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Farewell to Twisted Titles: A Final Send-off for California Magazine’s Punning Game

December 15, 2014
by Martin Snapp
animated figures

In 1991 two editors of this magazine, Russell Schoch and William Rodarmar, became intrigued by a wordplay game. So an announcement appeared in the September issue alerting readers to a new feature: Twisted Titles. “It goes like this: Take the title of a well-known book, movie, play, etc.; change just one letter; and then write a blurb for the resulting work.”

It was a hit from the start.

“Enough people sent in responses that we had enough for a whole page in the next issue,” Schoch recalls. “I was astonished by how clever and amusing they were.”

Among them: “The Dork at the Top of the Stairs. Jerry Lewis’s only performance as a killer” (Dick Corten ’65) and “Don’t Be Gruel. Little Elvis hopes for something different for breakfast” (Howard Spindel ’75).

Soon folks were writing Twisted Titles on any and every subject, including romance: “Boop Dreams. Ah, Betty, my Betty!” (Doug Raymond ’67); and “A Miss Is As Good As a Mule. This cowboy needs therapy” (V.V. Shkurkin ’55). There was “Flacido Domingo. Impotent tenor hits a low note” (Michael Scown ’81); and “The Lion Bleeps Tonight. Simba and Nala finally…” (Steven Hill ’68).

Religion: “Oh, Cope All Ye Faithful. Pope responds to complaints” (Diana Broden Prola ’64); “Days of Wine and Moses. Passover” (Richard Hill ’70, Boalt ’79); and “Never Been Pissed. Biography of a Zen master” (Jeff Williams ’75).

Literature: “The Bon­­nets of William Shakespeare. Bill comes out of the closet” (Barbara Chaconas ’62); “Behind the Green Moor. Where to stand when Othello’s seasick” (Randall Colaizzi Ph.D. ’86); “Let Me Count the Days. Elizabeth Barrett Browning files for divorce” (Mike Sommer ’57); and “Cast of Eden: Adam, Eve, serpent, and apple” (D’Arcy Selwood ’47).

And, of course, Cal: “All Fail Blue and Gold. To hell with the grading curve” (Virginia Leach ’38); “Haul to California: The Joad family’s trek west” (D’Arcy Selwood ’47); “Raging Bell. Campanile tantrum” (Barbara Baxter ’44); and “Fiat sux. So buy a Ford” (Catherine Maclay, M.J. ’81).

As might be expected, The Play of 1982 inspired tons of Twisters: “Whine Pages. Stanford grad’s book about The Play” (David Saperstein ’89); “Bad Moen Rising. Stanford Band remembers The Play” (Steven Hill ’68); and “The Incredible Sulk. Get over it, Stanford” (Joe Traynor ’57).

Over the years, a few twisted superstars have emerged, including Roy Koski ’41, who set a record by submitting 70 entries in one day, including “The Brothels Karamazov. Successful business chain is pioneer in the new capitalism.”

Another star player, Joe Traynor, managed to squeeze 55 entries onto a single piece of paper, including “I’m OK, You’re O.D. Welcome sign at drug treatment center”; “Say It Ain’t Bo. Shepherdess arrested on morals charge”; “Let’s Get Ready To… Mumble! Classmates taunt young Demosthenes”; and “Louisa Say Alcott. ‘Alcott.’” (Eventually, Traynor came out as an Aggie, but he was such an enthusiastic Twister the editors let him keep his grad-year designation.)

Then there was Art Poulin ’48: “Lady Chatterly’s Cover. Plain brown”; “Three Strokes and You’re Out. Managed health care”; and “Row v. Wade. Lewis and Clark’s dilemma when they reached the Missouri.”

And Jane Pigney ’62: “The Whipping News. The Marquis de Sade starts a newsletter”; “The Plight of the Bumblebee. Where have all the flowers gone?” Not to mention “Ode to Goy. Working title for ‘Schindler’s List.’”

The great Jim Blewer ’41, who, when he died in 2001 at age 81, having appeared in Twisted Titles more often than any other player, was dubbed King of Titles by this magazine. Among his classics: “Of Mice And Min. An angry Mickey asks about infidelities”; “Walk Softly and Carry a Big Stack. Waiter training at House of Pancakes”; and “Lady Be Wood: Pinocchio’s blind date.”

In recent years, David Hammer ’66 was a dedicated Twister. Among his contributions: “Swamalot. King Arthur loved aquatics”; “It Takes a Pillage. To raise a Viking”; and “What I gave up for lint. Dark clothing.”

Twisted Titles has spawned lifelong friendships, like the one between Pam Clemenson ’63 and the late Lou Cherin ’36. From Pam: “Use Trojans. But don’t expect them to work”; “Out, Damned Slot. Lady Macbeth shakes a reluctant machine in Las Vegas”; and “Pillsbury Toughboy. He pokes back.” From Lou: “I’m a Stringer in Paradise. Not too much to report since Adam and Eve’s departure”; “Alma Pater. School for misogynists”; and “Recall Erection. Remembrance of things past.”

“It was always so thrilling to see one of my Twisted Titles published,” says Pam. “However, the greatest byproduct of all was my friendship that developed with Lou. What evolved was several years of friendship … running our Twisted Titles by each other as sounding boards. Lou was 27 years my senior, but we were on the same page.”

But, alas, all good things must come to an end, and submissions have slackened drastically over the last few years. So this will be the magazine’s final edition of Twisted Titles.

“I’m really sorry to see it go,” says Terry Zaccone ’61 (“Pimp and Circumstance. I didn’t know she was a cop!”), who wrote with his wife, Judith Stark ’62. “That’s the first thing we look for when we get the magazine. That’s what anyone does when they look at a magazine—to see if we’re in it.”

Traynor is more resigned. “In a way, I’m relieved. Only so many things you can twist. All the famous quotes are pretty much used up. The well ran dry for a lot of people, including me.” David Hammer says he’ll keep twisting titles and sending them to friends. “They’ll still be broadcast, just not published.”

So we close Twisted Titles with four final ones about—what else?—Twisted Titles.

“Fiat Yux. Motto for twisted titles” (Steven Owayng ’73); “Pun Block. Protects you from harmful effects of Twisted Titles” (Dave Peterzell ’82); “Twisted Titled. Richard III” (Arthur Tognazzini ’55); and “Job Traynor ’57. I can teach you how to write Twisted Titles!” (Laura Jordan ’93).

From the Winter 2014 Gender Assumptions issue of California.

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