If you were born 75 years ago, in 1926, you were a baby in the "sesquicentennial" of the Declaration of Independence and the year when one of the screen's most famous stars died. Your parents may have sung and danced to such songs as "Bye, Bye, Blackbird," "In a Little Spanish Town," and "Baby Face."
It's hard to believe that the death of Rudolph Valentino may have been the most memorable news story of the year. About 15,000 people tried to get into the funeral parlor on Broadway to view the body. Traffic was stopped. People fainted. People were trampled on. Reserve police were called in. Umbrellas, straw hats, clothing, bags, shoes (none matched) were found in the street.
I said it was the anniversary of the Declaration. A Liberty Bell stamp was issued, regular issue, 2 cents. That's what it cost to send a letter in '26. There was ringing of the bell. And our president, Calvin Coolidge, was seen now and then. He was usually asleep.
A show from Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart offered a great song, "Mountain Greenery," you know, "where God paints the scenery." Most phonographs in '26 had to be wound up. You also had to crank a lot of cars.
It was a time for press agents, sports writers, newspaper columnists, big headlines, and movie stars, gangsters, channel swimmers, amateur murderers, eccentrics. High tide of the Roaring '20s. Talking pictures were a year away, but the movie "Don Juan," with John Barrymore, had music. Americans saw Ramon Novarro and a chariot race in "Ben-Hur," Ronald Colman in the Foreign Legion in "Beau Geste," Douglas Fairbanks in "The Black Pirate," Clara Bow in "It," Lillian Gish in "La Boheme," Emil Jannings in "Variety," William Boyd (10 years from being Hopalong) in "The Volga Boatman," Edmund Lowe and Victor McLaglen in "What Price Glory?" The last of these had "Charmaine" for theater organists to play.
On Broadway there was a play with masks, Eugene O'Neill's "The Great God Brown." Mae West was in one called, simply, "Sex." The Gershwins had "Oh, Kay!" "Chicago," revived in our time, was a hit. And Sigmund Romberg's "The Desert Song," "Blue heaven and you and I ..."
St. Louis won the World Series in 1926, mainly by not pitching to Babe Ruth of the Yankees. Gertrude Ederle swam the channel. Gene Tunney beat Jack Dempsey in the heavyweight championship of boxing.
Years earlier a ghastly murder had taken place in the countryside near New Brunswick, N. J., the Rev. Edward Hall and a member of his choir, Mrs. Mills. In '26, Jane Gibson, labeled "The Pig Woman" in the tabloids, was brought into court on a stretcher and testified that she was riding her donkey that moonlight night and saw and heard something violent going on in that country lane. The Hall-Mills case has never been solved.
We had a famous evangelist, Aimee Semple McPherson. In '26 she turned up missing for 35 days. Later she said she had been kidnapped, but the truth was that she and a male friend had been busy with illicit amour.
"Gimme a little kiss, will ya, huh." Aviation was big in the news. Adm. Richard Byrd and Floyd Bennett flew over the North Pole. Three countries sponsored a dirigible expedition, and the people in the party were briefly lost. In St. Louis a young fellow named Lindbergh was getting his Spirit of St. Louis ready to fly the Atlantic in '27.
They were singing "Someone to Watch over Me" and "When Day Is Done." Florida was boom country. Lucky Strike said its cigarettes were toasted. John Held did covers for magazines like Life. Queen Marie of Romania came to see us. Irving Berlin, Russian immigrant, married a society princess. Sinclair Lewis, writing "Elmer Gantry," arose in a Kansas City pulpit and dared God to strike him dead.
Contract bridge. Five hundred licensed radio stations. Arturo Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic. "A little white house, with a little green blind, at the end of Honeymoon Lane." "Do, do, do, what you done, done, done before, baby." "Mary Lou, I love you." "They heard the breeze, in the trees, singing weird melodies." "I know that you know that I'll go where you go."
Seventy-five years ago. I remember a little of 1926. A new brother came into our home. We had a graphophone. I doubt that I'd heard of Valentino, but I knew about Buck Jones and Tom Mix. Our car was called a Star. I was only 5, so I can't be expected to remember a whole lot.
Calder Pickett is a professor emeritus of journalism at Kansas University. His column appears Sundays in the Journal-World.