What’s in a name? How about cultural significance
Dr. Otto Octavius has never had time to visit his old hometown.
The criminal mastermind works for Marvel Comics. As Dr. Octopus, he has spent a career fighting the pesky Spider-Man. Schemes and plots for revenge have prevented “Doc Ock” from packing six suitcases and taking a vacation in Schenectady.
Not Boston, New Orleans or Los Angeles. When Marvel biographers gave Octavius an origin, they listed Schenectady as the city where little Otto grew up.
Maybe it’s the strange sound of the name, maybe it’s the creative spellings and fractured pronunciations Schenectady has endured over the years, but the city has a knack for showing up on the pop culture bulletin board. Movies, television shows, music and literature are a few places “Schenectady” has shown up.
From the small screen ...
The city showed up – not literally — this spring in an episode of Fox’s popular “House.” Eccentric Dr. Gregory House has a secret —he’s been to Schenectady for the past four years, where he has placed second in a potato gun competition.
In the April 11 show, House reunited with his pal Dr. Remy Hadley, better known by the odd nickname “13.” House kidnapped Hadley to Schenectady for the annual “Schenectady Chili Cook-Off and Spud Gun Competition.” And “13” was an ace for old House — she knew how to build a powerful spud gun.
“For a competition like that, where else could it be happening?” asked Dr. Robert J. Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, explaining Schenectady’s quirky appeal in fiction. He knows why “Schenectady” is an easy choice for scriptwriters.
“I think there are two reasons,” he said. “Number one, this city actually had an important part in the history of show business. And early television was in Schenectady before a lot of people had even heard of television. It’s not like this was a city that nobody had ever heard of. That was one thing.
“I think the kicker, the obvious thing that makes this appear so many times is, it’s just such a great word. It’s kind of hard to pronounce and when you do pronounce it, it sounds a little bit like you’re making it up or it’s jumbled around. What was that old Jack Benny city — Cucamonga. Sheboygan, Wis., is another one.”
Thompson was thinking about Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. On both Benny’s radio and television shows — both from the deep past — a conductor announced a train leaving for “Anaheim, Azusa and Cuuuu-ca-mon-gaa.”
The professor said many odd names for cities and towns come with Native American origins. “Onondaga County, where I live, is a Native [American] term, but for some reason, it doesn’t have that kind of kick to it. Schenectady always works. No disrespect to the city and its great tradition, but it was almost a sense that if you weren’t from there, all you had to do is say it and it was almost a punch line in itself. You hardly need a setup.”
There are other television references:
* In NBC’s long-running “Will & Grace,” Debra Messing’s Grace Adler was raised in Schenectady. Her mother Bobbi, played by Debbie Reynolds, is still living in the city when the series ended its run in 2006.
* In “Everybody Loves Raymond,” star Ray Romano’s main man Ray Barone once had to find a word to rhyme with “vasectomy.” It wasn’t an exact match but Ray’s choice — “Schenectady” — got some laughs.
* In “The Honeymooners,” Jackie Gleason’s classic 1950s television series, Ralph Kramden’s neighbor Trixie Norton is from Schenectady. In one episode, Trixie’s husband, Ed, barges into a pool room and greets Ralph. Norton is smoking a cigar and explains that Haggerty, one of Norton’s fellow sewer workers, is celebrating: “His mother-in-law moved back to Schenectady,” he said.
... To the big screen
There are bunches of movies in which Schenectady plays a supporting role.
* In the 1956 science-fiction film “Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers,” remembered and respected by some for Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion special effects, spinning saucers invade Earth. The lead scientist, played by Hugh Marlowe, figures sound and electricity jams the saucers. “Call Schenectady and tell them we’re going to need the biggest generator they’ve got!” says old Hugh, really chewing the scenery.
* The 1945 World War II movie “Objective, Burma!” brings a bonanza of Schenectady references. The city’s Central Park, Crane Street, Union College and even The Gazette are mentioned in a conversation between a soldier and a war correspondent.
* The 2005 boxing film “Cinderella Man” tells the story of Depression-era boxer Jim Braddock. In the movie — as in real life — Braddock fights Abe Feldman of Schenectady.
* In 1955’s “It’s Always Fair Weather,” Angie Valentine has completed service in World War II and plans to open an upscale restaurant. When Valentine — played by actor Michael Kidd — meets his friends 10 years after the war, he is running a diner in Schenectady.
* The title of the 2008 film “Synecdoche, New York” is a play on Schenectady.
* A chatty “Daisy Miller,” played by Cybill Shepherd, is in Europe and tells her friend Winterbourne “I’m very fond of society, I’ve always had plenty of society, I don’t mean only in Schenectady but in New York, I go to New York every winter ... I have more friends in New York than Schenectady.” The 1974 movie is based on Henry James’ 1878 novella of the same name; in the book, Daisy’s 10-year-old brother Randolph considers their hometown of Schenectady superior to all of Europe.
* In the 1942 Jimmy Cagney film about song-and-dance man George M. Cohan, “Yankee Doodle Dandy” — which was shown on the Fourth of July during Turner Classic Movie’s evening lineup — Schenectady turns up in the “So Long Mary” number. A young lady is being escorted to a train by a group of singing admirers. “This reminds me of my family,” sings Mary, played by Joan Leslie, “on the day I left Schenectady.”
There’s even a military reference. The USS Schenectady (LST-1185) was a tank landing ship commissioned by the U.S. Navy in 1970. The Schenectady supported American forces in Vietnam and Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
The ship, nicknamed the “Skinny-T” by sailors, was decommisioned in 1993 and held in reserve at Pearl Harbor. The Schenectady had an explosive farewell; according to the ship’s website, the Schenectady became the target of a newly developed air-to-surface guided bomb in 2004.
A single hit destroyed the ship in the Pacific Oecan. It was the first time a B-52 bomber had dropped self-designated, laser guided weapon on a moving ship.
“Shipmates probably feel she deserved a kinder fate, but her service was honorable,” reads a biography on the website.
In the funnies, comic strip artists have used the city’s name for comic relief.
Lynn Johnston, who writes and draws the strip “For Better or For Worse,” remembered a night she and fellow cartoonists Jim Davis of “Garfield” and Mike Peters of “Mother Goose and Grimm” gathered in Sarasota, Fla. “We were into our second bottle of wine when a Garfield fan sat down next to Jim and said, ‘Mr. Davis, I’ve always wondered, where do you get your ideas?’ “ Johnston once recalled. “Without missing a beat, Jim replied, ‘Schenectady.’”
Davis may have borrowed the line from Barry B. Longyear, who put together a collection of science-fiction stories in his 1984 book, “It Came from Schenectady.” In his foreword, Longyear said science-fiction authors are often asked where they get their inspiration. “Members of the Science-Fiction Writers of America are supposed to answer that question with a post office box number in Schenectady. You send in two dollars and a self-addressed stamped envelope, and you will be sent back an idea,” Longyear wrote.
There have also been references in song. Al Trace and three partners wrote a bouncy song titled “I Can’t Spell Schenectady” in 1948. Among the lyrics: “I can spell Havana, and figure out Savannah, but I can’t spell Schenectady.”
Actor-rapper Will Smith riffed on the city in “Afro Angel,” from his 1999 “Willennium” CD. His heroine, “Tamika,” moves away from thug boyfriend. “Upstate Schenectady,” Smith rapped. “Tamika answered the door; it was the last person she expected to be.”
Author Bill Scheft, a former Albany sports writer and currently a writer for David Letterman, believes Schenectady’s success in pop culture comes from its sound. “It is the Xanadu of funny-sounding places,” Scheft said of Schenectady in a 2004 interview with The Daily Gazette. “Four syllables, good rhythm and that hard comedy ‘K’ right in the middle. It scans perfectly. Of course, it’s no Cohoes, but what is?”
Thompson said Schenectady residents and city fathers should feel proud when they hear the city’s name on television or in the movies.
“Especially in this Rust Belt area where so many of the cities along this route up the Hudson and along the Mohawk are suffering in so many ways,” he said. “The very fact that it keeps popping up in these major national things, if nothing else, is kind of cool.”
Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at email@example.com.