October 23, 2013

“Serutan spelled backwards spells Nature’s.”

On October 23, 1934 the company Healthaids, Inc. filed a trademark application for an advertising slogan it was using to promote its laxative product, Serutan.

Early cans of Serutan (and later bottles) featured the words “Read It Backwards” under the product’s name.

The trademarked ad slogan, which quickly became famous, made the point more directly:

      “Serutan spelled backwards spells Nature’s.”

In the 1930s and 1940s, Serutan was a sponsor of several popular radio shows, including Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts and news shows featuring the “muckraking” journalist Drew Pearson.

Serutan also sponsored a number of early television shows in the 1950s, like Ernie Kovacs morning show Three To Get Ready. (In 1951, when Serutan ads took over a full five minutes of Three To Get Ready, Kovacs sarcastically mocked this extra-long commercial break by calling himself “Ernie Scavok” for weeks.)

Since Serutan’s “vegetable hydrogel” product was heavily targeted to older people concerned about “regularity,” it was a particularly good fit for The Lawrence Welk Show.

In fact, from the 1950s and into the 1970s, Serutan was a major sponsor of Welk’s show, along with other senior-oriented products like the vitamin supplement Geritol.

Bandleader and host Lawrence Welk would often introduce a Serutan commercial and then turn it over to an announcer.

For example, in a typical Serutan commercial break from 1964, Welk introduced the ad by saying: “Here’s Bob Warren to help folks over 35 solve a common problem.”

The ad that followed showed some happy “folks over 35,” then a woman who looked distressed, with the caption “After 35" at the bottom of the screen.

Announcer Bob Warren helpfully explained:

“You know the years over 35 could be the best of your life. But as you get older, you may feel grouchy and out of sorts, because of irregularity. After 35, your system slows down. What you may need today is the all-vegetable laxative aid Serutan, which is specially made for folks over 35. That’s because Serutan provides the peristaltic stimulation for more normal regularity. This is different from pills, salts or oils. Serutan acts like the naturally laxative hydrogel in fruits and vegetables to help keep you regular. So, if after 35, if you feel grouchy and out of sorts, take Serutan daily to help stimulate your slowed-down system to more normal regularity. Remember, when you read Serutan backwards, it spells nature’s.”

By the time The Lawrence Welk Show went off the air in 1982, Serutan was being pushed off store shelves by newer laxatives.

Today, it’s no longer sold. But the slogan “Serutan spelled backwards spells Nature’s” was firmly embedded in our language and is still being quoted and spoofed.

Many people who never saw a bottle of Serutan — and even those who have no idea what Serutan is — are familiar with the slogan or at least with the “X spelled backwards spells Y” catchphrase formula, which is often used for humorous effect.

If you’re a National Lampoon fan (like me), you might recall that the Lampoon’s great spoof Bored of the Rings: A Parody of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings used the name Serutan for the character who was Bored’s version of the evil wizard Saruman in Tolkien’s Trilogy.

Not long ago, I saw a YouTube video of some giggling teenage girls gleefully spoofing the old Serutan slogan.

Well, yuck it up while you can, girls. Someday you’ll be old yourselves and downing your daily laxatives. It won’t be Serutan. But it might well be a product made with the same key ingredient that was in Serutan — psyllium.

Psyllium is in a number of modern “fiber supplements,” such as Metamucil.

I suppose Metamucil may be as good or better than Serutan at helping “folks over 35 solve a common problem.” But it doesn’t have the same potential for a good slogan when spelled backwards.

For more Serutan trivia see...

• The Healthaids, Inc. entry in the book Sold on Radio: Advertisers in the Golden Age of Broadcasting by Jim Cox

“Serutan Yob,” the spoof song “For Backward Boys And Girls Under 40” by Red Ingle & The Unnatural Seven

• The “Laxative ‘In’ Product For Over 35 Crowd” page, on the great Old-Time Radio website

• The discussion of the pursuit of "regularity" in the book Inner Hygiene: Constipation and the Pursuit of Health in Modern Society by James C. Whorton

• The 1945 Health Instruction Yearbook entry noting that the Federal Trade Commission had issued a cease-and-desit order against Healthaids, Inc. to stop “any advertisement which represents directly or indirectly that Serutan is a cure or remedy for constipation.”

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October 14, 2013

First they came for the Communists – or was it the Industrialists?

On October 14, 1968, Congressman Henry S. Reuss of Wisconsin made some remarks on the floor of Congress that included what became a very famous quotation – or, more accurately, a very famous misquotation.

The “quote” Reuss read was recorded in the Congressional Record as follows:

“When Hitler attacked the Jews, I was not a Jew, therefore, I was not concerned. And when Hitler attacked the Catholics, I was not a Catholic, and therefore, I was not concerned. And when Hitler attacked the unions and the industrialists, I was not a member of the unions and I was not concerned. Then, Hitler attacked me and the Protestant church – and there was nobody left to be concerned.”

Reuss credited these words to Howard J. Samuels, a New York businessman who was the Administrator of the Small Business Administration and, according to Reuss, “a leader of the Nation’s Jewish community."

It was soon pointed out that the quote was not created by Samuels, but was actually a version of words spoken by the German theologian and Lutheran pastor, Martin Niemöller (1892-1984).

Today, many books and thousands of websites attribute the lines in the Congressional Record to Niemöller .

Pastor Niemöller was one of the brave German church leaders who spoke out publicly against the Nazis’ persecution of Jews and other minority groups while Adolf Hitler was in power. He was arrested and put in a Nazi concentration camp for his views, but survived.

In 1946, after World War II ended, he began talking in his sermons and speeches about the collective guilt Germans shared for going along with Hitler’s atrocities.

A paraphrase of Niemöller’s remarks on this topic was cited in the 1955 book by Milton Mayer, They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45.

Mayer wrote that a German friend of his told him:

“Pastor Niemöller spoke for the thousands and thousands of men like me when he spoke (too modestly of himself) and said that, when the Nazis attacked the Communists, he was a little uneasy, but, after all, he was not a Communist, and so he did nothing; and then they attacked the Socialists, and he was a little uneasier, but, still, he was not a Socialist, and he did nothing; and then the schools, the press, the Jews, and so on, and he was always uneasier, but still he did nothing. And then they attacked the Church, and he was a Churchman, and he did something—but then it was too late.”

Eventually, someone (possibly Howard Samuels) turned this book’s account of what Niemöller said into the “quote” Rep. Reuss read into the Congressional Record on October 13, 1968.

Then some other unknown person turned that famous misquote into a popular poem which was and still is commonly attributed to Pastor Niemöller.

Many different versions of this poem have been published in books and on the Internet, naming various groups in varying order.

One of the most common versions starts with “the Jews” and goes like this:

  “First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
   Then they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.
   Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
   Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.”

Other common versions start with “Communists” or “Socialists.”

The bottom line is this: Pastor Niemöller did say some things in his sermons that are similar to the lines given in the Congressional Record, in Mayer’s 1955 book and the poetic variations.

But there is no written record of him saying anything exactly like any of those “quotes.”

Interestingly, the version read by Congressman Reuss omitted Communists and Socialists. In 1968, the Cold War was still ongoing and no savvy American politician could publicly sympathize with “Reds.” So, Ruess inserted “industrialists” in their place.

Niemöller himself did not mention industrialists in his sermons about people the Nazis persecuted, since they were not one of the groups the Nazis targeted. But he did mention Communists and Socialists, since they were in fact persecuted by the Nazis.

Indeed, when his “quote” became famous and Niemöller was asked about it, he said he preferred the versions that included Communists and Socialists.

The most definitive research I’ve seen about all this was done by Harold Marcuse, a professor of German history at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Marcuse posted a summary of his research online and it’s well worth reading if you’re a fan of this famous saying.

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October 13, 2013

“Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

In 1950, Bette Davis was a highly-regarded actress. But she was starting to be viewed as an “aging” actress and her career seemed to be fading.

That year, the multitalented writer, producer and director Joseph L. Mankiewicz gave Bette a plum role in a film that helped revive her popularity with critics and audiences.

Ironically, Bette’s character in this movie, Margo Channing, is a highly-regarded but aging actress whose career is fading.

The film is All About Eve, an Academy Award-winning drama that premiered in New York City on October 13, 1950.

Mankiewicz himself wrote the screenplay. He based it on a short story by Mary Orr about a scheming young actress named Eve, who cozies up to an older actress, then tries to steal her roles and her husband.

Most true fans of classic movies knew the famous line that Davis, as Margo, delivers in the film.

It comes during a scene in which Margo throws a birthday party for her director and companion, Bill Sampson, played by Gary Merrill (who became Bette’s real life husband that same year).

When she notices him being a bit too attentive to the aspiring young actress Eve Harrington (played by Anne Baxter), Margo becomes jealous, starts downing drinks and acting snappish.

Her friend Karen (Celeste Holm) notices and says to her: “We’ve seen you like this before. Is it over, or is it just beginning?"

Margo quaffs another drink, walks over to a staircase, looks down with a devilish smile and responds with the now legendary movie quote:

“Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

Of course, since the year was 1950, she was alluding to buckling up during a bumpy flight on an airplane. Cars didn’t have seatbelts back then.

All About Eve was a major hit that rejuvenated Bette’s career, earned her an Oscar nomination and a Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival.

It’s also notable for a brief appearance by a young Marilyn Monroe during the party scene. It was one of her early roles and she didn’t get much screen time, but her beauty and sexy charisma are apparent.

Here are some of the other famous quotes and phrases linked to October 13: 

“You must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh...” - The famous song “As Time Goes By,” written by American songwriter Herman Hupfeld, was made famous by the movie Casablanca (1943). But it was originally written for the Broadway musical Everybody’s Welcome, which opened at the Shubert Theater in New York City on October 13, 1931.

“Fail-Safe.” - The title of a book by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler that debuted in serialized form in the October 13, 1962 issue of The Saturday Evening Post magazine. It was soon published as a book that became a bestseller, burning the scary Cold War term “fail-safe” into America’s consciousness and language.

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October 05, 2013

Dan Quayle is no Jack Kennedy – and Lloyd Bentsen is no Michael Sheehan…

It’s not often that debates between candidates for Vice President of the United States generate a famous quotation – or even much attention.

But there are some notable exceptions.

One is the October 13, 1992 vice-presidential debate, in which Independent Ross Perot’s V.P. pick, James Stockdale, said “Who am I? Why am I here?” (It had the unfortunate effect of making him seem a bit, er, lost.)

A more famous quote from a vice-presidential debate occurred four years earlier on October 5, 1988.

In that one, Republican V.P. candidate Senator Dan Quayle debated Senator Lloyd Bentsen, candidate for the Democratic Party. (The presidential candidates were Republican George Herbert Walker Bush and Democrat Michael Dukakis.)

Tom Brokaw was among the journalists asking the candidates questions that night. At one point, Brokaw raised an issue that had previously been raised by various political pundits (and Democrats) in the weeks leading up to the debate: the question of whether Quayle, who was only 41 years old, had the experience needed to serve as President of the United States in the event it became necessary.

In his reply to Brokaw, Quayle made the mistake of saying: “I have far more experience than many others that sought the office of vice president of this country. I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency.”

Bentsen pounced on this quickly, responding with what is considered to be one of the best zingers ever used in a political debate:

“Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.”

Democrats and the media loved it. And, ever since then, the linguistic formula “You’re no [fill in the name]” has been part of our cultural lexicon, usually as a line used for humorous effect.

Of course, despite all the attention the line received, Bush and Quayle handily defeated Dukakis and Bentsen in the November 1988 election.

And, although the quip made Bentsen seem like a debating genius, he didn’t exactly come up with it out of the blue.
Before the debate, Bentsen had received extensive training from the legendary professional speakers trainer and debate coach Michael Sheehan.

Sheehan has coached more US Presidents, Vice Presidents, First Ladies, Cabinet Secretaries, Governors, Mayors and Congressmen than anyone in the country. He’s a master at creating quotable quips for them to use.

Sheehan knew that Quayle had often compared himself to President Kennedy when reporters asked him about his youth and qualifications. He was also aware that Bentsen had known Kennedy personally.

During their practice for the vice-presidential debate, Sheehan had Bentsen prepare and hone responses to a number of things Quayle was likely to say during the debate. One was how to respond if Quayle compared himself to Kennedy.

In a story published in Vanity Fair magazine in 2011, Democratic political consultant Mike Curry, who was involved in the 1988 campaign, gave Bentsen all the credit for his famous debate zinger.

But some people who know Michael Sheehan think he may have crafted the final version of the quip Bentsen used in the debate.

I happen know Michael Sheehan myself. I worked with him on some political campaigns I’ve been involved in.

I once asked him whether he created Bentsen’s “You’re no Jack Kennedy” lines. He avoided giving me a direct answer.

Nonetheless, here’s my opinion: Lloyd Bentsen is no Michael Sheehan.

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