Lydia the Tattooed Lady
"Lydia, the Tattooed Lady" is a 1939 song written by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg. It first appeared in the 1939 Marx Brothers movie At the Circus and became one of Groucho Marx's signature tunes. In 1950 Groucho famously 'stopped' trading at the New York Stock Exchange by commandeering a microphone and singing the song before telling jokes for 15 minutes, during which time traders suspended their work to watch him perform. The lyrics made many contemporary references to topical personalities such as Grover Whalen, who opened the World's Fair in 1939. The complex lyrics written by Yip Harburg with clever rhymes such as Lydia/encyclopedia were inspired by W.S.Gilbert.
Among the items, persons, and scenes tattooed on Lydia's body are the Battle of Waterloo (on her back), The Wreck of the Hesperus (beside it), the red, white and blue (above them); the cities of Kankakee and "Paree", Washington Crossing the Delaware, President Andrew Jackson, Niagara, Alcatraz, Buffalo Bill, Picasso, Captain Spaulding exploring the Amazon, Lady Godiva (with her pajamas on), Grover Whalen, the Trylon, Treasure Island, Nijinsky, Social Security Number and a fleet of ships (on her hips).
As lyricist Harburg explains, the final stanza originally contained the lyrics "When she stands, the world gets lit'ler. When she sits, she sits on Hitler"; the lines were removed because the studio feared the song would sound too dated. The line that replaced it begins "Grover Whalen unveilin' the Trylon" which seems far more dated today than the reference to Hitler. On some subsequent radio appearances, Groucho sang the song in its entirety. Feinstein's recording omits a number of other lines, but restores the "Hitler" couplet, while Morris's is essentially as Groucho sang it in At the Circus.
The song has been performed by many other artists:
- In the 1940 movie The Philadelphia Story, Dinah Lord (played by Virginia Weidler) sings the song's first verse.
- The song has been recorded by Stubby Kaye (1961), Michael Feinstein (album: Pure Imagination, 1992), and Joan Morris (album: Bolcom, Morris & Morath sing Yip Harburg, 2003).
- In January, 1976, Kermit the Frog sang this song, complete with a Muppet version of Lydia (pig), on the second episode of The Muppet Show, which featured Connie Stevens as the guest star. Muppets creator Jim Henson is said to have considered the song one of his favorites. Henson also drew all the tattoos on the Lydia puppet. The song was also used in Jim Henson's memorial service, performed by Kevin Clash in his ¨Elmo¨ voice.
- On the television series M*A*S*H, Maxwell Klinger sang part of this song in the episode "Images" after seeing the extensive tattoo work on a wounded soldier.
- An abridged Barbershop Quartet arrangement was performed by "The New Tradition" quartet while dressed and acting as the Marx Brothers as part of their final song set as they won the 1985 International Barbershop Competition. They subsequently repeated this performance during shows they performed, and finally recorded it as part of an LP.
- The song was also sung by Robin Williams in the 1991 film The Fisher King. In that version, the reference to Andrew Jackson is changed to Michael Jackson.
- In the 1995 Disney comic "The Treasury of Croesus" by Don Rosa, Donald Duck sings the song throughout the comic. This is a pun on the ancient kingdom of Lydia — as Donald asks whether King Croesus really existed, his uncle Scrooge asks him if he has never heard about Lydia, to which Donald replies that he learned all about Lydia on last night's late movie. When asked to share his newfound knowledge, he starts singing "Lydia the Tattooed Lady".
- In the situation comedy It's a Living, pianist Sonny Mann (Paul Kreppel), meeting a woman whose body is covered with tattoos, plays the song until one of the waitresses flips the keyboard cover onto his fingers (a running gag in the series).
- In season 4 of the Canadian sketch comedy series The Kids in the Hall, a sketch is featured in which an escape artist successful in the '30s, played by Dave Foley, performs the song at Carnegie Hall whilst being hung from the ceiling and bound in a straitjacket as part of his final public performance.
- In the series finale of Breaking Bad, "Felina", this song is featured as Todd Alquist's (Jesse Plemons) ringtone when he receives a phone call from his boss and love interest, methamphetamine distributor Lydia Rodarte-Quayle (Laura Fraser), in a climactic scene.