Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

February 3, 1882: You’re a Big One, Aren’t Ya

A rather large sales transaction took place on February 3, 1882: Flamboyant showman and circus entrepreneur P.T. Barnum purchased his largest performer, a single-named star who stood ten feet at the shoulders, Jumbo. Jumbo of course was an elephant, a very big elephant. He was born in the Sudan and took a rather circuitous journey north to Germany, France and finally England and the London Zoo, where he resided for 17 years, becoming famous for giving rides to zoo visitors.

Londoners were not happy about the sale. The Zoological Society was up in arms. 100,000 schoolchildren petitioned Queen Victoria to halt the sale. A lawsuit was filed against the zoo. The zoo attempted to renege on the sale, but the court sided with Barnum.

The deal was a bonanza for Barnum. He exhibited Jumbo to huge crowds at Madison Square Garden, recovering the entire cost of his investment in three weeks. With Jumbo as its main attraction, the circus earned $1.75 million for the season.

Jumbo’s circus career would be short-lived, however. In 1885, he was struck by a train and died within minutes.

What’s in a Name

While jumbo as an adjective is used today to describe everything from cds to shrimp, the word did not have that meaning when the London zookeeper association gave it to the big fellow. Its derivation could be Indian from jambu (pronouced jumboo) a tree that grows on a mythical island whose fruits were said to be as big as elephants or Swahili from jambo (hello) or jumbe (chief). It is safe to say it has no relation to jambalaya or gumbo.

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.




Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac



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.


Posted in Wretched Richard's Almanac

April 9, 1928: Goodness Had Nothing To Do with It

maeMae west made her Broadway debut as actress and playwright in 1928’s Diamond Lil. Born Mary Jane in Brooklyn, in 1893, West rose to prominence during the 1920s and 1930s with a comedic style employing fast-talking burlesque humor and over the top sexual innuendo. She began her career early. Having shown enough acting talent by the fourth grade that her mother let her quit school to pursue a performing career, she worked in vaudeville and burlesque until 1926, when she began developing her own material.

Diamond Lil became her signature character but success eluded her until she took a bit part in the 1932 movie, Night After Night, and stole “everything but the cameras,” according to costar George Raft. Paramount, offered her a contract with full control over the script. Her first starring role was in She Done Him Wrong (1933), a screen adaptation of Diamond Lil, memorable for such lines as “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me?” West then wrote and costarred in I’m No Angel, Belle of the Nineties, and Klondike Annie. Now at the height of her career, she costarred with W.C. Fields in the comic western My Little Chickadee (1940), whose script she wrote with him.

Mae West remained a symbol of outrageous sexual behavior throughout her life, appearing in Myra Breckinridge and Sextette in the 1970s shortly before her death in 1980. One of her most famous lines and the title of her autobiography came in response to another film character’s remark “Goodness, what beautiful diamonds!” – “Goodness had nothing to do with it.”