A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from July 27, 2010
“What’s a Grecian urn?” (joke)

"What’s a Grecian urn (i.e., earn)?” is an old joke. The answer is sometimes: “About 30 shillings a week.”

John Keats’s poem, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1820) helped to popularize the Grecian urn. Greeks owned many restaurants in the 20th century United States, and the New York City humor magazine Life used this 1930s “What’s a Grecian urn?” punchline:  “Oh, about $25 a week, unless he owns the restaurant.” Vaudeville comedians used the joke for many years.

The Greece financial crisis of 2009-2010 revived the old “What’s a Grecian urn?” joke.


Wikipedia: Ode on a Grecian Urn
“Ode on a Grecian Urn” is a poem written by the English Romantic poet John Keats in May 1819 and published in January 1820 (see 1820 in poetry). It is one of his “Great Odes of 1819”, which include “Ode on Indolence”, “Ode on Melancholy”, “Ode to a Nightingale”, and “Ode to Psyche”. Keats found earlier forms of poetry unsatisfactory for his purpose, and the collection represented a new development of the ode form. He was inspired to write the poem after reading two articles by English artist and writer Benjamin Haydon. Keats was aware of other works on classical Greek art, and had first-hand exposure to the Elgin Marbles, all of which reinforced his belief that classical Greek art was idealistic and captured Greek virtues, which forms the basis of the poem.

Wikipedia: European sovereign debt crisis
In early 2010 fears of a sovereign debt crisis or the 2010 Euro Crisis also known as Aegean Contagion developed concerning some countries in Europe including: Greece, Spain, and Portugal. This led to a crisis of confidence as well as the widening of bond yield spreads and risk insurance on credit default swaps between these countries and other EU members, most importantly Germany.

Concern about rising government deficits and debt levels across the globe together with a wave of downgrading of European Government debt has created alarm in financial markets. The debt crisis has been mostly centred on recent events in Greece, where there is concern about the rising cost of financing government debt. On 2 May 2010, the Eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund agreed to a €110 billion loan for Greece, conditional on the implementation of harsh Greek austerity measures. On 9 May 2010, Europe’s Finance Ministers approved a comprehensive rescue package worth almost a trillion dollars aimed at ensuring financial stability across Europe by creating the European Financial Stability Facility.

Google Books
The Signalman’s Journal
By Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen of America
1931
Pg. 22: 
Ramona: “What’s a Grecian urn?”
Chiquita: “Oh, about $25 a week unless he owns the restaurant.” — Life.

15 January 1932, Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, UT), pg. 4, col. 3:
‘What’s a Grecian urn?”
“Oh, about $25 a week, unless he owns the restaurant.”

Google Books
Anything Can Happen
By Edward Newhouse
New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace and Co.
1941
Pg. 37:
What’s a Grecian urn, he said, what’s a Grecian urn? Fifteen a week maybe, if he don’t own the restaurant. We had all heard that one before, but Manny could make us laugh just by raising his eyebrows.

Google News Archive
11 February 1956, Reading (PA) Eagle, Sunday Magazine:
“What’s a Grecian urn, Daddy?”
“I dunno, I guess it depends on what he does.”
Chaparral

Google Books
21 April 1956, Toledo (OH) Blade, “Day’s Best Hollywood Story,” pg. 21, col. 1:
HOLLYWOOD, April 21.—Irene Papas, the beautiful Greek actress who co-stars with James Cagney in “Tribute to a Bad Man,” was being questioned by one of the players on the set about things Grecian. “What’s a Grecian urn?” he asked.

Quick as a flash Irene replied, “I guess it depends upon what he does.” Catch on?

Google News Archive
19 April 1962, Villlage Voice (New York, NY), ‘The Village Square” by John Wilcock, pg. 2, col. 4:
...but I laughed myself into the aisle, as I continued to do at the oldest of gags ("What’s a Grecian urn?” The cast, in chorus: “Thirty bob a week").

Google News Archive
21 May 1962, Miami (FL) News, pg. 4C, col. 1:
Their repertoire was rich with exploding flour bags, collapsing bicycles, leers for he girls and jokes like this: “What’s a Grecian urn? About 30 shillings a week.”

Telegraph (London)
What’s a Grecian urn? Still about 400 euros a week
By Adrian Michaels World Last updated: December 15th, 2009
From pantomimes to the gags that fall out of crackers, ’tis the season of bad jokes. So what’s a Grecian urn? For now, it’s still about 400 euros a week. But with the economic convulsions going on in Athens, maybe pay will before long be counted in drachmas again, just as it was before 2002.

LumgoweeLand
Monday, May 3, 2010
What’s a Grecian Urn?
Sorry to ruin an old Vaudeville joke like that, but it was the first thing that came to mind when I read about the massive tax fraud going on in Greece.  According to some estimates, tax fraud cost the Greek government $30 billion a year.  That, along with mismanagement and corruption that seems to be endemic in Greece, and it’s not hard to understand why their economy imploded.

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityBanking/Finance/Insurance • (0) Comments • Tuesday, July 27, 2010 • Permalink