Jimmy Davis

Among the ads that are “trending” on Facebook lately, on my account at least, is one that is shilling a little pendant with the inscription “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine” with a suggestion that this would be a good gift for one’s grandchildren. I don’t believe I’ll try it on my grandchildren, but the ad reminded me that we used to sing that song when I was in elementary school, and I used to wonder why.

I was puzzled about that because the song is about an adult theme and is rather morbid.

The chorus is a set-up; the first three lines sound cheerful enough, but the last line implies that something is going on that we are not aware of:

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. / You make me happy when skies are grey. / You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you.

So far, so good, but then the hammer drops:

Please don’t take my sunshine away.

“Whoa,” I used to think when we sang that song. “Where did that come from? What did the songwriter know that we don’t know?”

The combination of the plaintive melody and the sudden implication that catastrophe looms ahead seemed out of place in my Howdy Doody, Lincoln Logs world.

The verses were even more disturbing.

In the first one, we found ourselves singing in our flutey little voices about someone fantasizing about sleeping with a lover.

The other night, dear, as I lay sleeping / I dreamt I held you in my arms.

But any stimulation our young psyches derived from this image was quickly dispelled:

When I awoke, dear, I was mistaken / so I hung my head and cried.

Clearly, we were not dealing with “April Showers” or “Yankee Doodle.” We knew that before we got to the second verse, it’s dark threat:

I will always love you and make you happy / if you will only say the same. / But if you leave me to love another / you will regret it all one day.

It sounds like the last scene of I Pagliacci. The only thing missing is the knife.

The denouement comes in the third verse, and it isn’t pretty:

You told me once dear, you really loved me / and no one else dear, could come between. / But now you’ve left me and love another. / You have shattered all my dreams.

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“You Are My Sunshine” was recorded on February 5, 1940 by Jimmy Davis and Charles Mitchell. It is, in fact, the most recent state song of Louisiana, so designated in 1977 by a legislature that apparently hadn’t read the lyrics. I say “the most recent state song” because Louisiana adopted two “official state songs” before this one, and it has at least three other “official songs” for specific purposes. The action in 1977 was based largely on the fact that Jimmy Davis had served as governor of Louisiana from 1960 to 1964.

But before the Davis-Mitchell recording, two other versions of the song were cut in 1939—one by the Pine Ridge Boys (Marvin Taylor and Doug Spivey) on August 22 and one by The Rice Brothers Gang on September 13.

When Davis ran for governor in 1944, he often appeared during his campaign riding on a horse named Sunshine and singing this song.

Although Davis or Davis and Mitchell together are usually given credit for writing the song, it appears that Davis actually bought the rights to it from Paul Rice (of the Rice Brothers). Davis took credit for the tune, but never claimed to have written it.

Although it was an odd choice for us kids, “You Are My Sunshine” played an important in the evolution of American popular music. The Jimmy Davis version was popular enough that it made the country sound attractive to people who normally would have ignored it. In 1940, the song was covered four times, including by cowboy singer Gene Autry, but also by Bing Crosby and Lawrence Welk, so that the crossover occurred almost immediately. Among those who have covered it since then are Nat “King ” Cole, Johnny Cash and June Carter, Ray Charles, Ike and Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, and Mtume.

 

 

 

 

Mr.Simon (Ed Harris) conducts a junior high school literature class.

Mr.Simon (Ed Harris) conducts a junior high school literature class.

The title of this movie originates in a conversation between a junior high school teacher, Mr. Simon, and a student, Andy Nichols, who is long on caution and short on self-confidence. Mr. Simon (Ed Harris) thinks the observant and analytical Andy has potential as a writer, and Andy (Chase Ellison), who has no grasp of spelling or grammar, thinks otherwise. Mr. Simon makes him promise to tell himself every day, “I am a writer. That’s what I am.”

The story, which is narrated in retrospect by Andy ala The Wonder Years, takes place in California in 1965. Andy, despite his linguistic challenges, is a solid student who likes to keep a low profile so as not to attract scorn, or worse, from kids who think more of themselves than the facts warrant. Mr. Simon, who keeps a close eye on the dynamics among his students, is creating teams to work on a term project, and he matches Andy with a tall, awkward kid named Stanley (Alexander Walters)–“Big G” for short–who is an outcast, the butt of ridicule and abuse from those in the main stream.

From left, ED HARRIS, ALEXANDER WALTERS, and CHASE ELLISON.

From left, ED HARRIS, ALEXANDER WALTERS, and CHASE ELLISON.

Andy is keenly aware of the potential consequences for him if he spends time in Stanley’s company, but he develops a kind of frustrated fascination with Stanley’s passive demeanor in the face of the treatment he receives from his peers. But when Stanley faces up to a habitual bully–on behalf of someone else, not himself–and volunteers for a school talent show (“I am a singer. That’s what I am”) regardless of the hilarity this will inspire in some quarters, Andy learns a few things about self-awareness and dignity.

Meanwhile, a perennial rumor among students about the sexuality of Mr. Simon–a widower–migrates to a group of parents and spins out of control, compromising Simon’s position at the school and that of his principal and mentor, played by Amy Madigan.

This movie, a product of WWE Studios, was released to only about ten theaters in 2011 and made a little over $6,000 in three days. The film offers nothing new in the way of themes, so it depends on the writing and the acting, both of which make it worth watching, especially for the cost an Amazon rental rather than box office prices. The subject matter is also relevant to the current preoccupation with bullying among teenagers. Although it tends toward the sentimental, the story is realistic in the sense that it does not suggest that there was a satisfactory outcome either to Mr. Simon’s predicament or to Stanley’s isolation.

Audrey Meadows, Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, and Joyce Randolph.

Audrey Meadows, Jackie Gleason, Art Carney, and Joyce Randolph.

 
When Joyce Randolph marked her 90th birthday recently, I took a glance at the Wikipedia article about her to see how recently it had been updated. Among the things I read there was that she was recruited to play Trixie Norton in Jackie Gleason’s series The Honeymooners after Gleason saw her doing a commercial for Clorets, which was a chlorophyl gum on the order of Chicklets. That isn’t what she told me when I visited her at her Central Park West apartment in 1976. On that occasion, she said that she had first been hired by Gleason to appear in a serious sketch he insisted on performing on his comedy-variety show, The Cavalcade of Stars, which was then being broadcast on the Dumont Network, originating at WABD, Channel 5, in New York.

Art Carney and Jackie Gleason during one of the filming sessions Joyce Randolph described.

Art Carney and Jackie Gleason during one of the filming sessions Joyce Randolph described.

“Gleason liked to write for the show or suggest things to the writers,” Joyce told me. “This time he wanted to do a serious sketch about a down-in-the-heels vaudevillian who meets a woman he loved many years before. We did very little rehearsing, and when we went on with it people were a little flabbergasted. They didn’t know whether to laugh or cry or what. A couple of weeks later, the part of Trixie came up, and Gleason said, ‘Get me that serious actress.’ ” Perhaps the Clorets commercial got her cast in the dramatic turn, but however Joyce got cast as Trixie Norton, she became an immortal among television actors. The Honeymooners first appeared in October 1951 as a six-minute sketch on The Cavalcade of Stars. The sketch became one of the regular features on the show; Trixie Norton was introduced as a former burlesque dancer and was played, in only one episode, by Elaine Stritch before Joyce Randolph got the part. In later and less successful iterations of The Honeymooners Trixie was played by Jane Kean, but the part is universally associated with Joyce Randolph.
 

JOYCE RANDOLPH

JOYCE RANDOLPH


That is true, in part, because Joyce played the part when The Honeymooners was broadcast as a free-standing half-hour sitcom in 1955 and 1956. Those thirty-nine episodes are among the most revered examples of American television comedy. While many shows from that era — Our Miss Brooks and The Life of Riley, for instance — seem stilted in retrospect, The Honeymooners still entertains viewers who have seen the episodes over and over again. Joyce didn’t claim to know definitely why that should be so, but she speculated that one factor was the spontaneity of the performances. “We filmed a show once, and we did it with an audience,” she told me. “We’d start at 8 o’clock and we’d be finished by 8:30, just as though we did it live.” She said the cast would rehearse on Monday and Tuesday and film a show on Wednesday, then rehearse on Wednesday and Thursday and film a show on Friday.” Gleason himself frequently skipped rehearsals and missed cues and confused the lines during the filming, but there were no breaks or re-takes, so those mistakes were preserved as part of the shows. Joyce Randolph told me that in those early days of television, some audience members became so absorbed in the show that they lost their sense of what was real and what was not. “In fact,” she said, “people used to send in draperies and tablecloths for the set; they thought the Kramdens really lived like that.”

Joyce Randolph was kind of the Zeppo Marx in the Honeymooners act, because her own personality was not that distinctive (perhaps making her a perfect choice to play the wife of a New York City sewer worker) and she was playing fourth fiddle to three strong character actors — Gleason, Art Carney, and Audrey Meadows. Still, her own genuine earnest and wholesome quality came through in Trixie’s persona, which is why no one really could replace her in that part.

Former Presidents Bush, Reagan, Carter, Ford, and Nixon.

Former Presidents Bush, Reagan, Carter, Ford, and Nixon.

When President Martin Van Buren died, 19 of his successors had already been born. At the onset of the Civil War, four of them — John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan — joined Van Buren in that exclusive category, former presidents. That was the only time five former presidents were living at one time until 1993 when Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush were still kicking around. It happened again in 2001 with Carter, Ford, Reagan, Bush, and Bill Clinton. The quintet that formed a sort of elite gallery watching the Union unravel are usually ranked in the bottom dozen or so when retrospective experts, who never faced such decisions, cast their ballots. But none of the former presidents saw themselves that way and, in that rough-and-tumble time, they didn’t pose as aloof elder statesmen while Abraham Lincoln dealt with the crisis of secession. What they did do is the subject of The Presidents’ War by Chris DeRose.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN

ABRAHAM LINCOLN

This is an unusual and possibly unique approach to the history of the three decades leading up to the war and the prosecution of the war itself. The Civil War is sometimes remembered simplistically as a war over slavery — either over whether slavery should be permitted in new states as the nation expanded westward or whether it should be abolished altogether. Both of these questions were at issue, but the controversy was more complicated than that because it was intertwined with the evolving understanding of the relationship between the states and what was then often referred to as the “general government” — the federal government. The rights of individual states vis-a-vis the federal government are still the subject of often contentious discourse, but the question was far less settled in the decades before and immediately after the Civil War than it is now.

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Differing views over that question led to a crisis in 1832 when South Carolina declared that tariffs imposed by the federal government that year and in 1828 were null and void. Andrew Jackson, a tough customer, was president at the time, and he ordered that the duties be collected by whatever means were necessary and he formally declared that states did not have the power to nullify federal regulations or leave the federal union. The crisis was put off, in a sense, by a political compromise; it was put off, but not settled, and it would simmer and occasionally come to a boil until it exploded in secession and war. After Jackson, eight men, beginning with Van Buren, would exercise the executive authority while these fundamental questions remained unresolved and repeatedly threatened to rupture the union. Two of them — William Henry Harrison, the ninth president, and Zachary Taylor, the twelfth president, would die in office and would not play a significant role in government, and one of them, James Knox Polk, the 11th president, would die shortly after leaving office in 1849. Those five who would live to see the nation descend into the bloodiest war in its history had differing points of view on the seminal questions of the time. Although they are usually overlooked or derided in accounts of this period, DeRose explains in detail how they all were engaged in promoting their positions and often were active participants in the political dynamics of the time.

JOHN TYLER

JOHN TYLER

Perhaps the most interesting character DeRose brings back into the light is John Tyler of Virginia, the first man to serve as president without being elected to the office (succeeding Harrison, who died after a month in the White House) and the only former president to become a sworn enemy of the United States.  During the administration of James Buchanan, Tyler acted as a go-between seeking an accommodation between the United States and the newly formed Confederacy. Tyler promoted and chaired a ill-fated peace convention in 1861 and then participated in the convention in which Virginia voted to secede from the Union. Tyler was eventually elected to the Confederate Congress, although he died before he took his seat. Although the circumstances were dubious, this last achievement made him one of only four former presidents to serve in public office, the others being John Quincy Adams, Andrew Johnson, and William Howard Taft.

MARTIN VAN BUREN

MARTIN VAN BUREN

Martin Van Buren of New York, who served one term as president, had ambitions to return to the White House, but they were ultimately frustrated. He was one of many Americans who held that slavery was morally wrong but that it was protected by the Constitution. Although he was initially opposed to the election of Abraham Lincoln, Van Buren ultimately supported him and the war effort. Millard Fillmore, also of New York, was the last Whig president and, therefore, the last president who was not associated with either the Democratic or Republican parties. When the crisis had reached the point of no return and Lincoln called on the northern states to raise troops, Van Buren supported him, as did Fillmore. Van Buren argued that “the attack upon our flag and the capture of Fort Sumter by the secessionists could be regarded in no other light than as the commencement of a treasonable attempt to overthrow the Federal Government by military force. ….”

MILLARD FILLMORE

MILLARD FILLMORE

Fillmore was elected vice president on the ticket with Zachary Taylor and was vaulted into the presidency by Taylor’s death. He, too, skated on the thin ice between his own professed abhorrence of slavery and both the fact that it was protected by the Constitution and his desire to avoid antagonizing the southern states. He was sufficiently repulsed by slavery, in fact, that he raised money and contributed some of his own to enable his coachman to buy his own freedom and that of his family, but Fillmore supported enforcement of the fugitive slave law because it was the law of the land and because, like his four contemporaries, he did not want to provoke the South into Civil War. Three years after he left office, he unsuccessfully ran for president on the ticket of the anti-Catholic American Party, although he himself was not anti-Catholic. Although he was opposed to secession, he did not support Lincoln’s decision to emancipate slaves as a means of expediting an end to the war.

FRANKLIN PIERCE

FRANKLIN PIERCE

Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire, who was a brigadier general during the war with Mexico, was a Democrat who was opposed to secession but openly supported the institution of slavery in the South. He was a close associate of Jefferson Davis, who became president of the Confederacy, and antagonistic toward Lincoln. Pierce, who was beset by personal tragedy and drinking problems, attempted to undermine Lincoln’s policies by organizing an unprecedented “commission” of the living former presidents to mediate the differences between North and South. The commission, which would have been heavily weighted against Lincoln’s positions, never materialized.

James Buchanan of Pennsylvania, Lincoln’s immediate predecessor, had adopted the problematic view that states did not have a right to secede from the union and that the federal government did not have the power to stop them by force.

JAMES BUCHANAN

JAMES BUCHANAN

Buchanan, who had had a distinguished career, particularly as a diplomat, failed to preserve the peace between North and South and left office stinging with the idea that he would be regarded as a failure as president. It wasn’t known at the time, but he had exerted pressure on the Supreme Court to broaden its pending ruling in the Dredd Scott case to not only determine Scott’s status but to state that Congress did not have the power to prohibit slavery in the western territories. He spent his retirement years at his home in Wheatland, but he persistently trumpeted the idea that his policies were precursors to Lincoln’s. Buchanan busied himself during that time writing a memoir in hopes of vindicating himself, but he is generally regarded as having been hopelessly inept, at least with regard to secession.

DeRose covers a lot of ground in this book, but by telling the story in terms of the presidents who tried to cope with nagging and explosive issues, he brings as clarity to the subject that is not always present in accounts of that complex period. And besides writing a history of the run-up to the war, he provides a chronicle of the evolution of a public office — the presidency — noting that the five former presidents who lived to see secession and war had “feared that he would break the customs of the office that they had established and carefully cultivated. Their concerns were well founded. The American presidency is now a dynamic institution and powerful force for principle in the hands of the proper occupant…. Often American has been bereft of the leadership it wanted. But … in hours of great crisis for the Republic, America has never failed to find the reader to match the moment.”

CLAIRE DANES and JEANNE MOREAU

CLAIRE DANES and JEANNE MOREAU

The potential was there; in fact, it was almost too obvious. An introverted Jewish girl attending a posh private school in Manhattan is the target of anti-Semitic harassment. Her parents seem to think of her as an inconvenience, but she can turn for solace and encouragement to her grandmother — a survivor of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz.

These are the main ingredients in I Love You, I I Love You Not, a 1996 film based on a play by Wendy Kesselman, but the result is confusing and at times even incomprehensible.

The cast is promising enough. Jeanne Moreau plays the grandmother, referred to only as “Nana”; Claire Danes plays Daisy, the troubled girl known for her silence, and, in flashbacks and dream sequences, the younger Nana; and Jude Law plays Ethan, the charismatic, lacrosse-captain, straight-A student whom Daisy secretly yearns for and, in fact, stalks.

CLAIRE DANES and JUDE LAW

CLAIRE DANES and JUDE LAW

The movie begins as a Holocaust survivor is making an audio-visual presentation to a class that includes Daisy and Ethan and others who exhibit varying degrees of appreciation for or indifference to what they are hearing and seeing. Daisy is the most affected by far. It shortly becomes clear that she is a misfit at the school. The anti-Semitism that presumably contributes to this condition is clearly presented in only one incident. Another factor in her isolation, one that is openly discussed, is the fact that she is bookish to a fault, a characteristic that her grandmother nourishes even if she doesn’t encourage it. We never meet Daisy’s parents, but we can infer that there is no love lost between them and their daughter. We infer from the dialogue only that they like their freedom as gadabouts and want Daisy as out-of-the-way as possible. Whenever she talks to them on the telephone, they accuse her of adopting a “tone”(she doesn’t), and they accuse Nana of the same thing on one occasion. Although we would expect Daisy’s solitude to raise some issues of intimacy, her obsession with Ethan, whom she barely knows, seems out of character for such a cerebral young woman, and so does her willingness to share this obsession with a few girlfriends, in childish terms.

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Daisy’s stalking is clumsy enough that Ethan becomes fully aware of it, and eventually they are face to face, and then in a relationship. When Daisy is unwilling to let their passion progress beyond heavy kissing and caressing, Ethan — who is under pressure from his friends to drop her for one of the other girls who “want your jock” — breaks up with her. This leads to a  crisis in which Daisy rages at Nana and flees Nana’s home and survives only because of Nana’s intervention, naturally, and Daisy continues to nurse a hope that she can recapture Ethan’s attention. Nana’s role in all of this is problematic. Daisy is so fixated on Nana’s wartime experience that she once uses a marker to write on her own arm the number the Nazi’s tattooed on Nana’s. And she insists that Nana repeat a macabre sort of bedtime story which represents the loss of Nana’s two siblings in the death camp. Why Daisy deals with Nana’s history in this fashion is not made clear. Ethan’s motivations are familiar enough, but Nana’s and Daisy’s are not, and inasmuch as their relationship constitutes the raison d’être for this film, that’s a problem.

OTIS REDDING

OTIS REDDING

A former newspaper colleague of mine was recalling on Facebook the other day that on the occasion of Kurt Cobain’s suicide an editor approached and asked, in effect, “Is that a big story for your generation?” I know the feeling. In 1967, when I was 25 and Otis Redding was 26, Redding was killed in a plane crash and I had to convince my managing editor that that was front-page news.

The Facebook conversation reminded me of an incident that occurred about 20 years later when my wife and I and another couple were visiting Nevis, a tiny island in the Leeward group in the Caribbean. Shortly after we arrived, a Nevitian fellow we knew only as Ralph was driving us to the house we would be occupying that week. Ralph took us by surprise by asking this question: “Who were the two greatest American singers?” Considering the size of the field, and the fact that we didn’t know the consequences of answering wrong, we kept our counsel. So Ralph answered his own question: “Otis Redding and Jim Reeves.” Discretion being the better part of whaddyacallit, we feebly agreed with that assessment, but Ralph seemed to detect a lack of passion. His voice ticked up a bit in both pitch and volume: “Don’t tell anyone here that Otis Redding and Jim Reeves weren’t the greatest singers!” Having already made mental notes about the ubiquitous machetes on the island, we promised to do no such thing.
Otis - 2
I have always enjoyed the fact that one of the songs most identified with Redding, “Try a Little Tenderness,” originated in such an unlikely milieu.That song, a favorite of mine, was written in 1932 by Jimmy Campbell, Reg Connelly, and Harry M. Woods and it was recorded many times, including by such as Jimmy Durante, Frank Sinatra, Mel Tormé, and Frankie Laine, but also by Etta James, Tina Turner, and Three Dog Night. When Otis Redding wanted to record it in his own style in 1966, the publishers were reticent, but that turned out to be the best known and most enduring version. To see and hear Redding singing “Try a Little Tenderness” the day before he died click HERE. To hear a far more conventional rendition by Frank Sinatra, click HERE.

JIM REEVES

JIM REEVES

While Ralph’s question in itself took us by surprise, we were even more baffled by the reference to Jim Reeves, who I wouldn’t have expected to hold iconic status in the western Caribbean. Moreover, Reeves had died, also in a plane crash, even earlier than Redding — on July 31, 1964. I had painful memories of that, because I had been a big fan of Jim Reeves, Webb Pierce, Faron Young, Kitty Wells, and that whole crowd. I still have lots of their vinyl and a turntable to play it on.

I don’t know how well known it is, but Reeves was very athletic and had his eye  on professional baseball. He played for three years in the St. Louis Cardinals’ farm system before an injury to his sciatic nerve ended his career.

He could hardly have done better in baseball than he did in music; he was an international star. Once he adopted the easygoing Nashville sound, he became one of my favorites. His hits included “Bimbo,”  “Welcome to My World,” “Blue Christmas,” and “Make the World Go Away.” I was always stuck on “I Love You Because,” and you can see and hear him singing it at a 1964 concert in Oslo by clicking HERE.

Otis - 4

LEONARD WARREN

LEONARD WARREN

My best friend was up in Nantucket at one of those places where you leave things you have no further use for and other folks take them home. Lou  spotted a set of CDs containing dozens of  vintage recordings of operatic arias. Being my best friend, he brought them back for me. One of the singers who was well represented on the discs was the American baritone Leonard Warren, whose voice I hadn’t heard in many years.

Just seeing Warren’s name in the play list evoked for me a vivid memory of a Friday night — March 4, 1960 — when I was watching television and heard a bulletin announcing that Warren had died that night on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in Manhattan while performing the role of Don Carlo in Giuseppe Verdi’s opera La Forza del Destino. Warren, 48, collapsed after singing the aria “Urna fatale del mio destino” which is introduced with the words “Morir: tremenda cosa” — “to die: a momentous  thing.”

HARRY PARKE

HARRY PARKE

I was 17 when Leonard Warren died, and I was already an opera fan, so learning of his passing in that abrupt fashion made a strong impression on me. I was disappointed, but the dramatic aspects of Warren’s death — with his boots on, as it were — weren’t lost on me. I have a  recurring daydream of  one day slumping over my keyboard, though I have had to amend it over time from a bulky steel Royal to an IBM Selectric to a variety of front-end terminals and PCs. When those who still remember my name hear how  I cashed out, they’ll purse their  lips, nod, and mutter, “Of course. How else would he go?”

If I ever do join Warren in that exclusive society, he won’t be the only entertainer I find among those with club-room privileges. Harry Parke, for example, could hardly have picked a more auspicious context for his final bow. Parke, who is largely forgotten, was a former newspaper man who more or less wandered into comedy by way of Eddie Cantor’s radio show. Parke developed a character he called Parkyakarkus and did a schtick in which he spoke in a garbled form of  Greek. He eventually had his own radio show, and he appeared in nearly a dozen movies from 1936 to 1945. He also made a lot of money in real estate.

HARRY PARKE

HARRY PARKE

On November 24, 1958, Parke was appearing at the Friars Club in Beverly Hills at a roast of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. He had just finished what reportedly was a very successful riff on the honorees when he slumped over onto Milton Berle. Berle asked if there were a doctor in the house and the line — understandably in that context — got a big laugh until folks realized that Parke was really ill. Five physicians who were among the Friars worked hard to save Parke, but he died after about two hours at the age of 54. His sons include the comics Albert Brooks and Bob Einstein (Super Dave Osborne) and the versatile writer Charles Einstein.

DICK SHAWN

DICK SHAWN

Many years ago, I met a man who eventually would fall into this rarefied category: the comedian Dick Shawn. I met Shawn while he was appearing in a play in a regional theater, but his career for more than 35 years was principally as a stand-up comic. He did appear in some movies, including the iconic It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World, and the Springtime for Hitler segment in The Producers, and he was a familiar figure on television as a comedian and as an actor.

On April 17, 1987, Shawn performed at the University of California at San Diego. During a routine in which he was talking about he and the audience surviving a nuclear war, he collapsed on the stage, the victim of a massive heart attack. The audience thought his fall was part of the act and didn’t leave even when they were told to after someone had gone onto the stage to examine Shawn.  He was 63.

If you click HERE, you can see and hear Leonard Warren, in a television performance, singing the prologue from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci.

Don’t let the bedbugs bite

December 19, 2013

Denton 1
Every year at this time, and during the run-up to Valentine’s Day, the public-radio station I listen to runs sponsorship announcements from an outfit known as Pajamagram. Their deal is that you can contact them and have pajamas delivered to someone in the same manner in which you might send flowers if flowers didn’t require a second mortgage. I’ve being hearing these seasonal announcements for years, but today for the first time the information that Pajamagram can provide footie pjs reminded me of a name I haven’t thought of in decades: Dr. Denton. When I was a kid, “Dr. Denton” was a euphemism for pajamas with feet. My brother and I wore them, and that’s what we called them. These “blanket sleepers,” as they were more formally known, were manufactured by the Dr. Denton Sleeping Garment Mills of Centreville, Michigan. The company was founded in 1865 as the Michigan Central Woolen Company and operated through the first half of the twentieth century.

Denton 2
It wasn’t just in our household that footed pajamas were called Dr. Dentons. In fact, the usage was so common that the brand name became the generic term for the garment, what is technically known as a “genericized trade mark.” The design was patented by Whitley Denton, an employee of Michigan Central. His patent application emphasized that the garment, including the feet but sans the soles and arms, would be made in one piece with a minimum of cutting and stitching and seams, rendering the sleepers more economical to manufacture and more comfortable for wearers. Like the classic “union suit” the sleeper had a “trap door” in back so the user could go to the bathroom without having to disrobe.

You can see Denton’s patent application, including the drawings of the original design, by clicking HERE. Denton took on the honorary doctorate, at least for purposes of the  brand name, to create the impression that there was some medical wisdom behind the pajamas. Although the original manufacturer is gone, other companies have used the trade mark, including Simplicity, which for a while was selling Dr. Denton patterns to what I imagine was a limited market.

Denton 4

Charmin - 1
In a crossword puzzle I did recently, one of the answers was: “Don’t squeeze the Charmin.” This was a reference to what must have been one of the most successful series of television commercials ever produced. The centerpiece of these spots was the fictional supermarket manager Mr. Whipple, played by Dick Wilson, who was portrayed as catching customers squeezing the Charmin bathroom tissue because, of course, it was so soft. When he had a chance, Mr. Whipple, too, squeezed the rolls of paper. Who can resist that softness?

Dick Wilson played Mr. Whipple more than 500 times, beginning in 1964, and research showed that the commercials made the actor one of the most recognized people in the United States. And the expression itself, “Please don’t squeeze the Charmin,” could be heard echoing throughout the land. As marketing home runs go, this was a grand slam.

Obit Wilson
Although he was vigilant about the manhandling of Charmin, Mr. Whipple was presented as a mild-mannered fellow, but that’s a credit to Dick Wilson’s acting. He was no shrinking violet. He performed in more than 80 properties, including television series in which he appeared multiple times, including Get Smart, Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, M Squad, and The Lawless Years.

Wilson was born in Lancashire, England, to an Italian father and a British mother; his given name was Ricardo DiGuglielmo. Both of his parents were performers. The family moved to Canada where Wilson graduated from the Ontario College of Art & Design and began working in radio and vaudeville. During World War II, he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force. That seemingly bashful grocery man was among the fighter pilots who went head-to-head with the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain in 1940.

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After the war, Wilson became an American citizen and, after working as a dancer in New York, moved to California and launched what turned out to be a long career. According to a story published in the Hamilton Spectator in Ontario, Wilson earned $300,000 annually for about twelve days of work on the Charmin commercials. Considering the impact he made, the bunch at Charmin no doubt considered it money well spent. But Wilson said the job was no snap. According to the same article, Wilson said doing commercials was “the hardest thing to do in the entire acting realm. You’ve got 24 seconds to introduce yourself, introduce the product, say something nice about it and get off gracefully.”

Dick Wilson died in 2007 at the age of 91. Click HERE to see him in a Charmin commercial in which he catches Teri Garr in flagrante.

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During the movie Same Time, Next Year, which was the topic of my last post, Alan Alda’s character sits down at a piano a few times, and one of the songs he plays is “If I Knew You Were Coming, I’d Have Baked a Cake.” I don’t think I’ve heard anyone perform that song in decades, but I do remember when it was a big hit. That was in 1950, and in that era, novelty songs, as they were called, often made it to the charts and sometimes in a big way.

The one Alda played was written by a committee: Al Hoffman, Bob Merrill, and Clem Watts (a pseudonym for bandleader Al Trace). Like many popular songs, it was an expansion of an expression, the title, that already existed in popular culture. The lyric went, in part:

If I knew you were comin’ I’d’ve baked a cake
baked a cake, baked a cake
If I knew you were comin’ I’d’ve baked a cake
Howd-ya do, howd-ya do, howd-ya do
Had you dropped me a letter, I’d a-hired a band
Grandest band in the land
Had you dropped me a letter, I’d a-hired a band
And spread the welcome mat for you

Oh, I don’t know where you came from
’cause I don’t know where you’ve been
But it really doesn’t matter
Grab a chair and fill your platter
And dig, dig, dig right in.

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The first and iconic recording of this song was made by Eileen Barton. The tune arrived on the Billboard magazine chart in March 1950 and stayed for 16 weeks, peaking at No. 1. A recording made that same year by Georgia Gibbs was on the Billboard chart for six weeks. The best-known performance of the song, with good reason, was by Ernie in an encounter with the Cookie Monster in 1969 during the first season of Sesame Street. You can see that scene by clicking HERE.

Another of Al Hoffman’s collaborations, this one with Jerry Livingston and Milton Drake, was the nonsense song “Mairzy Doats,” which the trio composed in 1943. The song has been recorded, and has charted, many times. The Merry Macs, a popular harmony group, took it to Number 1 in March 1944. According to Drake, the inspiration for the song was an English verse he heard his young daughter singing: “Cowzy tweet and sowzy tweet and liddle sharksy doisters.” (Cows eat wheat and sows eat wheat and little sharks eat oysters.)

You can hear the Merry Macs’ hit recording by clicking HERE. This song was a particularly good fit for the wack-a-doodle bandleader Spike Jones, and you can hear his recording by clicking HERE.