(Above: the cover of Bill Dana’s breakthrough LP.)
Comedian Bill Dana passed away last week at the age of 92. Dana wrote one of the most powerful television episodes dealing with race in the history of the medium – the episode of All in the Family where Sammy Davis, Jr. pays a visit to the Bunker household, and famously kisses Archie when posing for a photo. That episode is still very relevant: in 2014 when teaching the now-defunct Survey of Electronic Media course at Grand Valley, I worked it into a discussion on television in the 1970s. After the class period, an African-American student came up to me, still laughing, and said “Thank you for sharing that. I never knew that happened. That may be the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.” (Note to self: bring back the TV history course. Lord knows this generation needs it.)
It’s an odd juxtaposition, then, to note that Dana had perhaps his greatest success exploiting a different ethnic stereotype. You see, Bill Dana was known for his “interviews” with Jose Jimenez, a character who spoke in a thick Hispanic accent. The dialogue with the fictional Jimenez called “The Astronaut” made it to #19 in 1961. Shortly thereafter, Pat Boone (with help from Mel Blanc) hit the charts with “Speedy Gonzalez,” which went all the way to #6. The Frito Bandito (also voiced by Blanc) was stealing corn chips on televisions across the country. It was a good time to do a little mocking.
You’re not likely to hear either of these on the radio anymore. To be honest, I tried. I had “Speedy Gonzalez” included on WGVU-AM in Grand Rapids (GVSU’s NPR station that I flipped to all-oldies in 2009) when we did our countdown feature. I tried to use the same rule programming the feature that I use in my class: we don’t gloss over offensive material, but instead we experience it, talk about it, and (hopefully) learn from it. This mostly worked in this instance; there was one social justice warrior who embarked on an e-mail writing campaign trying to get the university community to picket the station for this transgression. That effort ended abruptly when a professor I will not name replied to him stating “I’m actually Mexican, and I’m not offended. Back off.” Needless to say, an inspired discussion about the merits of “Speedy Gonzales” followed. You just can’t – and probably shouldn’t – surprise listeners with these anymore without giving the proper context, and not everyone’s up for a teachable moment anyway (much to my chagrin).
To be fair, I don’t think that they need to be thrown into rotation for mass consumption. Instead I save them for media studies discussions. After all, the 1960s provide a lot of material for a modern class to discuss. A sample:
–Bobby Goldsboro, “Me Japanese Boy I Love You” (1964) – also covered by Harpers Bizarre. This is right up there with Mickey Rooney’s character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s; today, you can only look at it and wonder “Why was this entertaining?”
–Jack Jones, “Wives and Lovers” (1963). This was used to great effect in the opening of the film The First Wives Club.
–The Beatles, “Run For Your Life” (1965) – a peppy little number from Rubber Soul about domestic violence, essentially, complete with threats.
Of course, none of these rise to the level of “race records” from the first part of the 1900s. The blackface routine of Collins and Harlan sold thousands of records and “coon songs,” as they were described on the labels. I don’t own any of those, but I did land a copy of “You’re a Sap Mr. Jap” a few years ago (with “Let’s Remember Pearl Harbor” on the flip). That became the title of a Popeye cartoon. I haven’t used that one in class, but I once did locate a copy of “Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips.” The class responded by sitting in silence with their mouths agape, not unlike the conclusion of “Springtime for Hitler” in the original version of Mel Brooks’ The Producers (1968). The purpose was not to shock, but to get students to understand that the times were different, the attitudes were different, and therefore the entertainment was different.
Radio is often rightly criticized for being asleep at the switch when a cultural figure passes. Stations on auto-pilot or that are voicetracked from out of town can’t respond to breaking news quickly, and so they don’t even try. This is an instance where they likely won’t do a retrospective, and there’s probably a pretty good reason for that.
Teachable moment time: you can hear “The Astronaut” by clicking here.