Monday marked the 75th anniversary of Bugs Bunny’s first appearance. Icon and Coyote-level mischief maker, tormentor of ducks and Fudds and violent cowboys, Bugs tapped into all kinds of pop culture in search of plots and laffs (as we spell it in the business). It takes true genius to mine laughs from Richard Wagner:
John Philip Sousa, subject of Patrick Warfield’s Making the March King, made it a point to introduce Wagner’s towering works to his American audiences. The Marine Band he led could draw on one of the deepest repertoires of any then-touring band, and Sousa loved to program both contemporary and well-known European pieces. Not that even he didn’t have missteps:
Sousa later wrote that he had been warned of the highbrow tastes that permeated Pittsburgh and so had programmed the best works of Brahms, Bach, Wagner, and Strauss. Expecting wild applause after the first number (the overture to Rossini’s William Tell), Sousa turned to the audience but was greeted with only silence.
After several repetitions of this cold reception, the bandmaster ordered his men to pull up “Annie Rooney,” and suddenly “strong men wept with delight, husbands threw their arms about their astonished wives and the rest of the evening was, without question, Annie Rooney’s!” This story might be taken for an exaggeration had it not been substantially confirmed by the press, one paper noting that the audience was so delighted to hear “Annie Rooney” just as the First Lady “hears it every time the band plays at the White House . . . that they had to have ‘Annie’ over again.”
Thus did Sousa learn a valuable lesson: as much as the band may want to play the new stuff, the audience will just want the hits.