This time of year, I get stopped on the street by little children, old ladies, butcher’s assistants, bellhops, international women with no body hair, all wanting to know the story of Presidents Day! Apparently, I told this fantastic and fascinatin’ tale on a talk show a long time ago, but for the life of me I can’t recall what show it was! Tim Russert? Charles Grodin? David Susskind? Carnie Wilson? Joey Bishop? It’s all a blur, friends. Lady Percodan is a cruel mistress.
Anyway, it’s a story I love to tell…so here, Ladies & Gentleman of the most Kingly of Counties, is the story of Presidents Day!
Like so many great American holidays, the roots of Presidents Day lie in Germany…but that part comes later, so let’s begin here: Due to unforeseen problems in the calendar reforms introduced by Pope Pius XI and Vice President Charles Curtis in 1930, the year 1935 was going to be 26 minutes too long…unless no fewer than THREE new three-day weekends were introduced into the American work calendar! So in February of 1934 the government created Memorial Day and Labor Day, but they still needed one more!
Enter legendary film director King Vidor, who was an avid follower of current events (as we all know!); he was also a great friend of another Vice President, FDR’s John Nance Garner. In September of 1934 while Garner and Vidor were on the Hearst yacht pulling a train on Marion Davies, they were discussing the calendar problem. Vidor mentioned something interesting that had just happened in Germany: the Nazis had introduced a holiday to commemorate the life and achievements of their legendary President, Paul von Hindenburg, who had recently died. In fact, not only had the Krauts created Präsident Tag, they had made it – you guessed it – a three-day weekend! (Or, as they call it, Einen Tag Nach Sonntag Knödel und Kalbfleisch ohne Angst vor Arbeitszeitverdauungsstörungen Essen – “An extra day after Sunday to eat dumplings and veal without fear of work-time indigestion”).
After cleaning up, Vidor and Nance discussed their brainstorm with some of the other guests on the yacht (who included actors Adolphe Menjou and Franklin Pangborn, Los Angeles mayor Frank Shaw, and George Putnam, the husband of aviatrix Amelia Earhart). They all agreed that a holiday to commemorate America’s Presidents was a first-rate idea! Not only would it solve the calendar problem that was dangling over the very fabric of time like the Sword of Damocles, but the holiday could also boost the economy due to increased revenue from both tourism and Presidents Day souvenirs.
Within three days, Vice President Nance and the newspaper big-wig William Randolph Hearst were in Washington to present the Presidents Day idea to a phalanx of congressmen and senators (and also to seek out a legendary specialist to cure a rather persistent case of the Suppurating Gleet they had both acquired). Provisionally, they slated the holiday for March to coincide with the birthdays of Andrew Jackson, Grover Cleveland, James Madison, and John Tyler, but this notion got caught up in the heated racial politics of the day. The southern contingent loved the idea of a March holiday, because it honored both hootin’ an’ hollerin’ Andrew Jackson and because John Tyler was the father-in-law of Reb-in-Chief Jefferson Davis. The Northern politicos, however, bristled at the idea of turning the new holiday into an excuse to wave the rebel flag, so the whole Presidents Day idea stalled for a while, bogged down in partisan politics.
But the clock was ticking! By now it was already the middle of October 1934, and 1935, with it’s potentially missing 26 minutes, was just weeks away!
Enter the legendary Adolphe Zukor, the founder and head of Paramount Pictures. Born a poor Jewish girl in Hungary, few Americans loved their adopted land as much as ol’ Addie. He had read about the holiday deadlock in Der Hollywood Teglekh Bleter, the popular Yiddish-language Tinsel Town gossip daily, and he sprang into action, getting directly in touch with ol’ FDR himself! Zukor promised the President that if the Federal Government would move the proposed holiday to February, he would personally guarantee that Paramount would produce movies about the three Presidents born in that short and cruel month — George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and William Henry Harrison.
Well, that sealed the deal (an expression first heard, coincidentally, in the Presidential campaign of Benjamin Harrison, ol’ William Henry’s grandson), and F.D.R. used his considerable powers to push through the February date for the new Presidents Day Holiday! But the kerfuffle over the new holiday wasn’t over yet! Remember how I just said there were two President Harrisons (and you probably do, unless your memory is impaired by, say, an overwhelming Percodan addiction that greatly reduced your ability to recall events between 1972 and 1983, and left 11 years of your life a soiled, soggy fog of regret and sadness)? Well, some of the same southern politicos who were pressing for the March holiday were inexplicably confused by the relatively simply notion of there being two President Harrisons. One of the leaders of the Southern Dems, South Carolina Senator James F. Byrnes, completely mistook the latter Benjamin Harrison for the former William Henry Harrison! And since Benjamin Harrison was very forward thinking on segregation and civil rights, Byrnes and the Southern Dems – confusing, as I just said, William for Benjamin – said they would only approve the February holiday if Harrison was eliminated from the list of Presidents commemorated by the Holiday!
(Boy, what a story!)
So, Harrison was kicked to the curb, and the February Presidents Day Holiday was signed into law just in time, on December 19th, 1934, and the dilemma of the extra 26 minutes was solved.
I know what you’re thinking: If Harrison didn’t pass the muster of the Southern Dems due to his support of Civil Rights, why did they support ol’ Abe? Well, to be frank, I’ve never been able to figure that out. I first heard the gist of the Presidents Day story from Nelson Rockefeller, Lou Walters, and Walter Winchell on one very, very long night at the Latin Quarter Club when I was still in my twenties, and I was able to confirm virtually all of it via extensive research conducted by my crack staff in the lonely days after the Apollo 1 fire on January 27, 1967 (everyone was pretty stunned, and I thought it would cheer everyone up to engage in some serious investigatory work!), but that was one question we never were able to answer.
Oh…and what ever happened to the Presidential biopics Adolphe Zukor promised an eager nation? Well, that’s an interesting story in its’ own right, but I’ll try to “shorthand” it here: The Abe Lincoln biography was re-scripted as a comedy vehicle for Paramount’s reigning bombshell, Mae West, and ol’ Banjo Eyes himself, Mr. Eddie Cantor. In the film, titled Dumb Mr. Lincoln, Lincoln (as portrayed by Cantor) worries that Mrs. Lincoln (West) is cheating on him; and she is, in fact, carrying on with virtually everyone in sight, including Ulysses Grant and Vice President Andrew Jackson (played by the vaudeville team of Smith and Dale, also signed to Paramount). She even has a peccadillo with Frederick Douglass (played by Cantor in blackface, surely one of the most offensive portrayals in Cantor’s otherwise distinguished career). A young Gary Cooper shows up briefly as the bodyguard at Fords’ Theatre who West distracts from his duty with her womanly charms. Now, unfortunately – or maybe fortunately – the film was withdrawn almost immediately upon release, and all copies thrown into San Pedro Bay; movie censor Will Hays said that “…not only is this film a savage desecration of the memory of one of our greatest Presidents, but a scene with Mae West and Charlie Dale hints at a depravity only known in the darkest alleys of Algiers.”
How about that.
Now, the Washington biographical film also got handed over to the Paramount comedy department, but with happier results: The L’il Georgie series, starring Jackie Cooper as young George Washington (and also featuring Ben Turpin and Ernie “Sunshine” Morrison), was a popular series of 12 two-reelers depicting somewhat idealized scenes from the childhood of our first President.
(Bizarrely, Dumb Mr. Lincoln got remade in the late 1960s, despite – or perhaps because of – the infamy and ignominy of the original picture. In the 1968 version, Lincoln is portrayed by Pat Buttram – Mr. Haney from Green Acres – and the lusty Mrs. Lincoln is portrayed by Beverly Garland, a last-minute replacement for Jayne Mansfield, who died just weeks before filming. Arnold Stang plays Ulysses Grant, and V.P. Johnson by a somewhat miscast Nick Adams. A peculiar and discordant anti-war theme, obviously inspired by the contemporary situation in Vietnam, underlines the movie.)
WHEW. Now, I warned you it was a long story, didn’t I? No time left for the THE THREE DOT ROUND-UP! But, as I said so many years ago on that mysterious talk show, you’ve been a great audience, AND THAT’S WHY I LOVE LIVING IN BROOKLYN!
P.S. You know…now that I think about it…I believe the talk show may have been Agronsky & Company.
Tim Sommer has been employed as a musician, record producer, DJ, VJ, and music industry executive. He is the author of the critically acclaimed From Duel to Prinze: How Suicide Framed Television in the 1970s , and he continues his efforts to get the city of New York to rename the borough of Queens after Gil Hodges.