Also-Rans

Japanese racehorse Haru Urara became “the shining star of losers everywhere” when she racked up a record of 0 wins and 113 losses in the early 2000s. In the face of a national recession, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said, “The horse is a good example of not giving up in the face of defeat.” For the horse’s 106th race, Japan’s premier jockey, Yutaka Take, was brought in to ride her. She placed 10th out of 11.

British Thoroughbred Quixall Crossett ran to 103 consecutive defeats in the 1990s. Assistant trainer Geoff Sanderson said, “He got the most tremendous cheer you’ve ever heard on a race course. … The horse doesn’t know he gets beat because he gets a bigger cheer than the winner.”

American Thoroughbred Zippy Chippy retired in 2010 with a lifetime record of 0 wins in 100 starts, though he did once outrun a minor league baseball player. Racing historian Tom Gilcoyne said the horse “hasn’t done anything to harm the sport. But it’s a little bit like looking at the recorded performances of all horse races through the wrong end of the telescope.”

Fire and Water

I find this hard to believe. In Creature From the Black Lagoon, there’s a scene in which the creature attacks Whit Bissell and he hits it with a lantern. Wreathed in flames, it dives into the water. Ben Chapman, who played the creature, says that he was never set afire for the scene: “It was just going through the motions where he hits me and I start patting myself like I’m on fire and dive off. Then they bring a stunt double in. He would watch the film and the way I’m moving. When he did it he had an asbestos suit on. When it was time, they lit [the suit] and he went through the motions putting out the flames and dive off. They took that and superimposed it over me.”

John Johnson confirms this in Cheap Tricks and Class Acts, his history of the special effects of 1950s monster movies: “Chapman was never actually set on fire … either onboard the ship or as he jumped into the water. What the effects team did was to superimpose footage of Al Wyatt, a specialist in fire stunts, directly over Chapman. Wyatt, wearing an asbestos suit, roughly imitated the movements of Chapman. Only the fire on Wyatt’s suit was superimposed over the Chapman footage.”

Chapman says, “Next time you watch the movie, when you get to that scene, hit the remote button to make it slow, you can see that the flames are superimposed on top of me. The burning comes from inside out. When it is superimposed they lay it on top of you and if you look very closely you can see I’m not on fire and that it’s superimposed. Rock Hudson’s double did that because Rock and I were good friends. As a matter of fact, Rock and I were the same identical size.”

Johnson calls this “[p]erhaps the most undetectable example of superimposure seen during the fifties monster craze.”

The Mascot Moth

On Aug. 7, 1905, magician David Devant premiered an effect that had occurred to him in a dream: A woman appears to vanish instantaneously from a bare stage.

Devant left behind a description of only 310 words explaining how he’d accomplished the illusion. He called it “the best I have ever done.” The lady descends into the floor, leaving behind the dress, supported by a tube covered with black velvet. The dress is pumped full of oil fog, and at the critical instant it’s whisked down through the tube, leaving (apparently) nothing but smoke hanging in the air.

The brief, blurry advertisement above, for Doug Henning’s 1983 Broadway musical Merlin, appears to be the only video online of this illusion. That’s a shame; it would be wonderful to see it more clearly. Devant’s partner John Nevil Maskelyne called it the “trickiest trick he had ever seen.”

Invention

The job of creating voices for Munchkins and Winkies in The Wizard of Oz fell to vocal arranger Ken Darby. “In those days we didn’t have the technical facilities we have now, like speeding up tape,” he said. “I had to figure out how to make the Munchkins sound high-pitched”:

I worked it out mathematically, using a metronome. Then I went to the head of the sound department, Doug Shearer. I told him that if we could record at sixty feet per minute instead of the normal ninety feet per minute and if we sang at a slower pace in a different key, when we played it back at ninety it should sound right. He said there was no way to do that because we didn’t have a variable-speed recorder. Then he said he would try to manufacture a new gear for the sound-recording machine. And it worked. I had the singers sing very slowly and distinctly so the words would be clear when we played it back at a faster speed. Ding … Dong … the … witch … is … dead. When we played it back, it was a perfect one-fourth higher.

“None of the midgets did any of the singing. None of them could carry a tune.”

(From Aljean Harmetz, The Making of The Wizard of Oz, 1977.)

Extempore

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Image: Flickr

We never did stop ad libbing. No two performances were ever quite the same. One matinee, during the second month in New York, I cooked up a little surprise for Groucho. During one of his quieter scenes, while I was offstage, I selected a blond cutie from the chorus, and asked her if she’d like a bigger part in the show. She was willing and eager. I told her all she had to do was run screaming across the stage. She did, and I tore after her in full pursuit, leaping and bounding and honking my horn. It broke up Groucho’s scene, but when the laughs subsided, Groucho was ready to top it. ‘First time I ever saw a taxi hail a passenger,’ he said.

— Harpo Marx, Harpo Speaks!, 1961

Motivation

wyoming state penitentiary all stars

Felix Alston, the baseball-obsessed warden of the Wyoming State Penitentiary, wanted his prison’s team to be the best possible. So in 1911 he told his players that so long as they kept winning they would receive stays of execution.

The All Stars were murderers and rapists sentenced to death; they entered and left the field chained together in irons. But in 1911 death sentences were usually carried out within a few months, and the warden’s offer apparently had a strong effect: Between March 1911 and May 1912, the team won 39 of their 45 games.

It couldn’t last. The state supreme court justice who helped arrange the stays (and profited by his bets) came under increasing pressure to carry out the sentences, and when star shortstop Joseph Seng was hanged on May 24, 1912, the team’s winning streak came to an end. In the months that followed, one player escaped, five were hanged, and five were gassed to death. By 1916 the team was a memory.

Podcast Episode 246: Gene Tierney’s Secret Heartbreak

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At the height of her fame in 1943, movie star Gene Tierney contracted German measles during pregnancy and bore a daughter with severe birth defects. The strain ended her marriage to Oleg Cassini and sent her into a breakdown that lasted years. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe Tierney’s years of heartbreak and the revelation that compounded them.

We’ll also visit some Japanese cats and puzzle over a disarranged corpse.

See full show notes …

Recycling

For a cocktail party scene in the 1966 Star Trek episode “The Conscience of the King,” composer Joseph Mullendore wrote a subdued version of the series’ main title … which means that the Star Trek theme music exists in the Star Trek universe.

Stirred, Not Shaken

The 1967 version of Casino Royale, starring David Niven, set an unlikely milestone: Its soundtrack album became famous among audio purists for the quality of its sound.

“The legend is that the original master tape had ‘mad’ levels on it,” audiophile Harry Pearson told the New York Times in 1991. “Once the meters pass zero, it means that you’re saturating the tape and running the risk of distortion. On ‘Casino,’ they used a supposedly very fancy grade of tape, and the engineers really pushed it, so the meters were typically running deep into the red — plus one, plus two, plus three, plus four.” The result is an extremely wide dynamic range.

A particular high point is Dusty Springfield’s “The Look of Love” (Track 2). Springfield recorded her vocal in a “tiny isolation booth, so on a really good system, you can hear her voice emerging from what sounds like a little hole in space. She’s not part of the general orchestral acoustic, and once your system gets to a certain point, you can hear that.”

Pearson said the soundtrack came to serve as a benchmark at Absolute Sound, the audiophile bible he founded in 1973. “Whenever we get a piece of equipment that we think is setting new records, out comes ‘Casino,'” he said. “The better your system gets, the more you get out of that album.”

(Thanks, Allen.)

Podcast Episode 237: The Baseball Spy

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Moe Berg earned his reputation as the brainiest man in baseball — he had two Ivy League degrees and studied at the Sorbonne. But when World War II broke out he found an unlikely second career, as a spy trying to prevent the Nazis from getting an atomic bomb. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll follow Berg’s enigmatic life and its strange conclusion.

We’ll also consider the value of stripes and puzzle over a fateful accident.

See full show notes …