Thursday

Oct. 4, 2012

The Escaped Gorilla

by David Wagoner

When he walked out in the park that early evening
just before closing time, he didn't take
the nearest blonde in one arm and climb a tree
to wait for the camera crews. He didn't savage
anyone in uniform, upend cars
or beat his chest or scream, and nobody screamed
when they found him hiding behind the holly hedge
by the zoo office where he waited for someone

to take him by the hand and walk with him
around two corners and along a pathway
through the one door that wasn't supposed to be open
and back to the oblong place with the hard sky
where all of his unbreakable toys were waiting
to be broken, with the wall he could see through,
but not as far as the place he almost remembered,
which was too far away to be anywhere.

"The Escaped Gorilla" by David Wagoner, from A Map of the Night. © University of Illinois Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the 150th birthday of Edward L. Stratemeyer (books by this author), born in Elizabeth, New Jersey (1862). He was one of the first American writers to capitalize on the new market in children's literature which was created by universal primary education. At the time, most children's books taught moral lessons, but Stratemeyer said, "A wide awake lad has no patience with that which is namby-pamby." Stratemeyer also figured that his books would sell better if they had recurring characters, so he created one series after another: the Motor Boys, the Outdoor Girls, the Bobbsey Twins. His work was so popular that he couldn't keep up with the demand, so he created the Stratemeyer Syndicate in 1910. Stratemeyer wrote the outline for each story himself, but he hired dozens of fiction writers to bang out the actual books under a variety of pen names.

When detective fiction took off in the 1920s, Stratemeyer created a detective series for kids called the Hardy Boys, which became wildly popular. He followed the Hardy Boys with a series about a girl detective named Nancy Drew. Publishers believed that books for boys always sold more than books for girls, but the Nancy Drew books ended up being the most popular books that Stratemeyer ever published.

After his death in 1930, his two daughters ran the syndicate. One of them, Harriet, wrote a number of the Nancy Drew books.

It's the birthday of Roy Blount Jr. (books by this author), born in Indianapolis, Indiana (1941) and raised in Decatur, Georgia. He's been a freelance writer for more than a hundred different publications, and he's the author of more than 20 books, on subjects "from the Pittsburgh Steelers to Robert E. Lee to what dogs are thinking." He's also a member of the Rock Bottom Remainders, a rock band made up entirely of authors.

His latest book is Alphabetter Juice: or, The Joy of Text (2011).

Roy Blount Jr. said, "Language seems to me intrinsically comic — noises of the tongue, lips, larynx, and palate rendered in ink on paper with the deepest and airiest thoughts in mind and the harshest and tenderest feelings at heart."

It's the birthday of Damon Runyon (books by this author), born in Manhattan, Kansas (1880). He was known for his distinctive narrative style: part New York street slang, part vernacular that existed nowhere until he brought it out of his own head. He shunned sentiment, contractions, and the past tense.

An example, from "The Brakeman's Daughter":

"In fact, she is a doll with black hair, and personally I claim there is nothing more restful to the eye than a doll with black hair, because it is even money, or anyway 9 to 10, that it is the natural colour of the hair, as it seems that dolls will change the colour of their hair to any colour but black, and why this is nobody knows, except that it is just the way dolls are."

Today is the birthday of comedian Buster Keaton, born Joseph Frank Keaton in Piqua, Kansas (1895). His parents were vaudevillians, and according to Keaton, he earned his nickname as a toddler, when he fell down a staircase. Harry Houdini picked up the child, dusted him off, and said, "That was a real buster your kid took!"

His parents added him to the act when he was three years old, and he quickly learned that the more serious he looked, the harder the audience laughed. He had a natural ability to take a fall without being injured, and his parents threw him around the stage like a dummy. They were often hauled in on child abuse charges, but Buster would remove his clothes to show no broken bones or bruises, and the charges were dropped. "The funny thing about our act," he told The Detroit News in 1914, "is that dad gets the worst of it, although I'm the one who apparently receives the bruises ... the secret is in landing limp and breaking the fall with a foot or a hand. It's a knack."

He met film comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle in New York in 1917, and Arbuckle took him under his wing, recognizing that the slight, acrobatic Keaton was the perfect complement to the large, bumbling Arbuckle. Keaton successfully made the transition to a solo act in the 1920s, but his deadpan style wasn't as popular as Chaplin's sentimental Little Tramp character, or Harold Lloyd's plucky, optimistic on-screen persona. It was more than 20 years before his feature films — like The Navigator (1924), The General (1926), and The Cameraman (1928) — were recognized as silent comedy classics.

In 1928, he signed a contract with MGM, but the studio hired other people to write and direct, and — worst of all — hired a double to do all his stunts. Though his MGM films made money, he considered this the worst business decision of his life, and he left the studio in 1933. He returned to MGM in 1937, and spent a couple of years writing gags for the Marx Brothers and providing material for Red Skelton. After that, he had a series of bit parts in movies and, later, TV.

He was still working in the 1960s and still doing most of his own stunts. His last film was A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), which was filmed late in 1965. In January 1966, he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, although he was never told of his diagnosis and thought he just had a persistent case of bronchitis. He died on February 1st.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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