Taking the Good with the Bad

It must have occurred to other people as it has to me that sometimes in vernacular English good and bad mean the same thing if used in conjunction with a verb associated with pain or something unpleasant.

A notable example is when we come across, say, a pile of rotting garbage or a decaying dead animal. In each instance we are likely to mutter “That stinks pretty bad” or “That stinks pretty good,” both meaning the offal has an awful odor. I, for one, would never consider commenting on the pleasant fragrance in a room by using either expression, yet by substituting smells for stinks in “That smells pretty good” no offense would be meant or taken.

(After someone suffers a cut or insect bite, we also might use the two expressions interchangeably in “I bet that stings pretty good” and “I bet that stings pretty bad.”)

Maybe it is best to just leave adjectives out of statements so people will really know what we mean all the time as in the declarative sentence made famous the J. Geils Band in 1980: “Love Stinks.” Otherwise we might not be trusted to deliver Hamlet’s reflection on the interpretation on values as written by Shakespeare, instead corrupting the sentiment to “There is nothing either good or bad, but stinking makes it so.”


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A Little Knowledge

One of the better-known journals in the field of antiques featured an article intended to enlighten consumers about ten things they didn’t know were collectible. Undoubtedly some readers agreed with the title statement while others scoffed and perhaps even declared out loud “I knew that.” This reader has the attitude expressed by a character in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop: “Up to a point, Lord Copper.”

Scrapbooks which provide a record of significant historical events like wars or ship voyages can certainly be of interest to museums and university archives. Books filled with food scraps left over from family picnics and class reunions will only appeal to a modern Typhoid Mary or Toxic Tommy.

A monogrammed handkerchief belonging to a famous musician such as Louis Armstrong or a linen souvenir from a royal wedding would look attractive in any home. A framed hankie kept by a woman who attended a concert in 1968 and who claims “Tom Jones wiped his sweat on this” merits a title of one of the Welsh rocker’s hits: “I (Who Have Nothing).”

Menus from notable cruise lines or from well-known restaurants such as the Brown Derby or Copacabana certainly have some appeal to collectors. A sauce-stained card listing 21 varieties of egg foo young offered by the Wong Time No See carryout should be carried out with the lemon peels.

Photo albums containing vintage black-and-white images of visits to historic sites like Gettysburg or European cathedrals capture a time period, especially if the people in the images are wearing dresses, hats, or suits of the period. Multiple snapshots of orange-tinged diapered children taking their first steps across shag carpets in ghastly­–decorated living rooms only add nausea to the ad nauseam.

Telephone directories are quickly discarded when new directories arrive, yet phone books from metropolitan areas are sought by genealogists and historians. A directory from 1997 with multiple dog-eared pages found in the back of a basement cabinet under half-empty cans of paint will likely be unusual only in the fact that all of the damp pages qualify as yellow pages.

No one can be blamed for saving Christmas cards, particularly if the cards are handmade or dated on the front with a colorful illustration by a well-known artist. Keeping every holiday card received since 1983 in shoe boxes, including those sent annually by the local pest exterminator, will provide few pleasant memories, just a nesting spot for mice and silverfish.

Though timetables may seem behind the times in a society where being tardy is valued, railroad and steamship schedules are sought out by collectors of transportation ephemera. Collections of “Sorry We Missed You” door hangers are not missed or valued by anyone other than hoarders.

Fabric sample books are admittedly a niche collecting interest, attractive mainly to interior decorators, fashion designers, and those who find salesmen sampler books fascinating for the variety of swatches included. Compulsive savers who rescue every useable piece of cloth from holey shirts and pants will end up a thing of shreds and patches.

Labels from grand hotels in exotic places like Singapore, Monte Carlo, and Rangoon were often affixed to suitcases of travelers by bellhops, and now those luggage labels with art deco graphics are desirable if they can be found in unused condition such as the example from the Repulse Bay Hotel in Hong Kong illustrated in the article. Beer-soaked coasters are only painful reminders of a repulsive stay at the Low Rate/We Fumigate Motel.

Paper bags are certainly a borderline collectible sought only if the sharp graphics suggest they were produced for an event like a concert, the premiere of a film, or introduction of a new product. Anyone who missed those events can amuse themselves by taking a brand new bag and writing “Papa James Brown” on it.

The adage “Collect what you like” is still the best advice. Let the refuse collectors take the rest.


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Here, There, and Everywhere

      Those determined individuals who insist on purchasing products made in the United States of America must have to compromise their principles a bit when shopping these days.

In the morning they might emerge from a bed covered with a sheet set distributed by a well-known company headquartered in Minnesota but might feel let down if they read the label indicating the bedsheet set was made in Bahrain, a country with a name that sounds like a grouchy reaction to a 90% precipitation forecast.

Off go the sleep pants and shirt made in Vietnam, on go the black crew socks taken from the plastic package with the red, white, and blue label suggesting an American product until one reads the small print under the “Made in USA” banner: “Finished in El Salvador.” The grumpy comment muttered by those Yankees yanking on the socks might be “I wish we were finished in El Salvador.”

Over the boxer shorts made in Honduras go the slacks assembled in the Dominican Republic of US components and the red-checked shirt made in Bangladesh. After slipping on a down coat also made in Bangladesh sold by the famous outdoor clothes manufacturer from Maine, one removes a light coat of snow from the sidewalk with a shovel or a layer of leaves from the porch with a broom, both made in Canada, while sucking on a soothing cough drop also made north of the border.

Later when back inside, reaching for a taste of American sweetness in the form of the red-and-white round candies from “American’s candy maker since 1904” brings no solace when the bag tells all that the peppermint treat is a “Product of Mexico.” And, of course, reaching for a generic brand of cough or vitamin C drops will bring one close to the words seen on merchandise in most every department of every store in this country: “Made in China” or “Product of China.”

Waving the white flag of surrender has already supplanted Old Glory in plants across the USA. What will be the next step in this invasion into all parts of our homes? I suggested as much in a bit of doggerel composed many years ago.


“Made in Korea. Assembled in Peru.”

I saw no reason for the label to lie;

But what has me shaking a bit is that

I found it with my corned beef on rye!


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Riding High with Mr. Music


A book that is likely to appeal to readers who enjoy the popular music, motion pictures, and radio shows of the 1940s is Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star: the War Years, 1940-1946 by Gary Giddins published in October 2018 by Little, Brown. As Decca recording artist, Paramount Pictures star, and host of Kraft Music Hall, Bing Crosby was probably the most popular entertainer of that crucial period in American history.

What this volume reveals for the first time is how Crosby the singer, Crosby the actor, and Crosby the genial radio personality wore all three hats during the busy war years and somehow managed to find time to raise thousands of dollars at bond rallies and perform for the troops both at home and abroad. Readers learn the full story of the various versions of “White Christmas” on records and in Holiday Inn and how crafty Crosby beat deadlines for strikes orchestrated by James Petrillo, head of the American Federation of Musicians. On screen Bing seemed adaptable to just about any starring role, looking equally at ease behind a white clerical collar in Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary’s as coming through with flying collars when racing down bumpy roads to Singapore, Zanzibar, Morocco, and Utopia with Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour. The Crosby who put himself in harm’s way in England and France in 1944 as part of a USO group seemed to be as personable and easygoing when joking and singing without his “dome doily” before servicemen and women as the humble, mellifluous host heard on NBC for Kraft and on Command Performance.

Giddins doesn’t omit the warts of Bing’s strained marriage to an alcoholic wife, a distant relationship with four sons, an affair with actress Joan Caulfield, and some ill-advised business investments, yet his intention clearly is not to bury his subject with dirt but rather to appraise Crosby’s key role in the popular culture of the twentieth century with material heretofore unavailable.

There is much to savor in this well-documented account of a remarkable star of the first magnitude who, though color-blind, went where the blue of the night meets the gold of the day innumerable times during his career and who sold countless millions of records despite being unable to read music.


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A Plucky Guy

One of the most eagerly-awaited periodicals to arrive in the mailboxes of subscribers not only in the Badger State but by history buffs throughout the country is the Wisconsin Magazine of History. A respected publication with articles by noted researchers and professors and complemented with abundant documents and photographs from the archives of the Wisconsin Historical Society, the glossy quarterly is never stuffy and rarely fails to contain at least one feature that prompts readers to smile with delight.

For this subscriber the most delightful feature in the Spring 2019 issue is “All the Rage,” an overview of the University of Wisconsin Mandolin Club, which thrived from the 1890s through the 1920s. Near the end of the 12-page article, author John Zimm credits Bill Monroe as a well-known musician who kept the use of the mandolin alive through the style of music known as bluegrass.

One of the most eagerly-anticipated occurrences on network radio during the 1940s and 1950s was the opening of the hall closet at 79 Wistful Vista, home of Fibber McGee and Molly. Often no comment was made on the specific contents that tumbled out of that gallimaufry in the hall, but whenever Fibber spotted his beloved instrument he would mutter “My old mandolin” in a voice tinged with nostalgic reverence similar to the tone of appreciation others might use upon encountering their high school diploma or college yearbook in the attic.

During the January 9, 1945 broadcast Fibber demonstrated to Molly and the listening audience there was some organization even in a cluttered closet by replacing the items that had tumbled out in a systematic fashion: snowshoes, moose head, tennis racket, ice skates, camera tripod, skid chains, little stuff, mandolin.

The spotlight focused brightly on that old mandolin during the evening of March 21, 1944, a rarity in the series in that the hall closet was opened twice during the same episode. McGee, at first pleased at finding his old friend, gradually became disgruntled when everyone else who picked up the instrument picked it better than he did. The studio audience and the listeners at home were delighted and not a bit dismayed when the man with the mandolin who claimed to have played it when it was all the rage himself ended up in a rage.


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Great As Is

Sometimes it seems that certain objects in antique shops whispering “Buy Me” when we first walk by them get louder when we return for a second look, causing us to heed that inner voice crying “You’ll be sorry if you don’t.” I answered that call recently by taking home an announcement news portfolio of promotional material for the 1952 Packard, realizing full well the “As Is” card attached to the cover suggested that not all the preview inserts had survived.

The “Press Preview” packet was missing, apparently long since “on its way to your local editors,” yet most of the other inserts were there including full-color foldouts of various Packard models with emphasis on how Dorothy Draper, famous decorator and color stylist, had lent her talents to the “most luxurious cars in the world.” Also highlighted in the ads were Ultramatic Drive and Easomatic Power Brakes. The foldouts and a timetable on the flaps indicated specifically when the advertisements would appear in November and December 1951 issues of The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Life, Time, and Newsweek along with circulation figures of each periodical. Other pockets contained newsprint inserts of ads that would appear in 1200 to 1300 papers in the United States and Canada, promotions which would reach 45 to 50 million readers. Inside yet another pocket were color pages scheduled to appear in Sunday Supplements such as This Week and Parade reaching 22 million readers.

A memo sheet from the desk of Packard Advertising Director Hugh Hitchcock encouraged Packard dealers to take advantage of all the showroom material in the packet of 1952 literature.  Of particular interest to this fan of old-time radio was a complete booklet of suggested 15, 30, and 60 second “Announcements for 1952 to meet your own special needs.”

A full flap of the portfolio emphasized how the 1952 Packard would get full national network radio presentation on The Red Skelton Show on Announcement Day, November 14, 1951. Shown prominently on the flap is a grinning Skelton before a CBS microphone and in smaller photos in costume as some of his comedy characters. Under a photo of actress Lurene Tuttle is the word Charm and below a pose of announcer Rod O’Connor the phrase Commercial Sell. The strong points for advertising on the show include being one of America’s top ten radio shows that reached more than 13 million listeners over 129 CBS stations for 91.4% of the entire CBS radio circulation, ideally positioned on Wednesday evening between popular Dr. Christian and The Bing Crosby Show.

It might have been “a surefire way to spread the news of the new 1952 Packard from coast to coast.”  Perhaps what sold me more than anything that in that Packard packet was that I had recently listened to all of the episodes of The Red Skelton Show and did not remember hearing any promotion for the Packard automobile. At that time Red’s sponsor was Norge Refrigerators. Listening again to that November 14, 1951 transcribed episode at home verified my recollection of the show. After the usual opening introduction by O’Connor, the show falls into the usual pattern: Rod and Red banter a bit about clothes or current events, a musical number by the Smith Twins, a Norge commercial, a skit about Willie Lump Lump, a skit about San Fernando Red, a number by David Rose and his Orchestra,  a Norge commercial, a skit with Red as Junior and Lurene as his harried mother, a final promo for Norge by Rod who then turns it back to Red to deliver the Norge slogan “You won’t know what you’re missing if you don’t see Norge” before theme music and the CBS tag by Rod closes the program.

Red Skelton’s radio theme was “Great Day.” I still consider the portfolio a great buy “as is” even if the promised great “Announcement Day” did not occur on Skelton’s November 14, 1951 show.


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Walk the Squawk

Both guests and staff at the Peabody Hotel certainly follow the admonition evident in the title of Robert McCloskey’s book as they Make Way for Ducklings. A daily ritual at the Memphis hotel takes place when a duck master leads a raft of ducks from their rooftop abode into the elevator and down to a lobby fountain where the birds spend the day as the center of attention.

People who cannot visit the Home of the Blues at this time but who still wish to remember rock’s premier duck walker can honor the memory of Chuck Berry, who died March 18, 2017, by squatting low wherever they are on the 18th and walking stiff-legged while playing air guitar to “Nadine,” “Johnny B. Goode,” or any other Berry hit.

Those who live closer to the Volunteer State can take John Hiatt’s musical advice (”Let’s Go to Memphis in the Meantime”) for they certainly don’t need thirty days (to come back home) after witnessing the Tennessee Bird Walk.


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