JT's Blog

Things that interest me, things that happened to me, things that I like, even some things that I don't like...

Joe Bonafiglia

Joe Bonafiglia died on June 6, though I didn't find out about it until nine days later when Barb sent me a somewhat cryptic note on Facebook. I was completely taken aback by the news.

He was only 55.

 Joe Bonafiglia

Joe Bonafiglia

The thought that he might die before me was something that had never entered my mind. Even now, several weeks later, I can barely wrap my mind around that fact that I'll never see him again.

Anyway a couple days after learning of his death, I wrote a condolence letter to Joanne, his widow. Not having her current address, I mailed it to the funeral home after getting assurances that they would forward it to her, which I trust they did.

I planned to use that letter as the basis for a much longer post here on my blog, but after thinking it over, I've decided to just publish it as is, brevity being the soul of you-know-what. Here it is.

Dear Joanne,

I first heard about Joe’s passing on Friday, and I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t.

It seems like only yesterday that Joe and I were working in Subsistence and discussing the latest episodes of St. Elsewhere and Moonlighting, but that was over 30 years ago. We worked in different areas then, but we shared a common goal of moving the Directorate kicking and screaming into the modern age of personal computing.

I recall the day he first showed me a dBase program, and I offhandedly remarked that it was a shame it didn’t provide any feedback to let the user know which fields had already been edited. The very next day he came back with a solution—a totally unexpected solution. That was Joe.

Later when we moved to OTIS, I was nominally his boss, although really it was more like a partnership of equals. Joe was absolutely indispensable in our efforts to expand personal computing at the center and later join those computers into a local area network.

Given how large a factor Joe has been in my life, it’s hard to believe we only worked together for about five years. In later years we kept in touch only sporadically, something that I now regret. I always thought there was plenty of time, but now time has run out.

I miss Joe’s upbeat disposition, his strong sense of right and wrong (though I don’t necessarily always agree with him)—damn it, I just miss him!

My sincerest sympathies to you and your family. I can’t tell you how saddened I am. The world is truly a sadder and a poorer place without Joe Bonafiglia.


Water, Water, Everywhere, But Not a Drop in My Place

This morning I woke up and there was no water coming out of the tap. To make sure that it was not just my apartment, I went down to the vacant third floor apartment and found that it too had no water.

When I went out for my morning walk there were Philadelphia Water Department workers on Juniper Street and I asked one of them if he knew why I had no water. "Broken main," he tersely replied.

Seeing I wasn't going to get anything more out of him, I continued southward, but when I returned, I saw there was a police tape blocking access to 13th Street at Locust. So I went to investigate.

And I found a lot of water. And firemen. I asked one of the firemen what was going on, and he had no idea, but when I asked if this was why I had no water, he said, "Very likely."

13th and St. James

13th and Walnut

13th and Walnut

13th and Walnut

13th and Juniper

13th and Juniper

How America Got Its Name

Some time in elementary school, I guess, one of my teachers told the story that went something like this:

A fellow named Amerigo Vespucci drew a map of the known world which included the newly discovered continents of the New World. Someone began referring to those new continents as Amerigo's land, and the Latinized version of his name caught on.

Some variation of that story was pretty much all I remember from my school history classes, and while it's not exactly wrong, the full tale is much richer and a lot more interesting. As it happens, I've been rereading George R. Stewart's wonderful 1975 book Names On the Globe, and he devotes a good chunk of a chapter to relating that story. (Sadly the book is long since out of print, but used copies are still readily available.)

I had thought I could retell the tale, but Stewart does such a great job, and since his book is out of print, I've decided to publish his version here:

With such reasonable possibilities eliminated, anyone would hesitate to advance an altogether fantastic one—that is, that the magnificent and world-famous name America came into existence from the brainstorm of a German pedant who had never crossed the ocean, and probably had never even seen it. Yet the written record is so conclusive that scholars have had no recourse but to reject all the reasonable ideas and to accept the fantastic one.

We know little enough about him. He was, in 1490, a student at the University of Freiburg, and he lived on into the next century. Obviously he would have studied Latin, and apparently he was an enthusiast for the Greek studies, which were popular at the time. If there is a single fact of which we can be certain, it is that he was one of those individuals under the fascination of names. We can see as much in his manipulation of his own name, which was Martin Waldseemüller, the family-name to be translated as “forest-lake-miller.” He set out to put this into Greek, as some scholars did in those times. The result must have been something like the repugnant and impractical hyl-lakko-mylo-os. But, for his own ends, he ingeniously manipulated this monstrosity, and, as the custom was, Latinized it. He got then, finally, Hylacomylus. Obviously, such a man is not to be trusted with a name.

At this point we must turn to that other character of this fantasy, a Florentine who usually spelled his name America Vespucci—Latinized as Americus (or Albericus) Vesputius. He was what has been called, somewhat enigmatically, a “controversial” figure, which means, in this case, that his stories of voyages across the Atlantic have been assailed as fabrications, especially by the highly respected early Spanish historians Las Casas and Herrera. Later investigators, however, have defended him. On the whole, we can conclude that he had really voyaged to what was the northeastern coast of South America. As a result, he took the position, as more and more people were beginning to do, that Columbus was wrong; that this was not India, but a new continent.

 Names On the Globe by George R. Stewart

Names On the Globe by George R. Stewart

In 1503 or the following year he published, under the name Albericus Vesputius, a Latin pamphlet, its title Mundus Novus. In it he stated his belief about those regions—“They may be called a New World, for there was no knowledge of them among our ancestors, and it is a wholly new thing to all who now hear of it.” Here was the idea! Here, the declaration of the entity! We need not be concerned with later works, some of them dubious, which are ascribed to him.

Exit, now, Amer(r)igo or Americus or Albericus, and whether or not he was a faker makes not the slightest difference in the outcome.

Back to Hylacomylus. By the year 1507 he had done well for himself, in a provincial way. He was a member of what we might now call a scholarly institute, a “think-tank,” in the town of St. Dié in Lorraine, under the patronage of the local duke. The time was the burgeoning Renaissance; Greek studies were in vogue; one of the “fellows” had a printing press; even in far-inland Lorraine there was interest in the amazing discoveries of strange lands.

By this time the star of Columbus had sunk low and grown dim. His idea of the Indies was not convincing. He himself had lost favor at court. Was not Vespucci a better guide?

In any case, the little institute at St. Dié decided to reprint one of the Florentine’s pamphlets, with a map, the title to be Cosmographiae Introductio. Who should be chosen to write the preface to the volume? No other than one of the members who was beginning to establish himself as a geographer—that is, Waldseemüller/Hylacomylus. Rarely have the need and the man arrived at a more fitting union.

Written in Latin, his pertinent statement may be translated thus:

Now, indeed, these parts [the three “older” continents] have been broadly explored, and a fourth part has been found by Americus Vesputius, as will be shown later. I do not see why anyone should rightfully object to calling this part for Americus (its discoverer, a man of intelligence) to wit, Amerige, that is, Land of Americus, or America—since both Europe and Asia got their names from women.

At this point in history a great name is, we may say, struggling to be born. But just what form will it take? The first suggestion is for Amerige. In the name-obsessed mind of Hylacomylus this spelling had some justification because of the Italian form Amerigo. More definitely, however, it is to be analyzed as Ameri-ge, with the Greek word for land thus fused with the Italian personal name. In fact, the actual spelling in the text is Amerigen, the form of a Greek accusative case.

The other suggestion is America—a name destined for greatness far beyond any imagining of its creator. Its origin is simple, since it is merely a Latin feminine form, derived from the already established Americus. By analogy with the other continents, as also from the usual Latin practice of having names of islands and countries in the feminine, that gender was the natural one. In this original text America takes second place (or may, indeed, be taken as a mere explanation of Amerige), but it seems to have been its creator’s final choice, or else he yielded to pressure from others. In any case, on the map which he published the name stood as America.

The outcome can only be viewed as both amazing and fortunate. In itself the one form may seem as good as the other. But the -a ending was unambiguous in pronunciation, drawing strength from thousands of established names. The -e ending was much less familiar, and would have resulted in countless difficulties in being passed from one language to another.

But America had still other advantages. To anyone, it actually looked like the name of a continent. Europe, Asia, Africa—each begins with a vowel and ends with one. If we take the Latin form, all of them end in a. Africa and America share the syllables -rica. The new name slid easily into its place.

Moreover, it was an easily slidable unit—euphonic, with its m, its r, and its plentiful vowels. Either an orator or a poet could use it readily—as many thousands of both have done. It comprised only common sounds, used in all European languages.

Another advantage (for people of the Renaissance, if not for moderns) existed in the analogy which the original passage notes—that is, that no one can well raise objections, “since both Europe and Asia got their names from women.” Here, weighted with the tremendous authority of the ancient Greeks, was the justification for naming a continent after an individual. The author was proposing, apparently, that with two continents named for women, no one can well object to having one named for a man.

Also of importance was that America was, from the beginning, essentially a proper noun, without meaning, since its association with a particular person was easily ignored or forgotten, and did not, in any case, constitute a valid “meaning.” There was no call for translation; in fact, translation would have been unwarranted. Here lay the great weakness of such a name as Newfoundland—that it demanded translation, and thus failed to be international. But America, from the beginning, was international.

The greatest point in favor of the new name, however, was merely that it filled a need. The preconceptions of Columbus were going by the board. An entity—and among the greatest of earthly entities—was appearing among men. They must have a name for it. By great good luck a German pedant, living in an out-of-the-way town, produced a name which was at once practical, universal, and beautiful.

The pamphlet had fairly wide circulation—the map, probably, with it. In a few years the name was established. Hylacomylus must have thought that he had loosed a whirlwind.

If any distinction is to be made, we must admit that the name was applied first to the southern continent, and it is thus placed on the map of 1507. Later voyagers and explorers by land outlined a second narrowly connected land-mass. The use, for it, of another name would have been advisable, but this time luck did not serve, and no ingenious namer turned up with an idea. So we have the cumbersome North America and South America.

In one way, however, the northern continent has stolen the name. With the establishment of the first independent nation of the Americas, its government and people, by common practice rather than by any definite action, began to use United States of America. Some voices were raised that it should really be United States of North America, but that substitute was too long, and was not, in itself, wholly accurate, since the new nation did not include all, or even most, of the northern continent.

A worse situation arose when common usage began to consider that America was sufficient in itself, and that “American” was all that was needed for an adjective or for a citizen of that country. By the time, about half a century later, when other nations arose in the Americas, the situation was so well established that nothing, practically, could be done about it, in spite of some protests, both from inside and from outside.

In naming-history, America thus began with great good fortune, but in the end suffered a certain blunting of that success.

Its fantastic story, however, may serve as another example of the difficulties associated with the elucidation of many of the great names.

Excerpted from Book III Namers at Work, Chapter 18 Half the World, Names On the Globe by George R. Stewart

The One Where I Get a Baby Sister

I'm sometimes asked how I can remember so much in these tales from my early life, but the truth is I only recall a few specific events, and I fill in the rest with generalized memories or things that I learned long after the fact. So for example, this post is based on two specific memories of events plus my vivid recollection of my grandfather's farm, both his house and the house where we lived.

I think this was taken two days after my sister was born

So our kitchen had a niche under the stairs leading up to the second floor, and in this niche was our telephone. By the way, at this time our telephone did not have a dial, one had to ask an operator to place even a local call, and we were on a party line where the telephone rang in a distinctive way if the incoming call was for us. The pre-school me was not able to master the intricacies of the distinctive ring (I think it was something like one quick ring if it was the the other party, two quick rings if it was for us), so I was not able to perform phone answering duties, even if I was right next to it when it rang.

Anyway the first event that I recall occurred when I was in the phone niche. Something, I no longer recall just what, but perhaps it was one of my old baby bibs, got me to thinking, and I blurted out, "I'd like to have a little brother."

My mother and father were sitting at the kitchen table, and I distinctly remember my mother giving my father a look, sort of a smile, but something else as well. In light of what happened later, I used to think that maybe I had given them an idea, but now thinking back on it, I tend to believe she was already pregnant and was just smiling at the thought. In those days it would have been unusual to explain pregnancy to a pre-schooler—especially in our family. Remember, those were the days when I Love Lucy couldn't even use the word pregnant on TV.

No, I don't recall this photo being taken

The second memory is from several months later. I had spent the night sleeping at my grandparents' house, and my aunt Jane came to deliver the news. Now I don't specifically recall what happened the night before, but I can infer that something happened that caused my father to take my mother to the hospital and send me to my grandparents' house, which was just across the meadow, so I could have walked there myself.

Anyway I can recall Jane's news practically verbatim: "When your mother got there, the hospital was fresh out of babies."

Many years later I learned that my mother had had a miscarriage. In fact, it was her second one; she had had a miscarriage a few years before she had me.

So I hear you ask, what about your baby sister? Well, she was born in what was probably the following year, the middle of August 1954, just a few weeks before I started Kindergarten. And I have no memories surrounding her birth. Or of my mother's pregnancy. Or of the first few years of her life. I have some pictures from those years, but no specific memories.

Oh, I know some stories. Like she used to turn off the TV when I was watching it and then run away, but I don't recall them. I just know them because they've been retold in my family from time to time.

Isn't memory a funny thing?

The One Where I Went Through the Wringer

My earliest memory is not exactly a pleasant one.

It was probably March of 1952 and I was about a month shy of my third birthday. We were living in a house on N. Front Street in Womelsdorf, Pennsylvania, we being my parents and me. My father was at work on his father's farm about a mile or so outside of town, and my mother was doing laundry in the room in the rear of the house.

On waking up that morning, I came downstairs and sat in a chair in the middle room looking at a book of some sort, when my mother went outside to hang up a load of wash in the back yard.

A wringer-style washing machine, not exactly like the one had but similar.

Somehow I must have gotten it into my head to be helpful, because I put down the book and went into the rear room where the wringer washing machine was agitating away with a fresh load of wash. I must have pushed a step stool up to the washer because otherwise there was no way I could have done what I did next, which was to pull a garment out of the washer and push it into the wringer.

Alas, when I did that, the fingers of my right hand got caught in the wringer as well. And as the wringer did its thing, it pulled my arm along until it had pulled it past the elbow, where it really couldn't go any farther, and meanwhile I was screaming my little head off...

Well, my mother heard me screaming and came tearing inside where she did one of the smartest things she ever did. If you look at the picture of a wringer washing machine, you'll see a bar on top of the wringer. That's the release, and that's what my mother yanked, and that's what set me free. The doctor later told us that many people's first instinct is to try to pull the arm out, and that can lead to serious damage, so kudos to my mother.

I definitely would have needed a step stool to reach into it.

Anyway, the next thing was to get me to a doctor. Since my father had taken the car to work, my mother called my aunt Irene (my father's sister), who drove up in her Nash and took us to Womelsdorf's Dr. Light (I believe that was his name; he was not our regular doctor but he was the nearest). He put my arm in a sling and recommended applying cocoa butter to the affected area, that area being just above my elbow where my arm had suffered the most; it left a scar, a scar that remains to this day, although it has faded a bit over the years.

I believe I had to use the sling on my arm for about six weeks, and truth to tell, I actually felt sort of proud wearing it. During those six weeks, I had my third birthday, and we moved to the other house on my grandfather's farm, where we lived for about five years.

But this story does have a coda.

Sometime later, I'm not sure just when, but probably not more than a few weeks, my aunt and uncle Jane and Allen were visiting us, and I think I was showing them the basement of our farmhouse. That's where the wringer washing machine now resided. And it just happened to be doing a load of laundry. And for some misbegotten reason I decided I needed to demonstrate to them how I had caught my arm in the wringer. I had pushed the step stool up to the washer before they knew what was happening. Happily, they stopped me in time.

Cue the clown music.

My IQ Test

The one and only IQ test I've ever taken was in 9th grade when I was 14.

I don't specifically remember taking the test itself, but I'm pretty sure it was a multiple choice test, and if there is one thing that I've always been good at doing, it's taking multiple choice tests.

Now I don't put much stock in the concept of IQ. It's a number, but what does it really mean? Can answering a bunch of multiple choice questions really tell us anything meaningful about a person's "intelligence"?

Maybe, to a very limited extent. But it probably tells us more about that person's education and other opportunities than any innate abilities.

Anyway after our 9th grade class took the Stanford-Binet IQ test, each of us had a private session with Miss Webber, one of our school's guidance counselors.

The decision had been made not to give out our actual IQ results, but instead to tell us generally where on the hypothetical IQ line our results would put us. This was probably a good idea. Even just knowing that some of us were "average", some were "above average", etc., set off some less than gentle ribbing, although I don't recall it getting out of hand.

In retrospect I wonder what Miss Webber told the kids who had scored "below average"? Let alone "way below average"?

Anyway I looked forward to my sit-down with Miss Webber, she being a faculty member whom I really liked. She informed me that my score had put me in the "high superior" category. This did not surprise me, although I was not exactly sure just what "high superior" meant.

You see, I was always considered one of the "brains" of our class. So of course I expected to do well on the IQ test. Plus at age 14 I had not yet come to realize just how foolish I'm actually capable of being, so I probably had a somewhat inflated sense of my own intellect.

As I said, this was the only IQ test I've ever taken and I genuinely don't know what my score was, nor do I have a clear idea of what Miss Webber meant by "high superior", but from that day on there has been a number that has stuck in my head, a number that would put me comfortably within the membership requirements for Mensa, an organization I have no particular interest in joining.

Because as Miss Webber was talking to me, she had a notebook open on her desk in front of her, a notebook that had the names and scores of all the kids in our class. It was to this notebook that she referred when she looked up my score. She made no special effort to hide this notebook from my eyes, although it was far enough away that she may have thought I could not read it.

But I saw something. I saw a number. And that number has stuck in my mind all these many years. Did I really see my IQ score? I don't know and I never will. Even if the number I saw was my IQ at age 14, I'm certain that were I to take a comparable test today, I would not achieve anywhere near the same result.

Which is why I have no plans to ever take another such test.

The iPhone X's Face ID

Within just a few minutes of use I could tell that the new iPhone X's Face ID was far and away superior to the old unreliable (for me anyway) Touch ID.

Touch ID was extremely fussy in its initial incarnation and a bit slow. Even in its second generation which everyone seemed to rave about, it was sensitive to the slightest bit of moisture on my finger from sweat or from having just washed my hands. And I also had the opposite problem of dry hands. Yes, the second generation did work better and it worked well enough, but I was always conscious of it, always aware of having to wipe my hand first or if my thumb was feeling especially dry to remember to use my index finger--the point being that I always had to think about it, and with all that, it still failed about one time in maybe ten attempts.

Not with Face ID.

It. Just. Works!

It took mere seconds to train the system, and after that it has recognized my face without glasses, with any of my computer, reading, or distance glasses, with my cap or a combination of cap and glasses. It. Just. Works. Which is what I used to expect from Apple.

 Face ID recognizes any of these variations of my face with and without glasses and caps.

Face ID recognizes any of these variations of my face with and without glasses and caps.

On the other hand, if I make a face, it's not having it.

 These attempts to make a face don't get past Face ID.

These attempts to make a face don't get past Face ID.

For me the most important thing is that I've only been using the iPhone X for a few hours and already I'm not even thinking about Face ID. I'm not thinking about unlocking the phone. It. Just. Works.

Thank you, Apple!


Flower Drum Song—The Stage Play

Time magazine cover for December 22, 1958, with Miyoshi Umeki and Pat Suzuki from the original cast of Flower Drum Song

After a recent viewing of the movie version of Flower Drum Song revived my interest in the musical, I ordered second-hand copies of the libretto and vocal scores, as I was very curious to see how the original stage play differed from the film version, never having seen a production of it.

I was not surprised to find that they are constructed very differently. To use a crime story metaphor, the stage play, especially the first act, is designed something like a whodunit, with key information (i.e., that Sammy Fong and Linda Low have been lovers for five years) withheld from the audience until the climax. The movie is more like a Columbo episode where the audience is clued in from the start. I prefer the construction of the play, because the songs (with one exception which I'll get to) work better in their original contexts, but I can see why screenwriter Joseph Fields took the approach that he did; it was all part of “opening up” the action to show scenes that couldn't be done as easily on the stage. Also, unlike other Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, which might be more accurately characterized as “musical plays”, Flower Drum Song is a true “musical comedy” with some very thinly motivated dance sequences, some of which would not have transferred to film very well (not that the ones that the film-makers came up with were necessarily any better). Fields ended up using most of Hammerstein’s original dialog, chopping and mincing and ricing and dicing it to fit slightly different contexts.

(Yes, I know that the libretto was credited to both Oscar Hammerstein, 2nd and Joseph Fields, but since the movie is credited only to Joseph Fields as based on C. Y. Lee’s novel and makes no mention of the original stage play, I'm not going give the dead Fields any credit for the play just as he gave none to the dead Hammerstein. Apparently Richard Rodgers didn’t take enough interest in the film to insist on a credit for the play.)

I'm not going to give a full synopsis of the play; I'm going to assume that anyone who reads this is familiar either with the movie version or with the Original Broadway Cast album, which included a bare bones synopsis. That synopsis was all that I knew of the play, and there were a lot of gaping holes in my knowledge of the plot and how some of the songs fit into it, and the movie didn't help because its reworking of the material placed many of the songs in very different contexts.

The setting is San Francisco’s Chinatown in the mid-1950’s in the household of Master Wang Chi-Yang, who came to America from China and has not even tried to adapt to his adopted country’s customs. He has two sons, Wang Ta, 21 years old, who is partly Americanized but still feels the pull of his Chinese heritage, and a teenaged son, Wang San, who is thoroughly Americanized. Master Wang’s wife is dead, but his sister-in-law, Madam Liang, whose husband is also dead, helps him with the household. Unlike Master Wang, Madam Liang has been taking an American citizenship course and is about to graduate.

The play opens in Master Wang’s house with Madam Liang speaking on the phone ordering delicacies like octopus, sea horse, and dried snake meat from the Ping Wah Super Market. (Yes, Fields used this dialog in a different scene in the movie.)

Wang Ta, Master Wang’s 21-year-old son, tells his aunt about Linda Low, whom he met on a blind date. She drives a Thunderbird, which seems to impress Ta but not his teenaged brother. Ta has been memorizing a Chinese poem which he hopes will impress Linda. Madam Liang remembers it, and they sing it together, “You Are Beautiful”.

Master Wang enters screaming that he has been robbed. In the film the robber was the only non-Asian character; since the robbery occurs off-stage in the play, there are truly no Caucasians in the play.

Sammy Fong, the owner of the Celestial Bar nightclub and the most thoroughly Americanized character in the play, arrives and offers his picture bride to Master Wang for Wang Ta. He introduces Mei Li and her father Dr. Li and leaves.

Dr. Li reveals that they came into the country illegally; if they had waited for the quotas, it would have taken them another five years, and then Mei Li, who is 19, would have been too old to be married.

 “A Hundred Million Miracles”

“A Hundred Million Miracles”

Mei Li sings her flower drum song, “A Hundred Million Miracles”. Master Wang is most impressed by Mei Li. 

Scene 2 finds Linda Low and Wang Ta on a hill overlooking San Francisco Bay, presumably with her Thunderbird just off stage. She tells him about her jealous brother, and she also informs him that “the main thing is for a woman to be successful in her gender.” She says she's getting chilly, and when he goes off stage to get her sweater from her Thunderbird, she lets loose with her anthem: “I Enjoy Being a Girl”.

When the song ends, she begins an encore with new lyrics that aren't on the Original Cast Recording. When she concludes the verse, she exits and a thinly motivated dance number ensues. The dance ends and Linda returns to sing a new refrain.

Pages 35 and 36 of the Flower Drum Song libretto with the encore lyrics to “I Enjoy Being a Girl” and the description of the dance number. Click to enlarge

As I said, this is the truest musical comedy that Rodgers and Hammerstein ever wrote. The film-makers were probably correct to have Linda sing this song to mirror versions of herself; that was a better solution for the movie than the dance number that Hammerstein and Gene Kelly concocted. Oh, and if I ever get my dream revival of this show, I think it would be best to cut Linda's encore lyrics, though the dance number might still be nice to keep. I've included an image of pages 35 and 36 so the reader may judge for her or himself.

Anyway when the song ends, Ta comes back with her sweater and they discuss his conflict between his Chinese and his American sides. Impulsively he asks her to marry him. She says she will need to get the consent of her brother, who has been watching out for her.

Scene 3 takes us back to Master Wang’s house where a banker is counting Wang’s money in anticipation of opening a new bank account, and a tailor is fitting him for a new Western suit. Helen Chao arrives, and the scene plays out pretty much like it does in the movie.

Mei Li meets Wang Ta for the first time, and she decides “I Am Going To Like It Here”.

Scene 4 is in Wang’s bedroom where Mei Li receives a Western dress from Master Wang. The hole that Wang burned in his Western suit is revealed, setting up a key scene later on. Ta comes in carrying a corsage he intends for Linda, but he is trapped into giving it to Mei Li, who is told that here in America we “say it with flowers.”

Left alone with Ta, Mei Li pins a flower on his lapel. “I think I say it with flowers, too.” After they discuss the differences between Chinese and American customs in choosing a wife, she tells Ta a joke she learned from his brother San. Then she asks him how he would ask a girl to marry him. After a a brief hesitation he sings “Like a God”. At its conclusion, he exits, but continues to sing off stage, as Mei Li mouths the words. When she realizes he has stopped singing, she gazes at the door. She is happy, she is walking on air. She sings a refrain of “A Hundred Million Miracles”.

Scene 5 is set in the garden of the Wang house where the commencement exercises for Madam Liang’s American citizenship class are concluding. Play and film are pretty much the same here with the dialog about the American-invented Chinese dish leading into the song “Chop Suey”. The play does not feature the extended production number that the film does (my dream revival will), but it does have some lyrics that didn't make it onto the cast recording.

Weather chilly all through Philly,
Hot and clammy in Miami,
Mississippi River swollen—
Mrs. Astor’s fur is stolen,


Thinks a juvenile delinquent
Knows exactly where her mink went!
Doctor Norman Vincent Peale
Tells you how to feel—

Big deal!

Chop Suey!
Chop Suey!
Rough and tough and brittle and soft and gooey—
Peking duck and Mulligan stew,
Plymouth Rock and Little Rock, too.
Milk and beer and Seven-Up and Drambuie—
Chop Suey
Chop Suey
Chop Suey
Chop Suey
 In rehearsal are Pat Suzuki as Linda Low and Larry Storch who was originally cast as Sammy Fong before the part was given to Larry Blyden

In rehearsal are Pat Suzuki as Linda Low and Larry Storch who was originally cast as Sammy Fong before the part was given to Larry Blyden

Linda arrives with Frankie dressed as a naval officer whom she introduces as her brother. Frankie says he gives his consent to Linda marrying Ta, which takes everyone by surprise.

Into the general confusion, Sammy Fong arrives and is taken aback to hear that Ta is in love with someone other than Mei Li. He explains to Mei Li why he is not good husband material in “Don’t Marry Me”.

Now Linda and Frankie re-enter and see Sammy. From their dialog it’s clear that the three of them know each other well and Frankie is not Linda’s brother.

I had always assumed that “Grant Avenue” was a diegetic number that was performed in Sammy Fong’s Celestial Bar, so I was surprised to learn it is a well-motivated book song. Here’s how it is integrated into the show.

When Sammy Fong exits, a character identified only as “Girl” asks Linda, “Are you going to move to Nob Hill?”

Linda replies, “No, I’m not moving from where I am—marriage or no marriage. I’ve got to be where the action is.”

“Where is that?” the Girl asks.

Linda (singing): “Grant Avenue, San Francisco, California, U.S.A—”

After Linda sings a couple refrains, an ensemble dance follows. Right there in Master Wang’s garden. Where nobody knows her. As I said, this is a musical comedy.

Linda's dressing room at the Celestial Bar is the setting for Scene 6 of Act I. Sammy reveals his plan, which is to invite Master Wang and his family to see Linda perform, to Helen and insists she not give it away. Linda arrives and after Sammy gets her to agree to do one more performance, he leaves.

There is a short dialog between Linda and Helen where Helen reveals that she knows Ta better than Linda does. When Linda leaves, Helen sings one of the best songs in the show, “Love, Look Away”.

Wanting you so, I try too much.
After you go, I cry too much.
 Arabella Hong as Helen Chao and Ed Kenny as Wang Ta

Arabella Hong as Helen Chao and Ed Kenny as Wang Ta

Has anyone captured the despair of unrequited love more succinctly than Oscar Hammerstein did in those lines?

The final scene of Act I plays out in Sammy Fong’s Celestial Bar, as a singer belts out “Fan Tan Fanny”. Did you know that Fan-Tan is a gambling game that was once popular among Chinese Americans?

As the song ends, Master Wang, his son Ta, Madam Liang, Dr. Li, and Mei Li enter and are shown to their seats by Sammy.

Frankie enters and is revealed to be the master of ceremonies as he begins his patter but is thrown off when he recognizes Master Wang and his party. He starts his song, “Gliding Through My Memormee”, and tries to stay as far from Wang’s table as he can. The end of his song segues into a reprise of “Grant Avenue” by Linda, which turns into a strip tease number before she realizes who is sitting at the front table.

Wang and his party are horrified and humiliated, and all but Ta leave. Helen sees her chance and lends a sympathetic hand to Ta and leads him away.

Sammy lifts his champagne glass to Linda in a mock toast, which is more than she can take. She picks up an ice bucket and dumps it on his head. “His hair, his face, and his evening coat are very wet indeed, probably cold, too.”

Page 95 of the Flower Drum Song libretto which includes the description of Ta’s dream ballet. Click to enlarge

Act II Scene 1 takes us to Helen Chao’s room shortly after the events of the previous scene. She is giving him Tiger Bone wine. When he has had enough, she puts him to bed and his dream is illustrated by a ballet where Linda and Mei Li become involved with him, only to be frustrated by other dancers. Eventually Helen appears and he carries her off.

The following morning Mei Li arrives with Master Wang’s coat with the burn hole. While Helen is distracted, Mei Li sees the flower that she gave Ta in his coat lapel and takes it. After Mei Li leaves, Helen tries a little too much with Ta, until he leaves, and she sings a reprise of “Love, Look Away”. And that is the last we see or hear of poor Helen Chao.

Scene 2 is in Master Wang’s living room where Madam Liang and Wang lament “The Other Generation”.

Ta enters and begs forgiveness. He is ready to let his father choose his wife for him.

But it is too late. After what she saw at Helen’s place, Mei Li wants nothing to do with Ta. Lamenting the turn of events, Ta sings a reprise of “You Are Beautiful”.

Dr. Li and his daughter leave Master Wang’s house.

Scene 3 takes place in Sammy’s penthouse apartment where a fan tan game is winding up, and although Sammy is winning, he’s unhappy because he’s carrying a torch for Linda. Sammy’s mother arrives, shortly followed by Linda, who has her own key. Sammy claims it’s business and says he’ll meet his mother later

Page 123 of the Flower Drum Song libretto with the reprise of “Don’t Marry Me”

Left to themselves, Sammy proposes, and they imagine what married life will be like in one of my favorite tunes (I can say that about almost every song in this wonderful score) from the show, “Sunday”. After they each sing a refrain, a fairly elaborate dance number ensues, although it is a gentle dance, nothing like the nightmarish production number in the movie.

Scene 4 takes place the the Meeting Hall of the Three Family Association. Dr. Li has pressed his case to honor the original contract, thus forcing Sammy to agree to marry Mei Li. He sings a suitably altered reprise of “Don’t Marry Me” to Mei Li, with one of the key words jettisoned.

Linda arrives and is furious when she hears what happened. Sammy asks her to give him a chance to explain.

“Explain what?” she asks. “Half an hour ago you had to marry me, you couldn't live without me...”

“And nothing’s changed,” he replies.

“Nothing’s changed! You’re going to marry her!”

“That’s the only thing that’s changed,” Sammy fires back.

As the grownups run off in different directions, the kids are left to deliver their lament about “The Other Generation”, thankfully without the irrelevant dance that was added in the movie.

 Jack Soo played Frankie in the original production of   Flower Drum Song  and later went on to play Sammy Fong, a role he reprised in the movie.

Jack Soo played Frankie in the original production of  Flower Drum Song and later went on to play Sammy Fong, a role he reprised in the movie.

The final scenes play out just like in the movie. Ta and Mei Li realize that they both want to be together and decide to try figure out how to bring that about. Then Mei Li watches a television show where a woman claims to be a wetback. After “The Wedding Procession” Mei Li reveals she has entered the country illegally so the contract is void, leaving the two couples free to pair off as they want. A short reprise of “A Hundred Million Miracles” brings it to a close.

A couple weeks ago when I published my first post about Flower Drum Song, someone on Facebook commented that the song “Don’t Marry Me” works better in its later placement in the movie than in its first act position in the play. I agree. The stakes are much higher, and Sammy is more desperate; the song definitely works better there. I think that’s about the only improvement that Fields brought about in his reworking of the material.


Flower Drum Song

Miyoshi Umeki as Mei Li performing the Flower Drum Song of the title

Growing up in the 50s and 60s I got to see all the Rodgers and Hammerstein movie musicals, so when they started appearing on DVD, and later Blu-ray, I collected them all.

All except one, that is.

In part that’s because a few years ago when I re-viewed the 1962 remake of “State Fair”, which I had enjoyed very much as a teenager, I could barely stand to watch the whole thing, it was so filled with cringe-worthy moments, and since “Flower Drum Song” was produced around the same time, I feared it too might suffer from the same problems.

More importantly, over the years “Flower Drum Song” has developed a reputation for being condescending towards its Asian American characters.

But a few nights ago while listening to the Original Cast recording of the show, I was reminded of what a wonderful score lay at its heart, so I decided to order the DVD.

Jack Soo as nightclub operator Sammy Fong. You may remember him from Barney Miller.

How bad could it be?

I quite enjoyed it.

Oh, I could criticize this or that aspect. Yes, some of the musical numbers are over-produced, particularly towards the end, and yes, this is not a great movie by any means, but it is a lot of fun.

Basically, it’s a musical comedy set in 1950s San Francisco Chinatown about the clash between Chinese and American cultures and the older and younger generations. Is it condescending to its characters? Keeping in mind that it is a product of the late 50s, early 60s, and judging it side by side with other works of its time, I do not find it so, although perhaps I’m not the best person to judge, but I can see how a few lines of dialogue here and there might be considered problematic. In any case, I’m certainly not going to argue with anyone about it.

Nancy Kwan as Linda Low revealing a little too much of herself for Master Wang (Benson Fong)

Anyway, here are a few random comments.

It was standard practice to expand the orchestra for musicals, so it’s no surprise that Robert Russell Bennett’s inspired orchestrations for the Broadway show were scrapped in favor of Hollywood Neutral; the new orchestrations aren’t bad, they may even be good once I get used to them, but they don’t have the “elegant simplicity” of Bennett’s originals (as one of my Facebook friends described them).

Nancy Kwan as Linda Low enjoys being a girl

Oscar Hammerstein having died, Joseph Fields received sole screenplay credit, and he rearranged the plot (for example, the key scene in Sammy Fong’s Celestial Bar occurs much nearer to the end of the film rather than the end of the first Act) and reordered and repurposed many of the songs. Some scenes, such as Mei Li and her father’s arrival in this country, which could not very well be done on a stage, are shown, part of the “opening up” of the script.

“The Other Generation”, which in the play is motivated by Wang Chi-yang’s horrified discovery that his son is planning to marry a nightclub stripper, is moved to a much earlier place in the story, well before he makes that discovery, so all the lyrics referring to that discovery are jettisoned, leaving him with but a single chorus to sing before the other generation takes over and sings their version of the song in its entirety.

It is perhaps no surprise that in the song “Don’t Marry Me”, the following lines, which had served as the climax, were excised, Ali Khan having died in a car crash the previous year:

Marry a dope
Innocent and gaga
Marry a Khan
Ali or the Aga
Marry for money
Or marry for free
But Don’t Marry Me!

Juanita Hall as Madam Liang, a far cry from her stint as South Pacific's Bloody Mary

Similarly “You Are Beautiful” is moved to a much later scene so that Wang Ta can sing it directly to Mei Li.

The only song missing from the movie is “Like a God”, but there is a snippet of its lyric in a poetry reading.

What kind of makeup did they put on Juanita Hall? That can’t be her natural skin color. [Update: On second viewing I think it may have been the lighting as it only seemed odd in some of the scenes. Or maybe it was my TV.]

I recall that when I saw the movie as a 12-year-old that I was a bit impatient with the character of Helen Chao, but I now find her to be very sympathetic and I rather wish she had been developed a little bit more. Then again my impatience with her then might have been due to the ballet which probably worked better on the stage than it does in the film.

Regardless of what one thinks of its treatment of the Asian American characters, I think its attitudes towards its female characters are far worse (sample lyric: “The girl who serves you all your food is another tasty dish”; Linda Low makes clear that her only purpose in life is to find a man, any man, to marry). But then again, the show was written in 1958, so it is just a reflection of its times.

I can’t leave without mentioning that one of the key plot points is that two of the main characters have entered this country illegally, in fact, that turns out to be the basis for the resolution of the plot.

One last thought. The play and the film were based upon the book “The Flower Drum Song” by Chinese American author C. Y. Lee. Apparently he was quite pleased with what the old white men did with his novel, and he still defends it to this day. Yes, he’s still alive and will turn 100 in December, and his book is still available on Amazon. I just might have to read it one of these days.

Update: one more thought. The thing that seemed most dated, of course, was the slang employed by the younger son. I suspect some of that seemed dated by the time the movie was released!

Update the second: if you download the sample Kindle file of “The Flower Drum Song” novel, both C. Y. Lee's Author's Note and David Henry Hwang's Introduction provide some interesting details about the creation of the novel and the play/movie, as well as the Asian American community's reaction to it.

Update the third: I’ll try to summarize David Henry Hwang’s main points and hope I don’t distort them too much. He grew up in the 1960s hating the depiction of Asian characters on TV with one exception, that being the movie “Flower Drum Song” which he saw on late night TV. But in the 70s Asian Americans on college campuses began to organize for more authentic portrayals (remember that until 1965 immigration of Asians was suppressed because of quotas), and “Flower Drum Song” was considered “inauthentic” merely because it was written by Caucasians.

Even the original novel by C. Y. Lee was regarded as suspect because it had been a best seller; if the masses liked it, how artistic could it be? So Lee’s works were rejected from the growing canon of “authentic” Asian American works. Even though Hwang and many of his fellow students actually liked “Flower Drum Song”, it served as something to rally against. He recognizes now that their arguments were unsophisticated, and he’s helping to restore the works of C. Y. Lee into the canon of Asian American works.

So it boils down to he doesn’t really have a problem with the original “Flower Drum Song” musical, it was just a casualty of the movement in the 70s to let more Asian American voices be heard.

“Sunday” is such a sweet, intimate moment between Linda and Sammy, but here it gets blown up into a nightmarish production sequence. Was this done in the stage version?

An excerpt from The Ed Sullivan Show with Pat Suzuki and Larry Blyden from the original Broadway cast performing "Sunday" followed by what I presume is a recreation of the dance that was done in that production. Following that, the entire cast appears very briefly.

Afterwards there are appearances by the casts of Destry Rides Again and Bye Bye Birdie.

Wissahickon Wildlife

My latest video is a short collection of photos from my 12 years living in the Wissahickon section of Philadelphia.