The voice is solemn, stentorian, coming from deep within the lower register: “STAN FREBERG MODESTLY PRESENTS THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.” Then there’s a jaunty overture, after which Christopher Columbus stops playing hanky-panky with Queen Isabella long enough to hit up the Spanish treasury for three ships on which to sail off into the unknown. Next thing we know, a gaggle of sailors are bound for Miami Beach, harmonizing on “It’s a Round Round World.” It’s all part of Columbus’s grand dream to open the first Italian restaurant in America: “Starches, cholesterol, all the finer things.” And so it goes.
Stan Freberg, who died this week at 88, was successful in many venues. As a voice actor, he played Cecil the Seasick Sea Serpent on the classic kids’ TV show, Time for Beany, then voiced roles in Bugs Bunny cartoons and in Disney’s Lady and the Tramp. His parody recordings, like the Dragnet spoof “St. George and the Dragonet,” sold millions of copies. When he moved into advertising, he brought his goofy sense of humor with him. Sunsweet sold a lot of pitted prunes after he announced in radio and TV spots that the company was dedicated to futuristic breakthroughs: “Today the pits, tomorrow the wrinkles.” Peddling Chung King chow mein, he added handles to the cans, so that consumers could feel as though they were getting takeout from their favorite Chinese restaurant.
But true Freberg enthusiasts best remember his long-playing 1961 album, Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America,Volume One:The Early Years. This was a full-blown musical production with a cast of, well, dozens, and an orchestra conducted by Billy May. (As fans will recall, there was tap-dancing too.) The songs, gags, and verbal tics proved so infectious that my family quickly had the entire album by heart. During my college years, my social life revolved around finding fellow Freberg addicts who, like me, could rattle off Betsy Ross’s gripe to George Washington: “Hey,you’re tracking snow all over my Early American rug!”
Since Freberg’s death, commentators have noted the way he danced along the edge of the day’s key social issues. They often mention the skit in which Benjamin Franklin resists Thomas Jefferson’s arm-twisting over the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Sings Tom, “You’re so skittish . . . who possibly could care if you do?” Ben answers: “The Un-British Activities Committee, that’s who.” But my personal favorite\, involving the first Thanksgiving, pokes fun at the era’s commitment to token measures on behalf of civil rights. It seems that a Puritan mayor, in a tough re-election battle, is being urged by his campaign staff to reach out to the underclass.The idea: “Take an Indian to lunch . . . this week/ Show him we’re a regular bunch . . . this week/ Show him we’re as liberal as can be./ Let him know he’s almost as good as we.” After all, says the mayor, “We came over on the Mayflower.”
There’s lots more silliness too. Like George Washington, preparing to cross the Delaware, dithering about which boat he should rent. And Peter Tishman (aka Minuit) being fleeced on the deal to buy Manhattan for 23 dollars worth of junk jewelry (“You thought you bought a furnished island?”). Naturally, the disrespect shown to the Founding Fathers raised some hackles. (An outraged Daughter of the American Revolution shows up for a cameo at album’s end.)
Decades later, I was introduced to Stan Freberg. I wanted to make a clever allusion to this album, but nothing came out of my mouth. Which he must have found very funny indeed.