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The repetition of erudition

Photo courtesy of BhamWiki.

Photo courtesy of BhamWiki.

It has been noted that we spend a lot of time in this space talking about the past and not nearly enough talking about the future. Well, okay. Looking ahead, here’s what’s coming up Thursday week: a fun night based on Birmingham history.

That might seem contradictory, but the Birmingham History Center and producer Max Rykov can make it happen. The event is entitled “Can You Repeat That?”, it takes place August 7 at 7:30 p.m. at the Virginia Samford Theatre, and the fun derives from the concept: a quiz show based on the quirky heritage of the Magic City, with the fun enhanced by audience participation.

Providing eye candy for the part of the audience not participating will be a bevy of Birmingham notables comprising competing teams, including John Archibald, Frank Stitt, James Spann and Richard Arrington. This resonates handsomely with Birmingham history. The VST was once known as Clark Theatre, where a renowned director named James Hatcher ruled a tiny show-business kingdom called Town and Gown. To boost ticket sales, Hatch was not above including radio and TV personalities in his casts (which resulted in some outré interpretations of Broadway classics). The Birmingham History Center is hopeful that their homage to Hatch also results in ticket sales, in which case, don’t be surprised if you see someday a mounting of The Odd Couple at the VST starring Rick and Bubba as Felix and Oscar.

The quiz aspect of the evening’s entertainment is being ably handled by Mr. Rykov, who is rapidly becoming Birmingham’s answer to Chuck Barris. Among the many game-oriented events he has produced have been an adult spelling bee, a geography bee and, if memory serves, a combo platter of The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game one Valentine’s Day not too long ago. If he had the budget, I’ve no doubt he could wrangle a variation on Wipeout at Splash Adventure.

(If he wanted to stick with TV classics, I could suggest a couple. What about inviting members of the Jefferson County Commission to play I’ve Got A Secret, or Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard and his GOP cronies for a rollicking version of The Price Is Right?)

For this event, Max is switching to the niche of public radio game shows, invoking the spirit of Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, if not Says You, to create a brainy challenge. He is, as they say, “developing content,” along with Liz Ellaby of the History Center and John Morse, the publisher of BhamWiki. That means they are contriving fiendishly difficult questions from Birmingham’s colorful past with which to confound the guileless panels assembled for the interchange.

To me, the subject matter is the fun. Unbeknownst to most people who live here, during its 133 years in business, Birmingham has been populated with some larger-than-life characters with remarkable exploits to recount. If you want to know the usual stuff about coal, limestone and iron ore, take a trip to Vulcan. If you want to hear some inside skinny, come to “Can You Repeat That?”

There might, for example, be a question about Birmingham’s first national sports star. That would be Gene Walker, who captured America’s attention in 1920 by setting the first international land speed record for motorcycle riding. Aboard an Indian cycle, ludicrously under-equipped for safe operation by today’s standards, the 27-year-old hit 115 miles per hour on the sands of Daytona Beach.

Perhaps the panelists will be interrogated about the Birmingham girl who sang the original Star Trek theme song. Perhaps you’re thinking that that intergalactic melody doesn’t have any words, and, technically, you’d be right. When Alexander Courage composed the instrumental theme for show creator Gene Roddenberry, the TV producer decided he’d write lyrics to go with the music. Courage found them so execrable, he brought Phillips High School alumna Loulie Jean Norman to the recording studio to simply vocalize over his composition. A soprano with remarkable range, Loulie Jean was famous for, among other works, singing the top harmony on the Tokens’ hit version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Singing “Ooo-ooo-ooo-ooo-ooo-ooo-ooo-ooo-ooo” was probably pretty easy money for what became a worldwide sensation.

And what Birmingham trivia quiz would be complete without a question concerning Lou Wooster, the original hooker with a heart of gold? It would have been plenty to have a courtesan who claimed to be the ex-girlfriend of John Wilkes Booth, but shortly after Madam Wooster moved to Birmingham, only two years after the city’s founding, a cholera epidemic hit, driving half of the population away. Lou was said to have turned her considerable energies to nursing the sick, and though nominally a woman of easy virtue, she was welcomed into the homes of the ailing, dispensing charity in a way that would have done Belle Watling proud.

By the way, when Lou opened her house of ill repute in the 1880s, over on Fourth Avenue North around 19th Street, it was listed in the city directory.  No euphemisms about massage parlors or gentlemen’s clubs were necessary, either. Apparently Birmingham was interested in creating entertainment districts even then.

With material like this, “Can You Repeat That?” should be more than adequate fun for a Thursday night.. In addition to the celebs already promised to appear, we cross our fingers for a surprise cameo by the greatest Birmingham game show panelist of all time, namely, Fannie Flagg, who, during a stellar career in the arts, put on her game face for appearances on Hollywood Squares, To Tell the Truth and, most memorably, The Match Game, where she tossed off one-liners with aplomb for six straight years.

Just to note the synchronicity, Fannie got her start with James Hatcher’s Town and Gown organization in the very building in which “Can You Repeat That?” is getting its start Aug. 7. Will history, in fact, repeat?

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