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Category Archives: Showbiz

Philadelphia Inquirer, November 26, 1895. I like the notion of a “surfeit of suicides.” It’s the opposite of a suicide shortage, I suppose. How do we know when we’re looking at a suicide sufficiency?
Anyway, as performer, this Wunner fellow strikes me as the art brut/outsider version of a more conceptually sophisticated chap we met last fall. I should have thought people would have seen what was coming next, given the prevalence of razor-based suicide at this time. Though maybe they did and approved: It doesn’t seem to have been a terribly refined audience. Nearly cutting your own head off is no mean feat. I tried to find some stats on suicide by razor, but all I found was this medical journal abstract: “Suicide by incising one’s own throat without hesitation marks remains a rare, and only few cases have been reported in the forensic literature.” Seems to be a word missing after “rare,” but what? “Treat?” I’m thinking office Curry may have been a tad bipolar.

Pomeroy‘s Democrat, 1869-1870. This is kind of a Frankenclipping of tweets I gleaned from 3 or 4 editions of Pomeroy’s Democrat, which is a fascinating paper. Editor and eponym Mark “Brick” Pomeroy was a lippy freethinker, a vicious negrophobe (I mean even by the standards of his day), a hack political partisan, a fizzing misogynist, a staunch Mason and a terminal smart aleck. I adore his writing. Olive Logan was a contemporary actress and author and boy, did Pomeroy ever have it in for her. He’s always taking these random shots at her about her immense feet, how they eclipse the footlights when she’s on stage, etc. Palpitators, I am delighted to learn, is an archaic name for falsies. “Grecian bend” = “among women, an affected carriage of the body, the upper part being inclined forward,” says a 1913 Wesbter’s.

Okay, so I’ve roughed out a provisional draft of alternate lyrics to “My Favorite Things” for our own Jackie of Finland to record, per our contractually-binding exchange in this comment thread. I’m also in negotiations to get the two surviving Seidlitz Brothers to dub some backing vocals, though according to their agent, Shlomo’s voice box is pretty much shot from three packs of Chesterfields a day since the McKinley administration. No matter: that’s why God made Pro Tools and the electrolarynx.

I’m kind of going back and forth on the first verse here, as it lacks the 100% concrete historicity that the other verses have. Though maybe I could fix that by nailing down concrete references to back it all up.

Barrel-clad hobos and window-ledge pastries
Irish patrolman and drunks with the DTs
Blackguards and maidens and oncoming trains
These are a few of my favorite thangs

Phials of acid in ex-lovers’ faces
Naked wild women in desolate places
Negroes with blue gums who kill when they bite
This is a load of my favorite shite

Mince pies for breakfast, and luncheon, and dinner
Corpses injected to make their eyes glimmer
Med school students defiling the dead
This sort of thing tends to fuck with my head

Cuckqueaned wives killing spinster cult leaders
Cats sold as rabbits to unwitting eaters
Show-offs igniting their cee-gars with bills
These are symptoms of society’s ills

When the dog brings
Dynamite back

When I’m feeling sad
I simply remember my favorite things
And then I feel truly bad

Jackie: Far be it from me to impinge on your creative process, but I was thinking this would work best Lento assai and in a minor key.

Biloxi Daily Herald, November 19, 1919. A vital sartorial tip: Never attempt to wear a barrel without suspenders. Unless you’re a showgirl working a gimmick to get a little press, at least. (Hey, does anybody know what a “picture hat” is?)

So here’s what I can tell you about the origins of the wearing-the-barrel trope qua signifier of destitution. Near as I can tell, it was born from the confluence of two prior memes. On the one hand, you’ve got the precedent of the “Drunkard’s Cloak,” which was a medieval and early-modern legal incentive against public inebriation. The association between habitual intoxication and poverty seems pretty clear, right?

The second precedent is the ascetic Greek philosopher Diogenes (circa 412-323 B.C.), who supposedly made his home in a big clay jar. “Jar” somehow got mistranslated as “barrel” in popular consciousness from the early-modern through the Victorian era. (And yes, there did used to be popular consciousness of Diogenes.) I’m guessing the guy-in-a-barrel has real early theatrical roots and takes off from there.

San Francisco Bulletin, June 11, 1891. I appreciate it when some obliging newspaper editor has done all the gleaning and gathering for me. Thank you, nameless long-dead newspaperman.

Baltimore Afro-American, December 14, 1929. William K. “Hello World” Henderson
was this crazy old bastard who built a high-powered radio station down Shreveport way, primarily as a vehicle of self-expression. He’d get on the air at night and drink and ramble on about why the Republicans sucked and how Herbert Hoover was a “yellow shit” and a “cross between a jackass and a bulldog bitch,” then he’d play some hillbilly or blues records. Then he’d be back on the air to rail about how the chain stores were sucking the life’s blood out of the South, then he’d play some more records and . . . well, you get the idea. He’s the grand daddy of all shock jocks. And also of all disk jockeys–you weren’t supposed to rely on records as programming back then.

And he was easily one of the most popular, if not the most popular broadcaster in the nation. His loyal rural fan base extended all the way up to New England. KWKH’s signal pretty much covered the map because Henderson didn’t bother with bureaucratic niceties like assigned wavelengths and signal strength. He’d boost his wattage according to his mood, and do it right on the air too. He’d yell at his engineer, “Give us more power, doggone you, give me all the power you’ve got!”

Another of his favorite pastimes was baiting the Federal Radio Commission (precursor to the FCC), who, you’ll surmise, were not big KWKH fans. Once he telephoned the regional radio supervisor at his home in New Orleans and started cussing him out on the air. Several years ago I heard Howard Stern perpetrate a virtually identical prank on the chairman of the FCC.

I guess I don’t have to add that he was something of a racist too. Well, I would have to add that if this were an academic forum. I’d have to go on and on about it, and then maybe offer some feeble theoretical construct establishing that broadcasting itself is inherently racist, as are indeed the very principles of radio wave propagation. If I could just do these simple things, I’d be a big professor of media right now, instead of a homeless blogger living under a bridge.

Aaaaanyway, Henderson and KWKH are the subject of a fascinating chapter in my compulsively readable book American Babel: Rogue Radio Broadcasters of the Jazz Age (“Subtly hilarious!” raved the Journal of American History; “Vivid and exciting!” cheered the American Historical Review; “A bit of a slog,” complained my mom). And hey, I just noticed that Amazon has discounted it just in time for Chri–er, the Festive Gift-Buying Season! Do your bit for the economic recovery, folks.

oct 7 11Savannah Tribune, October 7, 1911. Seems like the phenomenon of albinism was not as widely understood as one might think circa 1911. Read More »

Ebony & Ivory San Jose Mercury Evening News, November 30, 1887. Here’s the “tragic mulatto” principle taken to extremes by cruel Nature. Or then again, maybe circus life would have offered more to this kid than whatever hardscrabble misery awaited him in post-Redemption Florida. If only we had a name other than “it” for the child in question, I might be able to find out what happened to him. Read More »

manufacturedMedical News, March 30, 1895. First, that is one kick-ass opening sentence. Read it over a couple of times, roll it around in your mouth, and try to work it into an office-cooler conversation later in the afternoon. Second, given the dismal nutrition of ordinary poor kids at the time, just imagine the deprivation involved in the creation of these “Lilliputians.” Must have been a real balancing act keeping them alive while stunting them sufficiently to impress. Read More »

flamer Ballou’s Dollar Monthly, March 16, 1862. Sacre bleu! We could be looking here at the historical origins of that beloved special effects staple, The Flaming Guy.flaming guy Irwin Allen wouldn’t even be born for another half century.