June 23, 1918 The Day the Clowns Cried

Strong men, bareback riders, trapeze performers and acrobats were killed instantly and others horribly maimed, as wooden circus cars telescoped into one another.  Confused and bleeding survivors stumbled from the wreckage, as gas-fed lanterns began to set fire to all that wood.

rome_hbo_image__3___medium_There is an oft-repeated but mistaken notion that the circus goes back to Roman antiquity.  The panem et circenses, (bread and circuses)” of Juvenal, ca AD100, refers more to the ancient precursor of the racetrack, than to anything resembling a modern circus. The only common denominator is the word itself, the Latin root ‘circus’, translating into English, as “circle”.

The father of the modern circus is the British Sergeant-Major turned showman, Philip Astley.  A talented horseman, Astley opened a riding school near the River Thames in 1768, where he taught in the morning and performed ‘feats of horsemanship’ in the afternoon.  Equestrian and trick riding shows were gaining popularity all over Europe at this time, performers riding in circles to maintain balance while standing on the backs of galloping horses.  It didn’t hurt matters, that the “ring” made it easier for spectators to view the event.

s-l1600These afternoon shows gained overwhelming popularity by 1770, and Astley hired acrobats, rope-dancers, and jugglers to fill the spaces between equestrian events.  The modern circus, was born.

From that day to this, the “Fancy Pants” dresses in red tailcoat and top hat, evocative of British fox hunting garb. This “Announcer” is commonly (and mistakenly) called the “ringmaster”, while the true ring master is the “equestrian director”, standing in the center of the ring and pacing horses for the riding acts.

In 1825, Joshuah Purdy Brown of Somers New York replaced the wooden structure common to European circuses with a canvas tent, around the time when cattle dealer Hachaliah Bailey bought a young African elephant, and began to exhibit the animal all over the country.

The exotic animal angle was a great success.  Other animals were added, and farmers were soon leaving their fields to get into the traveling menagerie business.  The unique character of the American traveling circus emerged in 1835, when 135 such farmers and menagerie owners combined with three affiliated circuses to form the American Zoological Institute.

Phineas Taylor Barnum and William Cameron Coup launched P.T. Barnum’s Museum, Menagerie & Circus in 1871, where the “museum” part was a separate exhibition of human and animal oddities.  It wouldn’t be long, before the ‘sideshow” became a regular feature of the American circus.

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There have been no fewer than 81 major circuses in American history, and countless “Dog & Pony” shows, programs so small as to include only a few family members and an assistant or two, with a couple of trained animals.  And all this time, I thought ‘Dog & Pony Show’ referred to the United States Congress.

The ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ closed for the last time on Sunday, May 21 2017, when ‘animal rights activists’ and changing tastes in entertainment finished the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus, ending a 146-year run.

In the mid-19th century, German animal trainer Carl Hagenbeck toured Europe with “ethnographical” spectacles, combining animals with native peoples such as the Sámi of the Scandinavian peninsula, complete with reindeer and sleds. Hagenbeck was among the first to develop animal training methods based on trust and reward rather than pain Hagenbeck-Wallace_Circusand fear, his demonstrations emphasizing the animal’s intelligence and tractability over ferocity.

In 1906, Hagenbeck sold his traveling animal show to American circus operator Benjamin Wallace, before going on to develop open zoological gardens and native panoramas which would be familiar to today’s zoo enthusiast, rather than the barred cells of his day.

The American war machine was spinning up to peak operational capacity in 1918, as the industrial might of the nation pursued an end to the war ‘over there’.

Hagenbeck-Wallace was one of the premier circuses of the day, moving about the country on three trains and employing no fewer than 1,000 roustabouts and assorted performers.

In the small hours of  June 22, an engineer with the Michigan Central Railroad was at the wheel of Train No. 41, an empty 21-car troop train.  Automatic signals and flares and at least one frantic signalman should have warned the driver that a stalled train lay on the track ahead, but he missed them all.  Alonzo Sargent was asleep at the wheel.

The following day, newspapers across the country told the story of  what happened next.

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On June 22, the circus was scheduled to appear at the Show Grounds at 150th and Calumet Avenue in Hammond, Indiana.  In the early morning darkness, an overheated axle box required one train to make an unscheduled stop.  It was 4am and most of the circus’ employees were asleep, when the Michigan Central locomotive smashed into the rear of the stalled train.

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The Hammond circus train wreck was one of the worst such accidents, in history.  Strong men, bareback riders, trapeze performers and acrobats were killed instantly and others horribly maimed, as wooden circus cars telescoped into one another.  Confused and bleeding survivors stumbled from the wreckage, as gas-fed lanterns began to set fire to all that wood.

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Hagenbeck-Wallace clown “Big Joe” Coyle

Those lucky enough to escape the horror were forced to watch in disbelief as friends, families and co-workers were incinerated alive.

Hours later a clown, “Big Joe” Coyle, could be seen weeping, beside the mangled bodies of his wife and two small boys.

127 were injured and an estimated 86 crushed or burned to death in the wreck.  The rumor mill went berserk.  Wild lions and tigers had escaped and were roaming the streets and back yards of Gary, Indiana.  Elephants died in an heroic attempt to put out the flames, spraying water on the burning wreckage with their trunks.

None of the stories were true.  The animals had passed through hours before on an earlier caravan, and now awaited a train which would never come.

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The Showmen’s League of America was formed in 1913, with Buffalo Bill Cody its first President.  The group had recently purchased a 750-plot parcel at the Woodlawn Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois and called it “Showmen’s Rest”, having no idea their investment would be used so soon.

A mass grave was dug for the unidentified and unidentifiable.  Some of the dead were roustabouts or temporary workers, hired only hours or days earlier.  Some performers were known only by stage names, their gravestones inscribed with names like “Four-Horse Driver”,  “Baldy” and “Smiley”.

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The Hagenbeck-Wallace circus was a big deal in those days.  Famed lion tamer Clyde Beatty was a member, as was a young Red Skelton, tagging along with his father, who worked as a clown.

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Only two shows had to be canceled, as erstwhile ‘competitors’ Barnum & Bailey and others lent workers, performers and equipment.  The show would go on.

In the world of elephants, an upraised trunk carries connotations of joy, while a lowered trunk symbolizes mourning.  At the Woodlawn cemetery of Chicago, five elephant statues circumscribe the mass grave of clowns, trapeze artists, strongmen and other circus performers.  Each has a foot raised with a ball underneath.  Every trunk, hangs low.  The largest of the five bears the inscription, “Showmen’s League of America.”  On the other four are inscribed the words “Showmen’s Rest”.

 

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May 11, 1969 Now for something Completely Different

The “Iron Lady”, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher herself, appears to have been a fan, doing a more than passable version of the Dead Parrot sketch at a Conservative Party Conference in 1990.

Graham Chapman was trained and educated to be a physician, but that career trajectory was never meant to be.  John Cleese was writing for TV personality David Frost and actor/comedian Marty Feldman in 1969, when he recruited Chapman as a writing partner and “sounding board”. BBC offered the pair a show of their own in 1969, when Cleese reached out to former How To Irritate People writing partner Michael Palin, to join the team. Palin invited his own writing partner Terry Jones and colleague Eric Idle over from rival ITV, who in turn wanted American-born Terry Gilliam for his animations.

The British comedy troupe which formed on this day forty-nine years ago was amused at the idea of a haughty Lord Montgomery, patterned after Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, KG, GCB, DSO, PC, DL, etc., etc., etc. “Python” seemed just slippery enough to make the whole thing work.

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The Pythons considered several names for the new program, including “Owl Stretching Time”, “The Toad Elevating Moment”, “Vaseline Review” and “A Horse, a Spoon and a Bucket”. “Flying Circus” had come up as well. The name stuck when BBC revealed that it had already printed flyers, and weren’t about to go back to the printer.

The show was a collaborative process, beginning with the first broadcast on October 5, 1969. With no writers of their own, the six would divide into groups and write their own material. Whether any given sketch would make it into the program, was always a democratic process.

Different Python factions were responsible for different elements of the team’s humor. The work of the Oxford educated Terry Jones and Michael Palin was more visual, and a little more off the wall. The Spanish Inquisition bursting into the suburban apartment is a prime example, while the Cambridge educated John Cleese and Graham Chapman were more confrontational – “This is abuse. I came here for an argument”.  Cleese described Eric Idle’s work:  “anything that got utterly involved with words and disappeared up any personal orifice was Eric’s”.  The Man who Spoke in Anagrams.  Terry Gilliam was the guy behind the animation.

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The Flying Circus broke new ground with techniques like the “cold open”. With no titles, credits, or opening theme, Michael Palin would crawl across the tundra a la Robinson Crusoe, looking into the camera and saying “It’s“… And off they went. The cold open sometimes lasted until the middle of the show. Occasionally, the Pythons fooled viewers by rolling closing credits halfway through, usually continuing the gag by fading to the BBC logo while Cleese parodied the tones of a BBC announcer. On one occasion, closing credits ran directly after the opening titles.

I personally learned to never leave a Python film during closing credits, finding my reward for sticking around at the end of the Life of Brian was to learn who wiped the moose’s noses. As I recall, it was John J. Llama.

The “Iron Lady”, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher herself, appears to have been a fan, doing a more than passable version of the Dead Parrot sketch at a Conservative Party Conference in 1990.

The Pythons shared a dislike for “capping” bits with punchlines, and experimented with ending sketches by cutting abruptly to another scene, or breaking the rules altogether by addressing the camera directly. The knight in armor, played by Terry Gilliam, would wander onto the set and whack people over the head with a rubber chicken. Chapman’s “Colonel” character would walk into sketches and order them stopped because things were becoming “far too silly.”

Gilliam’s animations were a favorite technique, when a 16 ton weight would drop from the sky, or else it was Cupid’s foot – yes, that’s Cupid’s foot – cut from a reproduction of the Renaissance masterpiece “Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time” by Il Bronzino.

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John Cleese left the Flying Circus at the end of the third season. He had considered doing so at the end of the second, feeling that he had little original material to offer the show. He found Chapman difficult to work with, who was at this time a full tilt alcoholic. Cleese could be difficult himself. Eric Idle once said of John Cleese. “He’s so funny because he never wanted to be liked. That gives him a certain fascinating, arrogant freedom”.

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The group reunited in 1974 to do the Holy Grail, filmed on location in Scotland on a budget of £229,000. The money was raised in part by investments from musical figures like Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin backer Tony Stratton-Smith.

Investors in the film wanted to cut the famous Black Knight scene, (“None shall pass”), but were eventually persuaded to keep it in the film. Good thing, the scene became second only to the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch and the Killer Rabbit. “What’s he going to do, nibble my bum?”

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Graham Chapman is best remembered as King Arthur in the Holy Grail, and Brian Cohen in the Life of Brian.  Chapman died of spinal and throat cancer on the 20th anniversary of their first broadcast. John Cleese delivered a uniquely Pythonesque eulogy, which sounded a lot like the Dead Parrot sketch. “”Graham Chapman, co-author of the Parrot sketch, is no more,” he began. “He has ceased to be, bereft of life, he rests in peace, he has kicked the bucket, hopped the twig, bit the dust, snuffed it, breathed his last, and gone to meet the Great Head of Light Entertainment in the sky…

I don’t believe he’d have had it any other way. Silly bunt.

 

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March 26, 1937  I Yam What I Yam

Cartoonist E.C. Segar (rhymes with cigar) passed away back in 1938, but his characters live on.  Over the weekend of January 16-18, 2004, the Empire State Building was lit up spinach green, a tribute to the 75th anniversary of Segar’s favorite character. 

Eighty-nine years ago, Popeye the Sailor appeared for the first time in Elzie Segar’s “Thimble Theater”, a newspaper comic strip revolving around the lives of Olive Oyl and her extended family, including her brother Castor and then-boyfriend Harold Hamgravy.

download (29)The strip was around for ten years or so, when Olive & co. decided to recruit a sailor to get them to the casino on Dice Island.  Approaching a rough looking character on the docks, “Popeye’s” first line was “Ja think I was a cowboy? He was supposed to be an extra, but he became so popular he soon developed into the center of the strip.

Like Olive, who was patterned after the real-life Dora Paskel, the one eyed, fighting, pipe smoking sailor was based on a real man:  Chester, Illinois boxer Frank ‘Rocky’ Fiegal.  The boxer didn’t mind being associated with a cartoon character.  When Fiegal died in 1947, his gravestone was inscribed with the words “inspiration for Popeye.”

popeye__eugene_and_bernice_by_fourpanelheroBefore spinach, Popeye gained his superhuman strength patting the head of a magical “whiffle hen” named “Bernice”.

Back in 1870, a misplaced decimal point in a scientific journal led readers to believe that spinach had ten times the iron than it actually does.  Some ideas die hard.  Sixty years later, the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those people still believed it to be true.

Bluto beat our sailor up in 1932 and tossed him into a spinach field, with predictable results.  Following that episode, spinach sales increased by 33%.  At one point, children voted spinach their third favorite food, behind turkey and ice cream.

To the everlasting joy of depression-era spinach producers, Popeye found extra muscle in the leafy vegetable, ever since.  On March 26, 1937, Crystal City, Texas spinach producers unveiled a statue of Popeye, the first time in history that a statue had been erected in honor of a cartoon character.

What-is-SpinachPopeye’s pet “Eugene the Jeep” first appeared in a 1936 strip called “Wha’s a Jeep?”.  Eugene was sort of magical dog who could go anywhere.  Five years later, military contractors worked to develop the iconic off-road vehicle of WWII.  Like Popeye’s pet Eugene, the General Purpose GP (“Jeep”) could go anywhere.  Eventually, the name stuck.

Jeep isn’t the only word we get from the Popeye cartoon franchise.  The inveterate moocher J. Wellington Wimpy, who would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today, gave us the word “wimp” and the burger chain that goes with it.  The comic strip introduced a character called “Dufus”.  To this day, a Dufus (Doofus) in the American vernacular is a “silly fool, a dimwit, or a stupid person”,

Just about every cartoon character who ever was, appears in the 1988 “Who framed Roger Rabbit”, except for Popeye.  Disney didn’t forget him, the problem was that they couldn’t get legal permission to use the character, from Paramount Pictures.

Cartoonist E.C. Segar (rhymes with cigar) passed away back in 1938, but his characters live on.  Over the weekend of January 16-18, 2004, the Empire State Building was lit up spinach green, a tribute to the 75th anniversary of Segar’s favorite character.   Weight Watchers put out a series of spinach recipes. There was even a ceremonial “official adoption” of the orphan sea waif Swee’ Pea, during National Adoption Month (November).

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“Later that year (2004), the Empire State Building was lit in spinach green to celebrate Popeye’s 75th, and Weight Watchers put out a series of spinach recipes. There was even a ceremonial “official adoption” of the orphan sea waif Swee’ Pea during National Adoption Month (November)”. H/T The Coronado Times

On December 8, 2009, Google featured the character to honor the birth of his creator, Elzie Crisler Segar. Google’s famous Doodle appeared along with the mouseover text, “E.C. Segar’s Birthday.”

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March 22, 2228 Final Frontier

Kirk was killed in 2329 on the Enterprise (B), after the ship was eaten by a Nexus energy ribbon on its maiden voyage. Only he didn’t die, because Jean-Luc Picard found him alive in the timeless Nexus, negotiating hotel deals for Priceline.com. Or something like that.

On this day in the year 2228, a boy was born to George and Winona Kirk. He would go on to become the youngest captain in Starfleet history but, before he could boldly go where no man has gone before, he had to have a name.

The former WWII fighter pilot and veteran of 89 combat missions Gene Roddenberry had 16 suggestions for a name, among them “Hannibal”, “Timber”, “Flagg”, and “Raintree”.  The television screenwriter and producer decided on James T. Kirk, based on a journal entry from the 18th century British explorer, Captain James Cook, who wrote “ambition leads me … farther than any other man has been before me“.

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Kirk was killed in 2329 on the Enterprise (B), after the ship was eaten by a Nexus energy ribbon on its maiden voyage. Only he didn’t die, because Jean-Luc Picard found him alive in the timeless Nexus, negotiating hotel deals for Priceline.com. Or something like that.

In his 1968 book “Making of Star Trek“, Roddenberry writes that James Kirk was born in a small town in Iowa. Full time “Trekkie” and part time Riverside, Iowa Councilman Steve Miller thought “Why not Riverside”. In 1985, Miller moved that Riverside declare itself the Future Birthplace of James T. Kirk. The motion passed unanimously. Miller poked a stick into the ground behind the barber shop, (good thing he owned the property), declaring that this was the place.  An engraved monument was erected, and so it was.  Riverside, population 963, became the “Future Birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk.  A bench was added later, along with a Shuttlecraft-shaped donation box.

jk6Riverside’s official slogan was changed from “Where the best begins” to “Where the Trek begins,” the annual “River Fest” summer festival, became “Trek Fest”.

Star Trek fans, ever-jealous protectors of series trivia, sometimes wonder why the March 22, 2228 date on the Riverside monument differs from the March 22, 2233 date usually cited as Kirk’s future birthday. The 2233 date didn’t come around until eight years after the monument, with the publication The Star Trek Chronology: The History of the Future. 2228 or 2233 you can take your pick, but both agree on March 22, which happens to be William Shatner’s birthday.

download (24)In case you ever wondered what the “T” stands for – its “Tiberius”.

The Space Foundation of Colorado Springs bills itself as “the world’s premier organization to inspire, educate, connect, and advocate on behalf of the global space community“.  A 2010 survey conducted by the organization found that James Tiberius Kirk was voted the 6th “most inspirational space hero of all time“, tied with Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.  Tied for 6th place, with the first human in space.  A guy who went there, and came back.  A guy who…you know…actually…exists.

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February 4, 2012 Have a Nice Day

From Betty Boop to the hula hoop, popular culture is always primed and ready to dive into the latest fad.

medals_silver_star_100x200If you were to keyword search “United States Army”, “Silver Star” and “World War II”, you’ll find among a long list of recipients the name of “Ball, Harvey A. HQ, 45th Infantry Division, G.O. No. 281”.

Harvey Ball earned the silver star medal “for Conspicuous Gallantry in Action” in 1945, during the battle for Okinawa. He went on to serve most of his life in the United States Army Reserve, retiring with the rank of Colonel, in 1979.

Twenty years later, Colonel Ball was awarded the “Veteran of the Year” award from the Veterans Council of his home town of Worcester, Massachusetts. Yet, if we think of Harvey Ball, it is probably not for his military service.

Harvey Ross Ball worked for a sign painter while attending Worcester South High School, and went on to study fine arts at the Worcester Art Museum School.

After the war, Ball came home to Worcester and worked for a local advertising firm, later opening his own ad agency, Harvey Ball Advertising, in 1959.

In 1963, Worcester’s State Mutual Life Assurance Company (now Hanover Insurance) bought out the Guarantee Mutual Company of Ohio.  Employee morale had plummeted at the new acquisition, and Director of Promotions Joy Young was tasked with solving the problem.  She hired Harvey Ball as a freelance artist to create a visual icon. A pin to be worn as part of the company’s ‘friendship campaign’.

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Harvey Ball, surrounded by his own creation

First came that silly grin. The pair quickly realized that the button could be inverted, and we can’t have “frowny” faces walking about, can we. Ball added eyes, the left drawn slightly smaller than the right, to “humanize” the design.

The work took about ten minutes and the artist was paid $45, equivalent to $330 today.  Neither Ball nor State Mutual Felt it necessary to copyright the graphic.

From Betty Boop to the hula hoop, popular culture is always primed and ready to dive into the latest fad. State Mutual ordered 100 buttons.  Before  Long, manufacturers were taking orders for thousands at a time.

Philadelphia brothers Bernard and Murray Spain seized on the image seven years later, producing millions of coffee mugs, t-shirts, watches and bumper stickers, emblazoned with the happy face and the slogan “Have a happy day”, later revised to the ever present, “Have a nice day”.

The image was everywhere, second only to the ubiquitous “Peace Sign”.

Frenchman Franklin Loufrani copyrighted the image in France in 1972, using it to highlight the “good news” section of the newspaper France Soir.

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WMCA “good guys” sweatshirt, 1962

Loufrani’s son Nicolas took over the family business, launching The Smiley Company in 1996.  The younger Loufrani is skeptical of Harvey Ball’s claim to have created such a simple design, pointing to cave paintings found in France dated to 2500BC, and a similar graphic used in radio ad campaigns, of the early ’60s.

Of course, that didn’t prevent the company from seeking US trademark rights to the image, kicking off a years-long legal battle with retail giant Wal-Mart, which had been using the happy face in its “Rolling Back Prices” campaign.

The Smiley Company is one of the 100 largest licensing corporations in the world with revenues of $167 million in 2012, the year that BBC Radio produced the documentary “Smiley’s People”, broadcast on February 4.

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Martian Crater

The artist didn’t seem to mind, that he never copyrighted his Smiley Face. Harvey Ball is gone now, but his son Charles says his father never was a money driven kind of guy. “Hey”, he would say, “I can only eat one steak at a time. drive one car at a time”.

In the 2009 film “Watchmen” characters fly to Mars, landing in a crater that looks like a Smiley Face. The red planet really does have such a place. It’s called the Galle crater.

In June of 2010, Wal-Mart and the Smiley Company settled their 10-year-old legal dispute in Chicago federal court. The terms of the settlement are confidential, and the judges words as he lowered the gavel, are unknown to this writer.  I so want to believe he told all those lawyers, to “have a nice day”.

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December 19, 1843  A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens’ masterpiece, A Christmas Carol, was published for the first time 174 years ago on this day, December 19, 1843.

It’s hard not to love the traditions of the Christmas season.  Getting together with loved ones, good food, the exchange of gifts, and our favorite Christmas specials on TV.  I always liked a Charlie Brown’s Christmas, and of course there’s the Charles Dickens classic, “A Christmas Carol”, set against the vast brick factory buildings of Lowell, Massachusetts, along the Merrimack River.

That wasn’t what you thought I’d say, was it.

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Charles Dickens’ 1842 travelogue

The 29-year-old Charles Dickens was already a well-known and popular author when he stepped onto the shores of Boston Harbor on January 22, 1842.

“The Pickwick Papers,” “Oliver Twist,” “Nicholas Nickleby”; were all behind the young author at the time of his trip to America, perhaps to write a travelogue, or maybe looking for material for a new novel.

Dickens traveled to Watertown, Massachusetts, to the Perkins School for the Blind, where Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan had educated each other, a half-century later.

He visited a school for neglected boys in Boylston.  Dickens must have thought the charitable institutions in his native England suffered by comparison, for he later wrote “I sincerely believe that the public institutions and charities of this capital of Massachusetts are as nearly perfect as the most considerate wisdom, benevolence, and humanity, can make them.”

LowellMillGirlsIn February, Dickens took a train north to the factory town of Lowell, visiting the textile mills and speaking with the “mill girls”, the women who worked there.  Once again, he seemed to believe that his native England suffered in the comparison.  Dickens spoke of the new buildings and the well dressed, healthy young women who worked in them, no doubt comparing them with the teeming slums and degraded conditions in London.

Lowell OfferingDickens left with a copy of “The Lowell Offering”, a literary magazine written by those same mill girls, which he later described as “four hundred good solid pages, which I have read from beginning to end.”

Over a century and a half later, Natalie McKnight, professor of English and dean at Boston University, read the same 400 pages that Dickens read.  She couldn’t help but notice similarities between the work of the mill girls, and “A Christmas Carol,” published about a year and a half after Dickens’ visit.  Chelsea Bray was a senior English major at the time.  Professor McKnight asked her to read those same pages.

7ba33a5b1a569dd293edd9eff5d8eb80--christmas-carol-vintage-christmasThe research which followed was published in the form of a thesis, later fleshed out to a full-length book:

“Dickens and Massachusetts
The Lasting Legacy of the Commonwealth Visits
How Massachusetts shaped Dickens’s view of America”
Edited by Diana C. Archibald and Joel J. Brattin
Published May 1, 2015.

The book describes a number of similarities between the two works, making the argument that Dickens familiar story draws much from his experience in Lowell.

Charles Dickens’ masterpiece, A Christmas Carol, was published for the first time 174 years ago on this day, December 19, 1843.

 

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November 15, 1963 Louie Louie

For two years, FBI investigators interviewed witnesses. They listened to the song at varying speeds, backward and forward, but the relentless search for bawdy material came up empty. In the end, the song was ruled “unintelligible at any speed”.

In 1955, Richard Berry wrote a song about a Jamaican sailor returning to his island to see his lady love. It’s a ballad, a conversation in the first person singular, with a bartender. The bartender’s name is Louie.

The song was covered in Latin and R&B styles in the fifties, but was never more than a regional hit on the west coast.

Louie3“Mainstream” white artists of the fifties and sixties often covered songs written by black artists. On April 6, 1963, an obscure rock & roll group out of Portland, Oregon covered the song, renting a recording studio for $50. They were The Kingsmen.

Lead singer Jack Ely showed the band how he wanted it played. Berry’s easy 1-2-3-4, 1-2, 1-2-3-4 ballad would be changed to a raucous 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2-3 beat.

The guitar work could only be described as anarchic, the lyrics unintelligible.  The Kingsmen recorded the song in a single take. It was released by a small label in May and re-released by Wand Records in October, 1963. Sales of the single increased through the 15th of November, the song entering the Billboard Top 100 chart on December 7.

Rock & Roll music is so mainstream now, that it’s hard to remember how subversive and decadent it was considered to be.

Louie Louie’s impenetrable lyrics led to all kinds of speculation about what was being said.  More than a few imaginations ran wild. Fabricated lyrics ranging from mildly raunchy to pornographic were written out on slips of paper and exchanged between teenagers, spurring interest in the song and driving record sales through the roof.

Concerned parents contacted government authorities to see what could be done. One parent, a Sarasota, Florida junior high school teacher, wrote to Attorney General Bobby Kennedy. “Who do you turn to when your teen age daughter buys and brings home pornographic or obscene materials being sold along with objects directed and aimed at the teenage market in every City, Village and Record shop in this Nation?” The letter ends with a plea, complete with four punctuation marks: “How can we stamp out this menace????
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The FBI took up the investigation in 1964 under the ITOM statute, a federal law regulating the Interstate Transportation of Obscene Material. There are 119 pages in the FBI’s archival website, covering the case.

For two years, FBI investigators interviewed witnesses. They listened to the song at varying speeds, backward and forward, but the relentless search for bawdy material came up empty.  In the end, the song was ruled “unintelligible at any speed”.

Louie4Strangely, the feds never interviewed Kingsmen lead singer Jack Ely, who probably could have saved them a lot of time.

The song has been covered by numerous artists over the years, including Paul Revere & the Raiders, Otis Redding, Motorhead, Black Flag and Young MC.  The best version ever, has got to be the Delta Tau Chi fraternity version from John Landis’ 1978 movie, Animal House.

“OK, let’s give it to ’em.  Right now”.