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Happy 35th Birthday, Uncle John!

September 22, 2022

We’re celebrating 35 years of Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader—and the brand-new Uncle John’s Awesome 35th Anniversary Bathroom Reader—by looking back at the last three-and-a-half-decades with amazing facts or stories from the new book from the years since Uncle John made reading in the bathroom a cultural phenomenon. We've got so much to share, this is going to take awhile.

Let's kick things off with the tail end of the previous century and focus on 1980s and 90s. Facts, don’t fail us now!

1988: Johnny Cash made a pact with fellow music legend Roy Orbison, who was terminally ill, that they would both grow their hair long enough to wear in a ponytail. As Cash later admitted, he’d had no intention of actually following through. A few months later, at Orbison’s funeral, Cash looked into the casket and started laughing when he saw Orbison’s hair was in a ponytail.

1989: Ursula, the villain in Disney’s The Little Mermaid was modeled after drag performer Divine (Glenn Milstead), but he died before he could voice the character. Producers offered the part to Bea Arthur, who’s agent turned it down without even telling her about the “silly” role. The two finalists for Ursula’s voice came down to Charlotte Rae (Mrs. Garrett
 on The Facts of Life) and Broadway legend Elaine Stritch. Rae couldn’t hit all the notes, so Stritch got the role, and was fired a few weeks later. Then producers auditioned Pat Carroll (The Danny Thomas Show), who could sing so low she sometimes played men on stage. Carroll even studied footage of Divine, and then added her own spin: “I saw Ursula as this ex-Shakespearean actress who now sold cars.”

1990: Shigeyuki Hashimoto and Kiyoaki Tanaka were defense-industry workers at a Japanese steel mill in Malaya (modern-day Malaysia) who joined the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. When Japan surrendered in 1945, they and 13 other Japanese soldiers fled into the jungle and joined up with communist guerillas fighting for Malay independence from Great Britain. Over the years, the Japanese soldiers battled  British, Australian, Thai, and Malaysian forces, and all but Hashimoto and Tanaka were killed. Malaya achieved full independence in 1957, but that wasn’t independence enough for Hashimoto and Tanaka, who kept on fighting. It wasn’t until 1990, when the Malaysian Communist Party signed a peace treaty with the Malaysian government, that the two men, now in their seventies, walked out of the jungle and returned home to Japan, 45 years after the end of World War II.

1991: Gordon H. Sindecuse, a retired dentist who trained at the University of Michigan’s School of Dentistry, bequeathed a fortune to the institution to open a museum devoted to American tooth care, from the early 1800s to the mid-20th century. Visitors to the Sindecuse Museum of Dentistry in Ann Arbor can witness the evolution of dentistry tools from what look like steel torture devices into modern medical devices. Among the oddities: foot-powered tooth drills, dangerously unsafe early X-ray machines, and smithing tools used to carve artificial teeth out of gold.

1992: On December 3, 1992, the very first, of what would be untold billions, text message was sent. A 22-year-old software architect named Neil Papworth, working from his computer, texted “MERRY CHRISTMAS” to Richard Jarvis (who was at a holiday party). Jarvis, a director at Vodafone, the British telecommunications firm.

1993: In September 1993, President Bill Clinton hosted the first-ever presidential slumber party. He invited former presidents George H. W. Bush and Jimmy Carter to the White House for an informal meeting of the minds and they accepted, enjoying cocktails, dinner, and chatting late into the night. (President Ronald Reagan was also invited, but he had other plans.)

1994: Nintendo teamed up with exercise equipment manufacturer Life Fitness 
to make the Exertainment Life Cycle—a stationary bike that connected to the Super Nintendo console. Cost: $800. It came bundled with a racing game called Mountain Bike Rally, where players traversed virtual hills and valleys (to which the bike would respond by changing resistance levels) and a program manager to track workouts. The bike was endorsed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Nintendo planned to roll out stair climbers, recumbent stationary bikes, and treadmills, but never did, because sales of the Exertainment Life Cycle numbered in only the low thousands.

1995: The most famous creation of Scottish author J. M. Barrie—and one of the most enduring characters of all time—is Peter Pan, the magical boy from Neverland. Barrie introduced the character in his 1902 novel The Little White Bird and used him as the central figure in his 1904 play Peter Pan, adapted into the novel Peter and Wendy in 1911. All those works are in the public domain in the U.S., because of their age. In the U.K., however, the play Peter Pan was granted a special dispensation by Parliament in 1995 to hold onto its copyright forever. That’s mainly because in 1929, Barrie bequeathed the rights to the Great Ormond Street Hospital, which still derives much of its operating income from the royalties.

1996: Bob Hope made more than 270 “Bob Hope Specials” for NBC starting in 1954, often featuring the comedian performing for troops on USO tours. His final special, Laughing with the Presidents, aired in 1996. (Hope was 93 at the time.) Cohost Tony Danza emceed, introducing old clips of Hope either hanging out with American presidents (from Eisenhower to Clinton) or telling jokes about them.

1989: In October 1997—50 years and one day since American fighter pilot Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in the air—a British fighter pilot named Andy Green climbed into Thrust SSC in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Basically a rocket on wheels, the 10-ton, 54-foot-long “supercar” zoomed across the playa, causing a sonic boom when it hit the speed of sound (767.26 mph) on its way to setting a
 land-speed record of 763.035 mph.

1998: A necrocracy—from the Greek words for “death” and “government”—is a government ruled by a dead person. The only one in the world: North Korea. Its founder, Kim Il-sung (1912–94), was named “Eternal President of the Republic” in 1998. His dead son Kim Jong-il (1941–2011) was named “Eternal General Secretary” in 2012.

1999: Grammy-winning pop star Seal recorded Togetherland at his home studio in Los Angeles, a record with an edgy, electronic sound. It was so different from a typical smooth and soulful Seal album that he considered releasing it under a fake name. He and producer Henry Jackman tried to transform Togetherland into a more mainstream pop record, but his label, Warner Bros., still didn’t like it. Result: they shelved it. Only one song from Togetherland ever saw a formal release—a remixed version of “This Could Be Heaven,” which was on the soundtrack of the 2000 movie The Family Man.

Check back soon for more trivia from the 21st century!

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