Saturday, April 5, 2014

Sim Sim Salabim – An Incantation from Jonny Quest of the 1960s Back to a Medieval Play

My mind wanders some strange and esoteric places:  I was thinking about a 60s cartoon of my youth, Jonny Quest and wondering if “sim sim salabim” actually meant anything or was just Hollywood gibberish.  This created a narrative line as absurd and bizarre as any Dan Brown book, so I began to unravel the Hadji Code: 

Classic Jonny Quest was designed by comic book artist and writer Doug Widley for Hanna-Barbera Productions, who originally wanted a TV animation cartoon based on the radio series, Jack Armstrong All AmericanBoy.  When Hanna-Barbera couldn’t get the license, they went ahead with the project and called it Jonny Quest, which was a much more evolved concept, taking place in the near future.  Freed of any license constraints, Widley reworked the concept and made it his own. 

Generally it was a plausible science fiction show of the near future, there were a few sanfus.  One was the name of the character Hadji Singh, Jonny’s sidekick who was a apparently a Hindu and not a Muslim, yet he has an Islamic honorific as part of his name.  It may be a little petty on my point, but I always saw it as a glaring error.  But such are the ways of Hollywood and children’s television of the mid 1960s.  

You have got to love 60s spy drones
Be sure to go to some of the Jonny Quest links and especially the one on Doug Widley to get a real feel of the show and 60s animated TV shows.  For those of you who don’t recall, Jonny Quest was a mid 60s action adventure cartoon that was later criticized for its portrayed violence and representation of cultures in an insensitive way.   In later years, reruns of Jonny Quest had to conform to broadcast guidance on children’s shows and chop out the violence and it also came under attack for perceived stereotypes.  The show was in reruns for many years, but the content had been vastly reduced.  But I digress.

The Jonny Quest character Hadji used “sim sim salabim” as his incantation while performing “magic” or at least some pretty good stagecraft and psycology.  The character Hadji Singh’s backstory is that he was the adopted son of Dr. Benton Quest and appears the story in a flashback in Episode 7, Calcutta Adventure (30 Oct 1964).  Hadji grew up on the streets of Calcutta, apparently becoming streetwise along with learning some mystic culture along with yoga, and saved Dr. Quest from an assassin.  Hadji was always more level headed of Dr Quest’s sons and a good problem solver.  His streetwise upbringing, practical commonsense, and multicultural background gave Hadji an excellent skill set over the more impulsive and reckless Jonny.   The less said about the dog, Bandit, the better.  The character of Johnny Quest cartoon's Hadji may have had roots in an youthful Indian born movie actor Sabu Dastagir, especially from the 1938 movie, The Drum, where he sports a turban much like Hadji's headgear.   This leads us to the next step in the Hadji Code.
Sim Salabim was magician Harry August Jansen’s (1883 to 1955) trademark tagline, while appearing as Dante the Magician.  He was a protégé of Howard Thurston, another famous stage magician himself.  Jansen needed a magic phrase for his act and he chose “sim salabim” as his mystic incantation.  Jansen was born in Denmark and he remembered a popular children’s song that had been the origin of his version of incantation.  So the children’s bit of gibberish in a song became the trademark of a 20th century well-known magician, but there is more to come. 

The song that Jansen’s “sim salabim” was taken from was the Danish song, Højt på en gren en krage, but interestingly enough that song took its “sim salabin” from a much, much earlier work.  It was perhaps from the medieval play called Robyn Hode:  A Mummers Play where a Turkish alchemist uses the incantation.  Now that’s pretty interesting that a bit of 20th century stagecraft is taken from a 19th century Danish children’s song, which in turn took it from a medieval play involving alchemy. 

Now the writer of Jonny Quest probably knew about Dante the Magician and his “sim salabim” and using the memory, transformed it as Hadji’s incantation of “sim sim salabim”, which was taken from a young Harry Jansen’s piece of stagecraft, which itself was taken from his childhood memory of a Danish children’s song.  Jansen emigrated to the US when he was six, mind you.  I remember watching Jonny Quest in the mid 60s when I was a kid, so that links me to this chain of youthful memory.  That’s a lot childhood memories linking up over the decades and it really goes to show you how important our childhood is in our formation. 

Jonny Quest’s influence is still out there in American popular culture.  The cartoon satire, The Venture Brothers takes a large amount of background from Jonny Quest.  Also Jonny Quest is referenced in the Blood Hound Gang song, Mope as well as in Less Than Jake’s song Jonny Quest Thinks We Are Sellouts.

Another Jonny used it -- Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show, humorously performing the Carnac the Magnificent skit beginning in 1964.  The routine starts as sidekick Ed McMahon says “O seer, sage, all knowing all seeing Carnac the Magnificent!  Sim sala bim”.   Carson was an amateur magician himself by the way, and no doubt was familiar with Dante.  Hopefully some of this was entertaining or informative because I would not like to think that any photon used in this blog may have died in vain.  
        Some Links of Interest
Jonny Quest sound bites:

Three versions of Højt på en gren en krage - Dansk Børnesang  on YouTube:  

A translation of the Danish song can be found on this thread: