Two milestones for how we ate in ’68

“Popular culture” is a phrase that can refer to a number of things that, collectively, identify our tastes in what we like to do with our leisure time.    I usually refer to it in terms of entertainment, such as movies, television, music, and whatever else we indulge in to amuse ourselves.

This year marks a pair of milestones that relate to everyone’s favorite pastime: eating. I personally eat to live, rather than live to eat. I have my favorite dishes and snacks, just like anybody else, but I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about food. However, two innovations which first presented themselves to the public in 1968 deserve at least a brief mention on their 50th birthday: for dining at home,the microwave oven; for dining out, the Big Mac.

The microwave oven has become such an integral part of virtually every kitchen that it would be unusual to walk in and not see one nestled into a corner of the countertop.  For the sheer convenience of defrosting or heating a quick meal, it has become one of the most relied-upon appliances in the house. And its existence is the result–as is the case with many modern conveniences–of a curious mind being sidetracked while working on technology for an altogether different purpose.

Credit for the microwave oven can be traced back to Percy LeBaron Spencer, an engineer working for the Raytheon Corporation in the 1940s. While working on radar-related experiments in the Raytheon labs in 1946, Spencer began testing a new vacuum tube called a magnetron. Standing beside the device one day, he noticed that a chocolate bar in his pocket had melted. He later tested several kernels of popcorn, and then an egg, all of which reacted as we would expect them to do under strong heat. Spencer concluded that they had been exposed to low-density microwave energy, and turned his attention to devising a crude box to contain the energy and thus heat whatever object he placed inside.

Raytheon engineers began work on Spencer’s discovery, and by late ’46, the company filed a patent for an oven that could cook food via microwaves. The following year, the first such oven for commercial use (mostly in restaurants) hit the market, and was named the Radarange. But there were drawbacks: the bulky unit stood almost six feet tall, weighed over 750 pounds, and cost about $5,000 each. It also required special plumbing to water cool the magnetron tube.

Refinements continued, and the cost began to come down, but the unit and the cabinet in which it was encased still took up as much room as a refrigerator. Raytheon licensed its patent to Tappan in 1955 for the purpose of developing a home use version of the oven, leading to the first home model selling for just under $1,300, but still with an unwieldy size.

In 1965, Raytheon took over the Amana Refrigeration company, and less than three years later, the 100-volt, countertop microwave oven, seen here, was introduced to the general public. Some fear by consumers over the perceived dangers of frequent use eventually faded (even though the term “to nuke” a meal has persisted), and by 1975, the use of microwave ovens first exceeded that of gas ranges.

On September 18, 1999, Percy Spencer, who died in 1970, was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

For those who had not yet warmed up to the microwave oven (pun intended) in 1968, there was a new reason to stop at the local McDonald’s restaurant whenever a hunger pang struck. McDonald’s had already been America’s most successful fast food chain, having opened its 1,000th restaurant that year–when Jim Delligatti, manager of the Uniontown, Pennsylvania McDonald’s, saw his gastronomic creation become part of the company’s permanent menu. Delligatti, who first became a McDonald’s manager in 1957, tried in the mid-’60s to convince the company honchos

Delligatti and his creation.

that they needed to sell a bigger burger, and suggested they consider his own super burger invention, only to be turned down. The corporate chiefs finally agreed to let him sell it in 1967, provided that he use only ingredients already supplied to each franchise. Delligatti sold the first Big Mac in his Uniontown store that year, and was successful enough to encourage the company to hold further consumer tests throughout the Pittsburgh region. The Big Mac began

selling nationally in 1968, for 49 cents. Delligatti didn’t receive any extra remuneration for his world-famous, 540-calorie invention, but he did receive a plaque. The Big Mac ingredients, of course, became an often-repeated litany in its advertising campaign jingle: “Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun.”

For those whose appetites didn’t require such a hearty snack, the chain’s hot apple pie was also introduced in 1968 (consequently, cases of burning the inside of one’s mouth reached historic levels).

Delligatti passed away in 2016 at the age of 98. And, while McDonald’s has taken its lumps in recent years, especially with cultural trends favoring healthier choices (even in fast food), the Big Mac has, for better or worse, become part of our culture–not just in the U.S., but around the world.

Until next week…

“Local Hero” at 35

It’s almost frightening to realize that some films, TV shows, and record albums I first enjoyed as a young person have now existed for 30, 40, or 50

years. Time marches on. But it stands still, in a very real way, throughout Local Hero, my favorite film comedy of all time. Written and directed by Bill Forsyth, it was released in the U.S. in February, 1983, thirty-five years ago this week.

To repeat: it is my favorite film comedy–and I love a lot of film comedies, reaching back to the silent era. But somehow, from the moment I first stumbled upon it while channel hopping, and found it on HBO or some such channel back in 1984, this film affected me like no other has,

before or since. I missed perhaps the first fifteen minutes or so that first time, catching sight of two characters stopping on a remote road in the Scottish Highlands to care for an injured rabbit. Being obsessed with all things Scotland anyway, and seeing that the rabbit didn’t seem hurt at all, I settled in to watch the rest…

Forsyth began as an editor for documentary films, which led to the creation of his first two quiet comedies, using small budgets and unknown actors.

The first, That Sinking Feeling, from 1979, is a quirky little story, for which Forsyth recruited young acting students in Glasgow as his cast, and shot on 16mm film, entirely on location. The plot follows a group of unemployed misfits looking for adventure and cash, deciding to plan the theft of stainless steel sinks from a warehouse, and then sell them, somehow.

Forsyth’s next, and better-known film, the wonderful Gregory’s Girl (using many of the same actors), offers the story of a shy, 16-year-old student, Gregory (John Gordon Sinclair) a mediocre soccer player infatuated with Dorothy (Dee Hepburn), the new–and unmistakably female–star of the team. This is where Forsyth hit his stride.

Then came Local Hero, with the backing of producer David Puttnam, whose Chariots of Fire had just won a truckload of international awards. He was a good ally for Forsyth to have when trying to sell his latest work.

As the film begins, we meet “Mac” MacIntyre (we never learn his first name), a young, ambitious executive for Knox Oil & Gas in Houston. His specialty is acquiring properties around the world for the company to build its oil drilling sites, refineries and storage units. Mac gets excited one day upon hearing that the eccentric CEO of the company, Mr. Happer (Burt

Lancaster) wants to see him in the executive suite. Happer has decided to send Mac to Scotland to purchase part of the northern coast, including a small fishing village, Furness. It is during this classic first meeting that Mac learns of some of Happer’s quirks, such as his fascination with astronomy. The boss demonstrates how he can convert his office into a functioning planetarium, to indulge his fascination with the night sky. His dream is to discover a comet and have it named after him, so he takes pains to show Mac which portion of the northern sky to look for comets when he’s in Scotland.

Once there, Mac meets Johnny (Peter Capaldi), his Scottish counterpart from Aberdeen, whose social awkwardness masks his knowledge of the oil business. The two descend upon Furness, expecting to meet resistance from the villagers, considering how their town would be fairly obliterated to make way for the Knox complex.

Mac’s friendship with Gordon gets off to a rocky start.

They meet with Gordon Urquart (Denis Lawson), the local attorney/innkeeper/bartender, who undertakes the negotiations. But isn’t long before Mac begins to find himself awed by the beauty of the scenery, and by the pure, simple lives of the town’s inhabitants. His business-like demeanor (and suit) soon give way to friendly chit-chat and more causal dress (a lesson for writers and filmmakers on how to show a character’s development without using dialogue). He even manages to develop a crush on Gordon’s beautiful wife, Stella, and, as he marvels at the quiet night

sky, is mesmerized by the sight of a meteor shower, and later, his first aurora borealis, prompting him to race to the town’s phone box and excitedly call Happer with his eyewitness report. Johnny, meanwhile, falls for a beauty as well, a company oceanographer (Jenny Seagrove) who just might be a mermaid.

Johnny takes a shine to Marina (and vise-versa).

To Mac’s surprise, the villagers are all for selling their properties for the big money Knox is offering, regardless of what it would to do to Furness. Ironically, it is Mac and Johnny who find themselves regretting the deal. But unexpected developments await. I won’t give any more away, for those of you poor souls who have yet to experience this truly magical film.

Bill Forsyth in 2015.

Within minutes into that random first viewing of mine, Forsyth’s comic style became apparent, and very appealing to me. Unlike the brash, often crude American film comedies that tend to rely on gags involving drinking binges, sex, and/or various bodily functions, Local Hero (and all of Forsyth’s comedies) carries an unmistakable dignity about it. His “Scottish trilogy” films, including 1984’s Comfort and Joy, are fairly quiet movies, and the humor is subtle, but all are also genuinely very funny and–in a word often used by reviewers of his films–charming.

What else does Local Hero have going for it, other than the screenplay (I own a copy of an early draft, and can attest to the brilliant improvements Forsyth made along the way), its spot-on cast, the gorgeous cinematography, the gentle, exquisite musical score written and performed by Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits? Well, how about this:  After following Mac’s visit to Furness, the film concludes with a closing shot that, to me, is the most perfect, most beautiful closing shot I’ve ever seen in a film. If it doesn’t bring a happy tear to your eye, check your pulse.

In 2003, the town of Pinnan, where most of the village scenes were filmed, hosted a special viewing of the film, to commemorate its 20th anniversary. Forsyth attended, and spoke briefly to the crowd, who expressed their appreciation for his masterpiece, and his respect for their tiny hamlet on the sea.

 

P.S.: When my wife Karen and I were on our honeymoon in Scotland in 1997, Pinnan was, of course, one of the stops we knew we had to make.

Until next week…

 

 

The first Winter Olympics on TV

Those of us who enjoy watching the excitement of the Olympics are also prone to complaining about the TV coverage. For every viewer who feels his/her favorite events are being shortchanged, there is another who can’t stand some other event dominating a big chunk of air time, at the expense of sports that never seem to get their due. The availability of live-streaming on various online outlets, or coverage from other sources via satellite, have improved the situation for some. But most of us remain at the mercy of what NBC and its sister networks on cable decide to highlight each day and night. Never mind that the events are sent to us instantaneously from halfway across the planet–we’ll find something to complain about.

Alas, this has always been the case, beginning with the very first network coverage of the Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California, in 1960.

To set the stage, historically speaking, the Berlin Olympics of 1936, under the menacing auspices of the Nazi party and watchful eye of Adolf Hitler, were the first ever to be televised, but only in Germany. With precious few TV sets in private homes at the time (mostly for party officials), public TV parlors were set up throughout Berlin, where about 160,000 viewers watched portions of the competition. The Games of 1940 and 1944 were, of course, canceled due to the war. They resumed in 1948 in London, but only limited newsreel highlights were seen on American TV.

Disney discussing the ceremonial events.

It wasn’t until the 1960 Squaw Valley Games when network television began to take a more active interest. Originally, ABC paid $50,000 for the rights to cover the event, but later backed out. At that point, as the legendary Roone Arledge (one-time president of ABC Sports and ABC News) explains, “CBS had picked up the Games, not out of any love for the Olympics, but as a favor from [CBS president] Bill Paley to Walt Disney.” What did Disney have to do with it? He was chairman of the Pageantry Committee, responsible for the opening and closing ceremonies. And Paley wanted to see his friend’s efforts televised from coast to coast.

Cronkite on the beat at Squaw Valley.

The reporters covering these Games included Walter Cronkite, still two years away from assuming his role as anchor of the evening news, Bud Palmer, and future ABC stalwart Chris Schenkel. But the CBS coverage was nothing like what we’ve come to expect from network coverage of the Olympics. The Squaw Valley broadcasts were initially limited to 15-minute recap segments each evening, beginning at 11:15 p.m., thus precluding the opportunity for any younger viewers to see the highlights. The miniscule time slot also didn’t allow for any in-depth reporting on the individual events or participating athletes. The New York Times TV critic Jack Gould blasted the arrangement. “For an event that occurs only every four years and is a matter of international interest,” he fumed, “it borders on ludicrous that only fifteen minutes a night should be allotted to the games…To assume that a day’s multiple list of events can be compressed into a visual account of ten minutes or so may make economic sense to a broadcaster, but it can only be regarded as foolhardy by the winter sports fan.”

However, CBS did expand its coverage later in the week, to include figure skating, hockey, and ski jumping, prompting Gould to backtrack: “These events were part of the original CBS plans for the Olympic coverage, not an afterthought,” he conceded in a follow-up column, “so that viewers who legitimately complained about those earlier 15-minute summaries, including this corner, were perhaps too quick in their judgments.”

Later in 1960, CBS also offered limited coverage of the Summer Olympics in Rome. This was still before Telstar and other satellites enabled live broadcasts from abroad, so films of the Games had to be flown to New York for broadcast.

For the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics, NBC used the Syncom 3 satellite for its coverage, which included live, color broadcasts of the opening and closing ceremonies. These were the first color transmissions via satellite from overseas to the U.S., but only the ceremonies themselves were shown in color.

The modern era of coverage began when ABC secured the rights to the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France, and the Summer Games in Mexico City, which were broadcast in color throughout the 44 hours of coverage. NBC aired the ’72 Winter Games from Sapporo, Japan, but the

Summer Games in Munich were famously covered by ABC, as the sportscasters there (led by studio host Chris Schenkel) had to suddenly shift into hard-news mode during the final days of the Games, with the tragic events surrounding the terrorist attack and subsequent murder of the Israeli team. It was Jim McKay in particular who emerged as the personality viewers turned to for

the latest updates, and whose steady and compassionate reporting of the tragedy, including his chilling and heartbreaking announcement, “They’re all gone,” secured his role as host for ABC’s coverage of the 1976 Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria, and the Summer Olympiad in Montreal, the rights of which were purchased for a then-whopping $25 million, for 76 hours of coverage. It was an early peak of ABC’s Golden Age of Olympics coverage.

McKay anchors the Montreal Games.

McKay’s easygoing personality, genuine interest in the athletes’ stories (highlighted in the “Up Close and Personal” features), and eloquent commentaries won him fans, praise from the critics, and multiple Emmys. NBC won the rights to the Moscow Summer Olympics in 1980, but the U.S. boycott put a kibosh on the coverage, except for occasional updates. ABC then returned for both 1984 Winter Games(Sarajevo, Yugoslavia) and paid a cool $225 million for rights to the Summer Games (Los Angeles), and later the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary, Canada.

Capital Cities’ purchase of ABC came with the announcement that the network would no longer bid for future Olympics, opening the door for NBC to secure the rights for all Games through the 2032 Olympiad. Bob Costas became the prime time host; he voluntarily left that post after the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. Mike Tirico has replaced him for the current Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.

So here we are once again, watching another two weeks of the Olympics on TV, which will no doubt lead to complaints about the coverage, and which has already prompted objections to comments by an NBC on-air analyst about the history of relations between Korea and Japan. Yes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. But as long as I get to see the competitions I’ve always enjoyed watching since childhood, I’ll take the bad with the good.

Until next week…

(This week’s blog was adapted in large part from a section in my book For the First Time on Television. See more about it on my web site!)

 

 

 

The grandfather of cell phone cameras

It’s interesting, if a little disconcerting, that people of a certain age today remember when taking a picture and seeing the results almost instantly was quite exciting–and that people of a certain younger age today, who seem to think they’ve invented the “selfie,” appear to be totally oblivious to so much that has been accomplished before they were born.  Although taking pictures with phone cameras has become second nature to us, there was indeed a time when instant photos were new, even revolutionary.

In 1932, Edwin Land co-founded a company with his former Harvard physics professor for the purpose of developing and manufacturing polarizing filters for sunglasses and photographic lenses. Their work found several other applications in the fields of science and entertainment, and in 1937 the company was re-named the Polaroid Corporation.

Land was vacationing with his family in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1943, and had been taking photos of the trip. At one point, he took a picture of his 3-year-old daughter Jennifer, after which she asked why she couldn’t see the photo of herself right away. Land didn’t have a satisfactory answer, but the question set his mind working overtime. “As I walked around that charming town,” he explained years later, “I undertook the task of solving the puzzle she had set for me. Within the hour the camera, the film and the physical chemistry became so clear that with a great sense of excitement I hurried to the place where a friend was staying, to describe to him in detail a dray camera which would give the picture immediately after exposure. In my mind it was so real that I spent several hours on this description. Four years later we demonstrated the working system to the Optical Society of America.”

In 1949, Polaroid introduced the revolutionary instant camera to the public. The first advertisements for it, such as this (somewhat cluttered) magazine ad, even credited Land as the inventor, in the fine print under the main copy, and his camera would henceforth be known as the Polaroid Land camera.

In late 1972, Land caused another sensation when he introduced the SX-70, a camera that, after taking a picture, mechanically ejected a card-like photo which would develop the image in the open air, enabling the photographer to actually watch the colors and details materialize within a minute’s time. The developing chemicals were encased under a dry, transparent protective shield, unaffected by the touch of a finger or anything else. This eliminated dealing with the sticky chemicals and negative paper that accompanied Polaroid prints as they were pulled from the earlier models. The SX-70 itself could be folded down into a flatter, 4 x 7 inch shape after use.

The ongoing competition between Polaroid and camera giant Kodak led to memorable TV advertising by both companies. Kodak preferred scenarios that tugged at the heartstrings, such as the “Times of your life” series set to Paul Anka’s tune, while Polaroid boasted a long-running series of spots with James Garner and Mariette Hartley trading snappy retorts as they demonstrated various new Polaroid innovations and camera models.

In the meantime, Polaroid spent a total of $250 million to build manufacturing facilities for the SX-70. The camera’s initial price tag was $180.00, plus about five dollars for a pack of ten prints. Life magazine called it “both a marvelous toy and a stunning technological achievement.”

Kodak developed its own instant camera in response, leading to a patent battle between the two companies, until Kodak ceased production of its camera in 1986. Land died in 1991, as changes in photography began to affect both companies. The novelty and convenience of instant photos began to wane, as services such as 1-hour film developing shops became more common. And, of course, the arrival of digital cameras was seen as a major threat, prompting Polaroid to introduce an early, unsuccessful digital model in 1996.

The company declared bankruptcy in October of 2001 and re-formed shortly thereafter, but stopped making its trademark instant cameras in 2007. It made another attempt to take on the digital photography market the following year, and stopped making instant film altogether in 2008, much to the consternation of its most ardent amateur and professional users.

But the story doesn’t end there. In 2010, a group called The Impossible Project (now known as Polaroid Originals) bought the trademark Polaroid name and intellectual property, with the goal of re-launching the manufacture of film and other products for use in vintage Polaroid cameras, including the SX-70 and older models. A Polaroid manufacturing center in the Netherlands was leased for continuing the production of the new supply of films.

And so, the “old-fashioned” method of taking instant pictures lives on, even in the age of cell phone cameras. Even Steve Jobs cited Edwin Land as a hero and major influence (alas, it won’t be long until people will be heard asking, “Who’s Steve Jobs?”) And, while the use of a Polaroid might trigger a “why bother?” response among younger generations, it somehow provides some comfort to those of us who remember the excitement and anticipation of watching an image come to life in our hands just seconds after clicking the shutter.

We’ll take a look at other gadgets and inventions that are common now, but were once brand new (and not that long ago), in future posts, in addition to the usual assortment of stuff about TV/movies/music. Watch this space!

Until next week…