Hear Garry talk about his upcoming book about the Golden Age of comedy…
“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
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…
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.
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.
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.
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–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 georgeous 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 movie. 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…
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.
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.
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’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!)
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…
Long before there was Lucy & Ethel, Laverne & Shirley, or the 2 Broke Girls, there was Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts. No, these aren’t made-up names. In the early 1930s, when legendary comedy producer Hal Roach decided to create a female version of Laurel & Hardy, he chose Thelma and Zasu for the assignment. And they were wonderful in the 17 short subjects they starred in together.
But let’s back up a bit and focus on Thelma especially. Why? She made more of a mark on film comedy than even many fans of the classic films may realize, as a great number of revered comedy stars benefitted greatly from their onscreen collaborations with her. She has the distinction of having played the comic foil for Ed Wynn, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Charley Chase, Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Brothers, and others, but not simply as the passive object of raised eyebrows, leering smiles, and snappy one-liners. She knew her stuff, and more than held her own playing opposite film’s comic geniuses. Her work deserves to be remembered and enjoyed, even more than eight decades after her untimely death in 1935.
Thelma was a ridiculously beautiful blonde who had won the Miss Massachusetts beauty pageant while awaiting acceptance to Paramout Studios’ school for aspiring actors. Before long, she was playing various supporting roles in silent comedy shorts until producer Hal Roach signed her to begin her comedy career in earnest. In her most notable early films for Roach, she appeared star Charley Chase in his own series of sound comedies for the studio, beginning in 1929. The two were a team in all but official billing, given their onscreen chemistry. Many of the movie plots were variations of Charley’s attempt to win over Thelma, with inevitable complications or misunderstandings getting in the way.
The most famous of these shorts include The Pip From Pittsburgh and Looser Than Loose (both of which I highly recommend). Just as it seemed the two would be officially billed as equal co-stars, Roach decided he wanted to pair Thelma with another female to create his new, female incarnation of Laurel & Hardy, to star in a separate series of two-reelers .
Zasu Pitts (pronounced “Zay-su”) had made a name for herself primarily as a dramatic silent film actress, but her occasional forays into comedy proved even more popular, with her sad eyes, put-upon demeanor and gently fluttering hands as she spoke. When teamed with the vivacious and energetic Thelma, she provided a perfect contrast as the more cautious and socially awkward of the two, usually getting pulled into Thelma’s plans without time to object, or landing them in any number of uncomfortable situations.
Roach was so enthusiastic about the new team that he directed many of their shorts himself, until his other duties as studio chief necessitated him to leave the directing to others. A few of the best in this series include Let’s Do Things, Pajama Party and On the Loose.
Thanks to Roach’s generous contract, Thelma was also busy working on other films at the time. She foiled for silent star Harry Langdon in his first sound film appearance, worked to great comic effect with Laurel & Hardy in their own first talkie, Unaccustomed As We Are, served as the object of desire for the Marx Brothers in both Monkey Business and Horsefeathers, and appeared in still more films with Laurel & Hardy throughout the early ’30s.
She also shared a number of memorable scenes with Buster Keaton in his 1932 sound film Speak Easily (in which he was reluctantly partnered with Jimmy Durante).
When Zasu left Roach studios in a contract dispute (but continued an impressive career of her own in both comic and dramatic roles) Roach replaced her with
Patsy Kelly, who provided a more brash, streetwise, New York-style persona to mesh with Thelma’s onscreen character. The two continued the series by filming twenty-one more shorts together, most of which offer great comic energy, with some surpassing the Thelma-ZaSu shorts.
It was fortunate that Thelma was, at the time, recognized for her comic skills, and not just for her beauty. In 1934, she became hostess of Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café, a restaurant/night club on the Pacific Coast Highway, which became a popular night spot for Hollywood types, as well as those of a less savory variety. Thelma was not the owner (her ex-lover, Roland West, was), but she was happy to greet guests and keep the fun going among the patrons. Unfortunately, the site also attracted a number of gangsters who sought to acquire a piece of the establishment, in order to turn into a gambling den. Thelma was adamantly against the idea.
On December 16, 1935, Thelma was found dead in her garage, sitting in her car, from carbon monoxide poisoning. While the coroner ruled it an accidental death, most observers question the many incongruous details connected with the scene. It had the appearance of suicide, but those who mingled with her at her restaurant the previous evening didn’t notice anything unusual about her behavior, especially nothing resembling depression or distress. Several murder suspects have been considered in the decades since, but the case has never been satisfactorily solved. Thelma was only 29 years old.
There’s no telling how far her career could have continued on its upward trajectory, possibly including starring roles in comedy features, a la Carole Lombard. Fortunately, we are still able to enjoy Thelma’s beauty, comic timing, and appealing energy in dozens of comedy (and dramatic) films.
The Thelma-ZaSu shorts will be released on DVD October 9, and the Thelma-Patsy shorts are already available, as is the Charley Chase series featuring Thelma. So, do yourself and favor and have some laughs, courtesy of the wonderful Thelma Todd and cohorts.
Thanks to my friend Michelle Morgan, who lives across the pond, and who wrote the wonderful and much-needed Thelma biography Ice Cream Blonde, which helped me keep my facts straight for this blog entry.
Until next week…
We’ve happily noted a few 50-year anniversaries in pop culture lately, but today marks the 80th anniversary of a legendary Carnegie Hall concert by the great Benny Goodman big band, on January 16, 1938.
The big bands and their leaders were the rock stars of their day, generating a growing excitement for swing music among young people all over the country, ever since the style took over the genre, largely credited to the Goodman band’s three-week run at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles in 1935. Dance halls and jazz clubs found themselves stuffed to capacity whenever big names like Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and dozens of others appeared.
To make a long story short, by late ’37 swing bands were the national craze in music, and enjoying tremendous popularity. Goodman’s band in particular favored high-energy arrangements by the likes of Fletcher Henderson and Edgar Sampson that had music mavens dancing in the aisles at concerts. This led to the unprecedented step of booking the band in the prestigious Carnegie Hall–the first jazz concert ever to be performed there. Goodman himself was only 28 at the time, but didn’t seemed unduly fazed by the prospect of performing in the Mecca of classical music. When asked how long an intermission he wanted for the concert, his reply was, “I don’t know. How long does Toscanini have?” Trumpeter Harry James sounded considerably more awed by the circumstances when, before the concert began, confessed “I feel like a whore in church.”
There was no telling how the music would be received, or even how a big a crowd would turn up for the occasion. The answer lies in both the recording made that night, and the fact that rows of overflow seats were set up right on the stage itself, within reach of the musicians. The band was at its peak, having spent the previous few years touring constantly, and trying out new numbers and arrangements, always gauging audience reactions. By January of ’38, the set list was about as reliable as Goodman could make it.
The program for the evening presented a mix of numbers by the full band with those featuring Goodman’s trio (with Teddy Wilson on piano, Gene Krupa on drums), and Lionel Hampton joining in on vibes for the quartet. It should be noted that, at a time of segregation among virtually all aspects of American culture, Goodman welcomed black musicians in his band as well as those he brought on as guests that particular night. The concert was greatly enhanced with appearances by Count Basie, along with a few members of his band, including tenor sax god Lester Young, plus a few members of Duke Ellington’s band, most notably the awesome Johnny Hodges on alto sax.
As for the performance itself, the concert was recorded for posterity, with an edited version not released until 1950 by Columbia Records. An unedited version was released in 1999, with the true running order intact. Full band numbers such as “One O’clock Jump,” “Life Goes to A Party,” and
“Swingtime in the Rockies” provide thrilling moments, with “Swingtime in the Rockies” in particular featuring a wild, climactic trumpet solo by Ziggy Elman that fairly blows the roof off of Carnegie Hall. To this day, it’s one of the most frenetic trumpet solos I’ve ever heard. Another point of interest, the improvised jam session, uses the standard “Honeysuckle Rose” as its starting point, and which includes exquisite sax solos by Young and Hodges. After a bit of meandering, the group follows Harry James’ dramatic lead-out to a satisfying conclusion.
There were quieter, slower-paced numbers scattered throughout, including a few by the trio and quartet, but the grand finale came with the granddaddy of all swing arrangements, “Sing, Sing, Sing,” originally written by trumpeter and all-around showman Louis Prima, and expanded over time into the gargantuan arrangement Goodman’s fans always anticipated at his appearances. The main section of the piece gives way to a series of solos, and on this particular night, a surprise solo by band pianist Jess Stacy. Accounts seem to differ on whether it was Goodman who unexpectedly gestured to Stacy to take his solo, or if Stacy himself found a split-second opening in the beat to jump in with an improvised creation of its own.
Either way, his sudden, plaintive, quiet solo set a sharp contrast to the band’s musical adrenaline rush that had just preceded it, and, once his 96-bar solo hit its soft, final note, the audience erupted into tremendous applause. It’s a moment that has been discussed and written about by music historians ever since.
A few encores followed, the crowd went wild, and the swing era had reached an early peak. Swing music wouldn’t begin to lose its mass popularity until the end of World War II (and the coming of bebop jazz). But as of January of 1938, the music–and Benny Goodman’s band–were the talk of the music world.
Until next time…
This week’s blog isn’t really to do with entertainment, but if we consider “popular culture” to include nearly anything that most of us have experienced–either often, or seldom–as part of our normal lives, then perhaps this topic makes the cut.
An item that didn’t get much attention last week, with so many news stories covering natural disasters and political chaos, reported that the very last Boeing 747 jumbo jet owned by a domestic airline has been retired. Delta Airlines flight 9771 from Atlanta to Pinal Airpark in Arizona, with 48 people onboard (including a couple who got married mid-flight), marked the final flight of a 747 for any U.S. airline. Several European-based airlines, such as British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, and Luftansa, still have hundreds of 747s in service, but the future of the huge, majestic plane may not be bright.
The news made my heart sink a little. And, though I’ve tried to make this blog more history-based than personal, my past few entries have failed to maintain that delineation. This one, to be honest, continues that trend. My apologies.
I was about nine years old when Pan Am’s first 747 began regular service in 1970. I had seen TV commercials and magazine ads leading the hype up to that event, and I was fascinated. The sheer size of the plane, unlike anything we had seen before then, was unbelievable. To this day, I remember its vital statistics, which quickly became ingrained in my mind as a kid: the plane was 231 feet long, with a 195-foot wingspan, seating for 430 passengers, 12 restrooms,
two aisles, 9 seats across, 8-foot high ceilings, and most mind blowing of all: a spiral staircase in first-class leading to a 2nd floor lounge! On an airplane! My 9-year-old mind nearly exploded at the concept (only decades later would I learn that earlier passenger propeller-driven planes included lounges, and some even included a 2nd deck). Most 747s even had a piano in first class. I became obsessed, always searching for the “hump” in a plane’s front end whenever I saw one passing overhead.
Adding to my excitement that same year was the news that my family would be visiting my brother, who was in London for a semester in college, that April, in time for my birthday. Naturally, it was to be a Pan Am flight (back when Pan Am, which brought us the first passenger jet in 1959, was still the airline to take for international flights), and, best of all, we would be traveling on a 747!
I remember those first steps inside the plane at the boarding gate–the famous spiral staircase to the left, and countless rows of seats in economy class, stretching back almost as far as the eye could see. My mother’s first words were, “I don’t believe it.” My own first words were probably squeals of delight rather than anything intelligible. Once the flight was underway, I took as many opportunities as I could to roam the spacious plane, walking to the very rear and its maze of restrooms, returning up the opposite aisle to the very front tip of economy class, and crossing through the galley to the other aisle, and finally back to my seat.
A totally unexpected delight came when the chief steward of the flight arrived at my seat (as per a previously-arranged request my father had made for my birthday), and offered to take me on a tour of the plane. I was both excited and hesitant, being quite shy, but my family cheerfully sent me off with him (what was he going to do, kidnap me on a plane?) He escorted me not only into first-class, but up the spiral staircase and into the lounge. He then opened the door to the cockpit and let me take a peek, and say hello to the pilots. Wow!
I returned to my seat fairly overwhelmed, and thankful to my parents for having arranged the tour. It was already a great trip, and we hadn’t even arrived in London yet.
I’ve enjoyed many other flights on 747s since then–to and from London several more times, to Israel and back, California, and perhaps a few that have slipped my mind. There was People Express in the 1980s with its budget-friendly fares and picnic baskets used to serve meals, and Virgin Atlantic in the ’90s with new, seat-back TV screens (also a discontinued accoutrement for new aircraft models, thanks to the takeover of smartphones, laptops, and other personal devices). I’ve even been on a
flight with Virgin owner Richard Branson onboard; he strolled the aisles serving water to whoever wanted to quench their thirst. I took him up on the offer and said, “Nice little airline you’ve got here.”
The 747 interior, as designed for different airlines around the world to their own specifications, later offered a variety of seat configurations, sleeper-seats, and lounge designs, some quite elaborate
and luxurious. But in recent decades, most ordinary people, regardless of which kind of plane they’ve flown on, have endured increasingly cramped planes, resembling sardine cans rather than the airy, comfortable transports the 747 once offered everyone, even those in coach class. In many cases, the lounges have been simply replaced with more seats on the elongated upper deck, in order to cram as many passengers into the available space as possible. I haven’t flown for quite a few years now, but I hope that before too long I’ll be bound across an ocean to an exciting locale, again aboard a 747 (perhaps Virgin Atlantic to London, for old time’s sake?)
It’s often difficult to know ahead of time when something that has been so familiar to us will cease to be, so it’s equally difficult to express appreciation before it’s too late. But getting sentimental over an airplane? Why not? The gradual passing of the 747 can evoke memories of happy, exciting times traveling the country or the world. Sentimentality has a way of creeping up on us when we least expect it, especially when a source of those memories is gone, or nearly gone, completely.
Until next week…
I can hardly believe I just typed “50th birthday” and “Laugh-In” in the same sentence. But it’s true. After airing a pilot episode in September of 1967, NBC placed Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In on its regular schedule in January of 1968, replacing The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (sorry, Bill Parisho).
To those television viewers who were comfortable with the more genteel, moderately-paced variety shows and sitcoms at the time, Laugh-In shocked them with an onslaught of one-liners, blackout gags, songs, sketches, and a lot more, all coming at breakneck speed and psychedelic colors. The cast of versatile, genuinely funny cast members during that first year included Artie Johnson, Joanne Worley, Ruth Buzzi, Goldie Hawn, Henry Gibson, and Alan Sues–with plenty of celebrity cameo appearances thrown in for good measure.
And, of course, hosting the madness in their distinguished tuxedoes were Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, both 46 at the time, and who had already been performing as a comedy team for the previous decade.
Laugh-In was the result of the duo’s collaboration with producer George Schlatter, who found himself on the same creative wavelength as Rowan & Martin, and who oversaw the writing, editing, and overall tone of the show. As explosive as the show was in 1968, with its breakneck pacing and topical humor about politics, the Vietnam War, pollution, and Women’s Lib, it did have its predecessors. Earlier satirical comedy programs, such as the 1964 American version of the British hit That Was The Week That Was, and The Smothers Brothers Hour, which debuted in 1967, laid the conceptual foundation for the outspoken and often risque nature of the show. This in turn led to many a challenge by NBC censors to a good deal of material. The show quickly acquired the
reputation as pushing the envelope of acceptable, prime-time network comedy, in part because just about everything that had come before it had been so very bland and inoffensive.
In 1968, Time magazine called it “the smartest, freshest show on television…it has an artful spontaneity, a kind of controlled insanity, emerging from a cascade of crazy cartoon ideas.” Actually, the show was aimed most directly at teenage audiences, who promptly lapped it up, yet who could still watch it and enjoy it with their adult parents. The jokes were often in the style of the vaudeville era (or earlier), the sight gags ranged from a cast
member–usually Judy Carne–or guest getting splashed with a bucket of water, to quite clever gags, dance numbers, and news reports presenting “news of the future, twenty years from now…”Bikini-clad girls, covered in graffiti consisting of puns and one-liners, shimmied against psychedelic backgrounds. It was all presented in good, silly fun. In addition
to a first-rate cast of comedians, the show continued to attract an impressive range of A-list celebrity guests, who didn’t always completely grasp what was going on during the energetic, even chaotic tapings. I won’t even go into the countless characters and their catchphrases that emerged from the program, and that quickly found their way into daily conversation.
As a kid in elementary school in the late ’60s and early ’70s, I lived for Monday nights and Laugh-In. So did my friends. We spent long hours reciting jokes and re-enacting gags we had instantly memorized while taking in each episode. One of my friends and I even attempted to create our own Laugh-In episode on my ever-present cassette tape recorder. When our own 6th grade standard of material ran out, we turned to a few of the most recent Mad magazine issues, and read them into the microphone within the Laugh-In format (believe it or not, I actually still have those very tapes today).
Throughout its five-season history, the show’s cast went through a number of changes, with only Rowan, Martin, Ruth Buzzi, and announcer Gary Owens appearing in every episode. The last episode aired in May of 1973, by which time the flower-power/hippie era that pervaded much of popular culture at the show’s birth had faded, with Watergate becoming the defining issue of the early ’70s. But thanks to nightly syndication on the Decades network, we can enjoy seeing some cast members before they moved on to still bigger accomplishments in their careers. Who would have
thought that the young, giggling Goldie Hawn would one day become an Academy Award winner, or that Lily Tomlin would win several Emmys, and a Tony Award for her one-woman Broadway show?
For all of its goofy silliness and hit-or-miss approach to gags, Laugh-In remains a classic, fifty years after taking the nation by storm. Times have definitely changed, and some examples of the show’s comedy wear better than others when we watch it today; it was a program of its time, of course, but the sheer cleverness and energy that permeates each episode is undeniable, and it can still give us a strong sense of what was going on in our culture, and our world, during a unique era in our history.
So, Happy Birthday, Laugh-In! Thanks for the laughs, and the memories!
Until next week…
In this New Year, I’ve just been looking back on the blog posts I’ve done in 2017, and I look forward to writing more in 2018. Yes, my blogs are really quite all over the place, not emphasizing any one aspect of pop culture history over another, because my own interests tend to be quite varied.
This might be working against me in a way; unlike other bloggers who specialize in one field or another, I’m not often thought of as the go-to guy for any specific knowledge. I just like to do my research, absorb information, pick out a few choice facts or stories that aren’t well known by the general public, and offer it to you in an entertaining and (hopefully) concise way.
People like me, who sometimes like to get pretentious by calling ourselves “pop culture historians,” are susceptible to being accused of living in the past, and indulging in movies, music, television, and social fads of long ago that the majority of people today don’t take much time to think about.
Indeed, when I was only about 14 years old, I was listening to big band music of the 1940s, and enjoying movies and listening to recordings of radio shows from decades going even further back. In a way, I was living in the past– not my own past, but that didn’t matter to me. Of course, I had my favorites among the current TV shows at that time, too, and I listened to the Top 40 hits on the radio, but I also felt drawn to entertainment of earlier eras that wasn’t as familiar to me. What can I say…I liked it!
I am selective, however. I’m not the kind to say that everything today is “junk,” and everything back in the good ol’ days–even the days before I was born– was wonderful. But I like teaching myself about how everything today grew from that which came before. And I enjoy my meager attempts to shed some light on entertainers, films, music, TV shows–from both past and present–that you may not have been aware of, or have had the chance to learn much about.
So, for those few of you who have been gracious enough to follow this weekly blog in 2017, I have a few ideas lined up for 2018 that I hope you’ll enjoy, and might even learn a thing or two, in a fun way, requiring about 1,000 words or less (that’s where my dubious skills as a self-editor come in).
Have a happy New Year!