It’s easy to spell TRANSMAGNIFICAN DAMBAMUALITY if you know its origins!
Ronald Gray’s short student film, Transmagnifican Dambamuality, made in 1976, attracted the attention of his professor, Kathleen Collins. Ronald had been trying to convince her that she had to make films —much like the character George in her later film, Losing Ground. After seeing Transmagnifican Dambamuality, Kathleen approached Ronald about working together. The rest is cinema history — the two worked together on Collins’s two extraordinary films, Losing Ground and The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy.
But the title of Ronald’s student film has always intrigued us. Now, thanks to Dan Streible, intrepid NYU professor and founder of the Orphan Film Symposium, we have some great info!
Initially, Dan asked Ronald about the film’s title:
Ronald K. Gray wrote to me: My father was a professional singer who appeared on Broadway years ago. I first heard “Transmag” when I was 13 years old. My father sang with his peers at a show in the “Y” in Harlem and two of his friends sang the song. When my first film was finished, I had to title the film. Initially, the title was Cacophony , then it was Can I Get A Play. My sister suggested that I use Transmag as my title, so I did! The song I heard years ago was more like scat singing, so I used it. The title was a throwback to a loud noisy family that I was raised in and my memories of me hearing my father and his peers sing. Two of the men were Eubie Blake & Don Redmond!
Ronald’s sister doesn't act in his short film, but she does make an appearance in the photo of the son’s love interest.
Some years later, Dan was researching the cast of Oscar
Micheaux’s film The Symbol of the Unconquered and started looking into one of the actors — Jim Burris —who makes a very striking appearance in the film:
It turns out, that as James Burris, the actor also had a good career in music as a lyricist and composer — and one of the songs he wrote was the aforementioned title, but as “Trans-Mag-Ni-Fi-Can-Bam-Dam-U-Ality or (C-A-T Spells ‘Cat’)”!
Now, thanks to Dan’s research and to YouTube’s mrblindfreddy9999,you can hear the song itself:
But that’s not all! The song goes back to 1909, but the word goes back even farther. Thanks to Dan, here's an article showing an appearance of the term dating to at least April 13, 1875, found in the Daily Record of the Times, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania!
When you were listening to the song, did you think of the wonderful song performed by Julie Andrews in the movie Mary Poppins, “
Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious?”We wonder if the Sherman brothers were influenced by this 1909 ditty and the spelling contest?
Well… that is hard to say, but there is more to that story as well! The songwriters of the Disney song were sued by bandleader Gloria Palmer and cowriter Barney Young for copyright infringement of their ditty “Supercalafajalistickespialadojus: The Super Song.” Palmer and Young lost that suit, but perhaps they were inspired by the African American song. It turns out that Palmer, (dubbed the “Princess of Marimba”) appeared in soundies with Steppin Fechit and worked with many swing musicians... so who knows?
And if you go out and discover more about either song and its origin, please let us know!
For more on James Henry Burris, please go to his granddaughter's wonderful website.