Mark Twain Wasn’t the Only Famous Person from Hannibal, MO, Pt. 1: Ukele Ike

At first glance, Hannibal, Missouri, is all Mark Twain, all the time. Even the the African-American history museum,* uses Twain’s Huckleberry Finn as a jumping off point. However, there is a small museum devoted to Hannibal history as a while. Like many local history museums, the hours are erratic and there is a homemade feel to the exhibits—particularly in contrast to the Mark Twain interpretive center. Like most local history museums, it tells the story of the town’s founders and the industries that kept it alive in its boom years—which is always interesting as far as I’m concerned. But the exhibits that captured my imagination were the ones dealing with Hannibal’s “other” celebrities. One I knew. Two were totally new to me.

***

First up, Cliff Edwards, known professionally as “Ukulele Ike.”* Who, you say? Stick with me. I guarantee that you know his most famous work even if you don’t know his name.

Photo by William P. Gottlieb from Library of Congress collection.

Cliff Edwards was born in Hannibal in 1895, and like Mark Twain he left early and traveled far. (Let’s face it, you didn’t become famous if you stayed in Hannibal.)

Edwards began his musical career in St. Louis, where he provided the soundtrack to silent movies. Because performing “illustrated songs” didn’t pay enough to live on, he also worked a lot of odd jobs, washing dishes, painting railroad cars, selling newspapers, and singing in bars. At some point, probably around 1916, Edwards discovered the ukulele, which had reached the United States mainland the year before thanks to the Hawaiian musicians and dancers who performed in the Panama-Pacific International exposition in San Francisco.

Over time, Edwards found his way into touring tent shows and traveled wherever the music took him. He became “Ukulele Ike” in 1917 at a gig at the Arsonia Cafe in Chicago, where one of the waiters, who couldn’t remember his name, called him Ike.

The Arsonia was the real start of his music career. From there he began to tour the vaudeville circuit—a serious step up from the tent shows. He made his first recordings for Columbia Records in 1919. In 1924, George Gershwin hired him to play in the Broadway show Lady Be Good alongside the young Fred and Adele Astaire. The show was a hit, and so was “Ukulele Ike”.

After performing in several other Broadway shows, including the Ziegfield Follies of 1927, Edwards moved to Hollywood where he introduced the hit song “Singing in the Rain”--20 years before Gene Kelly made it famous a second time. He worked on movies with Buster Keaton and sang in the kind of 1929 musicals that had big production numbers and no real story line.

In 1939 he played what would be his best-known role: Jiminy Cricket in Walt Disney’s Pinocchio.  The role included singing “When You Wish Upon a Star" which won an Oscar for best song in 1940 and became the studio’s theme song in the 1950s. During the days of The Mickey Mouse Club, Disney received 2000 letters a week from fans asking for the name of the singer.

https://youtu.be/m4ifzcpMX18

Warning: clicking the video may induce an earworm.

* Jim’s Journey: The Huck Finn Freedom Center.

*He got the name when he was working in a cafe on the west side of Chicago. One of the waiters, who couldn’t remember his name, called him Ike.

From the Archives: The Last Laugh

We had a wonderful time in Hannibal, Missouri, the childhood home of Mark Twain, aka Samuel Clemens.  But I was a little disappointed that the museums didn't barely touched on his later life, which was fascinating and heartbreaking.  For any of you who are curious about Mark Twain after he became Mark Twain, I offer this book review, which originally ran in May, 2016.

###

I realize that my United States citizenship may be revoked for saying this, but I am not a fan of Mark Twain's work.* I am, however, eternally fascinated by Mark Twain's career, which was a roiling broth of ambition, depression, and innovation. Consequently, I was much happier to read Richard Zacks' newest book, Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain's Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour , than to read Twain himself.

In 1896, Mark Twain was sixty years old, the beloved author of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, and the United State's highest paid writer. He was also on the verge of financial disaster, most of which he had brought on himself through a combination of cock-eyed optimism and impatience with details. Determined to keep a larger percentage of the proceeds from the sale of his books, he had founded his own publishing company, which proved to be a cash drain rather than a source of income. He poured money into James Paige's innovative typesetting machine, which was eclipsed by the Merganthaler Linotype in the nineteenth century's version of the technological duel between Beta and VHS--and encouraged others to do the same. He signed documents he didn't understand. He filed for bankruptcy, but continued to be pursued by creditors who refused to believe the luxury-loving author had nothing. Finally, Twain saw only one solution: to go back on the public speaking circuit, which he had happily left twenty-five years before.

In Chasing the Last Laugh, Zacks turns the circumstances that led Twain to undertake a year-long tour of the English-speaking world and the tour itself into a combination of high drama, black comedy, and occasional tragedy. The result is a lively and insightful study of the claims of celebrity, the value of controlling the public narrative, and the mercurial figure of Twain himself.

*Those of you who are sharp-eyed may remember that I also recently expressed my lack of enthusiasm for Ernest Hemingway. In case anyone is getting the impression that I am uniformly "agin" male American authors from the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, I would like to point out that I am a big fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald (the short stories) and Dashiell Hammett. (Choosing two off the top of my head. )

 

Road Trip Through History: In Search of Mark Twain in Hannibal MO

Unlike most of the places we’ve visited on our expeditions along the Great River Road, I had been to Hannibal, Missouri, before. But it had been a long time—decades in fact. When we drove into town on this trip, I carried two sharp memories—a recreation of the famous scene in which Tom Sawyer tricks other boys in whitewashing the fence and the thrill of seeing Mark Twain’s typewriter*—and a vague recollection of heat, dust, and shabbiness.

Although the town itself still is a bit shabby, the official Mark Twain interpretive center is not. The center uses a cluster of buildings related to Twain’s boyhood—or more accurately, to Samuel Clemens’ boyhood**—to tell the story of the man who became Mark Twain. (The museum’s emphasis on his boyhood is entirely appropriate. Clemens left Hannibal twenty years before he wrote Tom Sawyer.)

The museum uses names and imagery from Tom Sawyer to orient the visitor***—the Becky Thatcher house, for example—but the exhibits draw a clear distinction between Twain and his fictional alter-ego. While the exhibits are family-friendly, they take a close look at hard subjects, both within Twain’s life (his father’s death, his family’s fluctuating financial position, his apprenticeship as a printer’s assistant at the age of twelve) and in society as a whole (slavery, class differences, mortality rates). I was particularly taken with the exhibits in the “Huckleberry Finn” house, which looked at the life of the boy on whom Twain based the character, comparing the poverty in which he was raised with Twain’s romanticism about the boy’s freedom in Tom Sawyer. The exhibit did an excellent job of examining how Twain wove real-life details into the novel—always fascinating to a writer.

The only thing I was disappointed by was the way the interpretive center dealt with Mark Twain’s life after he became Mark Twain. His later life was complicated and in many ways unhappy. Instead of looking at that with the same clear-eyed focus they gave to his boyhood, they used the books as a chronology, with very  little information about the man. And while the books are the important thing when looking at any writer, I was not taken by the combination of life-sized dioramas, long quotations, and brief synopses that they used to discuss the books. On the other hand, they show a 90-minute video on Huckleberry Finn and its importance in American literature in an earlier part of the museum that was fabulous.

On the whole, well worth a visit.

*The only historical fact that I held on to from that visit was the fact that Twain was an early adopter of the typewriter. Neither that fact nor the typewriter itself were part of current Twain exhibits.

**I’ve chosen to refer to him as Twain for the rest of this post instead of flipping back and forth.

***As does Hannibal as a whole.

Travelers’ Tips

  • If possible, organize your visit to include Mark Twain Himself, a one-man show in the Planters’ Barn Theater. We stayed in town an extra night so we could see it and were very happy we did.
  • We missed a smaller museum that looks like it would have been well worth seeing: Jim’s Journey: The Huck Finn Freedom Center.  The museum uses Dan Quarles, the real-life prototype for the character Jim in Huckleberry Finn, as a lens for looking at the African-American experience in Hannibal and the surrounding region. We may need to pass through Hannibal again.