Smashing Pumpkins: Still technically too relevant to qualify
Long before Family Guy was noting their own obscure Karen Black references, The Simpsons was rejuvenating the careers of ancient celebs left and right with their tossed-off allusions. Given that The Simpsons is one of the few shows–maybe the only show–that just about anyone (any white males, certainly) currently between the ages of 20 and 35 can be expected to be able to quote just about every line from every episode, a mention in the show gives you a certain newfound cultural capital not experienced anywhere else outside of a Quentin Tarantino movie. Consequently, there are many pop culture figures of yesteryear remembered by a new generation not for their myriads of artistic accomplishments, but because they were mentioned once in a cartoon. So let’s take a look at what five of these lost souls were actually once famous for:
A Hollywood Walk-of-Fame recipient for his decades of roles in Westerns and Musicals, as well as a notable story for his rags-to-riches rise (he was a juvenile thief, spending three years in prison before meeting Alan “Shane” Ladd and being introduced to film). He starred with Shirley Temple, dated Lana Turner, and was sold out by his agent to the press to help protect the career-wrecking secret of fellow client Rock Hudson. Yet for those of us not around for the 40s and 50s, we can only assume that Calhoun was famous solely for his standing and walking, a perception held by Mr. Burns and understood at least by Smithers in the episode Two Dozen and One Greyhounds. From what I can tell, Calhoun was not especially known as a celebrity who is “always standing up and walking,” but I guess he wasn’t particularly famous for sitting down, either, so who knows.
Back in the 60s, Joey Heatherton appears to have been a legitimate star of sorts, hanging with both the Rat Pack and Bob Hope, starring in countless potboiler dramas and nearly getting cast as the title character in Lolita, and even earning a rep with Northern Soul collectors for her limited musical releases. Nonetheless, the only times I’ve ever heard of her are the triple whammy of references she gets on The Simpsons–losing out to an ironed shirt as Moe’s ultimate fantasy, being begged to put some pants on by a square Sgt. Skinner, and being compared to a recently buffed-out Marge by a dismayed Homer. To current hotties like Jessica Biel and Megan Fox, there’s a lesson to be learned here–if you don’t make at least one half-decent movie worth remembering, the only people who’ll remember you past your prime are nerdy, middle-aged cartoon writers.
“That Milhouse is going to be big! Gabby Hayes big!” This one actually makes a little bit of sense, since as the Fallout Boy to Rainier Wolfcastle’s Radioactive Man, Milhouse was placing himself in the sidekick paradigm that Mr. hayes apparently owned for he first half of the 20th century. He was cast as John Wayne’s sidekick in 20 different movies, was Hopalong Cassidy’s second banana for five years, and did dozens of movies with Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Perhaps even more strikingly, he has a Memorial Fishing Tournament named after and/or dedicated to him every year in Philadelphia. But when “Radioactive Man” appears in reruns from now until forever, that line is going to continue to inspire a whole lot of confused looks.
Bill “Ray J. Johnson” Saluga
Of all the outdated references on the show, this is probably the one I’m most glad I never really got–it sounds like Ray J. Johnson (alternate identity of Cosby regular Bill Saluga) really was just famous based on this one lousy, annoying “You can call me…” routine. Still, it apparently stuck in the craws of Simpsons writers enough for him to also join the exclusive Simpsons triple-reference club, with Krusty complaining about having him for a guest, Homer explaining his schtick to an unimpressed Lisa, and with Saluga himself appearing as a washed-up performer in Branson. Nonetheless, this time at least the Simpsons aren’t alone in this department–a singer/songwriter you might’ve heard of named Bob Dylan included a reference to RJJ in “Gotta Serve Somebody,” the only well-remembered song from Zimmy’s ill-fated gospel period.
An esteemed photographer for the Works Progress Administration, an acclaimed short story writer, and of course, a Nobel Prize winner for her novel The Optimist’s Daughter, I can’t help but wonder what Eudora Welty thought of the fact that in the last few years of her life, most people probably knew her just for her legendary belching abilities. At the ripe age of 86 when “A Star is Burns” first aired, Welty probably had at least six years to enjoy people coming up to her on the street and asking her to confirm Jay Sherman’s proclomations about her burping superiority. She doesn’t really look like a person who’d have a sense of humor about these things–in fact, maybe it’s a long-belated revenge from one of the Simpsons writers for having to read one of her books in American Lit II or something. Or maybe “Why I Live at the P.O.” just has some gas-passing subplot that’s not mentioned on her Wiki page.