Ukuleles in Fiction

Just thought I’d begin to look for examples of the ukulele as mentioned in fiction — novels. I don’t have many examples yet (just passing references), but I intend to kept an eye or two out for them.

F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940) mentions the ukulele in at least two of his short stories.

Flappers and Philosophers (1920), ‘Bernice Bobs Her Hair’

Bernice hesitated. She felt that wit in some form was demanded of her, but under her cousin’s suddenly frigid eyes she was completely incapacitated.

“I don’t know,” she stalled.

“Splush!” said Marjorie. “Admit it!”

Bernice saw that Warren’s eyes had left a ukulele he had been tinkering with and were fixed on her questioningly.

“Oh, I don’t know!” she repeated steadily. Her cheeks were glowing.

“Splush!” remarked Marjorie again.

Tales of the Jazz Age (1921) [Blog note: Edith is at a party, and is attracting attention]

A dark man cut in with intense formality.

“You don’t remember me, do you?” he said gravely.

“I should say I do. Your name’s Harlan.”

“No-ope. Barlow.”

“Well, I knew there were two syllables anyway. You’re the boy that played the ukulele so well up at Howard Marshall’s house party.

“I played–but not–“

A man with prominent teeth cut in.

Another novelist who mentions the ukulele is Fanny Heaslip Lea (1884-1955). The Evening Independent (21 December 1926) in announcing Ms. Lea’s divorce on page 16, describes her novels in this way:

Oh, those stories! Ukuleles ‘neath the moon, passionately-red hibiscus, and maids that sat in grass skirts on a star-drenched beach and twanged and twanged at a uke.

So I went looking for her novels and the only reference I came across was in Sicily Anne: A Romance, Harper & Brothers, 1914. Disappointingly, page 64 provides this particularly unromantic exchange:

Mrs. Kennard, delicately fingering an ukelele,
called out to him at once.

“Jimmy-boy! Come, sing. We need you.”

“Nothing doing!” said Jimmy Fox, untruthfully
and impolitely. “I’ve got a cold.”

and a little further on …

Once he [Jimmy-boy] killed a mosquito, smearing it brutally upon the sleeve of his pajamas, but the bloody deed afforded him small relief. When the rest of the house-party ceased from troubling and the last ukelele tinkled into silence upon the last laughing good night, he breathed a prayer of gratitude, but it was two hours after that before his eyelids closed definitely and sleep came upon him unawares.

That’s it until something better comes along.

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Published in: on October 29, 2009 at 6:13 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Stella Lamond — the cutie with the uke

stella

Stella Lamond

Stella Lamond (1909-1973) was an Australian singer, dancer and actress who commenced her professional career on the stage at the tender age of four. At the Tivoli she was known as the ‘girl from Woop Woop’, and later as ‘the cutie with the uke’ — and, in Frank van Straten’s book, Tivoli (Lothian, 2003), it is said that her playing of the ukulele would stop the show.  One of her ukuleles is now in the Powerhouse museum, Sydney. Stella had two daughters, Toni Lamond and Hellen Reddy.

Picture from Tivoli, page 91 — used with the kind permission of Frank van Straten.

Published in: on October 28, 2009 at 9:22 pm  Comments (6)  
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Ukulele Manufacturing News from 1916

The following report appeared in The Musical Trade Review in 1916.

At the end of August,  1915, manufacturers of ukuleles in the Hawaiian Islands were turning out 500 or 600 instruments per month. At the end of August, 1916, the output was extended to 1,600 per month, with demands from mainland music dealers which could not be met.

There are eight principal manufacturers of ukuleles in Honolulu, with a scattering of instruments coming from small makers in the other islands. Each manufacterer has turned his small workshop into a factory, adding new workers and increasing the plant as rapidly as possible. In the first week of September a company was organised in Honolulu with plans to manufacture from 1,000 to 2,000 ukuleles per month with improved machinery, the workers to be Hawiians and Portuguese. This company plans not only the manufacture of ukuleles, but also to purchase completed material from other makers.

The originator of the ukulele, a Portuguese, who is now head of a manufacturing company, is still an active worker in his own factory, and turns out about 700 instruments per month. Another Honolulu firm produces about 400 per month.

The Hawiians and Portuguese of Hawaii claim that the instruments made by them, principally of koa wood, are seasoned and properly prepared. The prevailing local prices for ukuleles range from $3.75 to $16 and $20.  The highest-priced products are heavily beaded. The tone is of the most important items in the construction of the ukulele, and the Hawaiians and Portuguese claim that this is obtained only with the use of properly seasoned koa wood and proper attention paid to shaving the wood and fitting it.  The plans of the new companies forming, and of old factories being enlarged, will give an output close to 3,000 per month.

Passage reproduced courtesy of The International Arcade Museum and the Musical Box Society International.

Published in: on October 8, 2009 at 6:51 am  Comments (1)  
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Stanley’s Gig (2000) — Movie Review

If this movie doesn’t put the ukulele at the centre of the plot, it does give it a respectable place within it. The story revolves around Stanley Meyer, a middle-aged man down on his luck whose ambition is to play ukulele on cruise ships headed for Hawaii. While he waits for his big break, Stanley takes work as a ‘musical therapist’ at a aged peoples’ home. Here he meets among the various characters an angry loner, Eleanor (Marla Gibbs), who was a jazz singer in the 1940s, but now she hates music. Stanley’s self-appointed mission is to bring Eleanor out of her shell and get her singing again.

William Sanderson, who plays Stanley, gives a most convincing performance, but he is not a ukulele player. He mimes to the fine strumming and singing of Ian Whitcomb, who also provides the voice over ‘flash back’ commentary of Smiling Jack, the radio personality from whom Stanley learned ukulele as a child. Whitcomb provides mood music too, including a great version of Leo Wood’s song, ‘Somebody Stole My Gal’.

The movie has a bitter/sweet ending, for which you’ll have to watch the movie. I enjoyed it — hope you will too.

Published in: on October 2, 2009 at 1:28 pm  Leave a Comment  
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