marktwain1866

THE TIME MARK TWAIN CAME TO PETALUMA

Petaluma was soooo lucky. Mark Twain, that funny guy everyone was buzzing about, made only a few appearances before he left for the East Coast and Europe, probably never to return out west. Reviewers had been giddy with delight over his recent appearance in San Francisco: “From the beginning to the end, the interest was never allowed to flag,” gushed the Chronicle. “Taking it altogether, ‘Mark Twain’s lecture may be pronounced one of the greatest successes of the season.” Other SF newspapers sang with similar praise. Thus on November 26, 1866, you can bet Hinshaw’s Hall was crowded with Petalumans expecting to spend a jolly evening. Spoiler alert: They hated him.

The next edition of the Petaluma Journal and Argus offered a review of his lecture with the headline, “REPREHENSIBLE.” That fellow who called himself Mark Twain was a complete flop (“…as a lecturer he falls below mediocrity”) and the San Francisco papers should be condemned for misleading the public by giving good reviews to such bad entertainers.

Now, wait a minute; today, everyone knows Sam Clemens/Mark Twain was the most celebrated speaker of his time, if not all of American history. Surely that Petaluma critic was as much an idiot as the Hollywood producer who supposedly dissed Fred Astaire’s screen test, “can’t sing, can’t act, balding, can dance a little.”

As it turns out, the Petaluma review was truthful, albeit inartfully written (the full review is transcribed below, apparently for the first time since 1866). Evidence found in contemporary papers show Twain’s appearances in those weeks were often stinkers – and it seems he was aware of that but did not know how to improve. Following one lecture he told a friend he felt like he was a fraud who was taking people in.

But that’s not the story he tells in his memoir and first popular book, Roughing It, or when reminiscing as he did in his remarks about stage fright made after his daughter’s musical recital. In his version, he was nervous about his debut performance in San Francisco, fearful that no tickets would sell and no one would laugh at his jokes. He papered the house to pack it with friends including three “giants in stature, cordial by nature, and stormy-voiced” who were expected to howl with glee and beat their shillelagh on the floor whenever Twain made a funny. Still, he was terrified of failure. From Roughing It:


…before I well knew what I was about, I was in the middle of the stage, staring at a sea of faces, bewildered by the fierce glare of the lights, and quaking in every limb with a terror that seemed like to take my life away. The house was full, aisles and all! The tumult in my heart and brain and legs continued a full minute before I could gain any command over myself. Then I recognized the charity and the friendliness in the faces before me, and little by little my fright melted away, and I began to talk. Within three or four minutes I was comfortable, and even content. My three chief allies, with three auxiliaries, were on hand, in the parquette, all sitting together, all armed with bludgeons, and all ready to make an onslaught upon the feeblest joke that might show its head. And whenever a joke did fall, their bludgeons came down and their faces seemed to split from ear to ear…

“All the papers were kind in the morning,” Twain finished up, referring to those reviews the Petaluma paper later called “reprehensible.” As he didn’t write about his subsequent appearances, Gentle Reader was left with the impression all went smoothly after his debut butterflies. And as far as I can tell Twain biographers all take him at his word, speeding past events of that autumn to arrive without delay at his rise to international fame.

It’s a great shame more attention hasn’t been given to this period, as this was a turning point in his life. “Without means and without employment,” as he wrote in Roughing It, he convinced himself public speaking was his “saving scheme,” despite having absolutely no experience or training at it. And although the reviews after his debut were often poor, his convictions seemingly never faltered that he would now do this for a living. If nothing else, it’s an inspiring story of determination; constructing a Mark Twain from scratch was not easy work.

The topic of Twain’s lectures were the “Sandwich Islands,” AKA the Kingdom of Hawaii, where he had just spent five months as a special correspondent for the Sacramento Daily Union. The Kingdom was a pretty exotic place to Americans in 1866 and the couple of dozen articles he wrote were well received, but travelogue lectures are not where you usually expect an evening of knee-slappin’ humor. Twain destroyed his copy of the speech years later so we don’t know exactly what he said, but from snippets and summaries we know the lecture was mainly a travel description of people, places and things along with his wry observations. Or as the Sacramento Union critic wrote, he “seasoned a large dish of genuine information with spicy anecdote.”

The advertisements he placed in the papers became celebrated in their own right. Shown here is his first from the Sept. 30 Daily Alta California (CLICK or TAP to enlarge) with its funny blurbs. “A SPLENDID ORCHESTRA Is in town but has not been engaged“, read one of them. At other lectures he came up with different items, such as “THE WONDERFUL COW WITH SIX LEGS! Is not attached to this Menagerie“. Most famous was the tag at the end: “Doors open at 7 o’clock. The Trouble to begin at 8 o’clock.” He varied this line, too; another example was, “Doors open at 7; the inspiration will begin to gush at 8.”

Once back in his old Gold Country stomping grounds, he also ran this in the Nevada Transcript and Grass Valley Union:


After the lecture is over, the lecturer will perform the following wonderful feats of SLIGHT OF HAND, if desired to do so: At a given signal. he will go out with any gentleman and take a drink. If desired, he will repeat this unique and interesting feat – repeat it until the audience are satisfied that there is no deception about it. At a moment’s warning he will depart out of town and leave his hotel bill unsettled. He has performed this ludicrous trick many hundreds of times in San Francisco and elsewhere, and it has always elicited the most enthusiastic comments.
At any hour of the night, after ten, the lecturer will go through any house in the city, no matter how dark it may be, and take an inventory of its contents, and not miss as many of the articles as the owner will in the morning. The lecturer declines to specify any more of his miraculous feats at present, for fear of getting the police too much interested in his circus.

The Mark Twain who appeared on stages in those weeks was more or less an imitation of his contemporary and friend who went by the name of Artemus Ward. One of the most popular humorists during the Civil War – Lincoln opened the cabinet meeting about the Emancipation Proclamation by reading aloud a little humor sketch – Ward’s stage persona was a backcountry hick who drawled through rambling stories, clueless there was anything remotely funny about his remarks. Audiences ate it up. It was Ward’s great success that undoubtedly inspired Twain to try his hand at it.

Those early lectures by Twain included a great deal of clowning. He would open by pretending he did not know there was an audience; if there was a piano available the curtain sometimes went up with him yowling and banging away at an old saloon tune, “I Had an Old Horse Whose Name Was Methusalem.” From a good profile of Twain’s years in the West, “Lighting Out for the Territory:”


As can best be reconstructed, he simply sauntered onto the stage from the wings, his hands stuffed into his pockets and a sheaf of papers clutched under his arm. He wandered vaguely around the lectern for a bit, looking for the most comfortable place to stand, and then appeared to notice the audience for the first time, the expression on his face registering an equal mixture of surprise, perplexity, and fear. For a long moment he looked silently at the audience while it looked back at him, waiting.

Once he introduced himself the comic shtick continued as he pretended to be shocked and mystified whenever there was laughter or applause. Describing his debut performance, a journalist in the audience recalled “…the apparently painful effort with which he framed his sentences, and above all, the surprise that spread over his face when the audience roared with delight or rapturously applauded…”

His Petaluma review was certainly the worst. but other reactions were decidedly mixed. Even as the Chronicle called his debut “one of the greatest successes of the season,” the back page of the same edition had a little item about running into Twain on Montgomery street and telling him “the envious and jealous” were saying it wasn’t worth the price of admission. When he appeared in San Jose the Mercury said “the lecture was entirely successful” while the Santa Clara Argus wrote “the lecture disappointed.” For his second San Francisco lecture the Chronicle called his performance unpolished and raw: “Some of ‘Mark’s'” jokes were very much strained, and others were so nearly improper–not to say coarse–that they could not be heartily laughed at by ladies.”

This was not harsh criticism, but that any were negative has to be weighed with understanding he had a “favorite son multiplier.” Samuel Clemens was a fellow newspaperman and drinking buddy of everyone in the City and in the Sierras who reviewed his appearances. They all wanted him to succeed, if for no other reason that he used his box office receipts to buy rounds of drinks after the show.

So great was his popularity that the harsh Petaluma review received its own smackdown from the Grass Valley Union:


Unfortunate Clemens! Why did you blight your lecturing prospects by attempting to pass the ordeal of the corn and spud-producers of the Russian river country? You may do in San Francisco and ‘sich like places,’ but you ought to have known better than to brave the Petaluma lions in their den…what business had you, Mark Twain, up in that part of the country? Telegraph to the St. Louis and Cincinnati Boards of Commerce that you cannot accept their invitations to lecture – that your lecturing star went down in Petaluma.

We have that sublime gob of sneer thanks to Santa Rosa’s newspaper, the Sonoma Democrat, where editor Thomas L. Thompson was still locked in battle with the Petaluma Argus over the Civil War, by then over a year and a half. (In an adjacent article, the Confederacy-mourning Thompson ranted at length about “the Radical tools and dupes of Abolition despotism.”) Thompson was clearly delighted that another editor handed him a cudgel to bash Petaluma and he did so with relish, taunting their critic as not “able to appreciate the entertainment” and comparing him to a dimwitted character in a Shakespearean play.

By the end of 1866 Mark Twain was on a ship headed to the East Coast. Over the next seven years he would deliver the Hawaii lecture some 150 times, by his count, almost always to acclaim. How did he completely turn it around?

For starters, he must have sharpened his focus once he was facing audiences of strangers and not his personal acquaintances, as was the case in California and Nevada. In the second Chronicle review they noted his weeks performing in front of his old pals in the Gold Country had changed his performance and not for the better: “…He was a little too familiar with his audiences. What will be thought very funny by the inhabitants of the desolated wastes on the other side of the Sierra Nevada mountains, won’t do at all in great metropolis like San Francisco.”

He also likely improved the writing; the Hawaii lecture he gave in 1873 probably was very much evolved from the original of 1866. His early reviews remarked at how much information he packed in about the climate, volcanoes, weird food, “board surfing” and the native people who were primitive because they did not act or dress like Victorian-era Americans. That didn’t leave much time for humor beyond making witty asides; were people filling his theater seats for a geography lesson or to have some laughs?

An incident during the Nevada leg of his tour should have given him cause to reflect: While walking the short distance back to Virginia City after an appearance at a mining town, Twain was held up by masked robbers who took his money and expensive gold watch. It soon came out the highwaymen were really his friends playing a prank and everything was returned to him, but Twain was livid and unforgiving. Why did they do it? Some forty years later, one of would-be brigands revealed they hoped it would cause him to stick around Virginia City and give another talk. And hopefully for that lecture, the robbery – which they had made as scary as possible – would be his topic instead of rehashing those damned factoids about Sandwich Islands.

But it appears his biggest improvement was dropping the stage business – the silly gimcrackery of pretending he had no idea what he was doing in front of an audience. He became less targeted on checking off the list of Hawaii’s wonders than sitting back and telling us a story about the place. Here was the emergence of the beloved Mark Twain we all know (well, the Hal Holbrook we all know), the man in the white suit, relaxed in the comfy chair and flicking ashes off his cigar while keeping us spellbound with whatever fool thing that happened to pop to mind. Volcanoes? Jumping frogs? Steamboats and your Missouri childhood? Whatever, Mark, just keep talking. We’ll listen to anything you have to say. You never needed the theatrics.

Unknown illustration, probably from early edition of Roughing It

 

“Mark Twain’s” Consolation

Meeting “Mark” this morning on Montgomery street, the following dialogue ensued:

“Mark” — Well, what do they say about my lecture?

We–Why, the envious and jealous say it was “a bilk” and a “sell.”

“Mark” — All right. It’s a free country. Everybody has a right to his opinion, if he is an ass. Upon the whole, it’s a pretty even thing. They have the consolation of abusing me, and I have the consolation of slapping my pocket hearing their money jingle. They have their opinions, and I have their dollars. I’m satisfied.

– San Francisco Dramatic Chronicle, October 3, 1866

SECOND LECTURE BY “MARK TWAIN”-Platt’s Hall has been engaged for to-morrow by “Mark Twain,” tor the delivery of his second lecture on the Sandwich Islands, and in addition he promises “the only true and reliable history of the late revolting highway robbery, perpetrated on the lecturer at the dead of night between the cities of Gold Hill and Virginia.” The tickets for the lecture are for sale at the book stores, “The wisdom will begin to flow at 8.” “Mark” will depart on the steamer of Monday, for a visit to the Atlantic States.

– Daily Alta California, November 15, 1866

…”Mark” was not as happy in this new lecture as he was in his old one. He was not in very good condition, having of course got alkalied while in the savage wilds of Washoe, and at the same time we fear that he had become a little demoralized. He was a little too familiar with his audiences. What will be thought very funny by the inhabitants of the desolated wastes on the other side of the Sierra Nevada mountains, won’t do at all in great metropolis like San Francisco. Some of “Mark’s” jokes were very much strained, and others were so nearly improper–not to say coarse–that they could not be heartily laughed at by ladies. However, “Mark,” of course, sent the audience into fits of laughing again and again; and as a whole, his lecture was thoroughly enjoyed by those present. “Mark’s” travels to the interior, where he has so many friends, have not improved his style. The lecture which he delivered last night might have been polished considerably without wearing down any of the sharp points with which it was ornamented.

– San Francisco Dramatic Chronicle, November 17, 1866

“Mark Twain,” the Missionary. styled the “Inimitable.” by the Mercury, favored a large and appreciative audience at San Jose, on Thursday, with an amusing account of what he heard, saw, and “part of which he was,” in the Sandwich lslands. One attraction, he announced, was necessarily omitted. In illustration of Cannibalism, as practiced anciently, he proposed to devour, in presence of the audience, any young and tender cherub if its maternal parent would stand such sacrifice for public edification, but there being no spare infants at hand the illustration was not given. With this exception, the Mercury says the lecture was entirely successful. They want him to do it again.

– Daily Alta California, November 24, 1866

The Argus, concerning ” Mark Twain’s” lecture, says: We have long been an admirer of the infutitable humor of the lecturer, as shown in his numerous letters and sketches that have been so widely published but confess that the lecture disappointed us. We expected to hear the Kanakas “joked blind,” but had no idea of being treated to such an intellectual feast as he served up to his audience. We never heard or read anything half so beautiful as his descriptions when he laid aside the role of the humorist and gave rein to his fancy. To use the expressions of a wrapt listener to the lecture, “he’s lightnin’.”

– Daily Alta California, November 25, 1866

MARK TWAIN.– The Alta of Sunday last says that Mark Twain is to deliver a lecture in this city Friday evening. We hope this is not a mistake.

– Petaluma Journal and Argus, November 22, 1866

REPREHENSIBLE.– The gentleman who enjoys a wide celebrity on this Coast as a spicy writer, over the non de plume of “Mark Twain,” delivered his lecture on the Sandwich Islands, in this city, on Monday evening last. While we accord to him the merit of being a spicy writer, candor compels us to say that as a lecturer he is not a success. We say this through no desire to be captious, but simply because it is literally true. As a newspaper correspondent Mark Twain is a racy and humorous writer, but as a lecturer he falls below mediocrity. In this connection we think it not inappropriate to address ourself to the editorial fraternity on this Coast, and to our San Francisco contemporaries in particular, in relation to the reprehensible practice of disguising the truth in reference to the qualifications and ability of persons who sell their talents for a valuable consideration, and too frequently “sell” those who go to hear them, innocently expecting to be instructed or amused. To remedy these evils we must begin at the fountain head. San Francisco occupies that proud eminence, and what she has of intelligence and real worth we delight to honor. She possesses an array of talent and varied accomplishments of which she may justly be proud; but her journals have apparently yet to learn to discriminate between stars of the first and ninth magnitude. They seem to lack the power of discrimination, and bespatter with printer’s ink all aspirants for public fame, without any seeming regard to their fitness or ability to meet the requirements of the public. Through their fulsome praise the public expectation, in the interior, is worked up to the highest pitch of expectation, and as a consequence nine times out of ten is doomed to disappointment. These frequent dampers upon public expectation has rendered the people so suspicious that lecturers of real merit are frequently mortified by finding themselves facing an audience that would be a discredit to the attractions of a hand organ.

– Petaluma Journal and Argus, November 29, 1866

POKING FUN AT PETALUMA.— The ridiculous comments of the Journal and Argus upon “Mark Twain’s” lecture in Petaluma, which we noticed at the time, have called forth some pretty sharp remarks from various quarters. The Grass Valley Union lets off steam in this manner: “Unfortunate Clemens! Why did you blight your lecturing prospects by attempting to pass the ordeal of the corn and spud-producers of the Russian river country? You may do in San Francisco and “sich like places,” but you ought to have known better than to brave the Petaluma lions in their den. What Mud Springs was to the Californian who crushed a certain young lady’s musical aspirations with a few well directed word-shots, silencing the match-making parent forever, Petaluma is in a lecturing way. Have not the Petalumans had Lisle Lester and other lecturing and reading stars up their way, and what business had you, Mark Twain, up in that part of the country? Telegraph to the St. Louis and Cincinnati Boards of Commerce that you cannot accept their invitations to lecture—-that your lecturing star went down in Petaluma.” There is a mistake here, through which injustice has been done to the people of our neighboring town. They had no fault to find with “Mark Twain.” On the contrary, his humorous and instructive lecture was highly appreciated by them. The editor of the Journal and Argus is the dissatisfied individual on whom Clemens wasted his wit. Not being able to appreciate the entertainment, he at once pronounced “Mark Twain” a failure. Evidently, when doing so, in the opinion of the press of the State, he followed the example of Dogberry of old, and displayed his ears rather prominently.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 22, 1866

 

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muttandjeffcast

MUTT AND THE JEFF IN OCCIDENTAL

Everyone in Santa Rosa was expecting a good time that Sunday in 1913: Mutt and Jeff were coming to town.

The Press Democrat could barely contain its excitement over the musical comedy. “The mere announcement of this sterling piece of laughter and mirth should occasion considerable pleasure,” gushed the PD, “for it is a rarity nowadays to witness a play that can really tickle one’s risibilties.” After readers paused to consult a dictionary and check if risibilties were something you would want strangers messing with, the article continued by promising the audience “infinite joy…’Mutt and Jeff’ were created to make this gloomy mundane sphere of ours happy and contented.”

Well, golly. Although this was the most expensive theatrical event in Santa Rosa for the year – with best seats going for the equivalent of forty bucks now – it was still a bargain price for the promise of infinite joy.

The show had been a broadway hit a couple of years earlier, but it wasn’t that reputation which drew the Sonoma county crowd: It was the excitement of seeing Mutt and Jeff – or at least a couple of guys who looked and acted like the pair.

For around a quarter century (roughly 1910-1935) Mutt and Jeff enjoyed an unprecedented popularity we probably can’t imagine today. Besides the daily comic strip and Sunday funnies, their animated cartoons were big hits at the movies. They were the first characters to have a line of spinoff merchandise – toys, games, dolls, figurines, playing cards, cigars, golf balls, and lord help them, Mutt brand oranges.

If the names are unfamiliar, Mutt was pencil-thin with a long nose, bristly moustache and devoid of chin; Jeff was a little person, balding with ear-to-ear whiskers and usually dressed like the Monopoly game tycoon for no apparent reason. Both were always drawn wearing white gloves, even to bed. In later years the comic books and strips were churned out in cartoon artist sweatshops and became merely gags and jokes; the old stuff was zany and sometimes more bizarre than funny. There was also frequent political satire: A series of 1908 dailies had Mutt running for president for the “Bughouse” party.

Both Santa Rosa newspapers ran publicity photos for the show and ads promised a cast of fifty with enough scenery to fill two train cars. We know from reviews the production had a chorus, pretty showgirls, lots of singing and dancing numbers and a slapstick bit with collapsible stairs. There was a series of souvenir postcards (seen here) portraying various scenes and the cast in full makeup, including Mutt with an absurdly long putty nose.

The Santa Rosa performance bombed. “All who attended the performance of ‘Mutt and Jeff’ at the Columbia theater Sunday evening and paid a dollar and a half for a seat, or even a dollar, to use a slang phase, not elegant, but expressive, were ‘stung,'” The Santa Rosa Republican complained the next day. Never before in the old papers have I seen a negative review like that.

“[A]ll the members of the company evidently thought they were performing in a fifty acre field and were required to yell as loud as they could in order to be heard,” the Republican continued, and “all of them talked so fast that nobody could understand what they said.” The review also said the curtain didn’t go up until 9:45 and by then the audience’s patience was worn out. “There were some good musical numbers, and if everybody had not been tired out, they probably would have been enjoyed.” Had the theater manager been smart, he could have killed time during the long wait by calling Jacques Fehr to the stage. He must have been in the audience that evening, and it was common knowledge around Sonoma county (although possibly not as early as 1913) that the Jeff character was based on him.

Jacques, or Jacob, or “Jakie” Fehr ran a bodega in Occidental with his wife, Tillie. They sold the whatnot such stores always sold – things like soda pop, candy, tobacco, magazines and newspapers. Jakie picked up the San Francisco papers when they arrived on the train that came up the valley from the Sausalito ferry. As the often-told story goes, one morning in 1908 a passenger en route to Bohemian Grove stepped off the train to stretch his legs when the train stopped in the village. San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Bud Fisher watched as Jakie bantered or argued with the railroad’s “candy butcher” (the person who walked the aisles selling snacks and smokes) and was amused by the contrast between the tall and lanky salesman and the four-foot-nine storekeeper. Thus sprang in his mind the inspiration for Mutt and Jeff.

(RIGHT: Tille and “Jakie” Fehr in front of their store, c. 1914. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

Harry Lapham grew up in Occidental in the 1930s and memorialized Jakie in a 1991 profile for The Sonoma Historian. By trade Fehr was a Swiss-born watchmaker and still did repairs; half the front window displayed watches and clocks for sale. He was actually four-foot-eight according to Lapham, and a hunchback – apparently the kids in town had “animated conversations” worrying whether his condition might be contagious, as he always licked the ice cream scoop before putting it back in the water.

It’s not known when or how Fehr learned he was the model for the cartoon character, but Lapham quotes an Occidental old-timer as recalling Jakie say, “I think I will sue this man Fisher. He has put me in his comic strip as this man, Jeff.” When Fehr died in 1938, the Press Democrat headline was, “‘Jeff’ of Famous Comic Strip Dies In S. R. Hospital” and the obituary rehashes the origin story. “From that scene,” the PD wrote, “Fisher is quoted as having said the idea of creating the strip that brought him fame and wealth was born.”

There’s only one problem with the story: I can find no proof it’s true – but lots of evidence that it isn’t. And I’m very sorry to write that; originally this article was going to be another celebration of the little storekeep with the big claim to fame.

The first problem is that the bones of the story don’t fit. Jeff first appeared in March-April 1908 comic strips (more about that in a minute) so the encounter had to happen sometime before that. As the Bohemian Club hosts its annual camp in mid-July of each year, either Fisher was passing through Occidental for a reason other than going to Bohemian Grove in early 1908 or it all happened some time before. Regardless, this wrong timeline is only a quibbling detail.

More significant is that Bud Fisher repeatedly insisted both Jeff and Mutt were invented out of whole cloth. Interviewed by a Duluth paper in 1912 and asked if they were based on two characters he knew in San Francisco, he replied: “Nothing to that. Mutt and Jeff are no one in particular except themselves. They were merely created for amusement purposes and in time came to be fixtures. They ‘growed’ in other words.” Asked a similar question in 1915 by the Washington DC Star he said of Jeff: “It is always a small ‘nut’ who believes he can whip any one in the world. The little filbert is constantly getting into musses [sic] and receiving the worst of it. To make him look more foolish I put whiskers on him.”

But that’s not quite true either – although he deserves full credit for developing two of the most memorable characters in comic history, he sure as hell didn’t invent them.

Before Jeff appeared, Fisher had a very popular strip in the San Francisco Chronicle called “A. Mutt” which appeared on the sports page. The comic had a gimmick: Every strip ended showing Mutt placing a bet on a real horse running that same day at a Bay Area racetrack. The concept wasn’t original; even back then people noticed this was exactly the same gimmick from an earlier comic strip, “A. Piker Clerk,” which had appeared in a paper in Chicago, Fisher’s hometown. The Clerk character could have been Mutt’s older brother – he likewise had a long nose, bushy moustache, no chin, and was string bean skinny.

A. Mutt was an instant hit and three weeks later Hearst hired him away to continue the comic for the San Francisco Examiner. Here the comic began turning political and moved away from being just a rip-off of the older cartoon. A story arc in early 1908 has Mutt sent to an asylum (“bughouse,” in slang) where he meets delusional patients who believe they are Napoleon, Shakespeare (etc.) and one says he is boxer Jim Jeffries. This was soon shortened to just “Jeff” and once Mutt is released, Jeff joined the strip’s cast of characters.

(LEFT: The “Jeffries” character drawn by Bud Fisher in March, 1908. RIGHT: Mr. Proones drawn by George Herriman in December, 1907. Other views of Mr. Proones can be seen here and here)

The original gag was that the guy who thought he was heavyweight champ Jeffries wore glasses and was probably an academic. In no way did he resemble the later Jeff character – he was slightly built but not extremely short. He did not have the top hat or formal suitcoat and shirt collar. All those elements, however, exactly match a character that appeared in Hearst’s Los Angeles paper at the exact same time Fisher began working for Hearst. The cartoon was “Mr. Proones the Plunger” drawn by George Herriman, who later created the acclaimed “Krazy Kat” comic stip. Like Mutt, Proones was also a racetrack gambler (“plunger” was slang for someone who lost on big wagers).

Today this would be called plagiarism – the equivalent of drawing Superman but replacing the “S” on his chest with a “Z” and writing he came from the planet “Clypton.” But in the day, comic artists did not own their own work, with the notable exception of Bud Fisher. Publisher Hearst owned A. Piker Clerk and Mr. Proones and was not about to sue his star cartoonist over a little matter of intellectual property theft. Still, Herriman and others knew what Fisher had done, as reported in a 1919 item in the Los Angeles Graphic, reprinted elsewhere as “The Inside on Mutt and Jeff:”


Discussion is renewed as to who was the creator of these supposedly humorous characters. Newspaper men from Chicago have told local newspaper artists that A. Mutt was a direct adaptation from A. Piker, one of the creations of Claire Briggs, once of Chicago, but now with the New York Tribune. Briggs is said to have run A. Piker for several months, twelve or thirteen years ago. In the same circles the original of Little Jeff is credited to George Herriman of Los Angeles, now on the Hearst Syndicate payroll as the parent of the entire Dingbat family. Herriman, I am told, ran a Little Jeff series which he later abandoned and Fisher adopted the character as a companion to Mutt. Herriman has never taken credit for Jeff, telling his friends ‘Bud got away with Jeff and I didn’t, so he deserves all the credit he can get out of it.’ I understand Herriman declined the drawing of a substitute Mutt and Jeff series for Hearst.

We’ve now probably wandered farther into the weeds of golden age comics than interests most Sonoma county history fans, but it’s all to make a point. Yes, Jakie Fehr looked just like comic strip Jeff. Most likely everyone passing through the village in those years commented on that. And the notion that Bud Fisher was only inspired by the confrontation between the shopkeeper and the trainman is a good GREAT story, which is why it’s repeated endlessly in writings about Occidental’s past as well as a multitude of comic history resources on the internet. But it’s going to take damn compelling evidence to show that all this “growed” out of a scene on a train platform in Occidental.

Promotional photo for “Mutt and Jeff.” February 15, 1913 Santa Rosa Republican

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turkeytrotcartoon

WILL SANTA ROSA BAN DIRTY DANCING?

Attention, young people: Your music’s terrible and your dancing is so disgusting we might outlaw it, just as Petaluma did.

For several months between 1912-1913, the nation’s fabric was threatened by a new dance fad called “ragging.” President-elect Woodrow Wilson cancelled the inaugural ball to block the risk of dancing guests creating a scandal. In Patterson, New Jersey, 18 year-old Ethel Foster was sentenced to 50 days in jail for doing it. A New York City club owner named Wallace W. Sweeney died in prison while serving nine months for “keeping a disorderly place” that allowed the dancing, while at least two men went to jail in Petaluma for disturbing the peace by doing the “rag.”

So what was this vile dance that had the power to shatter the country, if not civilization itself? It was… the “Turkey Trot.”

Today it’s nigh impossible to understand the enormous fuss. It’s a silly, up-tempo dance step that has a couple holding each other in (non-controversial) waltz position, one arm out and the other on shoulder/waist. You can see a snippet of professional dancers here, although in practice it was probably more like this clip, with sweaty couples just bouncing around the dance floor more or less in time with the music. In some descriptions the couple was supposed to flap their elbows like an agitated turkey which led more than a few newspapers to pun about the “poultry of motion.”

The Turkey Trot might have been the most (in)famous dance around that time, but there were a number of equally dumb novelty dances such as the Bunny Hug (cheek-to-cheek but hips canted as far back as possible). Other dances with animal themes that year included the Monkey Glide, Fresno Flea, Angle Worm Wiggle, Possum Trot, Kangaroo Dip and Horse Trot (see photo below). Sometimes the dances had a specific gimmick; the music for the Grizzly Bear would stop abruptly whereupon the dancers would shout, “It’s a bear!”

These were called at the time “huggly-wiggly dances” (!) and now scholars seem to agree they were popular because of the opportunities they offered couples for “lingering close contact.” I don’t completely buy that explanation – a major part of the appeal was that dancers looked silly because the dance instructions required them to look silly. America was mostly a rhythm-challenged nation that liked the catchy toe-tapping tunes such as Alexander’s Ragtime Band, but had no clue as to how to dance to this new pop music. So let’s follow the dance directions and wiggle our hips doing the Jelly Jiggle and laugh about how ridiculous everyone looks.

(RIGHT: Excerpt of NY Times article, January 21, 1913)

The ragging crisis led Press Democrat gossip columnist “Dorothy Anne” to write a lengthy essay, transcribed below. Normally she penned a boring weekly column on the doings of Santa Rosa’s gentry (she was Mrs. Mary McConnell Houts and her husband owned the town’s major auto dealership) but occasionally she dished up an offering like this, posing as the snooty arbiter of decency and good taste – often with unintentionally funny results (see “IN LOVE WITH DOROTHY ANNE” for more).

Here she began by pointing out Santa Rosa was torn between those who “ragged” and the “anti-raggers,” while Petaluma had done the right thing and banned it outright. “The result is that the crowd that dances on Saturday night do not dance in Petaluma, they come to Santa Rosa!” she moaned. Women’s groups in other Bay Area cities were trying to shut down the dancing at “exclusive” venues, she continued, and it was time for Santa Rosa women to do likewise:

When the “rag” drifted into Santa Rosa is not quite definitely known. It was first danced at the Sunday night dances in the Italian quarter, west of the track. There it is rumored certainly society young men learned it. They liked it so well they taught it to their society girl friends in a modest form. An attempt to stop it was made but teaching it to society proved a boomerang. If society can “rag” at their exclusive dances, anybody can “rag.” And the result? Well, there are several stories–numerous ones that drift in from different quarters–but they are unprintable! That’s why my strong plea that Santa Rosa women come to the realization that “ragging” is what it is–a dance of the tenderloin and has no place in polite society.

Whether Dorothy Anne’s moralistic hissy fit had much effect is unknown, but there were a few stories in the local papers of raggers being kicked out of dances. Police apparently were called to break up a dance at a Fulton roadhouse.

Santa Rosa’s National Guard Company E announced it would hold “clean and appropriate” Saturday night dances at their downtown armory. “Nothing will be permitted at any time that savors of ragging, and those who want to rag are warned that none of that character of dancing will be permitted under any circumstances,” the Republican newspaper stated. But only a few weeks later, the paper reported, “the dances were discontinued because of the small amount of patronage which was given them.” The article also mentioned, “…other parties who have maintained strict decorum at their places of entertainment have also suffered from a lack of patronage.” The headline for that article: “DO SANTA ROSA PEOPLE WANT DECENT DANCES?” Clearly, the answer was no.

As a Comstock House footnote to the Turkey Trot tumult, it was probably at one of those Company E dances where 21 year-old second lieutenant Hilliard Comstock met his future wife Helen. In her oral history, she recalled Hilliard always said he asked to dance with the pretty little girl who had “red cheeks and curls up on top of her head.” According to him, 13 year-old Helen stuck a finger in her mouth and replied, “I don’t rag, thank you.”

Ragging
by Dorothy Ann

For some weeks past Santa Rosa society has been in the throes of a discussion that has divided itself into–not four parts–but those who did not.

For the benefit of the uninitiated will explain that “ragging” is a dance and that one of its mystic mazes is the “Turkey Trot.” All are closely identified with “Alexander’s Rag Time Band.” In fact, so close is the relationship that even the “anti-raggers” show symptoms of motion when the first strains of “Come on Along” are heard.

Society in Santa Rosa has “ragged.” From the children that compose the sub-debutante set to the staid married people, all have taken a fling at the dance that had its origin in Barbary Coast in San Francisco. Those who had charge of the Saturday night dances announced that if society could dance the rag in the Saturday Afternoon Clubhouse, they also could dance it. They did. This merely to show you that the “rag”  is not confined to one class. Mercy, no!

Nor is it confined to one town. Petaluma is a bit conservative. They do not allow the “Turkey Trot,” the “Bunny Hug” or the “Grizzly Bear” danced in their halls at any time. They have printed signs to warn one. It does not make any difference which crowd hires the hall, the sign remains in the same place. And they say that the result is that the crowd that dances on Saturday night do not dance in Petaluma, they come to Santa Rosa!

There has been much discussion as to the actual origin of the “Turkey Trot.” Every one knows that the waltz originated in Germany. The Germans are very proud of the fact. But the “Turkey Trot” originated in San Francisco. No one has yet stepped forward to accept the laurels for introducing it. The actual origin of the dance is said to have been at the time that the fleet visited San Francisco, when a few half drunken sailors taught it to the demi-monde of the Barbary Coast.

Quite recently, Sacramento society was split asunder by a discussion that resulted in the Tuesday Club, the prominent woman’s club of that city, pass the following resolution:

“Resolved, That the Board of Directors of the Tuesday Club of Sacramento deem the consideration of ‘ragging’ of sufficient importance to be referred to the Women’s Council.”

The Women’s Council is the moral arbitrator of Sacramento. The reasons given for this step were as follows:

“It was brought out in the discussion that such dances were questionable in their origin, had a bad influence, especially on the young and impressionable, and that the general nature tended towards evil.”

The ban has been put on “ragging” by the Board of Directors of the Ebell building which is occupied by the prominent Ebell Club of Oakland. This club is composed of 600 representatives of Oakland’s best families. These women followed the example of the Home Club, another exclusive women’s organization of Oakland, who passed resolutions “the craze which has swept from Barbary Coast to New York and back again.”

The L’Amida Assembly of Oakland, an exclusive dancing club, cut its invitational list almost in twain in order to eliminate the “raggers.”  They solved the problem simply. They did not invite those who had “ragging” proclivities.

The new mode of terpsichorean art has aroused the ire of the patronesses of the exclusive Junior Assembly in Oakland, with the result that an announcement was made that the rag would not be tolerated. A meeting was called of the patronesses who discussed the various glides and turns which have their origin in the “Turkey Trot,” “Grizzly Bear” and “Bunny Hug,” with the result that any suggestion of “ragging” was unheard.

The San Jose Cotillion Club quite recently gave a party at the Vendome. During the evening several couples dared to dance the “rag.” The haughty matrons of San Jose did not mince their opinions. They took their daughters and went home. They would not even be a party to looking on. The controversy still wages at blood heat in that city.

When the “rag” drifted into Santa Rosa is not quite definitely known. It was first danced at the Sunday night dances in the Italian quarter, west of the track. There it is rumored certainly society young men learned it. They liked it so well they taught it to their society girl friends in a modest form. An attempt to stop it was made but teaching it to society proved a boomerang. If society can “rag” at their exclusive dances, anybody can “rag.” And the result? Well, there are several stories–numerous ones that drift in from different quarters–but they are unprintable! That’s why my strong plea that Santa Rosa women come to the realization that “ragging” is what it is–a dance of the tenderloin and has no place in polite society.

Many local observers have expressed their unfavorable opinion of these dances, and among these I note one which is brief and clear to the simplest understanding:

“The dances are not graceful in motion, are not dignified in character, and having originated in places of vile repute, they have not the approval of respectable people. If the beautiful old waltz, the more modern two-step, et als., have lost their place in society, cut out the dancing and take up politics.”

The “Turkey Trot”, the “Texas Tommy,” The “Grizzly Bear,” The “Fresno Flea”, the “Chicken Reel,” the “Bunny Hug,” the “Frisco Flip,” are all on a par and belong where they originated on Barbary Coast–where half drunken sailors dance with the demi-monde.

– Press Democrat, January 14, 1912
“RAGGERS” EXCLUDED

Several couples of young people who attended Miss Vitale’s dancing academy Wednesday evening were made to leave that place because they refused to desist from ragging. Their money was refunded and they were asked not to attend the academy dances in the future. Miss Vitale conducts an orderly and proper dancing academy and will at all times prevent ragging at her institution.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 11, 1912
BROKE UP RAG DANCE AT FULTON

Yes, we had a little ragging at Fulton Saturday night, but no orgy or free for all fight in my premises.

I never violated the mandates of the officers.

At 12 o’clock sharp my place of business was closed, according to law.

What happened in the streets or on the railroad track–I don’t pay any more poll tax, and I don’t think I had any business–

But just about the time the dance was broken up, every body was in the hall, dancing.

They were all too hungry to be carousing or fighting in the streets o [sic] any place else.

And then they all had to leave without their supper, after paying for it.

It’a a conundrum to me why the Rag dance was broken up.

Respectfully yours,
A. DALESSI.

– Santa Rosa Republican, October 10, 1912
COMPANY E WILL HAVE ONLY APPROVED DANCING

Company E, N. G. C., has determined to inaugurate a series of Saturday evening dances at their armory at the corner of Fourth and D streets, and will cater only to those who desire and believe in clean and appropriate dancing. Nothing will be permitted at any time that savors of ragging, and those who want to rag are warned that none of that character of dancing will be permitted under any circumstances.

An able floor manager has been secured and he will be assisted by members of the company. The dancing will begin at 8:30 o’clock and will continue until midnight each Saturday evening, and the soldier boys hope to have the patronage of the good people of the city, who are pleased to dance properly.

Good music will be furnished at all times, and the floor at armory hall is one of the best and roomiest in the city. With this combination and appropriate behavior, people can enjoy themselves at all times.

The invitations which the militiamen are presenting to their friends has the following on it:

“We are running a clean dance and want clean people. You are invited to bring your wife, sister, daughter or sweetheart, and enjoy a few hours’ approved dancing. Good floor; good music. Gentlemen 50 cents, ladies free. The other kind not admitted at any price.”

The militiamen are in earnest and hope to make their dances among the most popular in the City of Roses.

– Santa Rosa Republican, December 5, 1912
EJECT TWO DANCERS FOR “RAGGING”

After repeated warnings to desist from “ragging” at the Woodman hall dance Saturday night, two men were ejected. There was considerable excitement for a time, but the management insists that no “ragging” will be tolerated. All who desire to dance, according to the rules are welcome to the dance, but those who will not abide by the rules will not be allowed to dance.

– Press Democrat, December 8, 1912
DO SANTA ROSA PEOPLE WANT DECENT DANCES?

Recently Company E started a series of Saturday evening dances and announced they would permit nothing but proper dances at their parties. After a thorough trial the dances were discontinued because of the small amount of patronage which was given them. Other academics and dances in this city secure crowds, possibly because they were not so strict in their interpretation of what constituted “decent” dancing. Most of the places where public dances pay [sic] are places where “ragging” and “dipping” and other questionable dancing are permitted through the connivance of those in charge. Certain parties have announced that their places would not permit such questionable dancing, simply to induce mothers to let their daughters attend their public dances. The question arises. Do the people of Santa Rosa want decent dances? If they do they should have patronized the Company E dances instead of other places where rules were less strict. Other parties who have maintained strict decorum at their places of entertainment have also suffered from a lack of patronage. It seems only proper that the public should patronize those places which insist on strict deportment, and are attempting to elevate this pleasant pastime.

The Saturday evening dances under the auspices of Company E were discontinued at the suggestion of friends of the organization, who though perhaps some other night might be better, and the members may soon inaugurate a series of Thursday evening parties.

– Santa Rosa Republican, January 11, 1913
PETALUMA BARS ALL RAG DANCING

If you go to a dance in Petaluma don’t “rag” or you are liable to find yourself in jail charge with disturbing the peace. This is the fate the befell E. F. Soutz, a visitor to the Egg city. Soutz attended a dance at the Unique theatre the other night and started to “rag.” He was arrested and after a time spent in jail was released on $25 bail. He will be tried on the charge of disturbing the peace.

– Press Democrat, February 7, 1913
“RAGGING” CHARGE WAS TRIVIAL; DISMISSED

The arrest of one E. H. Silva of Petaluma on a charge of “ragging” at a public dance given in that city has been dismissed. The charge in this instance was considered trivial. The evidence of a number of witnesses is said to have been somewhat amusing and did not warrant a conviction. Silva may bring an action for damages in the Superior court against his accuser for false imprisonment. “Ragging” does not go in the egg center.

– Press Democrat, February 18, 1913

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