Saluda and The Dean of Tunes

Erifnus, my car, took me across the Missouri River to Lexington. Nowadays the new bridge offers a stress-free ride, unlike its predecessor, the second-scariest Missouri River bridge ever, now relegated to the scrap heap of history.

The old bridge was so narrow that it was difficult to squeeze a death certificate between passing vehicles. The ride could get even scarier at the south bank where the river bluff forced a tight turn. The new bridge is spacious and safe, a tribute to engineering progress, except for one thing. Unlike the iron railings of that old bridge, through which I could see the river, the new bridge has solid concrete walls that rise just high enough to impede my view from Erifnus’ low-slung cockpit, forcing me to pay attention to the highway.

Up the hill, Lexington is a history book. Even before the Civil War’s legendary Battle of the Hemp Bales, this picturesque town bled tales of triumph and tragedy. Many stories rise from the hallowed grounds of the oldest continually-operated corporation in Missouri. This business isn’t going overseas, and it won’t change its name in a corporate takeover. Macpelah Cemetery did a brisk business during America’s westward expansion, burying pioneers who succumbed to disease and boiler explosions and drowning. Within the cemetery’s walls are thousands of tragic pioneer stories, mostly forgotten, buried by time.

A whole section of the cemetery contains scores of Mormon pilgrims scalded to death when the steamer Saluda’s boiler blew them onto the river bank. It was Good Friday, a cold day in 1852. The river delivered chunks of ice through a narrow chute just upriver from Lexington. The Saluda’s Captain Francis Belt had tried for two days to power his ship through the chute, and on this morning, he was determined to make it around that bend, to continue steaming toward his destination in Council Bluffs, Iowa. He ordered more steam, and within seconds the boilers exploded, throwing a hundred bodies onto the banks and into the river, which swept them away. The recovered bodies, many of them children, were laid to rest at Macpelah.

I had dinner that evening with local historians. Byron Nicodemus told me about one of Lexington’s brightest stars. Back in the days before talking movies, Carl Stalling played a mean piano around the local theaters. He was so good he gravitated to Kansas City, where a young artist named Disney heard Carl playing and hired him as musical director at his fledgling Laff-O-Gram Studios. Moving west to L.A. with Walt, Carl later left Disney Studios—a move some people questioned at the time—and went to work for Warner Brothers. There, Carl became “the dean of tunes,” an innovative musical director for the soundtrack of America’s childhood, some 700 Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies.

Carl arranged a Dave Franklin song, “The Merry Go Round Broke Down,” for a 1937 cartoon called “Rover’s Rival.” The song became the theme for Looney Tunes. You’ve heard it as many times as you’ve sang “Happy Birthday.” But that’s not Carl Stalling’s most important contribution to civilization. His most lasting legacy happens every time a child sees a Warner Brothers cartoon. Daffy Duck. Bugs doesn’t matter. Behind every visual is a musical score that bathes the viewer in classical music. His scores dig deeper than the obvious classical greatest hits. Yes, he uses the William Tell Overture. But his works blend in Chopin and Grieg and Mendelssohn, Rossini and Mozart, and Irving Berlin.

It’s a safe bet that if your next door neighbor hums a classical tune while washing his car, he learned it not in school, but after school, watching Porky Pig.

I tried to find Carl Stalling’s house in old Lexington. It’s a paradox: In a town that boasts more historic homes per capita than anywhere, the sad fate of Carl’s house remains unknown. In a town with layers of rich history, mostly well-preserved, there isn’t much remaining from Carl Stalling. My car didn’t care. Erifnus shouts Carl’s classics from her cd player, while avoiding the fate of his last name.