Ethel Merman Revisited

Ethel Merman 1967

Ethel Merman, what more needs to be said?

Belated greetings Funny Names Fans. A few funny things happened on the way to today’s tardy Tuesday post. Yes, I know today is Tuesday, but . . . I was supposed to post last week. Let’s just say between recovering from the flu, my computer suffering the black screen of death, and the data transfer from my back up to my new computer hasn’t gone well. Somehow I think the back-up is speaking in “Basic” and the new machine is speaking in “Linex”.  So if you will bear with me for a fresh post until next month, this month I would like to re-introduce you to the Belter of Broadway. Take it away Ethel . . .

Ethel Merman, a siren of song, stage and silver screen.  Born Ethel Agnes Zimmerman in Astoria, Queens, New York in 1908. She graduated from high school in 1924 taking a job as a stenographer at the Boyce-Ite Company earning $23 a week. Moving over to Bragg-Kliesrath Corporation for a $5 a week increase and eventually promoted to personal secretary of Caleb Bragg, whose repeated absences from the office racing automobiles gave her time to catch up on the sleep she lost the previous night performing at private parties.

When she began performing at nightclubs, she thought her name too long for a marquee. She considered taking her grandmother’s maiden name, Hunter, but shortened it to Merman to pacify her father. Lucky for us.

Her next step, performing with Jimmy Durante at Les Ambassadeurs. Not long after starting she endured a tonsillectomy while fearing it might damage her voice. But after recovering she belted stronger than ever.

Auditioning in 1930 for George and Ira Gershwin’s Girl Crazy singing, “I Got Rhythm”, she was cast straightaway. After it opened George Gershwin told her, “Well, never go near a singing teacher…and never forget your shorthand.” She never did.

This might be what important shorthand looks like. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't written it myself.

This might be what important shorthand looks like. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t written it myself. (Literal translation.)

She performed in Humpty Dumpty in 1932, it opened in Pittsburg in August and closed the next month. I’m guessing irony may have helped here. Rewritten and retitled Take a Chance, it ran for 243 performances at the Apollo. By this time she earned $1,500 a week. Not bad for a stenographer during the Depression.

Fast forward to 1945, recovering from a C-Section after the birth of her second child she was offered the role of Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun which featured her now signature song, “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” It ran for 1,147 performances. She went on to star with Donald O’Conner and Marilyn Monroe in the film There’s No Business Like Show Business which borrowed its name from that famous song.

Married four times, the marriage to her last husband, Ernest Borgnine, lasted 32 days. In her 1978 memoir, Merman, she included a chapter, “My Marriage to Ernest Borgnine.” It’s one blank page.

She didn’t miss a beat, in 1979 she released “The Ethel Merman Disco Album”, with the 71-year-old performer singing her Broadway hits to a disco beat. While never making the Billboard charts it was a hit, and played regularly at Studio 54 with live appearances by the star herself.

Her last film, the 1980 comedy Airplane!, she played Lieutenant Hurwitz, a shell shocked soldier who believes he’s Ethel Merman. In the performance Merman leaps out of bed belting “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” as the orderlies rush to sedate her.

Which leads me to why you’re reading this today. Last October, Dave blogged about the band Mungo Jerry and attached the video to “In the Summertime”. Planting a song worm in my brain until Ethel arrived.

Take it away Ethel and friends. . .

Tracy–Fannie Cranium’s Guide to Irreverent Wisdom

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Music of the Spheres: Thelonious Sphere Monk

Sometimes BoFN subjects surprise because what is assumed to be an assumed name turns out to be real. Such is the case with Thelonious Sphere Monk.

Monk is the family name. Thelonious is the given name. (It was initially misspelled either “Thelious” or “Thelius” depending on how one deciphered the scrawl on Monk’s birth certificate.) And Sphere comes from Thelonious’s maternal grandfather Sphere Batts.


Thelonious Sphere Monk

Monk’s name is not just real, but uncannily appropriate. So much so that I just ransacked King Dave’s “Funny Name Theory” to find the right theorem. There’s nothing there, so I guess I have to work out the proofs myself.

If you heard Monk’s name for the first time and did word association you might come up with a list like this: scholastic, intellectual, geometric, mathematical, planetary, cosmic, monastic, spiritual, contemplative, silent, austere, ascetic, basic, spare, minimalist . . .

That is Monk all over. Thus, we can formulate a new theorem:

The Thelonious Monk Self-Description Prescription Prediction:
The funny birth name of a creative innovator will predict the creative innovation of the creative innovator.

Monk is to jazz what Van Gough is to painting, Kafka or Flannery O’Connor are to fiction, William Blake is to poetry. All of them wielded what seemed like rough, spare strokes to realize a vision totally outside the box, pared down to bare essentials yet rising to inter-planetary heights. And while none of them got runaway popular success in their lifetimes, we can’t imagine imagine jazz, painting, fiction, or British poetry (respectively) without them.

What would jazz be without “‘Round Midnight,” “Straight No Chaser,” “Blue Monk,” “Monk’s Dream,” “Monk’s Mood,” “Misterioso,” “Epistrophy,” or “Well, You Needn’t”?

Though a quasi-informed jazz buff, I wrongly associated Monk with the Beatnik era and cool jazz. I learned in Candace Allen’s excellent retrospective that Monk was a foundational force in the bebop era of the 1940s, making his music even more remarkable. As the sub-header for Allen’s piece puts it, “He played angular and slow when the fashion was for fast and sun-drenched.”

To be honest, I never completely adjusted to Monk’s playing, and appreciate Monk’s genius most when his standards are played by other greats, especially Miles. But according to Allen, Miles himself had similar views.

Even a collaborator such as Miles Davis asked why Monk persisted with the weird chord changes that just sounded wrong. But to Monk, his chords weren’t weird, they were the logical result of countless hours of musical exploration.

True to his monastic name, finally there is silence. Allen again:

For Monk, silence was at once muse and the centre of his gravity . . . . It’s Monk’s encyclopaedic and joyous considerations of silence that secure his place in the pantheon of past, present and future improvisational music as much as his jewel-faceted tunes and mould breaking/remaking harmonics.

Speaking of “Well You Needn’t,” you needn’t, but it would sure help. Please help our founder Dave fight cancer. Click on the icon below:

UPDATE!!! The Thelonious Monk Theorem has been peer reviewed by King Dave hisself and has earned a slot on prestigious The Funny Name Theory page. It’s a dream come true, folks!

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Chicken Alaska, Doesn’t that Sound Delicious? Revisited.

Greetings Funny Names Fans! Today I’m celebrating a milestone—five years of contributing to this wonderful blog. So what better way to celebrate than revisit my first post on the BoFN. Without further ado, take it away Fannie of five yester-years ago.

Chicken, Alaska, not to be confused with Baked Alaska, is a town of no large proportions and a delicious name.

There may be other cities in the US in which Chicken appears in their name, but none so elevated as Chicken, Alaska, located just north of the 64th parallel at 1,621 feet. Sandwiched between the the towns of Eagle and Tok (pronounced Tōk). I’m making no judgement here but the brownies may be delicious. Settled in the late 1800’s by gold seeking miners near the south fork of the 40-Mile River before the Klondike Gold Rush.

With a scarcity of food back then they took up eating the ample Ptarmigan, Alaska’s state bird, which looks something like a chicken. Not to be confused with the Pukeko of New Zealand, which also starts with a “P” and looks something like a chicken but I digress.

In the beginning residents wanted to name the town Ptarmigan but couldn’t agree on the spelling. Nor did they want the name of their fair town to be an embarrassment. So when they incorporated in 1902, they choose the name Chicken. They’ve made the most of it ever since.

Depending on who you ask, there may be between 6 and 37 year round residents. There’s no electricity (except by generator), no phones, no internet (they have a website but it’s managed outside of Chicken) and no central plumbing. I’ve used their public outhouse, the Chicken Poop. In the local vernacular, it’s a “four holer” and you don’t have to cross the road to use it.

Now this is the ultimate in marketing.

Now this is the ultimate in marketing.

The main street boasts The Chicken Post Office, Chicken Liquor Store, Chicken Saloon, Chicken Mercantile Emporium, (where I purchased a copy of Outhouses of Alaska, a must read for any outhouse user), and Chicken Creek Cafe, which I probably should have mentioned before the outhouse. They keep the mascot chickens between the cafe and saloon. However, there was no sign explaining which came first. . .

Some things you just have to see for yourself.

Some things you just have to see for yourself.

The colorful ceiling of the saloon is lined with burned undies and baseball caps. In questioning the bar tender, he demonstrated this feat with a small home made cannon and a fellow traveler’s cap. After stomping on the flaming cap, he attached it to the ceiling. I’m sure they’ve run out of room by now. (Update: They did remove all of the caps and underwear, not sure if they’ve started over again.)

To get the cluck to Chicken try traveling on the gravel paved Turner Highway, pot holes included for your driving pleasure. Then there’s the Chicken Airstrip, if you prefer to travel where Chickens don’t fly. I doubt they call it the Chicken Strip.

There may be fifty ways to leave your lover, but there's only two ways to get to Chicken.

There may be fifty ways to leave your lover, but there’s only two ways to get to Chicken.

For some fun reading, check out the Chicken Alaska Not So Frequently Asked Questions. It’s a hoot or is that a cluck?

Many thanks to Dave, Rob and Arto for inviting me to join the world of funny name appreciation.

Tracy – Fannie Cranium’s Guide to Irreverent Wisdom.

 *  *  *

Please consider donating to our founder, Dave, and his fight against a cancerous brain tumor, all while he goes to medical school to learn to fight the very thing he is battling.

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Oh, Snap, Osip

Alone I stare into the frost’s white face.  

On New Year’s Eve, I looked into the sky, and white flakes fell. Never had such a thing happened in all of my NYE’s. The dogs’ water bowls turned to blocks of ice. Never had I been forced to boil water in a kettle LIKE IT’S 1891 simply to make my dog’s water be water again. Is this global warming? Texas has forgotten how to Texas.

But Russia never forgets how to Russia. Russians spend every winter staring into the frost’s white face.

Alone I stare into the frost’s white face. Such is the first line of poetry from Osip Emilyevich Mandelstam, whom we will be profiling this winter’s morn. Oh, sip some coffee as we study his life. Who knew the name Emily was just an abbreviation for Emilyevich? Oy!

Back in 1891, when people routinely boiled water in kettles instead of microwaving mugs, little Osip was born in Warsaw. Fortunately, his parents were well-off, and he was sent to the swanky Tenishev School, where he tried his hand at poetry. His first poems were printed in 1907 in the school’s almanac.

Because he was privileged, he was able to enter the Sorbonne, which he left the next year. Because he was Jewish, he could not attend the University of Saint Petersburg. So he decided to not be Jewish and converted to Methodism instead. What?

In his 20th year, he and several other populist poets formed the Poet’s Guild, for which he wrote the manifesto. Have you ever written a manifesto? Osip was living the poet’s life, including falling for a Georgian princess named Salomea Andronikova and dedicating a poem to her called “Solominka.”

When you are trying to sleep, Solominka, in your enormous bedroom, and are waiting, sleepless, for the high and weighty ceiling to come down with quiet, heavy sorrow on your keen eyelids…

But Salomea did not bat a keen eyelid at Osip, and his ardor was unrequited! Perhaps he should have sung her name to the tune of “Dulcinea.” Salom-EA! Instead, he married a girl from Ukraine named Nadezhda Khazina. Listen how it rolls off the tongue. In 1922, they moved to Moscow, where he published a book of poems called Tristia. To pay the bills, he worked as a newspaper correspondent. But Russia was no land of the free, and Osip was inspired to write the poem “Stalin Epigram,” describing the climate of fear (not just frost) in the Soviet Union. He called Stalin the Kremlin Highlander.

His thick fingers are bulky and fat like live-baits, and his accurate words are as heavy as weights. Cucaracha’s moustaches are screaming, and his boot-tops are shining and gleaming.

Well, I don’t have to tell you that that did not go unnoticed. Osip was arrested, interrogated, and exiled to Cherdyn with his wife. He attempted suicide but failed, and eventually relocated to Voronezh. There, he wrote a collection of poems not attacking any Russian leaders. However, in 1937, the literary establishment  began accusing him of harboring anti-Soviet views. Soon Osip and Nadezhda received a government voucher for a vacation near Moscow, but oh, snap, Osip! There was no vacation to be had. Instead, he was arrested and charged with “counter-revolutionary activities.”

 Sentenced to five years in correction camps, those five years never came. Instead, he died in 1938 from cold and hunger at a transit camp. Thus, his own words were fulfilled: “Only in Russia is poetry respected, it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?”

Let us glorify the deadly weight

the people’s leader lifts with tears.

Let us glorify the dark burden of fate,

power’s unbearable yoke of fears.

How your ship is sinking, straight,

he who has a heart, Time, hears.

–from “Brothers, let us glorify freedom’s twilight”



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Happy 2018! Zoot Sims and Other Funny Jazz Names

Like a desiccated Christmas tree standing in the living room long after Christmas has come and gone, shedding its needles, gathering dust on its ornaments, lights unplugged, inert, incongruous, embarrassing, increasingly ridiculous, so does our seasonal Grinch reblog sit like a decrepit squatter at BoFN’s default top spot, like The Thing That Wouldn’t Leave. Post-Christmas, that’s sad enough. Post New Years, well, that’s just pathetic.

As I look around the BoFN circle, expectantly, hoping that someone, anyone, will clean that mess up, the collective silence wordlessly communicates its discouraging reply: “Don’t look at me, bud.”

The only way to “clean that stuff up” is to post something else. But no drafts are lined up in the queue, meaning that no-one, not even the indefatigable Fannie, is going to bail me out here. So, looks like it has to be me.

A squeaky inner voice urges,

Take courage! It can’t be that bad. With that long-winded intro you’re already 1/3 of the way there–assuming anyone even keeps track of the BoFN Word Count™ these days. And that’s maximum word count, bruh. Believe it or not, there is no minimum word count. Technically, all you need now is a funny name, a graphic, and a vaguely relevant caption.

OK, I’ll take my encouragement where I can get it.

Ladies and gents, I give you John Haley “Zoot” Sims:

Zoot Sims

The End

Uh, dude. When I said “technically” that’s all you need I didn’t mean stylistically that was going to suffice. Seriously. It’s got to at least approachBoFN standard.

So much for trusting that squeaky inner voice.

OK, then. Zoot Sims played with basically everybody in the jazz world it was possible to play with, including some forgotten players like (trigger warning here–no, really! I mean that literally) bassist Trigger Albert.

You can hear Zoot come in on sax at 1:08. I should mention that Herman “Trigger” Alpert, conforming to the delightful twists and turns typical of our BoFN subjects, eventually gave up music in 1970 and became a professional portrait photographer, which had been his personal passion.

Zoot passed on in 1985, just shy of 60, and was buried in Nyack, New York.

Kind of abrupt, bruh. You still got more than 100 words left.

What about that word count doesn’t matter thing, inner voice? I don’t know why I’m even listening to you any more.

Let’s just get through this. Almost there. Pretty soon that moldy old Christmas tree will be in the dumpster and we’ll have a fresh start for 2018!

(Sigh.) Our man Zoot also had a solo in one of the most arresting pop songs in history, “Poetry Man” by Phoebe Snow. Check Zoot coming in at 2:30:

But Zoot might best be represented playing with the other giants of jazz:

Doin’ good! 30 words left!

Shut up. I have to do the PSA for Dave.

D’oh. Carry on!

Happy New Year, everyone! Please consider a New Year’s offering to help our founder, Dave. Click on the icon below:

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