wound down with a few drinks along with other members of the show before returning to her apartment. The next day — November 8, 1965 — she was found dead, sitting up in bed in a blue bathrobe and still wearing in her hair a floral accessory from the previous evening. On her nightstand, an empty sleeping pill bottle and a drinking glass. The police playing the bumblers they traditionally play in detective fiction found nothing suspicion. Her death was attributed to an accidental overdose.

Loose ends included the fact that her accumulated evidence had gone missing, that she was found in a bed she never slept in wearing clothes she never wore to bed, that she had recently bought a gun telling her hairdresser she was ‘scared for her life.’ Lawyer and author Mark Shaw suggested in a 2016 book The Reporter Who Knew Too Much that Kilgallen’s death was orchestrated by a mobster who feared her book would name him as the mastermind behind Kennedy’s assassination.

 

There is something about a home aquarium which sets my teeth on edge the moment I see it. Why anyone would want to live with a small container of stagnant water populated by a half-dead guppy is beyond me. ~ S. J. Perelman

 

 

October 15, 1954: I Have People To Fetch My Sticks

Long before he debuted in his own television show on October 15, 1954, Rin Tin Tin had become an international celebrity. It was as good a rags-to-riches story as Hollywood could churn out. He was rescued rin-tin-tin_from a World War I battlefield by an American soldier who trained him to be an actor upon returning home. He starred in several silent films, becoming an overnight sensation and going on to appear in another two dozen films before his death in 1932.

Rinty (as he was known to his friends) was responsible for a great surge in German Shepherds as pets. The popularity of his films helped make Warner Brothers a major studio and pushed a guy named Darryl F. Zanuck to success as a producer.

During the following years Rin Tin Tin Jr. and Rin Tin Tin III kept the Rin Tin Tin legacy alive in film and on the radio. Rin Tin Tin IV was slated to take the franchise to television in The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, but he flunked his screen test and was shamefully replaced by an upstart poseur named Flame.

The TV series featured an orphan named Rusty who was being raised by soldiers at a cavalry post known as Fort Apache.  Rin Tin Tin was the kid’s dog. It was a low budget affair, filmed on sets used for other productions with actors frequently called upon to play several soldiers, Apaches, and desperadoes in a single episode. Although it was children’s programming, you might not guess that by the lofty literary titles of many episodes: Rin Tin Tin Meets Shakespeare, Rin Tin Tin and the Barber of Seville, Rin Tin Tin and the Ancient Mariner, Rin Tin Tin and the Connecticut Yankee.

Meanwhile, IV stayed at home on his ranch, fooling visitors into believing he was actually a TV star (and perhaps contemplating a run for President).

Rated P. G.

“Freddie experienced the sort of abysmal soul-sadness which afflicts one of Tolstoy’s Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day’s work strangling his father, beating his wife, and dropping the baby into the city’s reservoir, he turns to the cupboards, only to find the vodka bottle wodehouseempty.” One line from someone who had a great knack for them, which he displayed in over 300 stories, 90 books, 30 plays and musicals, and 20 film scripts. Comic novelist P.G. Wodehouse, creator of Jeeves the butler, was born on this day in 1881 in Surrey, England.

 

He had the look of one who had drunk the cup of life and found a dead beetle at the bottom.

Mike nodded. A sombre nod. The nod Napoleon might have given if somebody had met him in 1812 and said, “So, you’re back from Moscow, eh?”

I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.

She looked as if she had been poured into her clothes and had forgotten to say ‘when.’

The fascination of shooting as a sport depends almost wholly on whether you are at the right or wrong end of the gun.

Every author really wants to have letters printed in the papers. Unable to make the grade, he drops down a rung of the ladder and writes novels.

It was my Uncle George who discovered that alcohol was a food well in advance of modern medical thought.

And she’s got brains enough for two, which is the exact quantity the girl who marries you will need.

At the age of eleven or thereabouts women acquire a poise and an ability to handle difficult situations which a man, if he is lucky, manages to achieve somewhere in the later seventies.

 

October 2, 1872: A Foggy Day in London Town

At exactly 8:45 pm on October 2, 1872, a rich British gentleman started out on a lengthy journey accompanied by his French valet, the purpose of the trip being to win a wager he had made with members of his club. To win, he would have to complete his journey before 8:45 pm on December 21.  The gentleman’s name was of course Phileas Fogg and his amazing journey is recounted in Jules Verne’s most popular novel Around the World in 80 Days.

Jules Verne was a French author known for several extraordinary journeys including 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Five Weeks in a Balloon. He is the second most-translated author in the world (following Agatha Christie).

Fogg begins his journey by train from London to Brindisi in southern Italy on the coast of the Adriatic Sea. Here he boards the steamer Mongolia and crosses the Mediterranean Sea to Suez, Egypt. Fogg has correctly calculated this leg of the journey at 7 days. Today the same journey would take just about as long.

The Almanac will check in on Fogg again after his arrival in Suez.

 

Open Says Me

It’s the time of year when gardening cooks are busily canning the fruits of their summer-long labors. The idea of canning foods for preservation is certainly not new; the Dutch were preserving fresh salmon in tin cans back in the 1700s. While its not used by home canners, the tin can has been the main method of food preservation for a couple hundred years now.

By the early 1800s, tin cans were in wide use throughout Europe and the United can1States. Trouble was they weren’t that easy to get into. “Cut round the top near the outer edge with a chisel and hammer.” read the instructions on one such can.  Or smash with large boulder, perhaps.

It wasn’t until the 1850s that can openers began to appear, various tools that pierced the can and sawed it open. One interesting device that appeared in 1866 was a tin can with its own opening device attached. Patented by J. Osterhoudt on October 2, it was a can with a slotted key attached. By inserting a tab on the can into the slot and continuously turning the key, the can would peel open. This ingenious and frequently frustrating can and key combo is still in use today, primarily for sardine and Spam-like products.

 

How He Got in My Pajamas I’ll Never Know

Groucho (Julius Henry) Marx was born on October 2, 1890. During his seven-decade career, he was known as a master of quick wit and rapid-fire, impromptu patter, frequently filled with innuendo.  He made 26 movies, 13 of them with his brothers Chico and Harpo, and many with Margaret Dumont as a stuffy dowager and the butt of Groucho’s jokes. The films included such comedy classics as The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, Duck Soup, A Day at the Races, and A Night at the Opera. He also had a successful solo career, most notably as the host of the radio and television game show You Bet Your Life.

groucho

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:

 

 

 

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.