Five Romans in exile

New article is up at Mental Floss. Imagine getting kicked out of your favourite place. Now imagine that place ruled most of the world which, I guess, is kind of like being sat in the corner at school. If at school you could murder your rivals and eventual connive your way to being principal.

Kicked to the curb: 5 Romans in Exile


Moe Green et al

It’s taken a surprising amount of time for me to remember watching Harold Ramis on SCTV. He was on it in the first three years, much earlier than Toronto’s CityTV or the CBC cared to rerun for me after school. But I saw some, mostly featuring the final days of my favourite, SCTV’s smarmy fink station manager Moe Green. Ramis took the name from Alex Rocco’s character in the Godfather. Here’s Rocco’s:

And here’s Ramis!

Much funnier.

The episode I loved the most – and what I’d forgotten until after a little digging – was the Kidnapping of Moe Green. In 1979, Ramis was set to break into movies. So Moe was kidnapped by paramilitary guerillas Leutonian Liberation Front and wasn’t worth the ransom. Try as I might I couldn’t find a clip. There is a hole in the internet. It’s ragnarok.

But I did find this:

And this, Officer Friendly:

And Curtis Edgit, Plainclothes Mountie:

And Mort Finkel, Do-it-yourself Dentistry:

That look he gives after the second shot of rum!

Along with the Kidnapping of Moe Green, this last clip is another favourite: Winning Chess with Boris Morris. Watch out for those pointy-headed guys.

Thank you, Harold Ramis.

Can’t you see I’m up a tree?

So last Christmas I received an album some people might not be able to stand: Anton Karas’ zither recordings. This included the famous Third Man movie theme.

The story of Anton Karas being discovered and hired to perform music for the film is legendary. What I didn’t know was the career Karas had on the heels of the Third Man. Everyone’s on the heels of the Third Man. I know I am.

Halfway through, the album lifts above the streets and sewers of Vienna with the voice of Kay Armen singing “I’m in the Middle of a Riddle”.

Kay isn’t known much today. In her prime during the 1950s she was ‘Charmin’ Kay Armen’, regularly heard on the radio in the quiz show “Stop the Music” and “Life with Luigi”, the trials of Italian immigrant Luigi Basco played by Irishman J. Carrol Naish.

Her performance of “Hallelujah” from the film “Hit the Deck” (1955) was featured again in 1974’s “That’s Entertainment”. “Come-on-a My House”, a hit for Rosemary Clooney, was written for Armen. In 1995, she received the National Medal for the Arts. She recorded “Middle of a Riddle” with Karas in 1950.


It’s the sweetest song to be stumbled upon. It was apparently included in the film “Brick” with Joseph Gordon-Levitt but I missed it under all the angst.

The lyrics trip along so finely with Karas’ zither. ‘Though I show I love you so, I’ve got a feeling you’re concealing a feeling that I ought to know’. It’s the most charming waltz and I hope Vienna dances to it nightly.

I’m glad to have discovered the song last year, then forgotten it and rediscovered it again the other night. That doesn’t happen often.

Now fans of Fiona Apple get to be as happy as I am. She’s covered it in harmony with her sister Maude Maggart for the compilation album Sweetheart 2014.

Part of me wishes she hadn’t touched it. I’m in the middle of a riddle ’cause it won’t belong to me. She’s done it no wrong though. But let’s not forget Kay Armen. She just lifts a little higher.

Happy Boxing Day!

To all those who have the day off or give a little extra after Christmas, have a great Dec 26! And to all the Canadians I know on WordPress, thanks for your follows, likes, comments and good will over the past year. Just remember, it’s bad luck to have Canadian Tire money left at New Year’s and this is the best day to use them. So get out there, give (to yourselves) like Santa and save like Scrooge!

If he’s a father, where are his kids?

St Nicolas – he has so much to say, he needed his own post. The prototype for holiday gift-bringers – unless you count Odin the Yule-father but that’s just too much to deal with – St Nick has had so many changes it’s hard to keep track of all the stockings he’s filled.

So who is this guy who’s supposed to come into houses the night of Dec 24th and leave things, this reverse burglar? He’s got numerous aliases, so that’s suspicious. Let’s name them, just for kicks:

Kris Kringle, Santa Claus, Father Christmas, Sir Christmas, Captain Christmas, Gregory.

Kris Kringle – Edmund Gwenn plays the part impeccably in Miracle on 34th Street but he may be too old for the part. Kris Kringle is a corruption of the German Krist Kindl – Christ Child. The word was also loaned out as Christingle, a children’s mass on Christmas Eve taken from the Moravian custom of the 18th C. But all-in-all it’s a good sounding name. Or, if you could hear it, the sound of frost growing and retreating on a windowpane – krissss kringle!

Santa Claus – St Nick’s American nom de guerre is loaned out from the Dutch Sinterklaas. Like Stuyvesant Square in New York City, this piece of Netherlander lore is firmly packed inside American culture. While we as kids believed with all our hearts that Coca Cola invented his fat face, white beard and red suit, it isn’t true. However, their artist – Haddon Sundblom – did inject Scandinavian elements like the drooping tasseled hat into the vision already created by Clement Clark Moore’s A Visit from St Nicolas.

Most illustrations of him in Moore’s poem are captioned “Santa Claus” instead of St Nicolas. L Frank Baum created a whole new life for him in the Life and Adventures of Santa Claus. A little lost babe taken in by a fairie, Santa – or Neclaus as Baum writes it – grows into a generous man not only giving toys but inventing them too. Huh.

According to the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, the name reached England in the 1870s. Hanging up stockings was already an old custom. This new fellow caused some confusion around it. One observer thought it was “Santa Cruz, the Holy Cross”. Another writes in 1879, ‘On Christmas Eve … some mythical being called Santiclaus will fill the stocking … From what region of the earth or air this benevolent Santiclaus takes flight I have not been able to ascertain.’

Father Christmas – as English as John Bull, Father Christmas was traditionally associated with feasting rather than gifting. He comes more from a personification of Yule, or midwinter, than St Nicolas. The figure of Yule himself stems from Odin who flew about the earth on the Winter Solstice bestowing good cheer.

Ben Jonson, playwright and Shakespeare superfriend, wrote a Christmas play for the royal court in 1616 – Christmas his Masque – where Christmas laughs off being left out of the season’s fun. ‘Christmas, Old Christmas, Christmas of London, and Captain Christmas’, as he calls himself. ‘I am Old Gregory Christmas still, and though I am come from Pope’s Head Alley, as good a Protestant as any in my parish.’

Presiding over festivals and seasonal entertainment, Father Christmas became the face of a backlash against the Puritan fight to cancel Christmas. The Puritans saw the season and all its trimmings as a Papist plot to rule England through misrule. That’s right. Many of America’s founders hated Christmas.

Victorians loved him. To them he was a sort of Falstaff of better personal character, pouring wine in Elizabethan dress-up. His image was soon greatly informed by the Ghost of Christmas Present in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. If you ever see him in a loose green robe, that’s the Christmas spirit right there.

And to answer my own question, Father Christmas has many sons. As Ben Jonson names them: Misrule, Carol, Mince Pie, Gambol, Post-and-Pan, New Year’s Gift, Mumming, Wassail, and Baby Cake. As many as Santa’s reindeer including Rudolph. I bet it’s Wassail who has the red nose.