Charlie Rice’s Punchbowl column, This Week magazine, 4 November 1962

Tiddlywinks Across the Sea!

Reprinted from This Week magazine, 4 November 1962, pages 20-21.  Charlie Rice’s Punchbowl column.
(a Sunday supplement inserted in newspapers)

There was a faint pink, and a wink clinked on the brink of the cup — and just managed to sink in with a clink!

A faint roar went up from about 50 spectators: the struggle unto death had been, between the Tiddlywinkers of Oxford University, England, and Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

The scene was the ballroom of the Playhouse Inn, next door to the Bucks County Playhouse, in the pleasant little town of New Hope.  I was on the sidelines, with my PRESS card in my hat band, and the British captain confided nervously:

“We’re a bit off our stride today.  We just flew  in from a match in California, and my best ‘squopper’ fell madly in love with the airline hostess.”

Off-stride or not, Oxford won handily.

The trouble with American Tiddlywinkers is that they have no real tradition to inspire them.  In England there is constant competition for the great annual trophy, the Prince Philip Silver Wink.  There are at least nine teams that could be considered “Big League”.

Old British Tradition

But consider the teams that America can field today:  Harvard University mustered at best an indifferent crew that the Britishers thrashed without effort.  The whole state of California could not assemble a foursome to put up any real competition.

In fact the Bucks Country team was the toughest the Oxonians had met, by their own admission.  Yet there were only two good players:  1. Captain Mike Ellis, producer-director of the Bucks Country Playhouse.  He trained seriously for a couple of months, often arising at six a.m.  “I found that my knuckle action was better in the early hours, before the cares of the day were upon me.”  2. Actor Dennis King. He also trained exhaustively.  A fellow actor once asked worriedly:  “Do you suppose Mr. King is taking to drink?  Every time I pass his dressing-room I hear a glass clinking.”

Gags but no scores

The other two Bucks Country players were not Tiddlywinkers at heart.  Actress Patricia Scott tried hard, but only managed to look charming.

The fourth player was humorist S. J. Perelman, who was on hand to confer with Ellis about his upcoming play, “The Beauty Part”.  Mr. Perelman was a national disaster.  He couldn’t score a wink even if you gave him a bread-basket for a target.

“But I could beat them at other games,” he boasted.

“Such as what?” I asked.

“Well, I’m hot at Seven-Card Stud and Old Maid.”

Be that as it may, at Tiddlywinks Mr. Perelman was so bad that they started to warm up actor Tom Ewell.  But by that time the match had been all but lost anyway.

So we went off to Mike Ellis’s for chicken and corn on the cob.  We outpointed the Britishers at corn, at least.  They kept staring, wondering whether to chance eating it or hide it under the sofa.

The four young Oxford students are Captain Peter Freeman, Elizabeth King (who will soon become Peter’s Tiddlywink bride), Philip More and Dave Willis.  It is hard to decide how serious they are about the sport.  For instance, Captain Freeman will tell you he trains by waking up early each morning and “pondering cosmic problems to condition my approach.”  Now he must be kidding, but he says it with an inscrutable British deadpan that makes you wonder.

When I asked Dave Willis how to cheat at Tiddlywinks, he looked alarmed.  “But we don’t, you know.”

“I’m sure you don’t, but is it possible?”

“Oh, yes.  One can crunch carrots while one’s opponent is trying to squidge.  And of course a good offense dodge is to lean over the cup so that one’s necktie hands in just the right place: one squidges one’s wink backwards, against the tie, so that it will bounce off and fall into the cup.”

“What if you’re caught at it?” I asked.

Whey, then you say: ‘Frightfully sorry, old chap–how stupid of me!  Shall I resquidge?'”

Great Tiddlywinks Country

The members of the Oxford team were wild to see America.  And they loved every minute of it.  Philip More told me:  “Even though we have serious Tiddlywink teams in England, no one ever comes to see the matches.  Over here, it’s been wonderful–we’ve drawn crowds up to a hundred.  Even newspapermen.”

I shared his enchantment.  For I have always had a Walter Mitty dream of being a sports reporter.  And now, by George, I’ve made it!

I’m a full-fledged Tiddlywinks reporter!

Charlie Rice

[2 photos:

1. How to cheat:  Peter Freeman demonstrates necktie play for Patricia Scott.  Necktie with OUTS & cup.  Perelman also looking in.

2. Trick shot:  S. J. Perelman shows author how to miss a basket.]