Little things bother me.

I am troubled, for example, by the tags on Lipton tea bags. They’re flimsy and problematic. The design is ingenious enough. The tab is part of the envelope in which each tea bag nestles. In this respect, Lipton has it all over most brands, whose tea bags lie naked in the box. The envelope is perforated so that the user can detach the part that serves as the tag, but the envelope is made of such thin paper that the staple doesn’t grip the string very well, and as often as not the tag slips off. And that means that the whole string often winds up in the cup when the water is poured.

Most other brands — Wegmans and Twinnings, for instance — while eschewing the envelope, make the tags out of sturdier stuff.

It has occurred to me to call Lipton’s 800 number about this, but I had such an unsatisfying experience about a decade ago when I called Nabisco to complain about the way graham crackers are wrapped that I don’t have the heart to try it again.

There are two reasons why I don’t just drink another brand of tea. One is that Lipton tea is the only kind I like — at least, as compared to other ones that I have tried. Some people (you know who you are) sniff at this, implying that there is something pedestrian about Lipton and, therefore, about me, but that doesn’t move me. I have, to borrow a phrase from Jefferson Davis, “the pride of having no pride.”

The second reason I don’t switch brands is loyalty — not so much to the brand as to the salesman. When I was a kid, I was a devoted fan of Arthur Godfrey, who was a radio and television mogul back in the Bronze Age. Lipton was one of his sponsors and probably the one the public most associated with him.  He pitched the tea and Lipton’s packaged soup. In those days before the highly produced commercials we see now, the host of a show often was the one who sold the products. Godfrey used to kid the sponsors; he might have been the first one who dared to do it. When he did his spiel for Lipton’s chicken soup, he used to assure the audience that a chicken had at least walked through the concoction.

Godfrey was troublesome. He was talented and bold as a showman, but he also was kind of full of himself, and many people my age and older might remember him best for having fired Julius La Rosa and several other regular members of his variety show cast — without warning, on live television.

Nobody’s perfect. I made a commitment to Arthur Godfrey that I would drink Lipton tea and no other, and I have been more loyal to him than he was to Julie La Rosa.

Besides my one-sided deal with Godfrey, I might as well mention that I’m not happy when I don’t find a prominent portrait of Sir Thomas Lipton on the box of tea. Lipton, who founded the brand, was one of the great self-made businessmen of the latter 19th and early 20th centuries. I identify with him because he was a grocer, as were my father and grandfather. Of course, we had one store and Lipton eventually had about 300.

When Lipton got into the tea trade, he broke the established wholesaling patterns so that he could sell the product at low prices to the working poor. Lipton tea boxes used to feature a large picture of Thomas Lipton with a tea cup in his hand and a yachting cap on his head – an image that has been relegated to a tiny logo. Lipton was a yachting enthusiast and tried five times with five different yachts to win the Americas Cup. What he finally won was a special trophy honoring him as the “best of all losers.”

Lipton also did a lot to assist medical volunteers in Europe during World War I, including putting his yachts at the disposal of organizations transporting medical personnel and supplies and traveling himself to Serbia to show his support for doctors, nurses, and soldiers at the height of a typhus epidemic. Twinnings? I don’t think so.

Sir THOMAS LIPTON

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Amateur night

September 21, 2010

VALENTINE PRINGLE

I stepped into the room the other night long enough to hear Jackie Evancho sing a duet with Sarah Brightman a half hour or so before coming in second on “America’s Got Talent.” I don’t follow the show, so I don’t  know anything about the grown-up male singer who came in first — in fact, I don’t know his name. Whoever he is, I’m glad he won, because I found Evancho’s involvement on that show disconcerting. I worry about the impact all that excitement has on a 10-year-old psyche. When the winner was announced and the child didn’t seem the least bothered by it, I even found that unsettling.

Also, people around me who have formal training in voice tell me that it isn’t a good idea for a child that age to be singing such demanding music. It has something to do with the need for vocal cords to develop gradually. I wondered if Brightman was alluding to that when she remarked that she hoped Evancho would “preserve” her voice.

ARTHUR GODFREY

Since I so often use this blog to date myself — should I say, place myself in historical context — I might mention that I was a fan of broadcast talent shows before they became such extravaganzas. I was a loyal follower, for instance, of Arthur Godfrey’s “Talent Scouts” show, which began on radio and continued on television. I believe it was “simulcast” for a while — broadcast life on radio and television at the same time. In a way, that technique has made sort of a comeback in the form of radio shows that are simultaneously webcast with video. WNYC radio in New York does that from time to time. Godfrey was preceded in the genre by Major Bowes and Ted Mack, who called his radio and later TV show “The Original Amateur Hour.” Ted Mack graduates included Gladys Knight, Pat Boone, Ann-Margret, and Raul Julia. Major Bowes best-known alumnus has to be Frank Sinatra.

HARRY BELAFONTE

A later attempt to exploit the same concept was “Talent Scouts,” a show on which celebrities brought unknown performers to the public’s attention. Jim Backus was the host of that show, which ran only in 1962. I remember that one of the celebrities was Harry Belafonte, who brought a singer named Valentine Pringle. If I remember correctly, Pringle sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” with a bass voice that gave me the shivers. He later made two vinyl albums, and they are among my favorites to this day.

It always surprised me that Val Pringle didn’t become more widely known as a singer. He had an interesting career, though, writing songs — including “Louise” for Belafonte — acting on television and in films, and performing with folks like Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, and Eartha Kitt. He sang the role of Porgy in a recording of George and Ira Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess” produced by Readers Digest.

VALENTINE PRINGLE

Eventually, Pringle and his wife moved to Maseru in South Africa where he was murdered in 1999 by burglars whom he confronted after they had entered his home. Pringle was a U.S. Army war veteran. His ashes are interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

Idolness

May 22, 2009

 

ARTHUR GODFREY

ARTHUR GODFREY

I don’t understand the anti-American Idol sentiment that seems to be based on a premise of cultural superiority – or maybe it’s snobbery, a kind of knee-jerk reaction against anything that generates a lot of public excitement, a need to feel “above it all.”

I’ve never watched even a minute of “American Idol,” but I watch very little television at all. I do watch most of “Dancing with the Stars,” so the general concept of such shows is not foreign to me. To me, “American Idol” is just the over-produced and over-promoted 21st century version of “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts,” which was a huge success on radio and television – in fact, for a while it was on radio and television simultaneously. 

What annoys me about “American Idol” is the endless hype – the way, for instance, the local Fox stations treat every snort and whimper that comes from an Idol contestant or judge as though it were not only news but the top story of the day. And it really irritates me when I turn to the channel with the TV Guide rolling program log, the top half of the screen is occupied by a cast of pinheads babbling on about the Idol contestants – OMG!

But the show itself seems to me to be an entertaining vehicle through which people who otherwise would get no public attention for their talents get a shot at starting a career. Godfrey’s show – a primitive thing by comparison – gave the public its first glimpses of many folks who later were successful and, in some cases, stars. The winner each week was determined by a gain meter that measured the applause of a live studio audience.

 

DON KNOTTS

DON KNOTTS

Many of the contestants on Godfrey’s show were not really amateurs but small-time professionals trying to move up. Among the contestants were Pat Boone, Patsy Cline, the McGuire Sisters, Tony Bennett, Lenny Bruce, Roy Clark, Rosemary Clooney, violinist Florian ZaBach, Wally Cox, Vic Damone, The Diamonds of “Little Darlin’ ” fame, Eddie Fisher, Connie Francis, Don Knotts, Steve Lawrence, Barbara McNair, Leslie Uggams, and Johnny Nash. 

Nobody’s perfect, by the way. Among those who didn’t survive the auditions for “Talent Scouts” were Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly.

Incidentally, Johnny Nash – it has always seemed to me – should have been a bigger star than he ever became. I think he’s still out there singing somewhere. He performs one of his biggest hits, “Hold Me Tight,” at this link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HYhRpbqe1Zg