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‘The Detergents’ and that One Big Hit, Literally

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By Ken Zurski

Morton 7In early 1965, a three-member American band named The Detergents released a single titled “Leader of the Laundromat.”

The song told the story of a boy named Murray who was seemingly in love with a pretty laundromat attendant, Betty, because she “looked so sad.” Then he abruptly tells her it’s over between them.

I’ll never forget the hurt and the funny look in her eye.

Betty, the jilted ex-girlfriend, grabs Murray’s laundry, runs out the laundromat door, and “directly in the path of a garbage truck.”

Watch out, watch out! 

Those unfamiliar with a certain Shangri-La’s song “Leader of the Pack” might have been shocked out of their shoes.

But it was all in good fun.

I felt so messy standing there 
My daddy’s shorts were everywhere 
Tenderly I kissed her goodbye
Picked up my clothes, they were finally dry

The song was a parody, of course, but more specifically, it was a spoof.  Until then, parody songs had been about something funny and usually with an original melody like “Itsy Bitsy Tennie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.” But the “Laundromat” song was different. It took the actual melody of a recent hit and twisted it. Basically, it spoofed an already established and popular tune.

But I won’t forget you, oh Leader Of the Laundromat

That didn’t sit so well with the writers of the original song. When the “Leader of the Laundromat,” reached #19 on the Billboard singles chart, the songwriting team behind “Leader of the Pack” sued The Detergents for copyright infringement and royalties and settled out of court.

Despite the legal wrangling, however, band members Ron Dante, Danny Jordan and Tommy Wynn, toured together as The Detergents for about two years before disbanding.

Dante went on to sing lead vocals for the novelty group The Archies and the hit single “Sugar, Sugar,” a contribution that was unacknowledged at the time thanks to the group’s association with the comic strip characters.

The Detergents short legacy includes an album of spoofs, a film like the Beatles, and some subsequent singles, like “Double-O-Seven” (A James Bond mockery) and “I Can Never Eat at Home Anymore” (inspired by another Shangri-Las hit “I Can Never Go Home Anymore”), but nothing stuck quite like the “Laundromat” song:

My folks were always putting her down (down, down)
Because her laundry came back brown (brown, brown)

 

 

 

(Lyrics reprinted from Google Play Music)

Baseball’s ‘Eating Champion’ Story is a Little Hard to Swallow, But…

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Frank “Ping” Bodie

By Ken Zurski

Frank “Ping” Bodie, an Italian-American major league baseball player, once said that he could out eat anyone especially when it came to his favorite dish: pasta. So on April 3 1919, in Florida during a spring training break, Bodie proved it by competing in a head-to-head, no holds barred, eating contest against an unlikely opponent, an ostrich!

The whole thing sounds absolutely ridiculous and whether it actually happened as reported is doubtful, but it sure makes for an interesting story.

As a ballplayer and an outfielder, Bodie was a serviceable player, but a bit of an instigator. He was always up for a good argument and couldn’t help talking up his own worth.  ”I could whale the old apple and smack the old onion,” he said about his batting prowess. While playing for a lowly Philadelphia A’s ball club, Bodie claimed there were only two things in the city worth seeing: himself, of course, and the Liberty Bell.

Despite being a self-professed braggart, the player’s loved Bodie’s positive attitude. But his expressive candor clashed with  managers and he was traded to several teams before ending up with the New York Yankees where his road mate was the irrepressible Babe Ruth. When a reporter asked Bodie what it was like to room with baseball’s larger-than-life boozer, Bodie had the perfect answer. “I room with his suitcase,” he said.

Bodie was born Francesco Stephano (anglicized to Frank Stephen) Pezzello, but most people knew him by his more baseball player sounding nickname, Ping. He claimed “Ping” was from a cousin although many wished to believe it was after the sound of the ball hitting his bat.  Bodie was the name of a bustling California silver mining town that his father and uncle lived for a time.

Bodie’s reputation as a big-time eater must have preceded him.

While in Jacksonville, Florida for spring training, the co-owner of the Yankees, Col. T.L “Cap” Huston, heard about an ostrich at the local zoo named Percy who had an insatiable appetite. Huston told Bodie about Percy and the challenge was on. From that point on the accounts of the contest are so wildly embellished that the truth is muddled.

But who was questioning?

Fearing backlash from animal lovers (even those who loved ostrich’s, it seemed), the match was held at a secret location. Bodie reportedly won the contest, but only after Percy, who barely finished an eleventh plate, staggered off and died. Ostrich’s eat a lot, but Percy’s untimely demise was attributed to inadvertently swallowing the timekeeper’s watch. He expired with “sides swelled and bloodshot eyes.” one writer related.

For anyone who believed that, the rest of the story was easy to digest. Bodie finished a twelfth plate of pasta and claimed the self-appointed title of “spaghetti eating champion of the world.”.

The next day, Bodie was in the newspaper for serving up a double play ball in the eighth inning and helping rival Brooklyn Dodgers secure a “slaughter” of the Yankees, 11-2.

There was no mention of the eating contest or the supposed dead bird.

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The ‘Turnspit Dog’ Had a Place and a Purpose

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By Ken Zurski

The history of working dogs go way back, centuries in fact to the age of the Vikings, who used the stout, strong breeds for hunting and herding cattle. Some of these breeds, including the Nork or Norwegian Elkhound, remain viable even today.

But perhaps no other breed better exemplifies the skill and resiliency of a working dog more than the Turnspit, or kitchen dog, whose job it was to turn the spit and cook the meat over a roasting fire.

This was accomplished by a wooden wheel that was mounted on the wall and connected by ropes to the spit in front of the fireplace. The dog would be hoisted on the wheel and begin to run, similar to a hamster in a cage. As the dog ran, the wheel spun, the spit turned, and the meat cooked evenly. To keep the dog from overheating or fainting the wheel was placed just far enough away from the heat and sparks. And when a dog tired another dog would be ready to take its place.

Until the 16th century when turnspit dogs were introduced, the turning of the cooking spit was the responsibility of a lowest ranking family member, usually the youngest child and almost always a boy. The job was grueling and often resulted in burns, blisters, sores or worse. Dogs were just a better option. Plus they could work longer and would ask for nothing more than to be fed.

Descriptions vary a bit but the overall picture of a “Turnspit” paints a dog with short or crooked legs, a heavy head, and dropping ears.

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They were low-bodied, strong, sturdy and as one dog historian notes, endured cruel punishment. To train the dog to run faster, oftentimes a burning coal was thrown into the wheel.

In 1750, Turnspits were reportedly everywhere in Great Britain. (There are only a few instances that show them in America.) A century later, in 1850, the turnspit breed was nearly gone. The availability of cheaper spit-turning machines, called clock jacks, replaced the Turnspits. And since the dogs were considered unappealing and mostly unfriendly, no one kept them as pets. Today the extinct breed is compared to a Welsh Corgi, although its similarities are in looks only.

According to sources, the turnspit dogs would get one day off from the wheel: Sunday.

Not for any spiritual connotation, mind you, but for another useful purpose.

They made good foot warmers in drafty church pews.

For a Long, Long Time No One Knew who ‘Betsy Ross’ Was

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By Ken Zurski

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In 1752, in Philadelphia on New Year’s Day, Elizabeth Griscom was born to a strict Quaker family who emigrated to the United States from England in the late 17th century.

A free spirit in her twenties, Elizabeth ran off and met John Ross an upholsterer’s apprentice and an Episcopalian. Her parents forbade the union outside the Quaker faith, but Elizabeth didn’t care. She married John in a ceremony that took place in a tavern and formally became Elizabeth Ross or “Betsy,” for short.

Today, Betsy Ross is certainly name we recognize.

So much so that in contemporary surveys, many people acknowledge the name Betsy Ross more than interminable historical stalwarts like Benjamin Franklin or Christopher Columbus.  However, until her name became synonymous with America’s symbol of freedom, Betsy Ross was a sister, a mother, a widow (three times over), a seamstress, and by the time the rest of the country got to know her – dead for nearly 50 years.

If there was something special about her life, a slice of American folklore, perhaps, she told her family and no one else.

In 1870, however, that would change.

That year, Ross’s last surviving grandson William Canby went before the Historical Society in Philadelphia and told an amazing story about his grandmother, General George Washington, and the birth of the American Flag.

According to Canby, Washington had visited Ross’s upholstery shop in Philadelphia with a sketch idea for a unified flag and asked if Betsy could recreate it. “With her usual modesty and self-reliance,” Canby related, “she did not know, but said she could try.”

Canby says among other revisions, Betsy suggested that the stars be five-pointed rather than six as Washington had proposed (Washington thought the six-pointed star would be easier to replicate). The story was as revealing as it was skeptical. No one had heard of Betsy Ross and previous stories of the first flag was apocryphal at best. There were many nonbelievers and even today historians have doubts. There are no records to support Canby’s claim, they insist, even though Canby had signed affidavits to back up his story.

At the time of Washington’s proposed visit in 1777, Ross would have been in her 20’s. Her life was typical for a young women at the time. She endured two marriages that ended tragically (her first and second husband’s death were both attributed to war.) A third marriage produced five children. She passed away in 1836 at the age of 84.  There is no documentation that she publicly promoted her own role in making of the flag – or was even asked. Apparently only her family knew.

Nearly a century later, however, in the midst of the Reconstruction period, a changing nation embraced Canby’s story of his grandmother and Ross became the face of America’s first flag. The early flag became affectionately known as “The Betsy Ross Flag,” and trinkets of the thirteen stars and stripes were a big seller.

Even hardened critics, who claim many seamstresses may have played a role in the flag’s creation are willing to concede, for history’s sake at least, that one name gets credit for the five-pointed stars.

Betsy Ross.

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The ‘Brain Band’ of John Philip Sousa

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By Ken Zurski

Bandleader and composer John Philip Sousa was never one to hurry a piece of music. A tune would come to him and he would play it over and over in his head until it was just right – or as he called it, the “brain band” would perform it before a single note was ever recorded on paper.

That’s exactly what happened in 1896, while Sousa was returning from a trip overseas.

Sousa was forced to cut the trip short after receiving news that his longtime manager had passed away.  Pacing the deck of the steamer Teutonic, Sousa heard a tune in his head and the “brain band” took over.

“Day after day,” he said,” as I walked, it persisted in crashing into my very soul.”

When Sousa returned to America, he set it to paper: “It was a genuine inspiration, irresistible, complete, and definite and I could not rest until I had finished the composition.”

“Stars and Stripes Forever” quickly became Sousa’s most popular march.

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The Immortally Important Fifteen-Star and Fifteen-Stripe Flag

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By Ken Zurski

In December 1794, on the opening day of the Third Congress of the United States, the first order of business concerned the country’s symbol of freedom: the American flag.

In question was whether or not it should be changed.

Senator Stephen R. Bradley had introduced legislation that called for the flag to carry fifteen stripes and fifteen stars, two of each added to the current flag, to represent the newest additions to the Republic, his home state of Vermont and Kentucky. The measure passed through the Senate without debate.

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Stephen R. Bradley

The House however was another matter. Traditionalists wanted to keep the flag as originally intended. “We may go on adding and altering at this rate for a hundred years to come,” a Massachusetts Federalist argued.

Another lawmaker named Israel Smith was also against change. “Let us have no more alterations of this sort,” he insisted, citing among other things, the expenditure. Basically, he contended, continually altering the flag would be a costly venture. “Let the flag be permanent,” Smith demanded.

In the end, a slight majority agreed the flag should represent all states, lest they be offended.

The legislation passed 50-42.

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Nearly two decades later, during the War of 1812, it was the sight of that altered fifteen-star flag flying high above the battle scarred Fort McHenry that inspired a Maryland lawyer to put his emotions into words.  “O, say does that star spangled banner yet wave. O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Eventually the words of Francis Scott Key, who was aboard the British ship Tonnant to negotiate the release of U.S prisoners, was set to music and “The Defence of Fort McHenry,” known today as “The Star-Spangled Banner,” was soon being performed at military inspired gatherings.

In 1931, thanks to a congressional resolution, a shortened version of the original song officially became the national anthem of the United States of America.

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(In 1818, the fifteen stars and stripes flag was amended to twenty to represent the addition of Tennessee, Ohio, Louisiana, Indiana and Mississippi.)

This Uninhabited Island is a Good Thing for the Sport of Curling

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By Ken Zurski

Thanks to a small island just off of mainland Scotland in an area known as the Firth of Clyde, a sport which date backs to the early 19th century continues to prosper.

They don’t play the sport of Curling there, nor does anyone actually live there. It’s currently uninhabited by humans. But its resource, the Blue Hone Granite is used for making the stones that gives Curling its unique name, as in the curl of a spinning stone over an icy surface.

Fairy Rock

The 60 million year old island named Ailsa Craig which in Gallic means “Fairy Rock,” although other alternative interpretations include the less fanciful and more directly expressive definition of “Cliff of the English,” is the plug of an extinct volcano. Monks, castles, chapels, a prison and lighthouses are all part of its lore.  In the early 15th century the Ailsa Craig Castle was owned by the monks of Crossraguel Abbey.

But lately, it’s known for two things: birds and curling stones.

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The island is exclusively a bird sanctuary. Puffins and gannets use Ailsa Craig as a breeding ground. This is fairly recent development and only after an infestation of rats first introduced to the island during shipwrecks, were eradicated in the early 1990’s. Once the rats were gone, the birds came back.

Blue Hone

Since 1851, however, the company Kay’s of Scotland, named after its founder Andrew Kay, who established the first curling stone manufacturing business over a hundred years ago, has been harvesting the granite boulders from the island to use in curling stones. Only two places on earth is said to have the Blue Hone or Common Green granite which has a low absorption rate and keeps water from freezing and eroding the stone: Ailsa Craig and the Trefor Granite Quarry in Wales.

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Even today, 60-70 percent of all curling stones comes from granite extracted from Alisa Craig. The company says the last harvest of granite from the Island took place in 2013 when 2,000 tons were extracted, sufficient to fill orders until at least 2020.

Recent efforts have been made to reduce the dependency of the centuries old island as the only supplier of the curling stones, but a plastic substitute and a denser granite found in Canada are relatively new developments and not yet widely accepted or used in the sport.

Not yet, at least.

The Cheese

All this is good news for a sport which has seen a popularity surge in the past decade, especially in North America.

After all, before the discovery of granite on Ailsa Craig, stones used for curling were made of whinestone, often basalt, which was cut into a circular shape called “The Cheese” and weighed 70 pounds or more.

The current stone weight is just under 50 pounds.

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