The Smoker started off in Memorial Hall with good fellowship (i.e., a lot of beer-drinking), after which we trooped across to Sanders for the show, which featured fan dancer Sally Rand—not to perform (imagine the headlines!), but to do stand-up comedy. Rand had a different idea.I of course am part of the generation of Americans who first heard Lehrer through “Silent E” (“Who can turn a can…into a cane?”) and “L-Y” (“Immediately, immediately, Immediate L.Y.”).
The Korean War had broken out three months before our class entered Harvard, so after a few ribald jokes she pulled a sheaf of papers from her low-cut gown and started reading the anti-Communist speech. We thought it was the build-up to another joke, but the punch line never came and the unruly crowd grew restless.
Then a guy threw a penny, and Rand shot back one of the best retorts I ever heard. “Boys,” she said (itself a putdown), “there’s only one animal I know who throws a cent.” That drew a rousing ovation—and a lot more metal hurled her way. She gamely finished her speech, and the poor woman left the stage in tears.
Sensing a riot in the offing, the quick-thinking emcee hurriedly had a piano rolled out, and a bespectacled young math instructor sat down and started playing and singing his own catchy, satirical compositions. He was so good that soon everyone had forgotten Sally Rand. Tom Lehrer always acknowledged that this Freshman Smoker was his “first big gig.”
24 June 2011
word-picture from F. Harvey Popell of the historic Freshman Smoker of 1951: