Coming Saturday: Archy’s Typewriter in Boston

Shift Key on the Blunderwood PortableNote: Location update!

If you will be anywhere close to Boston this weekend, be sure to see the Blunderwood Portable typewriter in the Rose Kennedy Greenway. It’s a massive art installation on display Saturday and Sunday, part of Boston’s Figment Festival. Look for it where High Street intersects with the Greenway, northeast of South Station.

The Blunderwood, a 24:1 scale 1927 typewriter measuring 20 feet square and 8 feet tall, is an homage to Don Marquis’ Archy the cockroach.

Much like Archy, who dove head-first on the keys of Don’s typewriter to tell his stories, visitors to the Blunderwood will be able to walk on huge typewriter keys and see their own messages projected on an overhead screen made to look like an oversize sheet of typing paper. Several of Archy’s poems will also be projected.  Continue Reading →

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Musicians: Marquis-Based Compositions Are Waiting

FrustrationThe sad truth is this: The editor of DonMarquis.com has absolutely zero musical abilities. He can’t read a note of music, and he probably couldn’t play a player piano if he could even find one.

This is a shame, because two songs based on light verses by Don Marquis have been written by a world-renowned composer and are waiting to be heard and enjoyed, but they need someone to perform them.

“A Seaside Romance” and “Frustration” are short, silly poems in Don’s 1921 book “Noah an’ Jonah an’ Cap’n John Smith.” They were set to music (for piano and tenor) in 2010 and 2011 respectively by Gary Bachlund, who won fame as an opera singer in the 1980s (Carnegie Hall, Metropolitan Opera, etc.) before switching to composition.  Continue Reading →

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Archy Was Real, but That’s Not His Original Name

170 Nassau St., NYC

170 Nassau Street: “Vermin Castle.”

Here’s a thought that might keep you up at night: The real, live descendants of Archy the cockroach may be scurrying around the streets and alleyways and high-priced real estate of lower Manhattan at this very moment.

That’s right, Archy, the most famous insect in American literature, was based on a cockroach that once was very much alive. His home was in the newsroom of the old Evening Sun newspaper, but his real name was Erasmus, not Archy. Don Marquis revealed Archy’s origins and commented on his enduring appeal — and his frequent reincarnations — in an essay he wrote in 1934 for The Cornell Daily Sun, the student newspaper at Cornell University.

“Archy crawled into my life about twenty years ago, when I was doing a daily column on the New York Evening Sun,” Don wrote. “There was a story in the news columns about a garage up town somewhere that was haunted, . . . the type-writer in the garage office would keep clicking of nights, when no one was in there. So they thought it was a ghost, which is about what a lot of garage loafers would think. It didn’t occur to any of them to put a sheet of paper in the machine and give the ghost a chance to have his say. One night they found a mouse running back and forth on the keyboard; he was the ghost.  Continue Reading →

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1912 Photograph Shows Don’s ‘Halo’

Ellis Parker Butler, Reina Marquis (holding a copy of "Danny's Own Story") and Don Marquis.

Ellis Parker Butler, Reina Marquis (holding a copy of “Danny’s Own Story”) and Don Marquis.

The 1912 publication of Don Marquis’ first book, the novel “Danny’s Own Story,” created a stir in literary circles. Doubleday, Page & Co., Don’s publisher, heralded the young writer as a rising star, and reviewers favorably compared him with Mark Twain, who had died less than two year earlier. (It didn’t hurt that “Danny’s Own Story” bore a passing resemblance to “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Both were written in a backwoods vernacular and both used wry humor to tell the adventures of young boys, one an orphan and the other nearly so, who ran away from home and lived by their wits.)

Don wrote “Danny” while on the staff of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, but he moved to The Evening Sun just before its publication on January 17, 1912. To celebrate the new book, Doubleday hosted a reception a few weeks later at its headquarters in Garden City, Long Island, and among the guests was Ellis Parker Butler, a well-known humor writer at the time whose best-known work, the short story “Pigs Is Pigs,” had been published six years earlier.

At one point during the festivities a Doubleday photographer asked Don and his wife, Reina, to pose with Butler. No one at the time paid attention to an alarm clock sitting on a bookshelf directly above Don’s head, but when the photograph was developed the clock was gone — its glass face wiped out by glare from the camera’s flash. In its place, it looked for all the world as if an angel had come down from heaven and anointed Marquis with a halo.

Doubleday sent copies of the photograph to both Butler and Marquis, and a short time later it reported their separate responses in a statement it gleefully released to newspapers across North America. The following exchange was published in the March 2, 1912, editions of The Toronto World, with comments first from Butler, then Marquis. Continue Reading →

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Celebrate Don’s 137th Birthday in New York

Vintage birthday cakeIf you will be in New York City on Wednesday, July 29, please join us for dinner and drinks to celebrate Don Marquis’ 137th birthday. 

A few fans will be gathering that evening to talk, relax and tell stories about Don and his crowd. If someone feels the urge to channel Archy and recite some poetry (nothing too serious, of course), that’s fine, too! 

A location hasn’t been determined yet, but perhaps a tavern with a dining room near City Hall (and the former homes of The Sun and the Tribune), or maybe Keen’s Steakhouse, further uptown, where Don’s co-workers toasted him in 1922, when he left The Sun to join the Tribune staff.

If you’re interested in attending, send a note to john@donmarquis.com. And if you’re in Boston a few days beforehand, some folks plan to be there July 25-26 to see the Blunderwood typewriter (see below) on display in the Rose Kennedy Greenway. An early birthday toast might be in order.

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A New Typewriter for Archy — 8 Feet Tall!

Progress on the Blunderwood typewriter

Progress update!

UPDATE: The Blunderwood folks have reached their Kickstarter goal of $5,000, but they now have a “stretch” goal of another $3,000 to add gold-leaf lettering to the typewriter and purchase a more powerful projector. The deadline is June 27. And make plans to see the Blunderwood in Boston, July 25-26!

– – – – – 

Archy and Mehitabel are the inspiration for a whimsical (and huge!) public art project coming this summer to a park in downtown Boston – and then to the Burning Man festival in Nevada.

A group of artists, welders and carpenters who call themselves the Cat and the Cockroach Collective are building a 24-to-1-scale model of a 1927 Underwood Standard portable typewriter, The reimagined Blunderwood Portable will be 20 feet square and 8 feet tall, with interactive keys able to spell out personal messages projected on an oversize sheet of paper when walked upon.  Continue Reading →

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Help Celebrate Archy’s 100 anniversary in March 2016!

archyMark your calendars! Fans of Archy and Mehitabel are already making plans to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Archy’s first appearance in Don Marquis’ Sun Dial column in the New York Evening Sun. March 29, 2016 will be a cockroach centenary like no other, and we’d like to hear about your plans — in New York and around the world. (The 1927 classic “archy and mehitabel,” after all, was popular in Canada, England, India and Australia as well as the United States, and translated editions were published in German and Italian.)

Is your theater group planning a production of “archy & mehitabel”? Maybe your school, library or book club can host a poetry reading, or a poetry slam. Or host a showing of the 1971 animated feature “Shinbone Alley.” A group in New York hopes to sponsor public displays and performances, and we welcome your ideas and involvement. Check out the link at the top of this page, “archyFest!” for more, and use the Twitter hashtag #archyfest! to keep in touch!

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‘My Dear Miss Hickman’

EnvelopeIn 1927 a young journalism student at the University of Illinois, Frances Hickman, wrote to Don Marquis. She was preparing a class paper on the famous newspaper columnist and boldly decided to ask him directly for details of his life. Don responded with an incredible, 988-word summation of his past, present and probable future — rich with detail, honest to a fault and brutally funny.  

Don’s letter, dated December 14, 1927, was eventually given to the Library of Congress. It has been reprinted only once before, in William McCollum Jr.’s “Selected Letters of Don Marquis” (Northwoods Press, 1982).

*  *  *

My dear Miss Hickman:

I am in receipt of your letter of recent date asking me to tell you something of myself which you can use in your thesis; the way you put it is: “Tell me just as much as you will about yourself.” This at once plunges me into a difficulty—just how much to tell about myself in any perfectly proper thesis submitted to the authorities of any reputable university by any young woman student of Journalism, (for my secretary assures me you must be a young woman on account of the hand writing.)

With regard to my past it can all be summed up by saying I have been a promising young man in literary circles for at least thirty years. With regard to my present, I am in a very low and depressed state of mind, consequent upon having the greatest romantic drama ever written in America [“Out of the Sea”] turn out to be a commercial failure; and in planning a campaign of wholesale murder, mayhem and arson against certain dramatic critics, not to mention a couple of actors. With regard to my future I have no hopes: fountains of evil which have welled up in me on account of various literary disappointments have no legal outlet in the way of dissipation: the time is past when one could get drunk and forget a licking. Continue Reading →

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Don’s Baked Beans

A comic theme running through Don Marquis’s 1927 book “The Almost Perfect State” is his avowed distaste for beans. “The ancient Egyptians lived largely on lentils; and where are the Pharaohs now?” Don asks at the start of the book, and he proceeds to blame all the world’s ills on the deleterious effects of the “accursed” bean.

“There will be no beans in the Almost Perfect State,” he flatly declares, but at the end of the book he reveals the joke: “If you will eat beans, here is the way to prepare them,” Don writes, and he then delivers, in narrative form, a glorious, laborious recipe for country-style baked beans made with generous helpings of salt pork, molasses, onions and mustard. Continue Reading →

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99 Years of Archy and Mehitabel!

Gale

Gale McNeeley as Archy. Click the photo for a link to Gale’s performance.

It was 99 years ago — March 29, 1916 — that Archy the cockroach first spoke to the world. Don Marquis had come into his office at The Evening Sun earlier than usual and discovered “a gigantic cockroach jumping about upon the keys” of his typewriter.

“He did not see us, and we watched him,” Don wrote in his newspaper column that day. “He would climb painfully upon the framework of the machine and cast himself with all his force upon a key, head downward, and his weight and the impact of the blow were just sufficient to operate the machine, one slow letter after another. He could not work the capital letters, and he had a great deal of difficulty operating the mechanism that shifts the paper so that a fresh line may be started.

“We never saw a cockroach work so hard or perspire so freely in all our lives before. After about an hour of this frightfully difficult literary labor he fell to the floor exhausted, and we saw him creep feebly into a nest of the poems which are always there in profusion.”

It was the first of hundreds of stories, poems, japes, jests and epigrams by Archy that would appear in Don’s writings over the next 20 years, often accompanied by comments from an alley cat of questionable morals, Mehitabel. 

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