Saturday, February 14, 2009

Oregon turns 150: "A territory's great, but you gotta have a state!"

While it's indisputably true that, in his prime, Stan Freberg's work was on a par with Ernie Kovacs', that also illustrates the problem today: at this historical distance, fewer and fewer people know who the hell either one was--or "is," I should say, since (although Kovac's long gone) Stan's still very much with us, which is very much the point of the story, as it turns out.

Freberg is an advertising writer who left his indelible mark on radio and comedy record albums. At a time when American living rooms were gradually being overtaken by the tubercular blue glow of television, Freberg was all about the possibilities of sound.

He created such classics of parody as "St. George and the Dragonet" and the often-imitated-but-never-equaled "John and Marsha."

Of course, comedy records aside, what Stan basically was, was an advertising guy. His daytime job was to create clever, witty, amusing little pieces . . . which then bored their way into your brain like an earwig and stayed there. Some of his best work was legitimate (if not "serious") commercials, and they always carried his trademark love of parody and the bizarre non sequitur. I remember one Freberg radio ad--which I haven't been able to track down--encouraging businesses to consider the advantages of advertising on local radio. As an announcer described the process, listeners heard Lake Michigan drained and refilled with hot chocolate, after which helicopters dropped gigantic marshmallows into the steaming liquid. Now, concluded the announcer with satisfaction--try doing that on television.

But I digress.

In 1959, for the centennial celebration of Oregon's statehood, the Blitz Weinhard brewery (remember them?) commissioned Freberg to create "Oregon! Oregon! A Centennial Fable in Three Acts," an original three-act musical about the history of Oregon.

He did. It clocks in at just over 20 minutes and, Freberg being Freberg, it's stuffed with more inside jokes than you and I are likely to get in our lifetimes. It also finishes Act 1 with the entire state of Oregon trapped inside a bottle by a witch. (Don't take my word for it: Follow the link and click "The 1959 version of 'Oregon, Oregon!' by Stan Freberg" in the upper left.)

The good news is that Oregon escaped from the bottle (no deposit; it was only 1959) and, for its sesquicentennial--this week, officially--Freberg has been commissioned to create a fourth act, updating the story, and the entire thing will be performed at the Oregon State Fair this summer. (To hear the NPR story about the original and revival projects, featuring Pink Martini musical director and Oregon 150 board member Thomas Lauderdale, click here and then click on Listen Now.)

Where else could you ever hope to hear the phrase "'The Unsinkable Molly Brown' meets The Beaver State" in this lifetime? As Lauderdale says, the operative word here, as in all things Oregon, is "fabulousness."

Happy birthday to my adopted home state!

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