Monday, March 24, 2008

A Day Lost To History

Saturday, May 17th, 1913. Easy to write, but just try to look it up. You'll find nothing. In fact, even the papers on the 18th are mighty thin and in them you'll find no explanations of the previous day's immense distraction. Here's the story as related to me by my great uncle, who was interviewing at Columbia at the time.

On the evening of Friday the 16th, two songwriters, Davis Hogan and Meyer anninger, were messing around with a couple of lyrics in their poorly insulated office on 28th street. Sometime around 9 PM, they stumbled onto the mother of all lost chords and came up with 12 bars of sheer infectious madness. They were possessed by the little ditty and they repeated it over and over, gradually infecting first their floor, then their building - for it was deep in the heart of Tin Pan Alley - and the entire block.

Their little upright was hauled out on the street and placed in the back of an open cart, drawn by their amazed and mesmerized rivals in song. Soon other pianos joined theirs in an impromptu parade both up and down Broadway.

Before long, the joyous tumult was overflowing the bounds of the 20's, and by midnight it struck the partygoers at the uptown restaurants and rooftop frolics, and with them, the members of the press. As the theater critics rushed to write their reviews, the copyboys and pressmen were already joining in in raucous song, echoed throughout the streets by the wakened populace. Nannies in nighties, sober old vestrymen, ragtag school brats, tugging their pugs and kits, cartwheeled and danced while the horses were taken from their stables, stamping their hooves in rhythm. Streaming from Central Park and a thousand sewers, ranks of rats wheeled about in formation in a surreal march down Seventh Avenue. Soon, waiters were parading on the streets, their pastry carts loaded with bottles of bubbly, sloshing the joyous - yet nonviolent - crowds with free champagne. Candy butchers raced back to their shops, doling out sweeties to the milling tots and acting as surrogate day-care (or night care in this case).

The largest concentrations of revelry were concentrated on Broadway, and soon the entire length of the famed avenue was covered in a spontaneous singing parade. The commotion only intensified by dawn. The tune started to infect the neighboring boroughs and parts of Hudson County (New Jersey).

That Saturday was remembered - if it was remembered at all - as a blurry delirious romp.

It was followed by a painful sobering up period that Sunday. Errant clergymen, not one of whom was excluded from the previous day's hedonistic activity, prudently omitted reference to this vision of earthly paradise and stuck to the traditional message of pie in the sky. Hogan and Tanninger ended up in Belleview. The meetings of the WCTU were filled with repentant tipplers. Although the papers missed a day, the whole incident was hushed up.

Many years later, fantasy author Fritz Leiber updated this incident to the beatnik era in his amusing story "Rum Titty Titty Tum Tah Tee."

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