The Minstrel Show

I actually saw a real minstrel show, in the East Lansdowne Public School auditorium, of all places. My grandparents took me! It had a Mr. Bones and all. Very strange. It was at night, and there was a charge to get in. I don’t think the school had anything to do with it, except to provide the venue. In those days, the local schools often served as a gathering place for its citizens.

What brought this all to mind was a news report of a policeman who posted a photo of himself in black face on Facebook. (Of course, he was fired.) The newscaster said something about black face was commonly used in minstrel shows, but the closed caption wrote it as a “menstrual show.” Big difference.

For you younger people, a minstrel show was a variety show hosted by a line of about 20 players sitting in a semicircle of chairs. The leader was the “Interlocutor,” who sat in the center and was dressed especially fancy: a white tuxedo with sequins and a similar top hat. He often joked with the “end men,” one at either end of the line of chairs, often white men in black face, Amos-and-Andy style. One was Mr. Bones, the other Mr. Tambo. Mr. Bones played the bones and Mr. Tambo the tambourine as their reason for being onstage, although the real reason was to joke with the Interlocutor. The format developed in the early 1800s and reached a peak of popularity in the 1840s.

The theme of a minstrel show was ridiculing the pretensions of black men who were portrayed as bumbling simpletons, happy-go-lucky, childlike darkies who loved to sing and dance and gamble. Jim Crow and Zip Coon were actual characters. (An old Irish fiddle tune was given words Old Zip Coon and was performed in early minstrel shows. Later it was  reworded to Turkey in the Straw. Today, it is mostly performed as an instrumental.) Many of the stereotypes we have today originated in the early minstrel shows, and I think of that whenever someone claims race relations have not improved over the years. At least we no longer have minstrel shows.

Sound strange? It was, but a minstrel show was an accepted format for a variety show. I was about 10 years old, and a minstrel shows were already old-fashioned. The one I saw was probably one of the last. Racial protests had little to do with their decline. The format was replaced by vaudeville, and the minstrel format seemed dated. Just introduce each act, as Ed Sullivan eventually did.

The Interlocutor introduced the acts that usually came from those seated in the chairs, but they could also come from off-stage. The banter between the Interlocutor and the end men was often to kill time for the back-stage preparations. The Interlocutor was always white and the end men usually black, but the actual performers could be actual blacks, actual whites, or whites in black face (never blacks in white face).

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Armistice Day

“The Eleventh Hour,” by Adam Hochschild. The New Yorker, 11/5/2018.

I was always vague about World War I, never got into the details. It was always old-fashioned for me. Some of our older male teachers were in the war. They wore funny uniforms and funny helmets. They didn’t look noble; they looked silly. When historians said World War II was just a continuation of World War I, I didn’t understand what they meant.

This year is the 100th anniversary of the armistice that was signed on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month (the hour is questionable) and many books about it are being published. This New Yorker article is partly a book review. Books mentioned are:

Voices From the Past: Armistice 1918, by Paul Kendall;
Peace At Last: A Portrait of Armistice Day, 11 November 1918, by Guy Cuthbertson;1918: Winning the War, Losing the War, by Matthias Strohn;
The Last Battle: Endgame On the Western Front, 1918, by Peter Hart
How America Won World War I . . . , by Alan Axelrod;
Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour: Armistice Day 1918 . . ., by Joseph E. Persico.

(The name “Armistice Day” was changed to “Veteran’s Day” in the U.S. in 1954.)

The German army had been failing for months with mass desertions, insubordination, and resignations (the top German commander, General Erich Ludendorff, had a nervous breakdown weeks earlier and fled the country in disguise), but the German people had no idea of this and were totally surprised by the Armistice and the severity of its terms. They believed the propaganda that their country was winning. The French leader of the negotiations insisted the war continue with special ferocity during the five weeks of negotiations, adding half a million unnecessary casualties to the list. Still, few Germans considered themselves defeated. Just a few months earlier, Germany’s troops had advanced far into France. Church bells rang out, and schoolchildren were given a national holiday. Shortly before the Armistice, Germany’s newspapers were still running stories about an imminent final victory. Almost all combat had been on foreign soil. How could a country be defeated without being invaded?

Even when the war broke out in June, 1914, the problems seemed minor. None claimed territory of the others, the royal families were closely related, and Germany was Britain’s largest trading partner. The entire war was considered a colossal mistake.

Within two years of the treaty, the reparations demanded of Germany were quietly reduced. It was claimed that the Armistice was humiliating for the Germans, but the final terms were far more lenient than many imposed on other nations that had been defeated in war.

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Charmaine, by Mantovani

I recently came across a song that brought back a flood of high school memories: Charmaine, performed by The Mantovani Orchestra.

(I did not know any girl named “Charmaine,” or any girl the music reminded me of, then or now. It’s all platonic.)

I am told the song was in the background of the 1950 movie, Sunset Boulevard, where Gloria Swanson famously plays the faded silent-film star Norma Desmond, slightly bizarre (more than slightly), who confuses her past popularity with the present. But I was unaware of this. The next time it is on TV, I will listen carefully.

In 1958, Mantovani released the record of his version. I had very few records, but I had that one on 45 RPM format, and probably played it more than any other. I would never throw it out, so it may still be around somewhere, but of course I no longer have a player for it. But I can listen to it anytime on YouTube and relive my high school days.

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Password Inflation

So I count my blessings. I married well. I am sitting pretty. And thus far, it is possible to make coffee, put bread in the toaster, and open the newspaper without a password that includes at least one numeral and one capital letter. –Garrison Keillor, 10/31/2018.

Yes! Passwords started out so simple. You could use the name of your childhood dog, such as “Fido” (was any dog ever named “Fido?”). I started out years ago with “Speedo” (. . . they often call me Speedo, but my real name is Mr. Earl—1955 song by the Doo-Wop group, The Cadillacs.) You could even enter hints to help remember the password.

No more.

The latest one I created had to be at least eight characters long, have one upper case letter, one numeral, and one special character. No hint would ever help me remember it.

Thanks to Longwood Gardens, I satisfy the special character requirement with an explanation point at the end, but it will probably be disallowed as more people use it. The requirements are getting out of hand and are often to protect the website owner, not the visitor.

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Vocabulary: Paraprosdokians

This is an unusual word, and you will probably have to add it to your spell-checker. The only reason I know it is that it was recently sent to me by a friend.  Paraprosdokians are sentences in which the latter part or a following sentence has an  unexpected, humorous twist.

Winston Churchill loved them. So do I.

It is easier understood by example. One is: If I agreed with you, we’d both be wrong. A Google search of paraprosdokians will uncover many more.

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Vocabulary: Portention vs. Pretension

“Call and Response,” by Dan Chiasson. The New Yorker, 10/8/2018.

I came across portention in a sentence where the meaning for pretension would also work, so I assumed the more familiar later—until I looked it up. Portention is an omen of bad things about to happen. Pretension is putting on airs, ostentation.

Max Ritvo

The sentence was about a poet, Max Ritvo, trying to get rid of his portention: “it’s basically me shedding portention.” Until I looked it up, I assumed he was shedding his pretension.

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Learning a Language With An App

I recently read a review of language-learning apps for my tablet, but it warned that it takes 500–4400 hours to become fluent.  With my atrophied brain, I would be on the high end of that range, so devoting 8 hours/day to the task would take me 550 days, or about a year and a half even at that intense level.

The apps have some cleaver features. Some pop up throughout the day with vocabulary reminders. One allows you to speak with a native, but not in real time, so you can think before replying. Another narrows the new language to a specific topic (pop culture, sports, music, art, etc.).

But they are all too long for me. I have yet to master English.

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