Thursday, August 22, 2013

"The Xanadu of Funny-Sounding Places:" Schenectady in Popular Culture


Photocopy of cover of sheet music for "I Can't Spell Schenectady." From Schenectady Songs clipping file. 

Schenectady has often shown up in American popular culture - usually as a nod to the sound of the name or the difficulty in spelling it correctly. The classic example is a song written in 1948 entitled "I Can't Spell Schenectady." Here's some of the lyrics to the song:

Reading, writing and geography;
But when it comes to spelling, I'm confessin'
There's just one word that stumps me constantly.
I can spell Dakota, can handle Minnesota, but I can't spell Schenectady,
I can spell Havana and figure out Savannah, but I can't spell Schenectady.
Why, one time at a spelling bee
Said teacher all at once,
"Now, Willie, spell 'Schenectady',"
I felt just like a dunce!
I spelled Anaconda and even Tonawanda,
So what does she expect of me?
I just can't spell Schenectady.
I can spell Pomona, Seattle and Tacoma, but I can't spell Schenectady,
I mastered Ypsilanti and Agua Caliente, but I can't spell Schenectady.

The difficult-to-spell quality also shows up in a Schenectady joke (stop me if you've heard this one): A businessman was rapidly dictating a letter to his secretary, telling a business associate he would meet him in Schenectady. The secretary interrupted, "Excuse me, please. How do you spell Schenectady?" The businessman fumbled and struggled, red-faced, to spell the name of the city before sputtering angrily "Oh hell! Forget it! Tell him I'll meet him in Albany!"

Why does "Schenectady" work so well for a punch line? Humor and television writer Bill Scheft referred to Schenectady as "the Xanadu of funny-sounding places" in an interview with the Daily Gazette. "Four syllables, good rhythm and that hard comedy 'K' right in the middle. It scans perfectly. Of course, it's no Cohoes, but what is?" Like Rancho Cucamonga, Sheboygan, and Walla Walla, Schenectady can pop up in a reference just to sound kooky or comical. In one episode of the television show Everybody Loves Raymond, "Schenectady" was used as a near-rhyme with "vasectomy," and on The Dick Van Dyke Show, "Schenectady" slipped out of a character's mouth as part of a sneezing attack.

Aside from references that play on the sound of the city's name, Schenectady has also been used as a popular culture reference as a bit of a dig at how the city is conceived. Rob Edelman, a professor of film history at the University at Albany, was quoted in a 2004 as saying, "In the movies, Schenectady is like Brooklyn. It's been stereotyped as a place for losers, a place to be avoided by any forward-thinking person." Thus, the oafish nouveau riche couples in the 1934 movie Fashions of 1934 hailed from Schenectady. Likewise, a character in the 1955 film It's Always Fair Weather who aspired to owning a high-class restaurant in a sophisticated locale instead winds up running a diner in Schenectady.

In contrast to its being portrayed as a behind-the-times backwater burg, Schenectady was at the forefront of the development of radio and early television. The General Electric Company first started experimenting with radio in 1912, and radio station WGY first went on the air in 1922. WGY was an early leader in radio drama. The Masque theater troupe from Troy performed on the weekly show "WGY Players," with the WGY Orchestra performing music between acts of the plays. The dramatic performances also featured the first radio sound effect, when two pieces of lumber were slapped together to sound like a slamming door.  WRGB in Schenectady claims to be the world's first television station. It traces its roots to early in 1928, when Dr. Ernst F.W. Alexanderson, a General Electric scientist, made the first successful television broadcast from his home to the homes of four G.E. executives in Schenectady. Regular television broadcasts were de rigeur in Schenectady long before the popularization of television mushroomed in the 1950s. Schenectady was also home to the first independent commercial FM station, W47A, established in 1941.


Dr. Ernst Alexanderson with an early television set in 1928. The early TV is shown in this photograph – the screen is the small square near the top of the large console. General Electric began broadcasting occasional newscasts, musical performances, dramatic performances, and other programming in 1928.  Chuck Everson, who traced the history of WRGB writes that in the early days, “the signal that was broadcast [by WRGB] could be picked up all over the country . . . it would be blasted all over the world because there were no other stations to interfere with it.” Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

Schenectady also has a brush with showbiz fame through the people in the film, television, and music industry who were born or raised in Schenectady, including: Ann B. Davis, best known as housekeeper Alice on the television show The Brady Bunch; film actor and screenwriter Mickey Rourke; director, screenwriter, and author John Sayles, for whom the John Sayles School of Fine Arts at Schenectady High School is named; and legendary disco record producer Tom Moulton. Schenectady is also the "birthplace" of a number of fictional characters in film, TV, and fiction, from comic book villain Dr. Octopus to the character of Grace Adler on television's Will and Grace.


John Sayles is a director, screenwriter, and author born in Schenectady in 1950. He has worked as a director for over 30 years, and has directed many movies, including Honeydripper, Sunshine State, and Matewan. This photograph of Sayles is his senior picture, which appears in the 1968 Mont Pleasant High School yearbook. 

Schenectady has also been the site of filming of Hollywood movies, including 1973's The Way We Were, 2009's Winter of Frozen Dreams, and most recently, The Place Beyond the Pines, which quite clearly features Schenectady as the setting for its gritty crime drama.

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