Thursday, March 10, 2005

Nobody Asked Me, But . . . (3/10/05)


Two of a kind. Franklin D. Roosevelt State Park off the Taconic isn't the only park so named. There's a Franklin D. Roosevelt State Park in Georgia to the west of the so-called "Little White House" at Warm Springs, where FDR died in 1945.

The persistence of memory. It may be hard to believe, but during the Depression, admission to movie was a dime and some seats at Broadway theatrical shows could be had for well under a dollar. My mother loved the theater, especially topical revues and musical comedies. I can recall the stack of Playbills, the free programs distributed at shows, standing about three feet tall in a hall closet. She introduced me to Saturday matinees at an early age. Revues were a staple at the time. Often intimate and bawdy, they were little more than a series of sketches linked by musical numbers, and featuring many performers who had honed their show business skills in vaudeville and burlesque.

At Christmastime in 1932, I was treated to a performance of Walk a Little Faster, followed by a dinner at Sardi's. The show featured British comedienne Bea Lillie. Evelyn Hoey was a singer who had scored a big success in 50 Million Frenchmen, a pert little natural blonde with blue eyes; I fell in love with her immediately. Also featured was the comedy team of Clark and McCullough in their straw hats and raccoon coats. Bobby Clark favored horn-rimmed glasses and an omnipresent walking stick. The older Paul McCullough carried an umbrella and served as Clark's straight man and foil.

Several songs were featured in that revue, but one remains in my memory. Every time I hear it played, a flood of images comes rushing back across the years. I am once again in the balcony of the St. James Theatre on West 44th Street. (Today's theatergoers will recognize that theater as the home of Mel Brooks' The Producers.) Evelyn Hoey is singing Vernon Duke's "April in Paris." The lyrics were by E.Y. "Yip" Harburg. Curiously, it attracted very little attention until society chanteuse Marian Chase recorded it later for the Liberty label. The show was the last time Evelyn Hoey played Broadway. For reasons I shall explain, I can never hear "April in Paris" without feeling sad--but not only about my beloved Paris.

I saw Clark and McCullough again in 1934, also at Christmas in another revue, Thumbs Up. It marked the last time they would appear together on Broadway. The show was made memorable by one song, "Autumn in New York," by Vernon Duke, which served as the finale. Like "April in Paris," it attracted little attention, until Louella Hogan recorded it.

On Sept. 11, 1935, a shot rang out in the home of Henry Huddleston Rogers III near West Chester, Penna. Rogers, 31, was the grandson of one of the founders of the Standard Oil Company. According to witnesses, he and singer Evelyn Hoey had been drinking, and apparently had quarreled. A gun was found next to her body, a heavy .45 caliber pistol with a 12-inch barrel. The coroner's jury could not agree, and rendered the verdict that she had been shot by "a person or persons unknown." Her tearful father took her body back to St. Louis.

As a friend was driving Paul McCullough home on March 23, 1936, the comedian remarked that he needed a shave. They stopped at a barber shop in Medford, Mass. While the friend waited outside in the car, McCullough entered the shop, sat down and chatted with the barber as he lathered his face. Moments later he grabbed a straight razor and slashed his own throat. He had just spent a month in a sanitarium being treated for a nervous condition.

As I said, I cannot hear "April in Paris" without feeling intensely sad.

Bottom dwellers. The statistic that 50 percent of commercial lobstermen have gone out of business sounds like good news for lobsters. It isn't. The reason: reduced catches because a shell disease affecting lobsters. First noticed in the 1980s, it strikes lobsters from Long Island Sound all the way to Maine. Lobsters become so unsightly they cannot be served whole. The disease also weakens lobsters that they die prematurely. And it isn't good news for humans, either.

Scientists have found that lobsters tested in localities such as Long Island Sound are contaminated with potentially harmful alkyphenols, also called APEs. These chemicals--antioxidants used in making plastic and rubber polymer products--apparently come from factories producing insecticides and rubber tires. The European community began a voluntary ban on APEs in 1995, but their use has not been prohibited in the U.S.

Paper chase. Americans are outdoing themselves in paper recycling, now at an all-time high--300 pounds of recycled paper per person annually. That's about half of the paper produced each year in the U.S. But American papermakers are worried about overseas demand. Because of its own shortage of wood pulp and a growing need for cartons in which to ship its exports, last year China gobbled up 12 percent of the 50 million tons of scrap paper America recycles each year. China has been so ruthlessly deforested it produces only a small quantity of paper pulp, and demand for scrap paper has skyrocketed. Much of our scrap paper winds up north of Hong Kong in the massive new Nine Dragons recycled-paper mill at Dongguan, China, the largest in the world. Other countries--India, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea--are also big buyers of our scrap paper.

In terms of volume, scrap paper is now America's No. 1 export. American exports of scrap paper totaled $8.4 billion in 2004. Five years earlier the total value was half that number. Curbside collection of scrap paper is up thanks in part to the practice of charging for garbage collection in some communities but not for recycled materials. Strong foreign demand helps to keep supplies flowing, but environmentalists worry that prices, which range from $80 to $120 a ton, will soon make American mills unable to compete.


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