Many weeks back, I penned a column on one of my longtime heroes, Stan Freberg. If you consult your notes, you'll see that Mr.
Freberg is America's foremost satirist, at least when it comes to funny commercials and even funnier comedy records.
His magnum opus in the latter category was probably Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America — the Early
Years. It was a musical comedy album that came out in 1961, featuring clever songs and highly fractured interpretations of our nation's
founding years. Dr. Demento has said he still can't decide if it's the best comedy album in history or the best history album in comedy.
Either way, it was pretty good.
It started with Christopher Columbus setting foot on the shores of America and being unable to cash a check because, after all, it was
Columbus Day. It ended with General George Washington winning the Revolutionary War, after spending hours deciding which boat to rent. It
was to be the first of three volumes and it was so well received that Stan quickly set to work on the second album.
Then "things happened."
In the latter half of this century, the most prolific producer of Broadway shows has been a man named David Merrick. "Hello,
Dolly" was one of his. So was "42nd Street." So were dozens and dozens of others.
He is also perhaps the most colorful off-stage personality of the Broadway scene. Every Merrick show has yielded tales of
trickery, feuds, threats, more threats, and lawsuits — most of this deliberately and wickedly orchestrated by Mr. Merrick. He is said to
consider any project incomplete unless he sues a few people and makes at least a few enemies-for-life.
As I write this, Merrick is in his eighties and severely incapacitated, the result of a stroke that has left him unable to speak.
This condition did not stop him from producing the recently-unsuccessful Broadway revival of "State Fair" and from suing the Tony Awards folks when
he didn't like a ruling on his show's eligibility. The feeling throughout the theatrical community is not that he had any bona fide legal
issue, but that he wanted to remind everyone that David Merrick was still around and could still cause trouble. (To learn more about the
amazing, controversial career of David Merrick, check out a book called David Merrick: The Abominable Showman by Howard Kissel.)
Shortly after the first volume of United States of America hit record shops, Merrick heard it and made a deal with Freberg to
stage the whole thing — Volume One, plus the material that was to comprise Volumes Two and Three — on Broadway as a musical. The
deal was on-again, off-again a few times but then finally it was on, and Freberg moved to New York to begin rehearsals. To this day, he wishes
he'd said no. He wishes he'd stayed home and gone ahead with his plans to record Volume Two and then Volume Three. Merrick, however,
insisted they be postponed, so as not to infringe on sales of the show's planned cast album.
So instead of making the records, Stan began mounting a Broadway show, and the fights with Merrick were legendary. A few of them
are recounted in the Kissel book and more are told in Freberg's recent autobiography, It Only Hurts When I Laugh.
The best one — the one I have to tell here — is the one where they were rehearsing the Battle of Appomattox. Merrick,
after observing a run-through, marched up to Freberg and said, "Take Lincoln out of the Civil War. He doesn't work."
Stan gave out with a loud, understandable Huh? "Don't you think people will notice his absence?" he asked the
"Oh," Merrick replied. "You'll miss him, I'll miss him, a few history buffs will miss him, but the average person won't
notice." He also suggested moving Barbara Fretchie from the Civil War to the Revolutionary War, because they needed a strong female character
in that section.
Most of their exchanges, alas, weren't this funny, at least to Stan. He finally decided that Merrick was trying to destroy his
spirit, and he yanked the project. Broadway lost what might have been a wonderful show but, worse, Volume Two of Stan Freberg Presents the
United States of America was indefinitely shelved. By the time the legal battles abated, Stan had lost the momentum of the project.
I loved that first record. I played it over and over and over, and I wasn't the only one. Soon after, a group called the
Beatles became the hottest thing in the history of show business. When Paul McCartney was once asked what kind of music he liked to listen to,
he mentioned a couple of songs from Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America. I'd call that a pretty good compliment —
I was ten when I first heard Volume One. Every time I went into a record store thereafter, I would zip over to the Comedy section
and peek in front of the index divider for Stan Freberg, on which his name would inevitably be misspelled. I would fervently pray that Volume
Two would be there but it never was. A few times, I asked the clerk if he had any idea when it would be in and they always said, "No, and we've
had a lot of people asking."
Little did I know that (a) it would take thirty-five years and (b) I would get to be there for its creation.
For more than three decades, people were asking poor Stan Freberg, "Say, is Volume Two ever coming out?" It came to be the
Eternal Question of his existence.
The first time I met him, I figured that he was probably sick of people asking him about it, so I held off and didn't ask
immediately. I think I held off for about four minutes. The answer, of course, was that he had moved on to other work, he was no longer
making comedy albums, and his company of actors had scattered and, in a few sad cases, passed away.
But I am proud to say that as a result of all our nagging, he finally did it. Last July fourth, Rhino Records issued —
French Horns, please — Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, the Middle Years. It is out, it is real, it is very
It features some wonderful sketches performed by some very wonderful people. June Foray, Peter Leeds and Jesse White were on the
first album and they're on this one, as well. This time, the cast also includes Tyne Daly, John Goodman, Sherman Hemsley, David Ogden Stiers,
Lorenzo Music, Harry Shearer, Naomi Lewis and Stan's daughter Donna and his son, Donavan.
The first volume was narrated by the late, great Paul Frees. His distinctive style is replicated — amazingly — by
Corey Burton. And the legendary Billy May, who did the music on the first volume, does the music on this one, too.
You can buy it in two editions. There's a double-CD set which also includes Volume One, and there's a stand-alone single CD which
just has Volume Two. Each contains a nifty booklet with forewords by Dr. Demento and Ray Bradbury, some words from Stan, the lyrics, and photos
of the cast. (There's also a tape cassette version but you don't want that. It doesn't come with the booklet. By the way, if you
look real close, there's a teensy photo of me there in the booklet, too.)
As thrills go...well, 1996 isn't over but I doubt anything can happen in its remaining months to top this. And I'm not sure which
excites me more; that it finally came out or that Stan allowed me to help in small ways — kibitzing, casting, mixing, etc. He sure didn't
need me around, but he was nice enough to let me be a part of it, and I thank him for it. Like I wasn't already far enough in this man's debt
So the second volume is out — finally. Next time you're in a place that sells CDs, pick it up, play it and then commence to
haunting the Comedy sections, like I once did, praying that the final chapter will be there. Stan's hoping to get to it in the next year or
two, he says. I intend to do my part to make that happen in a lot less than three-and-a-half decades.