The Time Joan Rivers Took Judge Judy and Cindy Adams on An 18th-Century Girlfriend Getaway

Jason Kempin/Getty Images for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week
Jason Kempin/Getty Images for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week

The late Joan Rivers was many things—a trailblazing comedian, a fastidious filer, an acerbic critic of Hollywood fashion—but not many knew her as a history buff (beyond, perhaps, her often joking that she was older than dirt). And as she once gushed in a piece for the Daily Mail, for all of her expensive tastes, one of her most beloved vacation spots was Colonial Williamsburg.

"My favorite place in the world is my plastic surgeon's office, of course," Rivers wrote. "But I also adore Williamsburg in Virginia. It's tiny and magical and so nicely preserved."

Colonial Williamsburg is known as the world's largest living history museum. It's part of Virginia's "Historic Triangle," which also includes Jamestown and Yorktown—all important centers in the early years of the American colonies. Actors in full 18th-century regalia greet visitors, give talks about life in the revolutionary days, and put on demonstrations of everything from loading and firing muskets to cooking lessons in the Governor's Palace kitchens. Rivers first visited the town as a child—"which tells you how old Williamsburg is" she joked to the local newspaper, the Williamsburg-Yorktown Daily—and honeymooned there in 1955 with her first husband.

Rivers said in the Daily Mail that she often liked to go for a few days around Christmas, and she turned her December 2011 visit into a girlfriend getaway. Joining her were two longtime friends: New York Post gossip columnist Cindy Adams (close "since the day they first met, in 1847," Joan's daughter Melissa Rivers wrote in her tribute book to her mother), and Judith "Judge Judy" Sheindlin. "Another reason I love Judge Judy," Rivers joked in her book Diary of a Mad Diva, "She's worth $150 million. When I ask her if she wants to go on vacation with me to Tahiti, she never has to say, 'Let me check my budget,' because she owns Tahiti."

The Williamsburg Inn at Christmastime.
The Williamsburg Inn at Christmastime.
Via Tsuji, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The trio stayed at the luxury Williamsburg Inn, the kind with sunken marble bathtubs, chandeliers, and cozy afternoon teas by the fire (past guests include Shirley Temple, Queen Elizabeth II, Winston Churchill, and John Travolta). Rivers had her hair done every morning in her bedroom by a local stylist she'd pre-booked while Judge Judy pecked away at her iPad "alongside … a 1773 portrait of whoever Thomas Bolling might've been," Adams reported in her column the following week.

Then, the women went out to see the sites. "We were three tough New Yorkers out to have a good time," Rivers told the local Daily Press. "What didn't we do."

They began with a horse-drawn carriage tour of Colonial Williamsburg led by a private Revolutionary City guide. "Trotting about we saw fifes, drums, muskets, blacksmiths … ladies in frill bonnets, white aprons … flags from the Mother Country and Brit street names," Adams ticked off in her Page Six column. "Enough to make future Queen Kate Middleton whimper: 'This place could've been ours.'"

A carriage in Colonial Williamsburg.
Brent Hoard, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Judge Judy tested out the high court judge's seat at the 244-year-old Courthouse, where crimes like petty theft and skipping church were tried, while Rivers did a little Fashion Police-ing of the costumed interpreters doomed to frumpy petticoats: "Lose the apron and just look fetching!" she quipped.

Adams, for her part, was entranced by the elaborate hairstyles … of the men. "Fie on powdered wigs because males were as bald as billiard balls. It was because they were stylish," she wrote. "Fashion was to shave one's head. The richer the dude the jazzier his toupee. Maidens in ye days of yore were attracted by the size of a guy's ringlet."

And like any group of longtime friends, they spent plenty of time just enjoying being together and catching up. "I felt sorry for everyone around us because all we did is laugh," Rivers said of their dinners at the local taverns.

"At Christmas [Williamsburg is] heaven," a wistful Rivers later recalled. "No cars are allowed and you've got the snow and the carol singers, the candlelight, the whole American thing. It may not be everybody's cup of tea, but it suits me."

Hee-Haw: The Wild Ride of "Dominick the Donkey"—the Holiday Earworm You Love to Hate

Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images
Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone loves Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He’s got the whole underdog thing going for him, and when the fog is thick on Christmas Eve, he’s definitely the creature you want guiding Santa’s sleigh. But what happens when Saint Nick reaches Italy, and he’s faced with steep hills that no reindeer—magical or otherwise—can climb?

That’s when Santa apparently calls upon Dominick the Donkey, the holiday hero immortalized in the 1960 song of the same name. Recorded by Lou Monte, “Dominick The Donkey” is a novelty song even by Christmas music standards. The opening line finds Monte—or someone else, or heck, maybe a real donkey—singing “hee-haw, hee-haw” as sleigh bells jingle in the background. A mere 12 seconds into the tune, it’s clear you’re in for a wild ride.

 

Over the next two minutes and 30 seconds, Monte shares some fun facts about Dominick: He’s a nice donkey who never kicks but loves to dance. When ol’ Dom starts shaking his tail, the old folks—cummares and cumpares, or godmothers and godfathers—join the fun and "dance a tarentell," an abbreviation of la tarantella, a traditional Italian folk dance. Most importantly, Dominick negotiates Italy’s hills on Christmas Eve, helping Santa distribute presents to boys and girls across the country.

And not just any presents: Dominick delivers shoes and dresses “made in Brook-a-lyn,” which Monte somehow rhymes with “Josephine.” Oh yeah, and while the donkey’s doing all this, he’s wearing the mayor’s derby hat, because you’ve got to look sharp. It’s a silly story made even sillier by that incessant “hee-haw, hee-haw,” which cuts in every 30 seconds like a squeaky door hinge.

There may have actually been some historical basis for “Dominick.”

“Travelling by donkey was universal in southern Italy, as it was in Greece,” Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, said in a 2012 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “[Monte’s] playing easy with history, but it’s a cute song, and Monte was at that time one of the hottest singers in America.”

Rumored to have been financed by the Gambino crime family, “Dominick the Donkey” somehow failed to make the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960. But it’s become a cult classic in the nearly 70 years since, especially in Italian American households. In 2014, the song reached #69 on Billboard’s Holiday 100 and #23 on the Holiday Digital Song Sales chart. In 2018, “Dominick” hit #1 on the Comedy Digital Track Sales tally. As of December 2019, the Christmas curio had surpassed 21 million Spotify streams.

“Dominick the Donkey” made international headlines in 2011, when popular BBC DJ Chris Moyles launched a campaign to push the song onto the UK singles chart. “If we leave Britain one thing, it would be that each Christmas kids would listen to 'Dominick the Donkey,’” Moyles said. While his noble efforts didn’t yield a coveted Christmas #1, “Dominick” peaked at a very respectable #3.

 

As with a lot of Christmas songs, there’s a certain kitschy, ironic appeal to “Dominick the Donkey.” Many listeners enjoy the song because, on some level, they’re amazed it exists. But there’s a deeper meaning that becomes apparent the more you know about Lou Monte.

Born Luigi Scaglione in New York City, Monte began his career as a singer and comedian shortly before he served in World War II. Based in New Jersey, Monte subsequently became known as “The Godfather of Italian Humor” and “The King of Italian-American Music.” His specialty was Italian-themed novelty songs like “Pepino the Italian Mouse,” his first and only Top 10 hit. “Pepino” reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963, the year before The Beatles broke America.

“Pepino” was penned by Ray Allen and Wandra Merrell, the duo that teamed up with Sam Saltzberg to write “Dominick the Donkey.” That same trio of songwriters was also responsible for “What Did Washington Say (When He Crossed the Delaware),” the B-side of “Pepino.” In that song, George Washington declares, “Fa un’fridd,” or ‘It’s cold!” while making his famous 1776 boat ride.

With his mix of English and Italian dialect, Monte made inside jokes for Italian Americans while sharing their culture with the rest of the country. His riffs on American history (“What Did Washington Say,” “Paul Revere’s Horse (Ba-cha-ca-loop),” “Please, Mr. Columbus”) gave the nation’s foundational stories a dash of Italian flavor. This was important at a time when Italians were still considered outsiders.

According to the 1993 book Italian Americans and Their Public and Private Life, Monte’s songs appealed to “a broad spectrum ranging from working class to professional middle-class Italian Americans.” Monte sold millions of records, played nightclubs across America, and appeared on TV programs like The Perry Como Show and The Ernie Kovacs Show. He died in Pompano Beach, Florida, in 1989. He was 72.

Monte lives on thanks to Dominick—a character too iconic to die. In 2016, author Shirley Alarie released A New Home for Dominick and A New Family for Dominick, a two-part children’s book series about the beloved jackass. In 2018, Jersey native Joe Baccan dropped “Dominooch,” a sequel to “Dominick.” The song tells the tale of how Dominick’s son takes over for his aging padre. Fittingly, “Dominooch” was written by composer Nancy Triggiani, who worked with Monte’s son, Ray, at her recording studio.

Speaking with NorthJersey.com in 2016, Ray Monte had a simple explanation for why Dominick’s hee-haw has echoed through the generations. “It was a funny novelty song,” he said, noting that his father “had a niche for novelty.”

The 11 Best Movies on Netflix Right Now

Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Wilson Webb/Netflix

With thousands of titles available, browsing your Netflix menu can feel like a full-time job. If you're feeling a little overwhelmed, take a look at our picks for the 11 best movies on Netflix right now.

1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

Spider-Man may be in the middle of a Disney and Sony power struggle, but that didn't stop this ambitious animated film from winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature at the 2019 Academy Awards. Using a variety of visual style choices, the film tracks the adventures of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who discovers he's not the only Spider-Man in town.

2. Hell or High Water (2016)

Taylor Sheridan's Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water follows two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who take to bank robberies in an effort to save their family ranch from foreclosure; Jeff Bridges is the drawling, laconic lawman on their tail.

3. Raging Bull (1980)

Robert De Niro takes on the life of pugilist Jake LaMotta in a landmark and Oscar-winning film from Martin Scorsese that frames LaMotta's violent career in stark black and white. Joe Pesci co-stars.

4. Marriage Story (2019)

Director Noah Bambauch drew raves for this deeply emotional drama about a couple (Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson) whose uncoupling takes a heavy emotional and psychological toll on their family.

5. Dolemite Is My Name (2019)

Eddie Murphy ended a brief sabbatical from filmmaking following a mixed reception to 2016's Mr. Church with this winning biopic about Rudy Ray Moore, a flailing comedian who finds success when he reinvents himself as Dolemite, a wisecracking pimp. When the character takes off, Moore produces a big-screen feature with a crew of inept collaborators.

6. The Lobster (2015)

Colin Farrell stars in this black comedy that feels reminiscent of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's work: A slump-shouldered loner (Farrell) has just 45 days to find a life partner before he's turned into an animal. Can he make it work with Rachel Weisz, or is he doomed to a life on all fours? By turns absurd and provocative, The Lobster isn't a conventional date movie, but it might have more to say about relationships than a pile of Nicholas Sparks paperbacks.

7. Flash of Genius (2008)

Greg Kinnear stars in this drama based on a true story about inventor Robert Kearns, who revolutionized automobiles with his intermittent windshield wiper. Instead of getting rich, Kearns is ripped off by the automotive industry and engages in a years-long battle for recognition.

8. Locke (2013)

The camera rarely wavers from Tom Hardy in this existential thriller, which takes place entirely in Hardy's vehicle. A construction foreman trying to make sure an important job is executed well, Hardy's Ivan Locke grapples with some surprising news from a mistress and the demands of his family. It's a one-act, one-man play, with Hardy making the repeated act of conversing on his cell phone as tense and compelling as if he were driving with a bomb in the trunk.

9. Cop Car (2015)

When two kids decide to take a police cruiser for a joyride, the driver (Kevin Bacon) begins a dogged pursuit. No good cop, he's got plenty to hide.

10. Taxi Driver (1976)

Another De Niro and Scorsese collaboration hits the mark, as Taxi Driver is regularly cited as one of the greatest American films ever made. De Niro is a potently single-minded Travis Bickle, a cabbie in a seedy '70s New York who wants to be an avenging angel for victims of crime. The mercurial Bickle, however, is just as unhinged as those he targets.

11. Sweet Virginia (2017)

Jon Bernthal lumbers through this thriller as a former rodeo star whose career has left him physically broken. Now managing a hotel in small-town Alaska, he stumbles onto a plot involving a murderer-for-hire (Christopher Abbott), upending his quiet existence and forcing him to take action.

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