My Birthday Was May 1 1971 I Am How Old An Autobiographical Note as an Introduction to Hungarian and Romanian Images in American Culture

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An Autobiographical Note as an Introduction to Hungarian and Romanian Images in American Culture

“Knowing” Romanians (or at least, Tran-syl-va-ni-ahahaha-ns)

As a child, when it came to Romanians, I knew of course of Dracula, or at least his pop-cultural/film (re-, and seemingly never ending)incarnation. After all, to the extent I knew where he was from it was some place called “Transylvania,” which was either its own country–in which case it must have some pretty cool-looking postage stamps, spooky castles on forbidding mountain tops and the like–or a made-up place. I suppose this should not have been surprising for a kid, since, of the myriad Dracula films, there were ones such as “Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966).” (Where does that take place, Dodge City?)

Dracula’s birthday, as we all know, is 31 October, which just happens to coincide with Halloween, thereby causing some confusion. Anyway, so when I went trick-or-treating as Cornelius from the “Planet of the Apes”–it was the ’70s okay, and I was a kid, how was I to know?…I actually thought soylent green was people–in a costume that they probably use today to demonstrate the danger of fireworks–to say nothing of the mask, a cheap plastic mold with an elastic string that invariably broke, causing you to have to carry it with you and thereby destroying any capacity you might have had to surprise the people who came to their doors…unless of course they tried the “please, take just one” candy-in-the-bowl-out-front-with-the-lights-off-really-we’re-not-home-socialism-in-action method–more often than not, I would run into countless Draculas. They had the cape, the fake fangs, and that cool fake blood…and perhaps even some of those cool postage stamps. (Context is everything at Halloween. My youngest brother went sometime in the late ’80s as “Jason” from the “Halloween” horror series. A little old lady opened up the door at one house and said “Ooooooh, look at the cute little hockey player”! By the way, what happens when you go up to somebody’s house in a costume, ring the doorbell, and say trick-or-treat, on a day other than Halloween? I figure one of two things can happen: 1) they call the cops, or 2) they seek to regift the still-remaining popcorn balls and circus peanuts left over from last Halloween.)

If Dracula was only present in person on Halloween, he could be found the rest of the year on television–especially, perhaps ironically, for kids. There was Count von Count from Sesame Street. The count’s theme song included a line, “When I’m alone. I count myself. One, one count! Ahahahaha [to thunder in the background]!” Interestingly, according to the Internet’s Wikipedia (“Count von Count”) entry, there is some vampire folklore which suggests that vampires can become obsessed with counting things and that should you ever confront one, throwing sand or seeds may help to distract them (a helpful travel tip…).

The Count von Count skit is emblematic of the confused mix of Romanian, Hungarian, and sometimes inexplicably inserted slavic elements that make up the Dracula composite. For example, as in the Seinfeld scene excerpted in the introduction (whose characters actually speak a few words of Romanian in the scene!, but who are nevertheless named Katya (the gymnast) and Misha (the circus performing acrobat), names (diminutives) which are neither Hungarian, nor Romanian), the Count’s bats for some unknown reason have slavic names–Grisha, Misha, Sasha, etc. The Count’s characteristics are clearly inspired by Bela Lugosi’s (indeed, a real Transylvanian (from Lugoj), of Hungarian origin) 1931 portrayal of Dracula (down to Count von Count’s accent), and, it would appear, the Count’s cameo girlfriend “Countess Dahling von Dahling” is inspired by the Hungarian actress, Zsa Zsa Gabor, who is famous for being famous, as is said, and for calling people “dahling” (convenient, she has said, because then you never have to remember anyone’s name).

Finally, there was Count Chocula, a staple of Saturday morning television serials and the commercials in between which they were sandwiched (nothing in comparison to today, however, as commercial breaks took up much less time then). All I knew of him was that he presided over what looked like a really-tasty chocolate cereal that looked more like dessert than breakfast. That, of course, explains why our mother refused to buy it for us. Back in the in-retrospect-not-a-bad-time-to-be-a-kid, now much-maligned, hedonistic “have a nice day smiley-face,” “Me” decade of the 1970s, gluttony as one of the seven deadly sins was given temporary special dispensation. Gluttony was in…even if chocolate covered cereals with marshmallows were not in some households. (In those days, “nutrition correctness” had not yet taken over, as names such as Sugar Smacks (renamed Honey Smacks) or Sugar Pops would suggest.)

“Knowing” Hungarians

My introduction to Hungarians was similarly obscure. To the extent I identified Dracula with any place at all, it was, as I noted, Transylvania; to the extent that it was a country, Romania–not yet having gotten the spiel countless times by the proprietors of private rooms I was to stay in Hungary in later years, “ah, so you are going to Transylvania, you know that used to be part of Hungary–one, one dismembered kingdom, ahahahahahaha–until they took it away (to the accompaniment of thunder in the background) .” What did I know and when did I know it (well, it was the Watergate era, you know)? It was not, for example, until years later that I realized that I had once lived in the Hungarian-American mecca known as Cleveland, or that the Austrian family from whom we bought our house in a suburb of Toronto in the early ’70s was named Feleky. (It was quite a street we lived on then (1970-1974); my parents, Irish immigrants just naturalized American citizens, the mother of a friend a Prague Spring Czech refugee, and many new Greek families, doubtless some having fled the right-wing military junta of 1967-1973.)

My mother used to make that staple of many an American household (at least at a time), “Hungarian goulash”…it sounds ghoulish, but it tastes delicious. (As is frequently noted, the American version is more similar to porkolt (stew-like) than to gulyas (a soup).) I loved it, even though I didn’t know what it was or where it came from. (It can only be said to be ironic too, although I did not realize it was ironic at a time: my father is a ’56er, only he came from Dublin, a relative (a policeman!) stiffed him at the port, and so he wandered the streets of New York with his suitcase in heavy Irish tweed during Indian summer, only to duck into a bar to see a few pitches of Don Larsen’s Perfect Game in the World Series, an event whose importance was inscrutable to him; like many a Hungarian ’56er, however, he felt like a Martian (see below for more on the theme of Hungarians as “aliens”). No, my father did not bump into Frank McCourt!)

“Goulash,” of course, already had a long history on television by that point, what with mad scientists in Warner Brothers cartoons, living in “Transylvania” among lightning storms and talking about making “spider goulash” and similar mad scientist specialties. (The other Hungarian touch used in a whole series of cartoons–including a classic Warner Brothers’ cartoon by Fritz Freleng with Bugs Bunny as a concert pianist (“Rhapsody Rabbit”) and a classic MGM cartoon by Hanna and Barbera of “Tom and Jerry” dueling it out at a piano (“The Cat Concerto”), both of which came out within weeks of each other in 1946 leading to mutual accusations that the competitor was guilty of plagiarism (see Wikipedia entry)–is the manic-depressive, mostly manic, frantic music Franz (Ferenc) Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2”.) “Goulash” was also the plot-line of what from today’s optic was a clearly racist episode (“A Majority of Two,” 4/11/68) of the 1960s sitcom “Bewitched” in which, as usual, “Darrin” (alias “Darwood”) was to entertain an out-of-town business guest–would you like a high-ball, sir, make that a double; sorry they’ve slashed the expense account, dinner at Darrin’s again…–who on this occasion was Japanese. The whole episode, Darrin’s wife, a witch named Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery), is trying to track down how to prepare the meal request the businessman’s secretary had relayed: Hun-gai-ran-gou-rash. She is worried, of course, about causing the Japanese businessman to lose face if she asks, which is indeed a concern since throughout the episode when this happens to someone his or her face will literally disappear, apparently leaving a blotch of white-out. Everyone, of course, has a good laugh at the end, however, after the businessman has romanced only a mildly Asian-looking (didn’t want to have her looking tooooo Asian) stewardess, and it turns out all the businessman really wanted was “Hungarian Goulash,” but owing to his secretary’s accent…Everyone except that nosy next-door neighbor Mrs. Gladys Kravitz, who, we can deduce, must be spying on the Stevens’ household for “Dragnet” or “The FBI,” since “freak out” parties have been reported at that address…

Then, there was the show, “Green Acres,”…something was definitely up with that, but exactly what I didn’t know. Although I knew the character Lisa Douglas was eccentric, I didn’t know she was Hungarian, and I certainly did not know that she was Eva Gabor and not Zsa Zsa Gabor as is very frequently mistaken. As a kid, I thought I didn’t understand the show, precisely because I was a kid. Nope. Now, years later, I know: that wasn’t the problem.

How exactly does one describe “Green Acres?” The plot ostensibly was that Eddie Albert’s character wished to experience the “real livin'” of the countryside (today, this is known as a “r-e-a-l-i-t-y show,” starring a similarly famous-for-being-famous celebrity, Paris Hilton…who is actually related to the Gabors (see below), however, thereby causing us serious existential issues at this point in this sentence). Eddie Albert drags his reluctant Hungarian wife with him, and she is not very happy with the situation because, as we learn from the theme song, she would rather be shopping on Park Avenue. (The countryside theme was so common in CBS sitcoms during the 1960s, that some critics derisively referred to it as the “Country Broadcasting System”.) Anyway, they lived in some rural area, several hundred miles from Chicago, probably Illinois. Despite the small size of the town in which they lived, Hooterville was capable of hosting not one, but two sitcoms: Green Acres (1966-1971) and Petticoat Junction (1963-1970). (The town was apparently known best for the ample breasts of the young female stars of Petticoat Junction, since, as it turns out, the choice of name was not accidental). The two shows were united by the presence of Sam Drucker, apparently town grocer, postmaster, and banker, and the unforgettable character of George Jefferson (oh, sorry, no, too early, this was still the 1960s, strike that then). As the Wikipedia entry notes, Hooterville had Drucker’s grocery store and the hotel from Petticoat Junction…not exactly, Pixley material (to say nothing of Mount Pilot), and likely that giant sucking sound on the state’s budget. At least the town did not have Goober or Howard Sprague, clearly not local personalities the chamber of commerce wishes to advertise when trying to attract investment).

Moreover, I would venture to guess, this was one town where the locals did not “exceed the plan” or “break the harvest record,” despite Eva’s naturally collectivist tendencies. Instead, a lot of time was spent with fending off the vexing locals, including the featherheaded state bureaucrat, county farm agent Hank Kimball, a gender-ambiguous brother and sister painting team, and Arnold Ziffel, the “hilarious” TV-watching pig, apparently “Green Acres”s’answer to Mr. Ed (an insidious, but false, urban legend has it that the cast ate Arnold after the show was cancelled; the truth is just being on the set made him nostalgic for the sanity of the sty). The running joke of the series was that Mr. Douglas (Eddie Albert) wanted to be there, but nothing went right and the locals drove him crazy; while Mrs. Douglas, despite her love of fluffy negligees and diamonds, fit right in and understood the locals. Her Hungarianness in the show was alternatively exotic, haughty, sexy/ditzy (as connoted by her accent) and seemingly oblivious to reason–yes, a veritable goulash of “otherness.”

One would like to assume that “Green Acres” could be explained by recourse to more complicated analysis: that it was somehow a) a reflection of the drug culture’s first penetration of the creative intelligentsia (according to Alice, the wind was whispering, not yet crying Mary…”Green Acres” an accidental choice of title?!), or that b) there was some deep allegory at work here, suggesting pursuit of a utopian rural life is a chimera, and that instead you get electrification and a TV-watching pig. (Appropriately enough, when it and other such country broadcasting system shows were cancelled in 1971, it was referred to as the “Rural Purge.”) It is more likely that the show was merely escapist, almost unintentionally absurd–although it did leave a score that lent itself well to translation into Hungarian for a skit at a summer language camp years later. (One of the best indictments of “America’s Cold War realism” of the era can be found in the movie “Forrest Gump,” in a recovery room for injured soldiers during the Vietnam War…in the background “Gomer Pyle, USMC” plays on a TV…In 5 years, Gomer somehow never made it out of basic training to Vietnam…)

Through the Eyes of an American Child of the Television Age: Identifying Hungarians and Romanians as Hungarians and Romanians…through the Wide World of Sports

Al “The Mad Hungarian” Hrabosky

Speaking of Eva…I mean Zsa Zsa, no, I mean, for once this is right, Zsa Zsa Gabor…a guest spot on another rural-themed 1960s television show introduces us to our next theme: the Hungarians as “mad” or crazy (a la Lisa Douglas). In one episode (28 January 1962), Wilbur congratulates his talking horse, Mr. Ed, for having cured Zsa Zsa of her fear of horses, to which Mr. Ed responds: “She cured my fear of Hungarians” (“The Best of Mr. Ed,” multiple sites; Mister Ed aired from 1961-1966 on, you guessed it, CBS). In J.D. Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey” (published as a whole in 1961), Mrs. Glass tells Zooey: “You could use a haircut, young man…You’re getting to look like one of these crazy Hungarians or something getting out of a swimming pool” (the section also contains a reference to Zsa Zsa Gabor and use of the descriptor “Balkan”; I remember now reading this book beneath leafy trees below the Pannonhalma abbey in Hungary in June 1990) http://www.freeweb.hu/tchl/salinger/frannyandzooey.doc. (I would be curious to know here: this section first appeared in The New Yorker in May 1957, and the reference to a Hungarian “getting out of a swimming pool”–a rather strange comparison–inevitably brings to mind the famous bloody water polo match between the Soviets and the Hungarians on 6 December 1956 at the 1956 Summer Olympics (yes, that’s right, because the Summer Olympics were held in Melbourne, Australia that year). The Hungarians defeated the Soviets in a match with huge political overtones–angry Hungarian fans were reportedly ready to lynch a Soviet player for a punch to the eye of a Hungarian star–the match coming just a month after the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian uprising.)

My first personal realization of Hungarianness as Hungarianness, however, came around 1976, with the ascribed “mad” quality of Hungarians, specifically and appropriately enough, Al “The Mad Hungarian” Hrabosky. Hrabosky was a relief pitcher for several different teams in the 1970s and early 1980s, but his best years were with St. Louis and Kansas City, with 1975 being his cardinal year in the record books. The mid-1970s were the days of colorful characters in baseball, especially among pitchers: the cigar-chomping Cuban of the Boston Red Sox, Luis Tiant, who looked like we was throwing toward the outfield rather than the catcher because of his pitching motion; Sparky Lyle for the New York Yankees, his cheeks like a blow-fish filled with chewing tobacco; and Mark “The Bird” Fidrych of the Detroit Tigers, who talked to the ball as if it were alive and whose boyish enthusiasm unfortunately couldn’t overcome injuries that strangled his career in its infancy.

Then there was Hrabosky who despite the Slovak-sounding last name claims Hungarian descent. Contrasting the absence of colorful characters among pitchers in today’s baseball, Gordon Edes wrote in a wonderful–if he were Hungarian, we might even say “sweet”–article in 2003 about Hrabosky as follows:

But for sheer theatrics, one reliever remains in a league of his own: Al Hrabosky, known as the “Mad Hungarian” when he pitched for the Cardinals, Royals, and Braves from 1970-1982. With his Fu Manchu mustache, long hair, and a silver ring, the Gypsy Rose of Death (“I don’t even remember the stupid story I made up for that, it was so far-fetched–probably a family heirloom of Dracula”), Hrabosky would turn every outing into performance art. He’d stomp off the mound toward second base, eyes blazing, the fury practically seeping through his uniform as he turned back to the hitter who was left waiting at the plate until he was done working himself into an altered state he called his “controlled hate routine,” then whirled around, pounding his ball into the glove while the home crowd generally went nuts. (Gordon Edes, “Hrabosky had a flair about him,” “The Boston Globe,” 28 March 2003, F9, reprinted on the Internet)

How did Hrabosky get his nickname? Again, Edes recounts:

The nickname, he said, came from a team publicist. No one was sure of his nationality–[the American film star] “Burt Reynolds once called me ‘The Mad Russian'”–and only the spelling-bee champions got his name right. But then one day, a Cardinals publicist, Jerry Lovelace, said “Hey, M.H.,” to the young pitcher from Oakland, Calif., and a nickname was born….I said, “What does that mean?” He said, “Mad Hungarian.” I said, “I like it.” (Edes, 2003)

Hungarians, I concluded from watching his television appearances and from his nickname, must be associated with craziness. That is how, of course, many images are passed on, not with malice, but as descriptors for individuals, a way of awarding identity and for marketing purposes. Hrabosky’s “mad” behavior was established before his nationality (as Burt Reynolds’ calling him “The Mad Russian” indicates, in itself a negative and positive reflection of “East European” ethnicity in the United States at the time–interchangeable, part of a melting pot, even if a separate one from those of West European ethnicity–although cultural constructionists would view such “everycountry” ascription more darkly (see below)), rather than his Hungarianness being identified first, and his behavior seen as reflecting his Hungarianness. Once the two become intertwined, however, and given the propensity for collective associations to outweigh individual associations, it was difficult and almost irrelevant to know which came first–the two were married and interchangeable in the popular imagination, or at least sports fan’s imagination.

Nadia…

It was also the Bicentennial Summer of 1976 when I was introduced to Romanians, also through sports. It was, of course, through Nadia Comaneci (“N.C. I”), an endearing young Romanian gymnast who scored seven perfect 10s, the perfection being driven home even more by the fact that the scoreboards only went up to 9.9, the perfect score of 10 being considered unattainable! (The scoreboard would show 1.0 because it could not go past 9.9….Spinal Tap’s invention of the 11 not having been invented yet.) Nadia spawned “Nadia-(Ro)mania” of a sort. ABC which carried the Montreal Olympics in the United States attached a musical theme to the gymnast’s performances; “Nadia’s theme” then climbed the pop charts! (It was actually the theme to an American soap opera, “The Young and the Restless,” but it was through its attachment to Nadia who used it for one of her floor performances that it became famous.)

Of course, I have asked myself since then: would the reaction, the outpouring of genuine warmth and admiration from Americans (Canadians, and Westerners in general) have been the same had Nadia been representing Bulgaria and not Romania–to say nothing of the Soviet Union? True, the USSR’s Olga Korbut generated enthusiasm four years earlier in Munich but nothing like Nadia. Was it Nadia’s comparative youth and “cuteness/sweetness/prepubescence?” Was it her coach, the charismatic, bear-like Hungarian, Bela Karolyi (their relationship presented as indicative of the “warm ethnic relations” fostered by “Ceausescu’s Romania”)? Perhaps, but I also think it was against the backdrop of Romania’s highly-crafted and the U.S. and West’s highly-courted image of Ceausescu’s Romania as the great thorn in the Soviets’ side, bravely standing up to Moscow and more Western in their culture and people (“a Latin people in a sea of Slavs”)–i.e. thus not Balkan or truly “Eastern,” somehow caught by accident “behind enemy lines.” It is simply difficult to believe that something approaching Nadia-mania could occur in the post-Cold War world; it was a reflection of the time in which it took place.

Certainly, the standing ovation for the Romanian delegation as it entered the Los Angeles Coliseum at the 1984 Summer Olympics–which unfortunately lent itself easily to continuous exploitation by Ceausescu thereafter, during the most-difficult years of his reign–and Nadia’s escape from Romania in November 1989, became metaphors for and barometers of Romania’s political situation and U.S.-Romanian relations. The appropriately surreal “1984” moment reflected the Chernenko, pre-Gorbachev nadir of Soviet-American relations in the 1980s–arms reductions talks’ were essentially put on ice between late 1983 and 1985–and the continued greater importance attached to Romania’s foreign policy over Ceausescu’s “Golden Era” domestic policy (the 1984-1986 period being perhaps the worst and most hopeless according to some, in part owing to brutal weather, and the weakness of reform currents at that moment elsewhere in the bloc). By 1989, with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in full swing–and with “Gorbymania” having changed the image of the Soviet Union extensively in the United States–the image of a transmogrified Nadia–as if 1976 had never happened–involved in a “tawdry affair” with a married man (Constantin Panait), escaping from Romania, seemed to symbolize the ills of Ceausescu’s Romania and how it now stood in stark contrast to the rest of the Eastern bloc. As the Seinfeld episode demonstrates, and as I will discuss in more detail below, the gymnast frame stuck in the popular imagination, however. It was Nadia who set that mold.

(A Romanian-American scholar once told me how surprised he was to look up on the television screen one day in November-December 1989, only to see the married father of four, the Romanian émigré for whom a now aging and plumper Nadia had allegedly left Ceausescu’s Romania: the scholar had tended bar with the guy…and the guy still owed him money! My first encounter with “real, live” Romanians from Romania also had a sad sports theme in a sense. It was in Keleti pu., the eastern train station in Budapest in May 1985. Amid the clapping of rusting toilet flanges and intermittent torrents of urine falling to the tracks below, Romanian boys in dingy blue track suits with trim that had once been white chased each other around the unmistakable “CFR” railcars of the time…)

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