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1979: Albert's (in Omaha) is lit!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Joshing with Cal Stewart

About 1975 I was visiting family in Brookings, SD, and my aunt dropped me off at a little museum on the campus. The docents didn't know, when I asked them, if the cylinder player worked, but didn't mind if I tried it, so I put on a Sousa march for a half a minute, then switched over to "Uncle Josh at the Bug House."

James Thurber describes how he and his brother played a record -- I think it was "Cohen at the Telephone" -- nearly to death, and the same seems to have gone for this work of humorous art. Without steady, gentle finger pressure on the needle, it would have stayed in any given spot and repeated the same revolution over and over.

The performance itself was a recitation of one basic joke, over and over. The narrator lodged at a sort of hotel run by a man named Bug. He saw the lightning, Bug did, hee hee. He took a tumble, Bug did, hee hee. The piece had its own canned laughter, you might say, as "Uncle Josh" made sure to laugh at each of his jokes, or more accurately, at each instance of his joke. It was so popular, he re-recorded it a few years later. Here's Uncle Josh, blessedly silent, reacting to events in a Haunted House:

For the curious, the record is available at archive.org, along with a raft of other "Uncle Josh" sides and many other recordings. "Uncle Josh" movies can be found at the Library of Congress's "American Memory" site. Elsewhere online, I've found a reprint of at least one "Uncle Josh" book, and the fictional "Punkin Center" where the tales take place has been enshrined in more than one locale with that name, including one in Colorado, not terribly far from Lamar and Karval. I see that Cal Stewart's creation is also available on YouTube (aka: Your One-Stop Shop for All Things Josh). Which is to say, he was popular. Here he is at the moving picture show:

I'm too lazy to look up whether Stewart took his character's name from the verb "to josh," or whether the word came from Stewart's character. Neither one would surprise me much. (ps: A commenter at LJ says the verb precedes the name by many years.)

Cross-posted to LJ. Based on a Usenet post.