Classic Mornings

Fun With Sam & Janet


A knock knock joke.  Of all the associations that might come to mind with the mention of his name, that one would have to pop up in my head.

That’s what I thought at first. Then I began to have a little fun wondering whether he knew the joke. Did he ever tell it? He would have been the best person to tell it. I can just imagine him delivering the punch line. The joke would have been on the unsuspecting listener, maybe even on one who had heard it before.

All that came to mind after I celebrated the 125th anniversary of his birth last Thursday. Born in Rome on May 18, 1892, he was a 7th child and the only one to survive. His parents named him Fortunato. According to the late English musicologist and biographer John Steane, his first love was the bicycle. He started out as a delivery boy. Then he took up bicycle racing and a first prize nearly was his. He ended up with a 2nd prize in a race in Ravenna. His father had insisted that he pursue singing, though at his first audition he was told he had no voice.

Fortunato Pinza – or Ezio Pinza, as he was known over the years -  was indeed fortunate to have had a successful career as an opera singer in Italy and internationally. He made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1926 and sang some 50 roles there over the years. Then came a second career beginning in the late 1940s. He appeared in musical comedies, Broadway shows and films. Pinza died in 1957.

His most famous role was the one he created in the Rodgers and Hammerstein 1949 musical South Pacific. He played Emile De Becque, co-starring with Mary Martin, who was featured in the role of Nellie Forbush. Though we celebrated Pinza on Classic Mornings, he’ll always be associated with the evening. Specifically, he’ll be remembered for being the one to introduce the now legendary song “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific.

OK, so now we’re back to the knock knock joke. Some of you know where this is headed. I’m not surprised. A simple online search assured me that not only is the song legendary, but the knock knock joke as well. Yet for the benefit of those who don’t know it: ”Knock knock!” “Who’s there?” “Sam & Janet.” “Sam & Janet who?” “Sam & Janet evening….” (out loud you make it sound close to “Some Enchanted Evening”).

Now for the full effect, you have to sing the punchline. Those who never heard the song may not get the joke, though if you sing, they might get the idea. Can you imagine Ezio Pinza having told the joke? Now that would have been a punchline to memorialize. It may not have worked with Italian actor Rosano Brazzi telling it. He played the role in the 1958 film version of the musical.  But the Chicago-born operatic bass Giorgio Tozzi was Brazzi’s musical “designated hitter.”  He sang for the actor in the film.

Speaking of musical “hitters,”  a question arose last Friday when I played a selection from a recording of music by Georg Philipp Telemann (Philips 420243) that features Pinchas Zukerman as both a violinist and violist. In baseball, batters who hit both right-handed and left-handed and are known as “switch hitters.”  Do violinist/violists think of themselves as switch hitters or maybe switch fiddlers?

It’s funny that on that same CD, which also features recorder virtuosa Michala Petri and members of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, a couple of players are credited with the “continuo” or “continuous bass.”  Saying that on the radio, it could sound like “continuous base.”  And that suggests a most interesting idea for a new baseball position or something for a batter to earn.

Actually the term refers to a continuous bass part – known in Italian as “basso continuo” or simply “continuo.” Sometimes it’s one instrument that’s featured in the bass part and sometimes it’s more than one. So when you see 4 players featured in a trio from the time of Bach, Handel and Vivaldi, it’s not the  equivalent of too many players on the field.

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