Monday, May 28, 2018

Mystery photo of 1968

It may not be as well-known as some other iconic images -- say, the infamous V-J Day kiss -- but it captures a singular moment all the same: a white woman and a black man, knee-deep in the Reflecting Pool in front of the Lincoln memorial, both raising their arms in solidarity as the Poor People's Campaign of 1968 rallied in Washington DC. Organized by the SCLC, with Ralph Abernathy taking the helm after the assassination of Martin Luther King, it had many parts -- meetings and rallies in small towns, particularly in the South, a mule-drawn "wagon train" to the nation's capital, and an encampment known as "Resurrection City." Their arrival coincided with a heatwave in DC, and so the entry into the reflecting pool was as much a way to cool down as to mark the moment -- but of course it became both.

The photo, according to a recent article in the Washington Post, was taken by labor organizer Richard Bensinger, and he's spent the past 50 years trying to track down the people in it, without success. And yet, armed with the digital resources of today, the odds have been significantly improved, and I've made tentative identification of the woman on the left: she may quite possibly be Lisa Cusumano. I found a photo of her in a digitized copy of an old SCLC publication, The Poor People's Campaign: A Photographic Journal. She stands out, not only as one of the relatively few white activists in the pamphlet, but because her attire -- though not her expression -- is similar in some regards. In both images, she's wearing two distinctive buttons designed for the Poor People's Campaign, and in both the buttons are high up, near or on her collar.

Ms. Cusumano had already made a name for herself as an activist earlier that year when, in support of striking trash collectors in New York City, she launched trash-cans like missiles into the street, leading to her arrest. She was described at the time as a 23-year-old single mother.  At a number of rallies and events, including after the PPC reached Washington, her voice stood out and was quoted, and she was also credited with a poem, "Children of the Universe," published by the SCLC Information Center in July of 1968. Although the woman in the reflecting pool image looks a lot more relaxed and less angry than the Linda Cusumano seen in these other photos, I think it's a reasonable possibility that she may be the same person.

UPDATE: The mystery -- or at least half of it -- has now been solved!

Monday, April 23, 2018

A "poem by Dickens" -- not!

A few days ago, I heard a lovely vocal setting of a hymn-like verse and melody, which was brought to my attention since the poem to which the music was set was ascribed to Charles Dickens! I was immediately a bit skeptical of this claim; while Dickens did write a few bit of occasional verse, nothing of it had the particualr qualities of these stanzas. It's a striking text, the epitome (perhaps) of Victorian sentiment, a string of adjectives and sweet epiphanies, evoked even in their loss, as a symbol of all that matters. All of which are then tied together with the hopeful refrain that "these things can never die":

The pure, the bright, the beautiful,
That stirred our hearts in youth;
The impulse to a wordless pray'r
The dreams of love and truth;
The longings after something lost,
The spirit's yearning cry;
The strivings after better hopes;
These things can never die!

It was written in the 1860's, and has apparently been set to music dozens of times since; the choral arrangement I'd heard, composed quite recently by one Lee Dengler, has become a sort of standard. But what was the source of the attribution to Dickens? My hunch was that it might be due to its having appeared in one of his periodicals, and that proved right when I found it in All The Year Round from an issue in 1862. Here, it was given the title "Imperishable," but without an author credit (ATYR, like Dickens's earlier Household Words, never gave any of its authors a byline). But wait, the plot thickened: rival settings of the same song, under the title "The pure! The bright! The beautiful!" turned up at nearly the same time, attributed to the famous songster Stephen Foster, he of "I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair." It's possible that Foster composed a setting for the poem, of course, but the published sheet music mentions no other author.

The Foster attribution is maintained by a number of present-day sites dedicated to his music, although in published books it's never listed as among his works. The association with Dickens, however stuck with the poem, such that quite a few online versions still credit it to him, despite the lack of byline. The full list of contributors to All The Year Round, I knew, had been largely unknown until the fortuitous discovery in 2015 of Dickens's own annotated copy, which included handwritten indications of the authorship of nearly every piece. And so I contacted Jeremy Parrott, the discoverer of this treasure, and from him learned the that the name of poem's true author was neither Dickens nor Foster, but Sarah Doudney!

Sarah Doudney
Doudney (1841-1926) was best known in her day as a novelist, though other poems of hers had become the text of hymns, such as the popular "The Christian's Good-Night." Searching for "Imperishable" with her name, I found that the earliest references to it dated to the early twentieth century, long after the duelling attributions to Dickens and Foster. It seems likely that Doudney, later in her career, must have in some way have re-asserted her authorship, such that newspapers and magazines that reprinted it -- even when they chose only a single stanza -- regularly credited it to her. Despite this, the Dickens attribution has persisted, and it was apparently under the misapprehension that it was his that Lee Dengler composed his setting.

Dengler's arrangement of the song remains an extraordinary one, with a sort of antiphonal structure between lower and higher registers, and a hymnodic resolution to each verse that could bring the hardest unbeliever to believe -- not necessarily in God as such, but in "these things" -- and in these long-misattributed words of Sarah Doudney's, which have long since proven themselves imperishable.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Man Messages

Hot on the trail of Levi Furbush -- who may or may not have been the same man as the union activist and regular correspondent in the Boston papers in the 1890's -- I stumbled upon James W. Elliott. When it comes to forgetting to remember, or remembering to forget, Mr. Elliott -- an avuncular advice-giver of the early twentieth century -- seems to have been something of a pioneer. He was known for his weekly pamphlets, which he dubbed "Man Messages," in which he sought to exhort the common man to avoid self-indulgence,  embrace gratitude, and employ his natural gifts. The exact angle from which Elliott's pamphlets came -- temperance? -- religious feeling? -- socialism -- is a bit unclear, but his gift for memorable phrases was a singular one. Who would have imagined that, way back in 1915, he would have coined the phrase "keep on keeping on"? His pamphlets today are notably obscure; they rarely appear in library catalogues or online scans, and the only hits I could find for his titles led to auctions on eBay. And so, for the modest sum of six dollars, I obtained a copy of The Song of Ingratitude, a 1914 leaflet in which a tale is told of one "Bill Williams," a totally average man who manages to miss the bus of his own life.

Each of these leaflets was emblazoned on the back with
Elliott's trademark -- though it's a bit unclear how he financed the production of these Man-messages, which were printed in letterpress and said to be "published weekly." It sounds a little bit like some early 20th-century version of EST or perhaps the "Rainbow Gatherings" where a 'talking stick' was employed to give the cue for men to speak. But whatever his motivations, the phrases he chose, which were echoed in many of these pamphlets, seem to me as though they may well be a source for Levi Furbush's poem, which uses nearly identical language.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Never forget to remember ...

Image courtesy Graduate Theological Union Library, Berkeley CA
Of course, the twenty-four-hour news cycle has long ago moved on, but call back -- if you can -- the kerfuffle over Donald Trump's awkwardly-chosen "Irish Proverb," recited by him on the occasion of the traditional St. Patrick's day visit by the Taoiseach (Prime minister) of Ireland, in this case Enda Kenny. The reaction from the plain people of Ireland was immediate and blunt: they'd never heard of it. A bit of poking about by journalists showed it had been included as an "Irish" saying in a number of manuals for speech-givers, which likely explained why the president's team had chosen it -- and then there was the Nigerian poet (now a banker) Albasheer Adam Alahassan, who'd published a version of it in a school journal back in the 1990's. How delightful the irony would have been, had this been true and Trump inadvertently quoted a Muslim poet? But alas, it was as well that Alhassan turned to banking as a career, for his little poem turned out to have been copied from other, still earlier sources. Mashable's Sasha Lekach dug deeper than most, tracing it back to a 1936 appearance in The International Stereotypers & Electrotypers Union Journal, where it was apparently attributed to Harold Keating. This was a blind alley, though; Keating was merely the author of the column, and the poem added as filler. Lekach also dug up a slightly earlier one in the Gazette and Daily, published in York, Pennsylvania on March 3, 1936.One of these sources apparently attributed it to one "Levi Furbush," and an appearance in a magazine named The Cheerful Letter.

This was a turn of ill luck, though, as The Cheerful Letter turns out to be a very obscure publication. Begun by a group of Unitarian women during the time of the Spanish-American war, its original work was to send individual "cheerful letters" to soldiers in hospital. By the early twentieth century, it had evolved into a modest periodical, appearing monthly, with regular columns and features. And yet, though published in Boston, no Boston library had more than a few scattered issues; even the archivist of the Unitarian Universalist Association -- once I tracked him down -- had to admit that he had no idea where one could find a copy. The WorldCat system, indeed, listed only three libraries with the periodical: Harvard Divinity (when contacted, it turned out they had only a handful of issues), the New York Public Library, and the Graduate Theological Union Library in Berkeley, California.

This week, I was very glad to hear from a librarian there that they indeed had a substantial run of The Cheerful Letter, and that they'd located the poem, attributed once again to Levi Furbush. There, nestled above an inspirational quote from J.P. Morgan, and above the newsletter's masthead, was the long-sought "Irish" saying that, for a day or two, had intrigued and amused the world -- and here, with the library's permission, I give it to you.

UPDATE (June 5 2017): It turns out that the poem's appearance in The Cheerful Letter is not the earliest known -- this issue actually dates to July of 1937. I'm working again to see whether there may by any other earlier instances than that in the Gazette and Daily

Sunday, February 19, 2017

What movie is playing in Robert Frank's "Drive-In, Detroit 1955"?

It's an iconic photo if there ever were one -- Robert Frank's "Drive-In, Detroit, 1955," one of the best-rememered of those in his 1958 book The Americans. A couple of weeks ago, my friend James Morrison -- who knows a thing or two about film -- posted a link to this photo, commenting that he recognized the Gratiot Drive-In, where he'd once been to a few movies (101 Dalmations, Funny Girl) as a kid. But what movie was that on the screen? As a reward, he offered a quarter.

This might be the most "textbook example" instance of my condition, after which this blog is named, that of epistemophilia -- the raging curiosity to find out some random fact that, though of no great importance by itself, turns out not to be easily answerable, even in this day and age of Google and Reddit (there did turn out to be question buried deep in a sub-Reddit on this very question -- which was not answered). How to proceed?

I began with Google Image search, which can often pair an image with a source, using only a clever search paradigm based on an analysis of the pixels. Unfortunately, with this iconic photo, all that did was lead me back to innumerable instances of the original Robert Frank photograph. I tried cropping the image, but the grainy detail produced nary a match. So what did I have to go on? A man in a plaid shirt, with a prominent hairline (Rock Hudson, some suggested), and another man in profile, also apparently in plaid, with what I first took to be a hand wrapped in a bandage. The second man looked a little like Anthony Quinn, I thought, so I started there, and with Rock Hudson -- who had been seen in plaid in 1955 (in All That Heaven Allows), but the film was not a match.

I next tried the IMdB's listing of the most popular films of 1955, working my way through more than 200 of them. I eliminated historical films, but checked for stills from every Western, and any film with an outdoor theme. Men in the 1950's, I soon learned, only wore plaid shirts when they were in the woods, although plaid overcoats were deemed acceptable for working-class blokes, such as Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront (no dice there either). Finally, I turned to, which has a reasonably easily-searched run of the Detroit Free Press. By searching the movie listings, I was able to see what was being shown every week at the Gratiot, then search for images or online copies of each film. Many of these were the same ones I'd already checked on the IMdB, but a few were different, and it was with one of these that I hit paydirt.

At 6:41 into The Looters
Abner Biberman's 1955 feature The Looters opens in the woods -- that place of log cabins, hot coffee, and plaid shirts all around. And, as fate would have it, the scene on the screen took place early on, as one mountaineer served coffee to another. What I had taken as a bandaged hand was a cup of coffee in motion, as the two men chatted over their plans. The film eventually takes a darker turn; when a plane crashes in the nearby mountains, the discovery of a large amount a cash on board deflects the moral compasses of the rescuers, who then become the "looters" of the title. The fellow I'd guessed was Rock Hudson turned out to be Ray Danton, a staple of 50's film; the other man was Rory Calhoun, a man who actually had spent some of his pre-acting career as a lumberjack. The listings in the Detroit Free Press show that the film was the second feature as of June 30th, 1955 -- pinning down, for what it's worth, the date of Robert Frank's photograph.

Never was a quarter harder earned.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

A letter from Amos Tutuola

Twenty-four years ago, when I was a freshly-minted assistant professor, a colleague and I planned a book project to collect brief essays by writers around the world on the subject of language; it was to be titled "Without Any Rules: The Politics and Poetics of the Vernacular." In the end, we only received a small fraction of the hoped-for contributions, and the project remained incomplete. Some, though, were very kind and enthusiastic -- among these was the late Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola, best known for The Palm-Wine Drinkard and My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. He did indeed send the promised essay, and perhaps someday I'll find a home for it -- but in the meantime I'll always cherish our brief correspondence.

UPDATE: Mr. Tutuola's essay has been published in Transition 120, and the editors decided to use images of the original typescript!

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The photographer, the madman

Many people today are familiar with the early photographic format known as the Ambrotype, but few are familiar with James Ambrose Cutting, the man who lent the process its most familiar name. Cutting was a man of many interests and pursuits, among them boating (he had a small personal yacht which he christened the Ambrotype) and natural history. Inspired by the work of the prominent scientist Louis Aggasiz, he partnered with Henry D. Butler to launch the Boston Aquarial Gardens on Bromfield Street in Boston, the first aquarium in the United States; Agassiz gave lectures there. Receipts, alas, did not quite keep up with expenses, and among the investors Cutting and Butler turned to was the showman P.T. Barnum, whose own American Museum in New York featured some marine exhibitions. As finances got tighter, Barnum put on the squeeze, eventually acquiring a controlling interest in the Aquarial Gardens, which were swiftly converted from a scientific establishment to a show-hall, featuring -- among other attractions -- a "Madame Lanista" who wrestled with snakes!

Cutting, disgusted with this turn of events, found a new partner and established the "New Boston Aquarial and Zoological Gardens" at the corner of Summer and Chauncy streets. Here, too though the need to draw a crowd led Cutting and Guay to seek out fresh attractions; one of their first was the Inuit couple who had lately served as Charles Francis Hall's guides in his search for the lost Arctic expedition of Sir John Franklin, Ebierbing ("Joe") and Tookoolito ("Hannah"). Though popular, their appearance failed to generate the hoped-for revenue, and the new enterprise closed shortly afterwards. Distraught by the collapse of his venture, Cutting lost his mind, and was soon confined at an insane asylum near Worcester, Massachusetts; he died there in August of 1867. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The earliest portrait of the Virgin Mary?

Fordham University Theology professor Miachel Peppard has a bee in his bonnet -- and it's an interesting one. We have, as he points on in his recent opinion piece in the New York Times, very little representational art from the earliest era of Christianity. Among this small and precious store, the illustrated wall-panels from the ancient Syrian city of Dura (now Deir-es-Zor) loom large. Buried as a defensive fallback by occupying Roman troops around 250 A.D., the site offers a Pompeiian degree of preservation, the floors, walls, and objects of everyday life sealed up, the moment frozen in time. Among the items recovered there is a wall-panel from the baptistery of a substantial home, which includes in one corner a rough depiction of a woman at a well, identified by the Yale Art Gallery -- where it now resides -- as a depiction of the "Samaritan Woman" encountered by Jesus in the Gospel of John.

For some reason, this text was the subject of several recent sermons I've heard -- you can read the whole passage here, along with various commentaries here. Several points are key: The woman recognizes Jesus as a Jew, and he recognizes her as a Samaritan, by their clothing; Jesus compares water that the Samaritan woman is drawing with "living water," which one, having drunk, will never thirst again. Depictions of this scene are common in early Church iconography (all of it later, of course, than that in the Syrian baptistery).

Peppard thinks this might be the earliest "securely datable" image of the Virgin Mary; he points out that the Annunciation was said to have occurred when Mary had gone to fetch water from a well (a scene also shown, though less often, in early Church art).

But I'm not convinced. For one, it's in a baptistery -- surely a place where the references to "living water" would have special resonance. For two, even at this early date, I think Mary would have been shown with some sort of halo. The fact that the figure is shown alone, to my mind, doesn't shift the argument one way or the other, and as for invisible angels, I'm not convinced. In this early period, before the great conflicts over iconoclasm, it seems to me that anything and anyone important would be shown, at least in symbolic form -- in any case, there's neither Christ nor angel here. But still more convincing, to me, is that this woman is not wearing any kind of veil or head-covering, as a good Jewish woman of the era would; my understanding is that, among Samaritan women generally, such coverings were not commonly worn. She also seems to have bare feet -- it's hard to imagine an artist of this era drawing Mary in such a fashion! It's intriguing, certainly, but I don't think that this argument is compelling enough to declare this the earliest depiction of Mary -- though it may be one of the earliest of the Samaritan woman!

Monday, February 1, 2016

John Logie Baird in Tea Cards

The recent Google Doodle of John Logie Baird's Televisor doubtless raised a few eyebrows -- Baird? Television? Most people, especially in the United States, have never heard the name; most assume that TV was invented by RCA, or (if they're fans of the "lone inventor" school) Philo T. Farnsworth.

Those claims have their supporters, but there's really no question that Baird, a reclusive Scot who 'preferred to work alone' through much of his career, first demonstrated a working television system to members of the Royal Society in January of 1926.

At the time, he was working in a chilly garret on Frith Street in Soho; his "televisor" was a cobbled-together affair, making use of lenses made for bicycle-lamps, cardboard tubes, and old "Rich Mix" biscuit tins. The room was too small to accommodate more than a few people at a time, with the result that the august members of the Royal Society had to be escorted up the stairs in small groups, a few at a time, all still in their formal evening dress, and all a bit chilly.

Television's first subject -- a dummy head known affectionately as "Stookie Bill," was on display -- in one room in person, in another as a 30-line televised image. Baird then invited the skeprics to see each other via his apparatus, and lo! there they were. One participant, Sanger Shepherd (a pioneer of color photography), was particularly impressed, and was heard to exclaim "Baird has got it! The rest is merely a matter of £. s. d (pounds, shillings, and pence)."

Many years later, long after Baird's original mechanico-electric system had been supplanted by electronic television, these three "tea cards" -- included as premiums in boxes Brooke Bond and other brands of tea -- showed that, when it came to television, Mr. Baird was still 'first in the hearts of his countrymen.'

Wednesday, January 27, 2016


Photo © Peter Hastings, All Rights Reserved
Alan Freed's original Moondog Coronation Ball, which was shut down a few minutes into the first set by the Cleveland Police on March 21st, 1952, is the stuff of Rock legend. Some historians, confusing later events in Freed's career after he moved to NYC and popularized "Rock 'n' Roll" among white teenage listeners, have claimed that the crowd that night was "mostly white." But in fact it was almost entirely black, though many surviving photographs are too small or blurry to confirm this. A few years ago, I was able to track down the man who took these original photos, the late Peter Hastings. At the time, he was a freelancer, though his services were later retained by the Cleveland Orchestra, where he was their  longtime official photographer. When I spoke with him on the phone, he recalled the evening as chaotic, and the light was so dim inside the Cleveland Arena that he used a long exposure; he was only able to get off a few shots before everything 'went crazy.' The image above is a digital scan of a new print, and any copyright in it is retained by him -- but I thought it worth sharing online, as clear images of that night are so rare. You can see the guys in their fedoras and porkpies, the gals in their dancing dresses, and what I believe to be the first (and only) act, Paul "Hucklebuck" Williams, on stage. The dancers are moving too quickly for the slow exposure, and appear as blurs, or images connected by blurs -- this could be thought a flaw, but I think it underlines the kinetic, ephemeral nature of that evening, and evening that was about to come to a premature end only moments after this fleeting photograph was taken.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

In Memoriam Ralph Hyde, 1939-2015

The first time I met Ralph Hyde in person was at the old Woolwich Arsenal train station — itself a vaguely panoramic structure, with curving glass walls and a cylindrical cupola — back in 1999. In those ancient days of the early, mostly non-pictorial Internet, neither of us had any idea of how to recognize each other; fortunately, he’d thought to bring along a copy of his Panoramania! book, and I easily deduced that the white-haired gent near the top of the escalator must be he.

We went over to his home, a comfortable little cottage-like dwelling tucked away behind one of the brick walls of the Arsenal grounds. He and his wife welcomed me, and we sat in the small but comfortable living room, with gorgeous large-format prints of panoramas festooning the walls. Every topic led to another of interest, and the conversation continued at the dinner table. We could very likely have gone on all night, but I was anxious to get back to my hotel in London before the tube stopped running, and so Ralph called a mini-cab, which got me back to the station just in time.

In all my many visits to Britain, he was the only person I ever met who, in a completely natural manner, actually used the expression “jolly good.”

By the time of that meeting, we’d been corresponding by snail-mail for some time. I’d written to Ralph at the suggestion of the pre-eminant Victorianist Richard Altick who, when I told him that I was researching Arctic panoramas, recommended to me as a ‘brilliant young man’ who would surely set me in the right direction (Altick being by then nearly ninety, ‘young’ was a relative term!). And when I wrote, I discovered that this was true in a more exact way than I’d imagined — for Ralph himself was working on an article about panoramas of the polar regions! It was a mark of his unvarying graciousness that he didn’t discourage me from my own researches, shared all that he knew, and celebrated the work I’d done once it was published.

A few years later, along with my son — at that time an avid Civil War re-enactor — we met up with Ralph at Jonathan Gestetner’s home, and saw a small portion of his extraordinary collection. We saw, in person, the famous “London in a Nut-Shell,” along with several miniature panoramas of the Civil War, which we did our best to help him identify. On one wall in the house, a series of photographs showed the presentation of a Gestetner copying machine to each of the modern Popes — a reminder both of the significance of mechanical copying, and of the eventual passing of that technology and its era.

After that, most of our other meetings were at various gatherings sponsored by the International Panorama Council — at Hunter College in New York City and the Yale Center for British Art — by which time we’d switched to e-mail to continue our shared research on many topics. It was through these means that, in 2002, we stumbled together upon the passage in a German tourist’s account of his visit to the Marshall Brothers’ panorama of the Battle of Navarin, which proved — after a careful translation by fellow IPC member Gabriele Koeller — to be one of the most significant accounts of just what a “peristrephic” panorama was: “the canvas is not flat, but stretched out in a half circle. It is slowly moved on rollers, the scenes changing nearly imperceptibly.”

We continued our correspondence over the years, with Ralph often sending along copies of handbills and other documents of polar panoramas. Without fail, he sent a Christmas card every year. More recently, I hadn’t been able to attend several of the IPC meetings at which he presented, but was glad to be able to see his illustrated talks on video, which were unfailingly informative, witty, and wry.

From what I’ve heard, Ralph was pursuing all his usual research passions right up to the moment of his passing — and I’m not surprised. A few months ago, I was delighted to see that his book on paper peep-shows in the Gestetner collection was finally out, and I’d meant to see if I could get Ralph to autograph a copy. It’s strange to be presented with a long series of our archived e-mails, suddenly rendered poignant by the inability of the “send” button to ever reach him again.

One of Ralph’s ongoing projects, which I contributed to in small ways, and drew from in large ones, was his Dictionary of Panoramists. I don’t know what state it might be in — Ralph certainly realized that, no matter what the time and effort, it would always be incomplete in some details. And yet, perhaps now, it might be possible to bring this work to fruition, either as a published reference, or — as Ralph himself had begun to think better — as some kind of online resource capable of continual updating. It would be, in either form, a most fitting memorial for a man whose career, like the paintings he studied, was all-encompassing. He was truly a "jolly good" fellow.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

When I edited the Eighteenth Century

One of the more peculiar job titles I've ever had, long before I was a professor, was "Editor of the Eighteenth Century." This was my task back in the mid-1980's when I worked for Connecticut-based Research Publications (now Primary Source Media), a company that had the contract for the Eighteenth Century microfilm project, which aimed -- ambitiously, it seemed then -- to film every unique work published in English between 1700 and 1800, based on what was then the ESTC (Eighteenth-century Short Title Catalogue -- now simply the English STC and extended to the birth of print), a database that was, long before Google Books, the key to every such work in any collection around the world.

This letter -- somewhat quaintly addressed to me as "Russell Potter, Esq., Editor, the 18th Century" -- concerned the quest to avoid duplicate titles -- the ESTC had been assembled to catalog everything and a number of duplicates or near-duplicates was inevitable -- because, at that time, it seemed unwise to spend the resources to film such things. With Google Books, though, the aim grew wider -- scan them all, let researchers sort 'em out -- and this, despite the best-laid schemes of the 1980's, turned out to be the way of the future.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Count Curly Wee

There's nothing weirder than other country's comics -- a fact that I've known since, at the age of five or six, I first opened a packet of British comics sent by my mother's UK pen pal, and first laid eyes upon The Dandy, featuring (among many others) Desperate Dan, Dirty Dick, Korky the Kat, and Cuddles and Dimples. And so, a few years ago, when I picked up an old paper from an empty seat while on the Irish Sea Ferry from Dublin to Holyhead, and saw a pair of comic panels, I had a feeling it might be another encounter with the comic otherworld. And it was: Count Curly Wee, originated by Roland Clibborn, ran under various titles in Irish newspapers, as well as the Liverpool Echo. Cliburn's style was unusual; he drew two narrative panels, with a poem in ballad stanzas at the foot of each. The resulting plates were all numbered; this one that I came upon on the ferry is 6685. Clibborn retired after plate 10,274 -- but I've been unable to locate much further information about him; the Irish Times had been re-running his old panels, which was how I stumbled upon them. His sense of humor was, to put it lightly -- unique -- but absolutely distinctive. If you find it to your liking, the National Library of Australia has a complete volume that you can read or download for free.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

An Invitation to the Exposition, 1876

The invitation was the sort given to important men -- and my great-grandfather-in-law, Mr. Jesse J. John, was such a man. He was a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, a man who had his copies of Harper's Monthly bound in leather, and carried a gold-tipped walking stick engraved with his name (I have both of these in my home library). So, when the Centennial Exhibition was announced, it was natural that he would be sent a complimentary ticket, along with a map of the speaker's platform (he was to be seated in Section E, two sections over from President Ulysses S. Grant, surely within range of his ubiquitous cigars -- not that he would have been the only one smoking them).

At the exhibition, Mr. John might have taken in all kinds of attractions -- chief among them the Centennial Tower, but also such themed buildings as the Horticultural Hall and the torch intended for the Statue of Liberty. He might also, if he had been so inclined, have visited other exhibits, such as the wax figures of Mr. Moulthrop, which included Chief Red Cloud, the 'Esquimaux' Hannah and Joe, and all the survivors of the Amistad.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Mystery of the 1977 Gandalf Poster

It's not an image of Gandalf you see every day -- but I used to. I bought this poster for my bedroom wall in 1977; when I left the next year for college, it came with me, and I've kept it ever since, though it spent the last twenty years or so rolled up in a closet. Today, I decided to take it out of storage and frame it, and it was only then that I started to wonder -- where, after all, did this Gandalf -- pre-Rankin-Bass, pre-Bakshi, and certainly pre-Jackson, come from? My only clue was the artist's name, which was clear enough: "Alvin Hudson." But who was that? There was no artist of that name with any sort of online presence; the only image of another copy was from an old listing on eBay Canada -- that, and the entry in the US register of Copyrights: ""Gandalf the wizard. Half port, of bearded old man from The Hobbit, wearing large hat, holding pipe & walking stick. Painted by Alvin Hudson. Col. reproduction of painting. © Spellbound, Inc.; 30NOV77; K128162."  And who was Spellbound, Inc? The US Patent and Trademark office showed that the company had filed for its trademark in January of 1977, and had been based in Akron, Ohio, not far from my hometown of Cleveland. The trademark had expired in 1985.

So I wonder: is there anyone out there who can tell me anything about Alvin Hudson, or Spellbound? Did they put out other posters? Did they license the names? And could it be -- as seems very possible -- that Ralph Bakshi was influenced, just a bit, by this image in his conception of Gandalf  for his Lord of the Rings movie? I'd be interested to hear from anyone who knows.

UPDATE 6/11/16: With thanks to my old friend and former student Patrick Robbins, I can report some additional detail on Spellbound, Inc. -- according to an item in the Akron Beacon Journal on December 6th, 1977, the company was founded by Bonnie Anderson and Merrilee Anthe, whose ambition was to become "Poster Queens." The article mentioned the popularity of Tolkien's work, and the recent airing of the Rankin-Bass Hobbit cartoon. It went on to note:
There are Tolkien posters, jigsaw puzzles, sweatshirts, T-shirts, calendars, games, national fan clubs and posters but not, as Bonnie and Merrilee saw, any made from oil paintings. The first poster from Spellbound is, of course, the Alvin Hudson painting of Gandalf.
Alas, Bonnie and Merrilee were not destined to become poster-making magnates -- but certainly their first was a brilliant one. The article mentions Alvin Hudson as though his name would be recognized -- but he remains resolutely obscure.