Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Things are fine in Mt. Idy [she goes on]

By Steve Crum

Although organ grinders are a long lost part of Americana, they used to set up their temporary street sites in large cities. As a child, I recall seeing one entertaining on a sidewalk during the 1950s at the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City. It consisted of a man, stereotypically an Italian, cranking a stand-up organ while his monkey would entertain passersby with somersaults and makeshift dancing. The music he played was always one tune, perhaps Pop Goes the Weasel, which would sound repeatedly. 

A crowd would gather, the monkey [a small, capuchin type] would take his cute little hat off, tip it, and then pick up a tin cup and hold it out to the watcher(s) for donations. This meant a sparse living for the grinder. No doubt PETA, the ASPCA, and other animal rights groups had much to do with the end of the organ grinder and his monkey as an occupation. All this I say for those under 50 who probably never personally experienced an organ grinder, except maybe in vintage cartoons and movies. [A clip of a more recent organ grinder with monkey: ] That said...

Segue to CLIFF ARQUETTE [1905-74], a funny guy whose act consisted of dressing in slovenly, old man clothing, including crushed hat, and talking about growing up in [fictional] Mt. Idy. [He is the grandfather of Arquettes Patricia, Rosanne, Alexis, Richard and David--all actors.] Assuming the comedy persona CHARLEY WEAVER, his appearances on The Jack Paar Show, The Steve Allen Show, and The Hollywood Squares kept him a leading comic for 20 years. He made record albums, starred in a couple of TV shows, guested on dozens more, and wrote several best selling books. Two of the books were compilations of his Letters from Mama routines, in which he would pull a folded letter from his back pocket, climb up, say, on Paar’s desk, and proceed to read his latest “letter” from his mother. Full of corn and surrealism, the letters told of eccentric Mt. Idy denizens Elsie Krack, Leonard Box, Grandpa Ogg, and other odd folk. A favorite Letter from Mama includes this wild tale regarding an organ grinder [hence the previous explanation and build-up]. It is, in monkey speak, bananas:

“Will you ever forget the time Ludlow Bean fell into the hay bailer, and from then on had to have all of his clothes made square? We’re all proud of Ludlow. When he first came to Mt. Idy, he started out in a small way. He started as an organ grinder, with one small monkey. He worked hard and saved. Two years later he expanded--now he has a pipe organ and a gorilla. He doesn’t have any trouble with people putting money in the cup now.”

Loved that Mama; loved that Charley.


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