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That Was the Wit That Was 

Decades after he left the stage to teach math in Santa Cruz, the voice of legendary satirist Tom Lehrer still echoes


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If you lived by yourself on the Pacific coast, you could do an awful lot worse than this.

Tom Lehrer indicates the piano's electronic controls and remarks that with all this new technology, any idiot can now learn to play. Instant Tchaikovsky.

Wearing a red sweater and tan jeans, Lehrer plops onto a sofa to chat. Although his voice wanders from a Massachusetts inflection to proper English, it still sounds exactly like the albums from 40 years ago. And he's still amazingly quick in conversation, laughing easily and tossing out witty comments. Definitely more on the ball than you'd expect of a math professor who turned 72 two weeks before.

He has no problem discussing any aspect of his career, but first things first. There's the matter of the Jell-O shot.

A rumor has circulated for years that in the 1950s, Lehrer invented the Jell-O shot, a cup of flavored gelatin infused with booze, which has now become a frat-house favorite. He throws his head back and laughs.

"That's amazing how that got around! What happened was, I was in the Army for two years, and we were having a Christmas party on the naval base where I was working in Washington, D.C. The rules said no alcoholic beverages were allowed. And we wanted to have a little party, so this friend and I spent an evening experimenting with Jell-O. It wasn't a beverage," he says with a shrug.

"And we finally decided that orange Jell-O and vodka was the best. We tried gin and vodka and various flavors and stuff -- of course you can't sample too much. So we went over to her apartment and we made all these little cups and we thought I would bring them in, hoping that the Marine guard would say, 'OK, what's in there?' And we'd say, 'Jell-O.' and then he'd say, 'Oh, OK.' But no, he didn't even ask. So it worked. I recommend it. Orange Jell-O."

The son of a Jewish necktie manufacturer, Lehrer grew up in Manhattan, studying piano as a child, loathing classical music in favor of more popular records. A natural affinity for solving math problems and logic puzzles accelerated his education, and after prep school in Connecticut, he landed at Harvard at the age of 15.

"Everybody was young," he says. "Right after the war. It was that war, World War 2.0. So everybody over 18 was drafted. The only people left were civilians who were underage."

Between studies, he began playing piano at campus dances and private parties, singing funny songs he'd begun writing. One of the earliest was a mock football fight song called "Fight Fiercely, Harvard," a genteel, even-jawed ode to Harvard politeness on the gridiron. People liked the tunes, so he investigated how he might make a record of them. Long-playing records had just been introduced, and were fast replacing the brittle, 78 rpm disks.

A Boston studio rented him space, and one day he recorded an entire album. Twenty-two minutes of music, total cost: $15. He pressed 400 copies of a 10-inch LP titled Songs by Tom Lehrer, and wrote his own liner notes: "At last reports [Lehrer] had settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he earns a precarious living peddling dope to the local school children and rolling an occasional drunk."

The record sold well around the Harvard campus, and filtered out across the country as students took it home for the summer. A few stores in New York took copies on consignment. The record went into a second pressing, and then a third. Lehrer believed that a real record company might want to take him on. He approached several major labels, but all refused to sign him. Finally, an executive at RCA explained why.

"He said, 'No, we can't do this, because we sell refrigerators and stoves. And we don't want any boycotts of any of our products,'" says Lehrer. "I don't know what the problem would be. If you heard that record, it's nothing. I think I say 'hell' once, but that's about it."

Apparently, the recording industry wasn't willing to take a financial risk on a young Harvard kid who sang funny songs about a Russian mathematician ("Lobachevsky"), a small-town drug pusher ("The Old Dope Peddler"), or an Irish girl who kills her entire family and cooks up her brother's corpse into a stew ("The Irish Ballad"). Lehrer had to distribute the records himself. He set up an office for Lehrer Records, which he shared with a young attorney named Michael Dukakis.

An inordinate number of orders started arriving from San Francisco and Berkeley. Lehrer had no idea why, since he'd never performed on the West Coast. Eventually, someone mailed in the explanation -- a review from the San Francisco Chronicle classical music critic, who had praised the record, and included Lehrer's mailing address at the bottom.

Drafted into the Army in 1955, Lehrer watched the record continue to sell. When he got out of the service two years later, he started receiving offers to do concerts. Since he only had enough material to do half a show, he toured with an opening act, often a folk musician like Odetta, occasionally comedian Mort Sahl, or a young comedy duo called Mike & Elaine (later to become Nichols & May).

Each performance might begin with a man in black horn-rimmed glasses and tuxedo, who would recite a short funny biography about tonight's performer, and then introduce Tom Lehrer. The crowd would applaud, and watch the same man sit down at the piano, and say into the microphone: "You'd be amazed at the money we save that way."

He toured through England, Australia, and New Zealand, all the while writing more songs -- about the periodic table, Christmas commercialism, the joy of masochism. But after two years of show business, he realized he was losing interest.


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