Monday, March 18, 2013

Alfred E. Neuman in Drag - Willis Searle Looks like a Girl

As I noted in my first post, Willis Searle is one of the original Alfred E. Neumans.  He was the first actor to play the role of Archibald Rennick in The New Boy in the United States.  The image of Archibald Rennick on the advertising poster for The New Boy is the original Alfred E. Neuman-like image.  

Willis Searle was also the punch line in a poem about a cross-dressing soldier before his debut in The New Boy.


We were on picket, sir, he and I,
Under the blue of a midnight sky,
In the wilderness, where the night bird's song
Gives back an echo all night long;
Where the silver stars as they come and pass,
Leave stars of dew on the tangled grass,
And the rivers sing in the silent hours
Their sweetest songs to the list'ning flowers.

He'd a slender form and a girlish face,
That seemed in the army out of place,
Though he smiled as I told him to that day -
Aye, smiled and flushed in a girlish way
That 'minded me of a face I knew
In a distant village; 'neath the blue,
When our armies marched, at the meadow bars
She met and kissed me 'neath the stars.

Before us the river silent ran,
  And we'd been placed to guard the ford,
A dangerous place, and we'd jump and start
  Whenever a leaf by the wind was stirred.
Behind us the army lay encamped,
  Their camp-fires burned into the night
Like bonfires built upon the hills,
  And set by demon hands alight.

Somehow, whenever I looked that way,
  I seemed to see her face again,
Kind o' hazy like, as you've seen a star
 A peepin' out through a misty rain;
And once, believe, as I thought of her,
  I thought aloud, and called him Bess,
When he started quick, and smiling said,
  "You dream of some one at home, I guess."

'Twas just in the flush of morning light,
  We stopped for a chat at the end of our beat,
When a rifle flashed at the river's bank,
  And bathed in blood he sank at my feet;
All of a sudden I knew her then,
  And, kneeling, I kissed the girlish face,
And raised her head from the tangled grass,
  To find on my breast its resting place.

When the Corporal came to change the-guard,
  At six in the morning, he found me there
With Bessie's dead form clasped in my arms,
  And hid in my heart her dying prayer.
They buried her under the moaning pines,
  And never a man in the army knew
That Willie Searles and my girl were one.
  You're the first l've told – the story's new.

The poem was disguised as a romantic ode to a soldier’s sweetheart, Bessie.  It tells of a soldier on late night guard duty.  It recounts in sweet, tender, loving detail how his partner on guard duty reminds him of his hometown sweetheart, Bessie; his slender figure and a girlish face seem so out of place in the army.  Only after the partner is tragically shot and killed by a sniper in the middle of the night does he realize that his buddy, “Willie Searles,” actually IS his sweetheart from back home.

The poem appeared in the National Tribune on September 18, 1894.  The National Tribune was a newspaper that specialized in news and information for members of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) and its women’s auxiliary, the Relief Corps.  The GAR was a fraternal organization for Union Army veterans of the Civil War.   The poem appeared, specifically, in the section of news related to the Relief Corps.

The poem was reportedly reprinted from another newspaper, but the source and the author are not named.  The poem was provided by Kate B. Sherwood and Emma D. Sibley, the President and National Secretary of the Relief Corps, respectively, in a bundle of news items dated September 8, 1894.  They present the poem as a “beautiful story, sweetly told.”  They appear to have been oblivious to the underlying humor.

It is likely that most of their readers were also oblivious to the cross-dressing reference to ‘Willie Searles.’  Willis Searle was an Englishman who was brought to America to play the role of Archibald Rennick in The New Boy.  The New Boy premiered in New York on September 17, 1894, one day before this poem was published in The National Tribune, but nearly two weeks after the date on which the President of the Relief Corps sent the poem to the newspaper.

It is therefore likely that most of the readers were unfamiliar with Willis Searle and his background as the cross-dressing star of Charley’s Aunt on the South African stage.  The role of Charley’s aunt is a cross-dressing role.  Charley’s college chum poses as his rich aunt from Brazil who is in town for a visit.  Although Searle would later tour the United States in a production of Charley’s Aunt, he does not seem to have performed that role in America before the poem was reprinted in The National Tribune.

Charley’s Aunt premiered in London in 1893.  Willis Searle’s performances in the role in South African would therefore have taken place sometime during 1893-94.  Coincidentally, or not so coincidentally, the British South Africa Company was fighting the First Matabele War against the Ndbele (Matabele) Kingdom during 1893-94.  The original source of the poem may well have been a British soldier serving in South Africa during that period.

I do not know how many English-language stage productions were available to entertain soldiers on leave or liberty in South Africa in 1893-94, but it seems likely that British soldiers in South African may well have appreciated the humor in the poem’s penultimate line,

“Willie Searles and my girl were one.”

The humor of the line was probably lost on the President and Secretary of the Relief Corps of the GAR in September, 1894.

Due to poor reviews, Willis Searle was fired from The New Boy within weeks of his debut and was immediately sent out on a national tour of Charley’s Aunt.  Assuming for the moment Willis Searle was the original Alfred E. Neuman, Alfred E. Neuman would not appear in drag again until his appearance as Tootsie on the July 1983 issue. 

Of course it is also possible that The New Boy poster image was based on Weedon Grossmith, who originated the role in London, or James T. Powers, who popularized the role in the United States, or Bert Coote, who toured throughout the United States and Canada in the role for years.  It is also possible that Alfred E. Neuman’s face was altered from the original; James T. Powers, for example, bears a greater resemblance to Alfred E. Neuman than he does to the original The New Boy poster.  For the whole story, see my original post, The Real Alfred E.

For his part, Willis Searle was back in England by July 1895.  According to William Archer, The Theatrical ‘World’ 1895, Searle performed two roles at the Avenue theatre in London in 1895, The Private Secretary (September) and Mrs. Ponderbury’s Past (November), before falling off the radar.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

What? Me Worry? Isch ka Bibble and Alfred E. Neuman

What? Me Worry?   Isch ka Bibble and Alfred E. Neuman

In an earlier post, I point out that the Alfred E. Neuman face and catch phrase originated from the advertising poster for The New Boy, a stage play that was first performed in 1894.  The changes in the wording of the original phrase from “What’s the good of anything? – Nothing!” to “Me-worry?” and “What – me worry?” may have been further influenced by the “I should worry" craze of the  early 1910s.

Isch ka Bibble:

I never care or worry
Isch Gabibble - Isch Gabibble
I never tear or hurry
Isch Gabibble - Isch Gabibble
. . . .
I should worry if they steal my wife
And let a pimple grow on my young life
Isch Gabibble - I should worry?
No! Not me! 

So say the lyrics to a hit song from 1913, Isch Ga-Bibble (spelling from the published sheet music; Isch ka Bibble as spelled on the record label of the recording by Ed Morton), words by Sam M. Lewis, music by George W. Meyer.  The song introduced the faux Yiddish gibberish word, ‘Isch ka Bibble,’ in all of its variant spellings, into the public lexicon.  The phrase would reappear in the 1930s as the name of a comic character on Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge radio program.  Isch ka Bibble’s English language ‘translation,’ “I should worry,” entered the popular lexicon in an even bigger way.

The Washington Herald (March 26, 1914), published a story about an investigation into Isch ga bibble by the Washington DC correspondent to the Cologne (Germany) Times:

“Isih ga bibble?"  “Whaddyemean.  'Isch ga bibble?’” asked the Germans who live in Germany when American tourists "pulled" the phrase during their wanderings in the fatherland. 

"It's German," responded the tourists.  "Don't you know your own language?"  Now, Germans, as everyone knows, are a serious-minded people.  So they began to think that maybe they didn't know German after all, and grew worried about it.  As the tourists journeyed the phrase spread, and pretty soon the whole empire was wondering about "Isch ga bibble." 

Finally, a German newspaper decided to settle the question, once and for all.  So the other day Dr. George Barthelme, Washington correspondent of the Cologne Gazette, received a terse message from the home office, something to this effect: "Probe Isch ga bibble. Americans here call it German.  Rush details." 

“I should worry,” remarked Dr. Barthelme, reading the message. Thereupon
he got busy.  Success crowned his efforts. Last night he sent a story back home telling all about it. Here is what he found out:

There is a saying common among German Hebrews meaning about the same thing as "I should worry " The saying is: "Nlsch gefiddellt." In a Hebrew theater In New York one of the comedians "put across" the line.  An American song writer in the audience heard it, didn't understand the correct pronunciation, and wrote It down the way it sounded to him. "That's the way it ought to be. anyhow." he remarked. So he wrote an "Isch ga bibble" song and It went all over the country, and everybody shrugged their shoulders and said "Isch ga bibble," and It got back to Germany that way. 

And now that Dr. Barthelme has found out what it's all about the German mind will be relieved and everybody will be happy, and will say- "Just like Americans, nisch gefiddellt", and the Americans will keep right on saying "Isch ga bibble."

Whether a ‘mistake’ or intentional, the word stuck and helped elevate “I should worry” into a national craze.

I Should Worry:

“I should worry” seems to have been an example of what we would now call a meme.  It was considered a dismissive, sarcastic, snarky remark, along the lines (as best as I can tell) of today’s “yeah, whatever” or “I could care less.”  Although the "I should worry" fad seems to pre-date the song, the song lyrics illustrate how the phrase was used and may have helped propel the craze even further.

The following cartoon from The San Francisco Call (August 10, 1913) also illustrates how the phrase was used and how it was viewed by more conservative members of the older generation:

Then, as now, there were fuddy-duddies who resisted pop-culture.  The Day Book (January 17, 1914) reported that “Mrs. W. J. Zeh, president of the Perboyre Art and Culture club, wants to abolish the phrase, ‘I Should Worry.’”  She was looking for young people to suggest suitable replacements for the phrase.  The reporter, on the other hand, suggested leaving the phrase alone to die a natural death like the earlier fads, “Oh, You Kid” and “For the Love of Mike.”  

A travel writer reported that:

London’s hotels and lodging-houses are filled to the skylights with blooming Yankee tourists.  Never before has the city welcomed more travelers who say, “I should worry” and gnaw pepsin gum and demand the baseball scores by cable.

The Day Book (July 26, 1913).

But not everyone was so negative.  Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, for example, approved.  Billie Burke, who later played Glinda in the 1939 movie, The Wizard of Oz, was quoted as saying:

I think the man who invented the slang phrase, “I should worry,” almost deserves a Nobel prize.

The mere fact that almost everybody in the United States is saying this little derisive sentence over and over to themselves daily is a sure sign that a great many of them will begin to understand that worry is the most foolish of all the unnecessary things with which women torture themselves.

The Day Book (May 20, 1913).  Dr. L. K. Hirshberg of Johns Hopkins University agreed with the Good Witch; he prescribed repeating “I should worry” fifty times daily, loudly and with conviction (increase dose as needed), as a cure for chronic worry.  The Salt Lake Tribune (May 11, 1913).

The “I should worry” meme was repeated in many different variations:
She Should Worry - The San Francisco Call (August 10, 1913)

We Should Worry – Tacoma Times (October 21, 1912)

They Should Worry – The Day Book (April 5, 1913)

and, Me – worry? – Harry S. Stuff (1914)

Harry Stuff filed for copyright protection for his "Eternal Optimist" or "Me - Worry?" image in 1914, at the height of the "I should worry" craze.  Although the image was likely based on or inspired by the earlier poster for The New Boy (as discussed in my earlier post), the rewording of the phrase to "Me-Worry?" (or "What? - Me Worry" as it appeared in later iterations of the image) seems to have been influenced by or was part of the "I should worry" craze of the early 1910s.   

Harry Stuff’s image was the subject of a law suit in the 1960s.  Harry Stuff’s widow sued Mad Magazine for copyright infringement.  Mad Magazine prevailed.

(Watch a two-minute (or less) summary of the History of Alfred E. Neuman - click here.

Monday, March 11, 2013

More Real Alfred E.

The Los Angeles Herald, December 2, 1894
For the full story, go to my first post - The Real Alfred E.

Here, I just want to supplement the previous post with some additional New Boy/Neuman images.

The first image I ran across was in an article announcing the upcoming performances of the national touring company of The New Boy in Los Angeles.  The show was scheduled to be performed at the Los Angeles Theater for three days, two performances daily, on Thursday through Saturday, December 6, 7 and 8.  The Los Angeles Herald had earlier featured The New Boy in an article about the New York theater scene published on November 7, 1894.

The Morning Call (San Francisco) November 18, 1894

I later found the same image in an advertisement for The New Boy in San Francisco's The Morning Call, November 18, 1894.  The show was scheduled to play in San Francisco for two weeks.  The show's billing as, "The Mirthmaker of 3 Continents!" was a reference to its success in England, the United States and Australia.

The Evening Dispatch, January 10, 1895
The New Boy image also appeared in newspapers in Utah.  It appeared in the Salt Lake Herald on December 22, 1894 and in the Evening Dispatch (Provo) on January 10 and 11, 1895.

Salt Lake Herald, December 22, 1894

The face from these newspaper advertisements was copied nearly exactly for the Atmore's plum pudding and mince meat pie advertisement in 1895, with the addition of the hand and slice of pie held in front of his chest.


Weedon Grossmith, who originated the role of Archibald Rennick in The New Boy included photographs of himself in costume and in character for the role in his autobiography, From Studio to Stage, John Lane Company (1913).

At left, Archibald is wearing a child's sailor suit and kinickers and shielding his face from Bullock's fist.  Is this where he lost his front teeth?

At right, he is wearing the Eton jacket and Eton collar that are apparently shown in the advertising image and which were copied in most of the painless dentistry advertisements.

Weedon Grossmith and the James T. Powers, who popularized the role of Archibald Rennick in the American production of The New Boy, shared some things in common.  The American James T. Powers toured England with The Vokes Family, an English company of actors, in the early 1880s; and his wife, Rachel Booth, played the role of the seductress, Nancy, in The New Boy.  The Englishman Weedon Grossmith honed his acting chops touring the United States with the Vokes Family in 1885 and married the woman who played Nancy in the London production of The New Boy.

The St. Louis Republic, January 14, 1903
Examples of painless dentistry advertisements were apparently fairly common from the early 1900s and into the 1920s.  Numerous examples of them can be seen in John Adcock's blog postings on The Mysteries of Melvin and Painless McPhee.

Here are a few more that I found which all appear to have been either copied from or based on The New Boy advertising image.

El Paso Herald, March 10, 1913
The Salt Lake Tribune, November 1, 1904


One of the best surveys of early Alfred E. Neuman-like imagery is Maria Reidelbach's 1992 book, Completely Mad: A History of the Comic Book, which devotes an entire chapter to early-Neuman-alia.  I believe that she had access to Mad Magazine's archive of material that they collected during a copyright lawsuit in the 1960s and other items that readers had sent them over the years.

John E. Hett, the publisher of the Mad Magazine fanzine periodical, The Journal of Madness, has written at least two articles on the history of the image in the magazine, America Loves an Idiot: The Origin of Alfred E. Neuman (Issue #14) and Alfred, We Hardly Knew Thee! (Issue #16).  He also organized an exhibition of Alfred E. Neuman art and artifacts at Eastern Michigan University in 2008.