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Follow the Bouncing Ball

"Kim Jong Il wants everyone to follow the bouncing ball..." said one internet news headline last week. That sentence startled me for a moment. Kim Jong Il, dictator of North Korea? As I read, I came across a link to an on-line anthem complete with English translation, music, and a little bouncing ball jumping from word to word, all about North Korean soldiers who defend their motherland. It could have been any country, any continent, actually, although the pictures in the background were plainly North Korean. As the words moved across the computer screen I thought back to the first time I heard "follow the bouncing ball."

Suddenly I was back in the Colonial Theater watching old re-runs and newly released Sing-Along short films, run between the movies with previews and newsreels. I didn't learn all the latest catchy songs in the 1940's and 50's from records, or radio, or music classes at school -- I learned a lot of popular and romantic and novelty songs right up there on the screen. You Are My Sunshine, The Yellow Rose of Texas, The Sidewalks of New York, Bill Bailey, or Cruising Down the River would appear in large letters with a white ball bouncing from syllable to syllable in time with the music. Sometimes it was just the lyrics, and sometimes it was a Song Car-Tune with cartoon characters following the bouncing ball and singing the songs. The whole movie audience chimed in and soon you, your family and friends knew all the latest songs.

With a bit of research, I learned that "Come Away with Me Lucile" was one of the first animated films to actually have sound. The Oldsmobile automotive company no doubt loved it since it featured the best-known song ever written about a car. The story line was a bit racy for the day: Lucile was getting ready for a date when a villainous peeping-tom caught a glimpse of her through a crack in her window shade. Lucile yanked down the shade, then reached down to her hemline and pulled off one, then another, then another and yet another dress. Shedding striped, plaid, polka dotted and flowered dress after dress, she went from pleasantly plump to skinny as a rail before getting down to her slip. She was sliding an evening gown over her head about the time the villain chopped his way through her front door. He sang this little song to her as he chased her around the room, trying to steal a little kiss:

Come away with me Lucile in my merry Oldsmobile,
Down the road of life we'll fly, automo-bubbling you and I.
To the church we'll swiftly steal, then our wedding bells will peal,
You can go as far as you like with me in my merry Oldsmobile.

The song had multiple verses and the audience followed the bouncing ball through them all, cheering Lucile on to get away from the bad guy. Of course she did. Her hero arrived on the scene and made short work of the peeping tom. Naturally Lucile and her fellow lived happily ever after. These were forerunners of Popeye, Olive Oyl and Bluto who had many such adventures over the years, some with and some without the bouncing ball sing-alongs.

Movie sing-alongs actually started in the early 1920's, in the days of silent movies. The house organist or pianist would play popular music of the day in between pictures and invite the audience to sing along. If you didn't know the song, that was okay; the words were shown on the screen by way of slides. In the middle 20's animated films and sound came along with various cartoon characters acting out a short story, complete with popular songs.

Song lyrics and bouncing ball accompanied the spinach-guzzling Popeye’s Popeye The Sailor Man, or big-eyed beauty Betty Boop’s Let Me Call You Sweetheart. Pretty soon "Follow the Bouncing Ball" became part of the American culture.

I loved the Song Car-Tunes at the Colonial. In addition to human a cartoon characters, Tom and Jerry ran from the farmer's wife to the words and music of Three Blind Mice. Bugs Bunny outwitted farmer Elmer Fudd, wielding his garden hoe in time with Row, Row, Row Your Boat. I can still visualize Porky Pig and Petunia's duet rendering of When I'm Calling You-oo-oo-oo,-oo-oo-oo.

When television came along, Sing Along with Mitch Miller became a well-watched TV show, complete with bouncing ball. You could sing with Mitch as loud as you wanted, off key or on, in the comfort of your own living room. Families watched the show together, laughing and critiqueing each other's singing style. The Hit Parade and Name That Tune soon came along. We still heard the popular songs of the day, but it wasn't as much fun without that bouncing ball to follow. They didn’t sing Mairzy Doats and Dozy Doats (mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy, a kid’ll eat ivy too, wouldn’t you) much on the Hit Parade…

Sing-alongs haven't died out, though, they've just evolved over the years. Nowadays you don't need a theater or a television set, you can attend karaoke night at a local restaurant or club. You might select your favorite Oldie but Goodie and imitate Old Blue Eyes (Frank Sinatra for you young-uns) "your way" or "dream of a white Christmas" with the Crooner (Bing Crosby). People still like being one of the audience singing the old songs, and you can count on the crowd laughing and critiqueing your singing style.

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