April 13th, 2005

1939 World's Fair

cultural archaeology part the fifteenth

Some more of that good old-fashioned curious research tonight. I've been on an Allan Sherman kick this week. Sherman, who died in 1973, was one of the forefathers of modern American musical parody. Worked around the same time Tom Lehrer did, and did the same kind of schtick albeit with a Yiddish spin. Lehrer was the Cambridge mathematician satirist who mostly sang original pieces, Sherman was the New York Jew satirist who put new words to familiar songs. He originally worked with folk songs so that, in his words, "nobody can sue me for it," but eventually went on to adapt popular songs as well for his nefarious purposes. Even if you've never heard of Sherman's name before, it's a lead cinch you know his most famous song, Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh (A Letter from Camp). You're probably singing it to yourself now. It has single-handedly kept Ponchelli's Dance of the Hours in the public consciousness to this day.

Most of Sherman's work, however, was very topical. The Let's All Call Up AT&T And Protest To The President March, for instance, was a satirical protest against direct dialing, the 10-digit phone number system which replaced the old system of telephone name exchanges. The then-arcane use of nothin' but digits and dashes, needed to further expand the telephone networks of the time, angered traditionalists like Sherman. So in song he mourned the loss of the colorful names, such as BUtterfield-8 (Manhattan's Upper East Side), ALpine-6 (my hometown, Amherst) and KLondike-5 (TV Land.) Another one of Sherman's songs was a tribute to Peyton Place, the steamy novel/film/television show. The tale of a small New England town and the infidelity that surrounded it caused a scandal in its time but nowadays would be tamer than any prime-time television show, and that includes the reality ones. (And you wonder why that song's not sung more often today.)

His first big hit, though, was Sarah Jackman, which came off his 1962 album My Son, the Folk Singer. It was a phone conversation sung in duet--and, for a simple Frere Jacques parody, it manages to drop an astounding amount of pop-culture references for the age.

Collapse )

Where to start? Well, John O'Hara was a novelist; wrote Pal Joey as well as Butterfield 8 (whoa hey look that was mentioned above!) He also did time as a disgruntled newspaper columnist. He published The Big Laugh in 1962. William Morris is, of course, a humongous entertainment agency, big time stuff in NYC and elsewhere. (For some reason the William Morris line gets the biggest laugh in the live recording.)

Ida, the Freedom Rider, would've been one of the nonviolent student Civil Rights protesters who rode integrated buses down into the southern states to uphold the Supreme Court decision that integrated interstate public facilities, such as bus stations. Along with the Peace Corps, it was a good way for a nice leftist Jewish kid in New York to help affect social change. Then there's Norma the nonconformer--while the Nonconformist tag has traditionally been reserved for any non-Anglican Protestant, "non-conformist" in the American lexicon of the late 50s and early 60s would've meant the Beats and Bohemians, especially around Greenwich Village and that scene. Lolita would have, of course, referred to Nabokov's novel, and it's interesting to see the proper name had already been turned into a descriptive noun seven years after the novel's publication.

Then there's Vic Tanny. This was the reference that got me a-researchin' in the first place. While I had a glean on all the other references, Vic Tanny eluded me. I originally thought it may have been some kind of self-improvement course a la Dale Carnegie, but it turns out that Vic Tanny ran the first modern chain of gyms--the forefather of the health club. Vic Tanny was a businessman who took his gym in the Muscle Beach section of Santa Monica and then parlayed that into a nationwide chain of clean, safe, multi-purpose gyms. He was later bought out by a company that in turn, eventually got bought out by Bally's Fitness, so the legacy lives on today. And now you know. Isn't it neat to have a little extra random tidbit of history stuck in your head?

That's nice too.
That's nice too.
Tom Lehrer is Smug

scenes from a noodlery

SHE: "So when the Germans ask how we met, what should we say?"
ME: "I don't know. How did we meet?"
SHE: "We didn't!"

GERMAN: "So... this Cat Town. Do you let your cats run around with those costumes on all the time?"
ME: "Uh, no. They're not my cats. I found the pictures off a Japanese website."
GERMAN: "And this Japanese website, does it write the stories for the cats? Do you translate it?"
ME: "I write the stories myself. The Japanese site sells the costumes. The cats there are just the models."
GERMAN: "Ah. And how many cats do you have? Do they like wearing the costumes?"

It was an interesting night. I hope noodling happens again.