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Leopold Stokowski: Danse Macabre

[Photo of Leopold Stokowski] One day when I was in 6th grade, I found a box somebody had left on the curb, filled with various treasures. One was a giant catalog of odd stuff: it listed where to buy things like church steeples, prison doors, and phone booths — stuff you couldn’t imagine where to get or even how to find out where to get in the days before the internet.

But the best thing in the box was an album of 12”³ 78s, including a recording of Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre by the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Leopold Stokowski. My “Show’N Tell” (anyone remember those?) played 78s, so I listened to it right away and loved it.

[Photo of a Stroh violin] I’ve heard many versions of the piece since then, but none I’ve heard match the essential spookiness of the 1925 Stokowski recording. This is largely due to the unusual recording technique. It was one of the first classical recordings to use electric microphones, but the intrumentation was still set up as orchestras were for acoustic recordings: there was a bass saxophone in place of a double-bass, and — most importantly — a Stroh violin.

My well-loved copy broke after years of play, and I was very unhappy. Then, about ten years ago, I found another copy at a Salvation Army, which I again played often. Then that one broke. 78s are annoying that way. Finally I found an obscure CD reissue, unavailable in America, that had it, so here it is.

Stoopnagle & Budd

[publicity photo of Col. Stoopnagle & Budd] The story goes that the comedy team of Colonel Stoopnagle & Budd started in 1932, when a thunderstorm knocked out the NBC network feed to their Buffalo affiliate. Faced with dead air, the station grabbed two of their staff writers, F. Chase Taylor and Wilbur Hulick, threw them in front of a microphone, and told them to improvise. The duo instantly made up the characters of “Colonel Lemuel Q. Stoopnagle”, an eccentric ex-Navy inventor famous for his invention of upside-down lighthouses for submarines, and his bemused interviewer/straight man, “Budd”, and ad-libbed for the next two hours. They were an instant local hit, and soon moved on to national prominence.

Like many too-cute tales from the days of classic radio, that story’s probably not true, but it’s “too good to check”, as the old newspaper saying goes. However they started, Stoopnagle & Budd soon became immensely popular, at one point being the second-highest paid comedy team in radio (the first was Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, “Amos ‘n’ Andy”). Despite their popularity, their offbeat humor made sponsors nervous and they had difficulty keeping them on their various NBC and CBS shows (which they turned into a running joke). They broke up due to personal differences in 1938. Stoopnagle went on to be a frequent radio guest star and author of humorous articles for magazines like The Saturday Evening Post. He became especially known for rewritten fairy tales using printed malapropisms known as “Spoonerisms” (e.g., Beeping Sleauty and Prinderella and the Cince). Budd returned to Buffalo and obscurity.

['How to Draw a Circle', by Col. Stoopnagle]

Despite the team’s popularity back in the day, they are forgotten today, largely because very little of their work survives. Of their many radio shows, I only know of four that still exist: a 1935 episode of their unsponsored CBS show, a brief snippet of another show which I’m guessing is also from 1935, and two episodes of Town Hall Tonight from a period in 1936 when Stoopnagle & Budd substituted for the show’s regular host, Fred Allen.

[poster for 'Stoopnocracy'] They also appeared in four films: an installment of the short subject series Rambling ‘Round Radio Row, which I’m not sure survives; International House, a classic Paramount all-star comedy; The Inventors, a Paramount short which is on VHS, but only as part of this expensive six-tape set (if somebody wants to buy it for me, I’ll gladly post the Stoopnagle bit here); and, most intriguingly, Stoopnocracy, a Fleischer cartoon which tragically seems to have disappeared.

I’ve posted here a DivX AVI of their appearance in International House, and MP3s of the aforementioned 1935 show and show segment as well as one of their Town Hall Tonight appearances. Be sure to at least check out the first two links.

Unsurprisingly, there’s not too much online about them; this site has ambitions of being the definitive Stoopnagle site, but it’s far from being finished. Some good images and text, though. Also, here are some of Stoopnagle’s Spoonerisms.

(Update April 4, 2007: Stoopnocracy found! See here for details.)