Double damask

My morning name from ten days ago, from a celebrated comedy routine: a double dozen double damask dinner napkins. The original was apparently two dozen double damask dinner napkins, and it sometimes is performed as a dozen double damask dinner napkins, but its tongue-twisteristic core is the double damask dinner napkins part — and the history is interesting, but what consumed me that morning was where I’d first encountered that phrase and the routine.

I was pretty sure it was at Princeton in 1959-62, in the Bendon/Daingerfield menage on Nassau St., and I recalled clearly that I was familiar with them in the fall of 1962, when Ann Daingerfield and I moved into our house in Cambridge MA and discovered we were in possession of several dozen double damask dinner napkins; we dissolved in giggles repeating the phrase. (I still have some of those napkins; they are not only handsome but durable.)


(#1) An Irish linen double damask dinner napkin, in service

I suspected that Ann and I had learned about Double Damask from Benita Bendon (now Campbell), and that now seems to be the case, from what I learned yesterday in a long phone conversation with Bonnie (now in the Denver suburbs). Apparently, the Double Damask routine figured on the tv show Kukla, Fran and Ollie, where Madame Oglepuss was the key figure in it. From Cicely Courtneige, some 90 years ago, to Madame Oglepuss (possibly by way of Bea Lillie) to Bonnie to Ann and me.

Background on damask. From NOAD:

noun damask: 1 a figured woven fabric with a pattern visible on both sides, typically used for table linen and upholstery…  ORIGIN late Middle English: from Damaske, early form of the name of Damascus, where the fabric was first produced.

Double damask is, roughly, a denser weave than single damask.

Courtneige. From Wikipedia:

Dame Esmerelda Cicely Courtneidge, DBE (1 April 1893 – 26 April 1980) was an Australian-born British actress, comedian and singer. The daughter of the producer and playwright Robert Courtneidge, she was appearing in his productions in the West End, by the age of 16, and was quickly promoted from minor to major roles in his Edwardian musical comedies.

… In 1923, Courtneidge and [her husband and acting partner Jack] Hulbert appeared in The Little Revue, produced by Hulbert. The Times wrote of the show, “there is no reason why it should not have a dozen successors, all as good.” There were, in fact, five successors, described by Pepys-Whiteley as “a series of uninterrupted successes throughout eight years, in which both partners had star parts.” These shows played in the West End and on tour in the UK, and in 1925 the Hulberts made their Broadway debut in their current revue, By-the-Way. The New York Times found the show “beguiling”. The fourth in the series, Clowns in Clover [(1928)], contained one of Courtneidge’s most celebrated sketches, “Double Damask”, by Dion Titheradge, in which her character, Mrs. Spooner, and two shop assistants become entangled in tongue-twisters [two dozen double damask dinner napkins]. When Courtneidge’s 1932 recording of the sketch was reissued in 1972, The Gramophone said, “it is an enduring classic comedy sketch as funny now as it was then”.

You can listen here (#2) to the audio of a 1933 recording of “Double Damask” (along with “I’ll Give Her a Ring”), with Courtneige as Mrs. Spooner and Ivor McLaren and Lawrence Green as the shop assistants.

The tongue twisting. Early in the routine get to two dozen dammle dizzick danner nipkins; danner nipkins then sticks for a while. Soon we get two duzzle, later two dazzen, and on from there to dapper ninkins, dipper nankins, and more.

The transformation of dinner napkins to danner nipkins is a simple Spooneristic exchange of the accented vowels, the /ɪ/ of dinner and the /æ/ of napkins.

The transformation of double damask to dammle dizzick is much more complex, but its core is again a Spooneristic exchange, this time of accented vowel + following consonant, /ʌb … æm/ > /æm … ʌb/, that is, double damask > dammle dubisk. But then dubisk is reshaped, by simplification of /sk/ to /k/; plus replacement of /ʌ/ by /ɪ/ in anticipation of the /ɪ/ of the next word (dinner); and replacement of /b/ by /z/, by perseveration of the /z/ from the previous word (dozen); the result is dizzick. After that, various medial vowels and consonants float about in the speakers’ minds and mouths.

Bea Lillie. Double Damask has been performed, often with variations, by a number of others, most famously by Bea Lillie. You can watch here (#3) a 1950 tv performance (on the Arthur Murray Party) by Lillie, with Reginald Gardiner and Carl Reiner as the shop assistants.

Then from Wikipedia:

Beatrice Gladys Lillie (29 May 1894 – 20 January 1989), known as Bea Lillie, was a Canadian-born British actress, singer and comedic performer.

She began to perform as a child with her mother and sister. She made her West End debut in 1914 and soon gained notice in revues and light comedies, becoming known for her parodies of old-fashioned, flowery performing styles and absurd songs and sketches. She debuted in New York in 1924 and two years later starred in her first film, continuing to perform in both the US and UK. She was associated with revues staged by André Charlot and works of Noël Coward and Cole Porter, and frequently was paired with Gertrude Lawrence, Bert Lahr and Jack Haley.

During World War II, Lillie was an inveterate entertainer of the troops.

Kukla, Fran and Ollie. From Wikipedia:


(#1) Kukla, Ollie, and Fran (p.r. photo from Wikipedia)

Kukla, Fran and Ollie is an early American television show using puppets. It was created for children, but soon watched by more adults than children. It did not have a script and was entirely ad-libbed. It was broadcast from 1947 to 1957.

Burr Tillstrom was the creator and only puppeteer on the show

… “Fran” was Fran Allison, a radio comedian and singer who usually was the only human to appear on screen, filling the role of big sister and cheery voice of reason as the puppets engaged each other concerning their foibles. The design style of puppets was in the style of Neapolitan puppet shows, or Punch and Judy without the slapstick, but their personalities were less caricatured. The puppet cast included “Kukla”, the earnest leader of the troupe; “Ollie”, or ” Oliver J. Dragon”, a roguish one-toothed dragon (who would slam his flat chin on the stage in frustration or roll on his back to be endearing); Madame Oglepuss, a retired opera diva, [and a number of others]

The show was playful, even silly, and quite charming. A beloved feature of my childhood (I was age 7 through 17 during the duration of the show). It helped to pave the way for Captain Kangaroo (1955-84), Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1968-2001), and Sesame Street (which started in 1969).

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