Not-So-Famous Firsts: Halloween Edition

Whether you're taking some little ones out trick-or-treating or going to an adult party dressed as a radish, we join you in the spirit of Halloween and offer up a few not-so-famous firsts related to the holiday. Oh, and please have your kids save their Necco Wafers, Good 'N Plenty, Circus Peanuts and other "ick" candies for my dad, who never met a sweet treat he didn't like!

First Costume of the Costume King

If you grew up in the 1960s, 70s or 80s, you're no doubt familiar with the $2.95 Halloween costumes-in-a-bag that featured an illustrated smock and a plastic mask. Those mass-produced costumes were manufactured by Ben Cooper Inc., a Brooklyn, New York, company founded in 1937. The trick-or-treating for candy tradition was gaining serious steam at the time due to the Great Depression, and Cooper (a theatrical costume designer with a keen business sense) capitalized on the trend by producing inexpensive costumes fashioned in the likenesses of popular characters of the era. His crack legal team purchased the licensing rights first to several Disney characters, and then Spiderman, the first Marvel character to be thusly immortalized in reflective plastic. During the next 50 years everyone from Farrah Fawcett to the Beatles to Rubik (of Cube fame) to the various Smurfs were represented in the Ben Cooper line. As for the company's founder, the very first Halloween costume he ever wore was a little Devil suit at the tender age of seven.

First Visit by the Great Pumpkin

It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown was first broadcast on October 27, 1966, on CBS (it pre-empted My Three Sons). It was nominated for an Emmy award and has been re-broadcast every year during the Halloween season since. Charles Shulz was pleased with the positive response to his cartoon with one exception: thanks to Charlie Brown's trick-or-treat lament "I got a rock," bags and boxes and mountains of candy were forwarded to his studio from all over the world earmarked for Charlie Brown. The Great Pumpkin TV special was, of course, inspired by Schulz's daily comic strip; the first mention of the benevolent Halloween gift-bringer was mentioned in the October 26, 1959, Peanuts strip.

First Incident of Tainted Candy

Rumors about razor blades and other sharp objects found inside random apples and candy bars are as old as the tradition of trick-or-treating, but in actuality there had been no official reports of random candy tampering anywhere in the United States. That is, until October 31, 1974. That was the night that Timothy O'Bryan of Deer Park, Texas, returned from trick-or-treating and was viewing his "loot" on the living room floor of his family home along with his sister and a few friends. Timmy's dad, Ronald, announced that it was bedtime and each child could have one piece of candy before retiring. At the ruge of his father, Timmy chose a jumbo sized Pixy Stix, and after a few mouthfuls he complained that it tasted bitter. Ronald fetched Timmy some Kool-Aid to wash down the bad flavor. Moments later, Timothy began vomiting and convulsing. His parents rushed him to the hospital, but he died en route. An autopsy revealed not only that Timothy had died of cyanide poisoning, but that the poison had come from the Jumbo Pixy Stix in his trick-or-treat bag. Area parents panicked at the news and an exhaustive police investigation was launched to find the home that was allegedly distributing tainted candy. The evidence eventually pointed to Ronald O'Bryan, who was heavily in debt and had recently taken out sizable insurance policies on his children. Child killers rank very low in the prison hierarchy, so The Candyman (as he was derisively nicknamed by his fellow Death Row inmates) had to be kept in protective custody for nearly 10 years before his execution on March 31, 1984.

First Trick-or-Treat Charity

To be honest, in my youth I saw more orange UNICEF collection boxes on TV Public Service Announcements than I ever saw in the real-life hands of my fellow trick-or-treaters. (That doesn't mean that I didn't know a few unscrupulous children who called out "Trick or treat for UNICEF!" while begging in an attempt to scam some spare change.) The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) was created in 1946 as a way to collect donations to provide for emergency relief of children in countries that had been devastated by World War II. Six years later Mary Emma Allison, a minister's wife in Philadelphia, was concerned by the inherent "greediness" in collecting candy from strangers and aimed to somehow turn trick-or-treating into a selfless act of charity. She'd recently seen UNICEF posters soliciting donations in order to provide powdered milk to malnourished children overseas. Allison enlisted her husband to announce a humanitarian alternative to collecting candy on Halloween – he urged church members to have their children use the specially decorated milk containers provided to collect pennies and nickels for UNICEF. That first year the Allisons' effort netted $17, which they sent off to UNICEF along with a detailed explanation of how the money had been collected. Three years later UNICEF actively began promoting the "Trick or Treat for UNICEF" program and provided millions of orange collection boxes to trick-or-treaters across the U.S. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson officially declared October 31st to be "UNICEF Day" in the United States.

First Prime Time Network Appearance of KISS

Maybe it's just me, but the wise-cracking centerpiece of Hollywood Squares never really cried out "Halloween!" But on October 29, 1976, The Paul Lynde Halloween Special was broadcast on ABC. The mind-boggling-ness of this show can be described by the guest stars: Margaret Hamilton (Wizard of Oz's Wicked Witch of the West), Billie Hayes (H.R. Pufnstuf's Witchiepoo), Betty White, Roz Kelly (Happy Days' Pinky Tuscadero), and Donny and Marie Osmond. Somewhere in the grand scheme of things they sandwiched in heavily painted hard rock band KISS, who'd achieved a measure of success on the radio the previous year with their live version of "Rock and Roll All Nite" and who were promoting their latest album, Destroyer. "Beth" had just recently entered the Billboard Top 10 (a first for the band), so the band figured a network TV appearance would help to accelerate the momentum instigated by the single and would help sell more albums. Young hecklers in the audience need to remember that back in 1976 there was no MTV or major national outlet for musical artists other than talk shows, variety shows and network specials, and even then the spots were limited and up-and-coming rock bands weren't at the top of any guest coordinator's agenda.

Feel free to share any and all of your Halloween memories, whether it be the time your mom dressed you in an embarrassing costume or the neighbor that actually distributed toothbrushes instead of candy. Oh, and BOO!

A Forgotten George Gershwin Musical Just Made Its American Debut

In 1982, dozens of crates containing handwritten musical manuscripts—inked with the scribbles of Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, and George Gershwin—were discovered in a warehouse in Secaucus, New Jersey. Many of the scores contained lost or unpublished songs that had not been performed in decades, if ever. In an interview with The New York Times, Miles Kreuger, the president and founder of the Institute of the American Musical, called it "one of the monumental discoveries in the history of American musical theater."

Included in the crates were about 70 Gershwin tunes, including an autograph score to his largely forgotten 1924 musical, Primrose.

George Gershwin was one of the most popular, and important, American composers of the 20th century. His music, prized for being equally adventurous and accessible, was chameleonic. It seemed to fit in everywhere, comfortably toggling the jazz, theatrical, and symphonic worlds. In the theater, Gershwin helped establish a musical idiom that dominated for decades. (Fun fact: His Of Thee I Sing was the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.) In basement jazz clubs, much of his work became the bedrock of the Great American Songbook, the launching pad for generations of jazz musicians. In the classical concert hall, his symphonic work remains wildly popular—the pillar of Pops concerts.

But Gershwin’s reputation as the "All-American" composer belies the fact that a significant number of early staged scores remain missing. Some of Gershwin's Broadway music has not been heard in nearly a century. In the case of Primrose, it's been 92 years.

That's not unusual. During Gershwin's heyday, most showtunes vanished the moment the final curtain closed. "Musicals back then were like comic books," Michael D. Miller, founder and president of the Operetta Foundation, tells Mental Floss. "People waited and waited for the next one, and when it came out, the public devoured it. And when it was all said and done, they threw it out."

Take Gershwin’s other early Broadway shows: Many parts to the scores of Dangerous Maid (1921), Our Nell (1922), The Rainbow (1923), and Half Past Eight (1918) have disappeared. "If they didn't make it into one of the warehouses that belonged to companies that rented out scores, the scores might have just been destroyed," says Michael Owen, Consulting Archivist to the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts. The practice has left behind a trail of musical breadcrumbs. "That's the case with Gershwin's pre-1924 shows," Owen said. "There might be one fully-orchestrated song from a musical that still exists. Or there might be half a show that exists, but only as a piano with vocals. Or there might be some lyrics without piano, or piano without lyrics."

The same goes for recordings. The truth is, despite Gershwin's popularity, you can't listen to much of his work as it originally sounded. According to Miller, even recordings of tunes that Gershwin wrote at the height of his popularity, like those in Treasure Girl and Show Girl, are AWOL. Owen estimates that 25 percent of both George and his brother Ira Gershwin's oeuvre has not been recorded. "If you're talking 1923 and earlier, it gets very skimpy."

Primrose is lucky in that regard. A complete piano-vocal score was published when the show debuted in London, and cast recordings were sold. The musical simply slipped into obscurity, and the score plunged with it. It has never been performed in America—until now.

At its heart, Primrose is a tale of unwanted relationships—and a tribute to the lengths people will go to find happiness. In it, the novelist Hilary Vane uses his imaginative talents to cook up real-life schemes to unchain a web of unhappy characters from undesired paramours, freeing them to run off with their true loves. (Along the way, there are some cheerful Arthur Sullivan-esque songs, including one about the headless Mary, Queen of Scots.)

The play, which debuted on London's West End, brought Gershwin to Britain in 1924. He sailed the Atlantic with seven polished tunes already stuffed in his suitcase, many of which were attempts to write in the style of classic Edwardian romps. "I have inserted several numbers in 6/8 time, because the English are a 6/8 nation," he told the London Standard. "The Americans are a 4/4 nation and their music is essentially the fox-trot. But the English, who are used to good lyrics, like the 6/8 rhythm, which approaches most closely to ordinary speech."

The result—a unique fusion of brassy across-the-pond blue notes and British patter song—was distinctly different from anything playing on either side of the Atlantic. The English playwright Noël Coward was gobsmacked. He called the score's variety "extraordinary."

The great significance of Primrose, however, is that Gershwin not only wrote the music—he also orchestrated three tunes himself. Gershwin's orchestration skills have long been a point of controversy. Classical critics, in a fit of anti-showbiz snobbery, griped that he lacked the knowledge to write for large ensembles. Indeed, Gershwin's first stab at opera, Blue Monday, and his famed Rhapsody in Blue were orchestrated by other musicians.

It's here, on Primrose, that Gershwin cut his teeth writing for large ensembles. "These orchestrations are considered to settle a scholarly controversy—when did George learn orchestration?" writes theater expert James Ross Moore in the The George Gershwin Reader. These newly honed orchestration skills would make history, helping Gershwin write pieces that eventually cemented his place on the Mount Rushmore of American composers: his "Concerto in F," American in Paris, and all of Porgy and Bess.

Primrose saw 255 performances on the West End and even hopped to Melbourne and Sydney, Australia. But the Great American Composer's show never appeared in the United States. After premiering down under in 1925, Primrose was forgotten—interest wasn't rekindled until the handwritten scores popped up in that Secaucus warehouse 57 years later.

In 1987, the Library of Congress dusted off the recently discovered score and hosted a performance of Primrose. The play itself, however, was not staged: The dialogue-rich script was cut. Conversely, in 2003, Musicals Tonight!—a New York City group dedicated to reviving classic musicals—performed the musical, but, this time, the orchestrations were cut in favor of a lonely piano. Michael Feingold, a theater critic for the Village Voice, wrote that, "Enough comes across to make you see what the work could be, in the hands of knowing professionals, as part of a living tradition."

Well, pros have finally gotten their hands on it. Michael Miller and his colleagues spent days sifting through the Gershwin archives at the Library of Congress and reassembled the entire original score.

Now, for the first time in 92 years—and the first time in the United States—the curtain has finally opened on a fully-orchestrated, fully-staged production of Primrose, revived under the care of the Ohio Light Opera. Based in Wooster, Ohio (about an hour’s drive south of Cleveland, and a shorter jaunt from Cuyahoga National Park), the Ohio Light Opera will put on seven more performances between now and August 11. I had the privilege of taking in a dress rehearsal, and I can verify that it's a hoot.

As for the sea of other incomplete Gershwin works, there is hope. Scholars are currently working to bring them—all of them—back. At the University of Michigan, folks leading The Gershwin Initiative are working to publish critical editions (including full scores) to all of George and Ira Gershwin's works—including their embryonic stage pieces. (Perhaps they will resurrect the missing score to The Rainbow, which now stands alone as the only Gershwin musical to never enjoy an American premiere.)

In the meantime, Gershwin fans and music history buffs looking to take a road trip should look no further than Ohio: Click here for dates and tickets.

American Motorcycle Association Hall of Fame via Wikipedia (Augusta and Abigail) // Public Domain
The Bold Van Buren Sisters, Who Blazed a Trail Across America
American Motorcycle Association Hall of Fame via Wikipedia (Augusta and Abigail) // Public Domain
American Motorcycle Association Hall of Fame via Wikipedia (Augusta and Abigail) // Public Domain

Descendants of American president Martin Van Buren, Adeline and Augusta Van Buren were born into a life of privilege that assured them the safe and respectable existences of society women. But with America on the brink of war, the sisters ditched their gilded cages for a cross-country adventure they hoped would change their beloved nation for the better.

By July 1916, America was readying to enter World War I, and 32-year-old Augusta and 26-year-old Adeline were eager to do their part as motorcycling military dispatch riders, transporting crucial communications to the front line. Women were flat-out barred from combat duty in the U.S., but as bikers with thousands of hours logged on the roaring vehicles, the Van Burens felt they were uniquely qualified for such arduous and dangerous missions. And they were determined to prove it. By the end of their journey, they would become the first women to travel across the country on two solo motorcycles.

Fittingly, Addie and Gussie—as they preferred to be called—set forth on Independence Day. From Brooklyn's Sheepshead Bay racetrack, they headed to the Lincoln Highway, which ran from Times Square in Manhattan to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. They had top-of-the-line bikes: $275 Indian Power Plus motorcycles that boasted Firestone "non-skid" tires and gas headlights that would allow them to barrel through the darkest nights. They had an indomitable spirit. They had each other. And they'd need all the courage and resources they could muster for this daunting endeavor.

“There were no road maps west of the Mississippi," their great-nephew and historian Robert Van Buren explained to the Worcester, Massachusetts Telegram of the sisters' epic journey. "The roads were just cow passes, dirt trails, wagon trails, things like that.” The Lincoln Highway was far from the paved superhighways of today. Heavy rain proved a major problem, wiping out roads and throwing the Van Burens off-course and off their bikes. “They had no helmets. They just had goggles with a leather cap and leathers on. They were really exposed to the elements,” Van Buren said. “They had a tough time.” Yet weather and murky maps weren't their only obstacles.

Just west of Chicago, the motorcycling mavens were pulled over by police—not for the way they were driving but for the way they were dressed. Though women's fashion was shifting from corsets to more comfy attire, dresses were still the norm. In some states it was actually illegal for women to wear pants. So the Van Burens' military-style leggings and leather riding breeches got them arrested again and again by confounded cops. Between arrests and weather delays, the sisters' one-month journey stretched into two.

By August, Addie and Gussie reached Colorado's Rocky Mountains and earned their first record, becoming the first women to reach the 14,109-foot summit of Pike's Peak by motorized vehicle. Running behind schedule, the sisters abandoned their plan to ride north through Wyoming, favoring a more direct path through the Rockies. Unfortunately, relentless rain transformed the mountains’ dirt paths to sucking mud that mercilessly trapped their tires. Exhausted, freezing, and filthy from their fruitless efforts to free their wheels, the dejected duo was forced to abandon their bikes and seek out help on foot. Hours and miles later, the sisters slid out of the darkness upon the small mining town of Gilman, Colorado. They were quite the sight to the awed miners: two angel-faced ladies draped in leather and caked in mud.

The miners offered them rest and food, then helped the sisters free their bikes. But another brush with disaster came 100 miles west of Salt Lake City, where the winds had whisked away the desert's path, and the pair was woefully low on water. Thankfully, their luck held up again: A prospector came along who not only had a horse-drawn cart packed with supplies, but also a keen sense of direction to get them back on their way.

Wikipedia // Public Domain

Exhausted and elated, Addie and Gussie Van Buren reached San Francisco at long last on September 2, having traveled 5500 miles, and completed their journey on September 8 after arriving in Los Angeles. And still, they pressed on, traveling down to the Mexican border and Tijuana.

Their remarkable ride earned headlines, but much of the media coverage disappointed. Leading motorcycle magazines focused on the bikes, not the bikers. Others ignored the purpose and historical import of their journey, publishing puff pieces about the ladies' curious "vacation." Worse yet, The Denver Post accused the sisters of exploiting World War I to abandon their duties at home to "display their feminine counters in nifty khaki and leather uniforms." But most vexing, the U.S. government was unmoved, and rejected the Van Burens' application for dispatch service.

Following their cross-country adventure, the boundary-busting sisters pursued new passions. In a time when female lawyers were unheard of, Addie earned her law degree at prestigious New York University. Meanwhile, Gussie became a pilot, flying in Amelia Earhart's Ninety-Nines, an international organization dedicated to creating a supportive environment and opportunities for aviatrixes. With these accomplishments, each sister added credence to Gussie's famous maxim, "Woman can, if she will."

While their journey didn't deliver the immediate impact the sisters had hoped for, today they are remembered as pioneers for women and motorcyclists alike. Addie and Gussie's courageous spirit and intense independence is celebrated by descendants and admirers who have kept their legacy alive through cross-country rides that traced their path on the trip's 90th and 100th anniversaries. Plus, both the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum's Hall of Fame in South Dakota and the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame of Ohio have posthumously inducted the Van Burens as esteemed members.

Both Addie and Gussie enjoyed full lives with careers that thrilled them, and family that loved and still rally around them, decades after their deaths at ages 59 and 75 respectively. In their time, these headstrong and hearty sisters witnessed the passing of the 19th Amendment that gave women the vote. They cheered the female patriots who rushed into the workforce as World War II demanded. They relished in a world that was changing to meet them, the industrious, rebellious, and brave Van Burens.


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