Friday, July 22, 2005

Resurrecting a fond memory

I am currently reading a book titled The Last Word, which was loaned to me last week by a co-worker. An anthology of interesting obituaries published in The New York Times, the book is edited by Marvin Siegel and contains a foreword by Russell Baker, who has long been one of my favorite writers and humorists. Mr. Baker takes the view that obituary-reading should be something to savor, and I agree with him, because someday each of us will be the subject of an obituary, and who wants his or her final exit to be marked with one of the all-too-brief and anemic pieces of what usually passes for an obituary in this hectic, impersonal age? ("Joe Blow, age 78, died of natural causes on July 22, 2005. Beloved husband of Zelda, father to Joe Jr. and Angie. Retired longshoreman and Korean War veteran. Funeral service to be held at 11:00 a.m. on Monday, July 25, 2005, at the Church of the Apostate Brethren, 123 S. Main St.") Yecch!

One of the obits in this book brought back a fond memory which does not surface all that often nowadays. Fresh out of college in 1925, Allan G. Odell went to work for a company called Burma-Vita, Inc. (The fact that the company was owned by his father doubtless helped him to get the job.) At that time, Burma-Vita was producing a brushless shaving cream, and the senior Odell enlisted his son's help in marketing the product. The result was the Burma-Shave signs that once were commonplace in rural America, but are mostly forgotten now. They consisted of six signs, placed 100 feet apart on a stretch of rural highway, and each containing a line of a catchy jingle. The final sign always contained only the words "Burma-Shave." At the time, the national speed limit was only 35 mph, so motorists passing the signs could read the jingle as they moved down the road, although it was impossible to read the punch-line until one was directly upon it. I remember seeing Burma-Shave signs in Indiana and Ohio when I was young, and being quite entertained and amused by them. Unfortunately, the roadside-jingle ad campaign ended in 1964, and I'm sure all the signs have been taken down by now. I don't recall seeing any during the five years we lived in Ohio in the 1990s. So my personal thanks to the editor of this book, and to Mr. Baker, for bringing back this nearly-forgotten piece of Americana.

Mr. Odell's obit includes a few of the jingles, which are worth sharing here:

"Within This Vale
Of Toil
And Sin
Your Head Grows Bald
But Not Your Chin -- Use
Burma-Shave."

"Henry the Eighth
Sure Had
Trouble
Short-Term Wives
Long-Term Stubble
Burma-Shave"

"Pity all
The mighty Caesars
They pulled
Each whisker out
With tweezers
Burma-Shave"

My personal favorite was this one:

"With Glamour Girls
You'll Never Click
Bewhiskered
Like a
Bolshevik
Burma-Shave"

It is also reported that in 1953, the author Vladimir Nabokov tried unsuccessfully to submit, in his wife's name, a Burma-Shave jingle of his own, to-wit:

"He passed two cars
then five
then seven
and then he beat
them all to Heaven
Burma-Shave"

2 Comments:

Blogger Sylvia said...

Those are good! :)

7:52 PM  
Blogger Julie D. said...

Just what I needed ... yet another fascinating sounding book for my list. :-)

Thanks for the review. I just hope the library has this one.

7:28 AM  

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