Is Your Car’s GPS Really 50 Years Old?

It’s understandable to think of your car’s GPS (or the GPS in your smartphone) as a 21st century innovation. If you do, it may come as a surprise to know that in this year of 2019, during which we celebrate a number of golden anniversaries (the Apollo 11 moon landing, Woodstock, the Miracle Mets, the Beatles’ Abbey Road album, etc.), we can also include the 50th anniversary of the world’s first automobile navigation guidance system. You’ve probably never heard of it, because it didn’t get much beyond the experimental prototype stage. But it shows how even the most impressive, state-of-the-art technology we have today can often trace its lineage to a time period far earlier than some of us (like me) might have expected.

The story: In the mid-1960s, a concept called DAIR (Driver Aided Information and Routing System) was researched in the United States by General Motors, with the idea of using arrays of roadbed magnets, arranged in binary code, to communicate location to passing vehicles. After limited development and testing, DAIR was scrapped, to be replaced by what was considered to be a more practical idea.

GM, working with the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, then pursued ERGS (Experimental Route Guidance System), as a means to disperse and control various traffic patterns. Research began in 1966, and was later presented in a paper by engineers William G. Trabold (GM Research Laboratories) and Thomas A. Prewitt (GM Delco Radio Division).In September of 1968, GM released an announcement (for company personnel only) explaining the new guidance system, and, in January of 1969, the car manufacturer was ready to officially announce the new guidance system to the general public, via the print ad above, running in consumer magazines throughout the rest of the year.

Without getting bogged down in tech talk (in which I’m not especially fluent), here’s basically how ERGS was to work: Upon beginning a journey, a driver would dial in a destination code using a thumbwheel switch on a dashboard device, and would then begin heading in that general direction. A two-way antenna system secured under the road pavement at each intersection would read where the vehicle is headed. A roadside computer at the intersection would receive a radio signal from the car’s device, process the information, and then signal back a set of directions, to be displayed on the dashboard receiver console.

According to a 1988 report by the Canada Ministry of Transportation, “Although technically sound, ERGS required expensive roadside infrastructure, and the development effort was terminated by Congressional mandate in 1970 following limited testing of various equipment modules. However, similar approaches have been carried through further stages of development and testing and are still under active consideration in England, Japan and West Germany.”

Of course, none of the systems developed throughout the 1970s and ’80s used satellites or digital technology, but at least the concept of providing instant directions to a driver while en route to a given destination was being taken seriously.

It wasn’t until the 1990s when companies like Mitsubishi and Magellan began to claim their respective developments as the first GP navigation systems for cars. In 1995, Oldsmobile introduced GuideStar, the first such system available in a production car, but it would be another few years until improved GPS systems would become more widespread in the marketplace. Today, of course, it has become invaluable to most drivers entering “uncharted” territory.

So, while we have satellites to thank for getting us to unfamiliar destinations today (remember maps?), we can still nod to those innovative thinkers from fifty years ago who did the best they could with the technology they had at the time.  As for me and my own progress with using today’s navigational technology, I need to sign off for a while so I can practice with my new sextant.

Until next time…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Retro Review: The Musical Genius of Joe Jackson

For those of us who remember the musical explosion of the 1980s, due mostly to New Wave from the U.K., the name Joe Jackson should ring a bell. It’s been 40 years since he released his first album, Look Sharp!, which spawned the singles “Sunday Papers,” and the even bigger hit, “Is She Really Going Out With Him?”

Jackson’s early musical influences and training ranged from Beethoven to Duke Ellington. From the age of 11, when he first began learning to read and write music, taking violin lessons, and learning virtually any instrument placed before him, he had a voracious appetite for music.  With that first album, he was a little too conveniently lumped into the Punk Rock category, along with “angry” singer/songwriters like Elvis Costello. “Everyone was trying to tag me this bleedin’ ‘angry young man’ on the first album,” he told Musician magazine in ’82, “and it never made sense to me. I’m not an angry young man! I get angry sometimes, like anyone else. How can I be angry all the time?” In fact, he enjoyed injecting humor and irony into his lyrics, just for fun, which often escaped listeners’ attention. For instance, Is She Really… boasts a catchy melody and terrific blend of hard rock guitars and self-deprecating lyrics, as Jackson tells us:

“Tonight’s the night when I go to all the parties down my street/ I wash my hair and I kid myself I look really smooth…”

He quickly followed up with the LP I’m the Man, which included the catchy and thoughtful role-reversal single “It’s Different For Girls.” A third album, Beat Crazy, didn’t have a hit single or fare well commercially, but Jackson was never in it for piles of money and rock star adoration. He just wanted to write, arrange, and record the best music his could, without being pigeonholed into categories. His next several albums, indeed his work throughout the ’80s, gave us music that demonstrates remarkable talent, growth, and experimentation, with each album unique in style, presentation, and recording techniques.

In 1981, after making three rock albums in quick succession, he decided to recharge his creative batteries with Joe Jackson’s Jumpin’ Jive, an homage to the swing and “jump” jazz of the 1940s, popularized by the likes of Cab Calloway and Louis Jordan. Throughout the album of novelty songs and full-out stompin’ numbers, the band of young jazz musicians maintains an often hair-raising pace, with only occasional slower-tempo tunes to provide a respite from the wonderfully upbeat, often manic nature of the others. Jackson himself seems to be having a great time romping through a genre that, in its way, laid the groundwork for modern rock & roll.

In the 1982 release of Night and Day, Jackson’s original compositions mine the musical wealth and spirit of the great songwriters who flourished during the Jazz Age, such as the Gershwins and Cole Porter. In another daring move by the  erstwhile rocker, there are no guitars on the album, which centers instead on an array of keyboards and extra percussion to provide an impressively full sound. The Grammy-nominated single “Steppin’ Out,” followed by the plaintive “Breaking Us In Two,” aired often as videos on MTV, helping to keep the album in the spotlight. But these would be the last “concept” videos Jackson would make

The band for “Night and Day,” including Jackson’s longtime bassist, Graham Maby, seated in front.

(perhaps to the detriment of his future LP sales), as he was disappointed by how videos were overtaking the music industry, at the expense of musical quality.

He continued his exploration further afield from conventional rock with his next, and perhaps most powerful album, 1984’s Body and Soul. Recorded in a Masonic lodge in Manhattan to take advantage of the acoustical qualities provided by the hall’s stonework, the album’s first track, “The Verdict,” opens with thunderous drums and a dramatic fanfare by Michael Morreale on trumpet, and Tony Aiello on saxophone, setting

the tone for a sonically intense and beautifully melodic album, mixing upbeat songs of optimism (“Go For It”), and melancholy songs of heartbreak (the breathtaking “Not Here, Not Now”) and emotional vulnerability (“Be My Number Two”). The gorgeous instrumental “Loisada” builds to a crescendo that would send chills down the spines of all but the most stubbornly unreceptive of listeners.

Always one to keep things interesting, Jackson’s next collection of new songs, in 1986, pretty much takes on the entire world.  The appropriately-titled  Big World album features songs that literally cover the globe. The title song takes us to the Far East, with all of its exotic beauty and sometimes unnerving cuisine. “Fifty Dollar Love Affair” transports us to a night in Amsterdam, against a backdrop of café patrons, prostitutes, and assorted lowlifes. In “Jet Set,” he even enjoys poking fun at obnoxious American tourists, as they trample though foreign cities with their crass ways. Jackson even takes on a few of the hot political issues of the mid-1980s, throwing sharp jabs at Ronald Reagan (“Right and Wrong”) , and The Falkland Islands war between Britain and Argentina (“Tango Atlantico”). Perhaps the most poignant song on the album is the wistful “Hometown,” in which he bemoans the clutter and stress of his adopted home of New York City, while allowing his mind to drift back to his more tranquil hometown in England (“‘Cause it’s been so long, and I’m wondering if it’s still there…”). See the video below.

Jackson recording the “Big World” album.

Jackson decided to record Big World in front of a live audience, at the Roundabout Theatre. However, while he thrived on the energy provided by performing live, he didn’t want it to sound like a concert album, so he carefully instructed the audience not to applaud at the end of each song–at least not right away, so the track could end properly without the first audible claps or hollers. The finished album also stands out for other reasons. Firstly, Jackson had recorded more songs than could fit onto a single LP, but not enough to fill out a double LP. The solution was to press two disks, leaving side 4 completely blank, with the label simply stating “There is no music on this side.” Also, to help enhance international concept of the collection, all of the songs’ lyrics are printed in six languages.

With his next album, Willpower, he returns to his roots in classical music, composing and arranging extended instrumentals as played by a full-sized symphony orchestra.

After contributing the rousing jazz soundtrack to the film Tucker: A Man and His Dream, he rounded out the 1980s by returning to more familiar, eclectic pop/rock with the albums Blaze of Glory, on which he continued to experiment with song styles and narrative techniques to great effect, and Laughter and Lust, the more conventional “rock” album of the two, packed with mini-classics including “The Obvious Song.” Both albums contain his typically clever, often sardonic,

and always fascinating reflections on life and love.

His career  didn’t end with the ’80s, of course; he’s been living and recording in Berlin, Germany for the past decade or so, after spending nearly twenty years in New York and the U.K., and he still tours to promote his new albums (the U.S. included).

Of all the great singer/songwriter/musicians who have been with us for the past forty years, Joe Jackson’s talents should have had his music omnipresent ever since 1979. In truth, though, it is necessary to seek him out, but extremely rewarding should you decide to do so.

Until next time…

The Rooftop Concert – 50 years later

Is it possible that the Beatles’ legendary rooftop concert, atop the 3 Saville Row building housing their Apple Records studio, took place 50 years ago? Somehow, it’s true. The date was January 30, 1969. Yet, 50 is only a number, considering how fresh and energetic their performance still sounds today. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the concert  gave us the Beatles–as a rock quartet, with no fancy studio overdubs or backwards tape loops–at the peak of their powers, even as it took place during the final stretch of their time together.

I’ve often argued–both in print and vocally–against the common label of Let It Be as the Beatles’ “swansong” as a group, and how the film documented their break-up as the cameras rolled. This is, to my eyes and ears, an exaggeration, with a number of inaccuracies. Remember Abbey Road, kids? It was recorded after the band’s supposed Let It Be “swansong,” and is arguably the greatest rock album ever made.

True, the group’s White Album sessions marked a turning point, during which they recorded over two dozen songs they’d written in India, many as basically solo tracks. They often worked independently of each other, rather than all four being present for each recording. Some tensions were growing, boredom had begun setting in, Yoko was…there.  And, the foursome was no doubt becoming mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted from all they’ve experienced in just the previous five or six years. Still, you can hear at least most Beatles playing and singing on most songs throughout the White Album. Listen for yourself.

The Twickenham soundstage.

The overall mood hadn’t improved much as the White Album sessions dovetailed into those for Let It Be. But remember: Let It Be was not conceived as an album per se. The vague idea of the group performing live before an audience once again, probably as a television special, had kick-started the rehearsal sessions we see in the film, beginning production on a soundstage at the famous Twickenham Studios. Is a brief squabble between George and Paul about how to play backing guitar for one or two of Paul’s songs supposed to be the shocking evidence of hopeless disharmony? It’s just as easy to find audio tapes of the boys having fun, helping each other write songs, and making musical suggestions during the sessions. So, which is the more accurate picture of January, 1969? Obviously, a mix of both.

After a dreary two weeks on the Twickenham soundstage, their collective mood brightened somewhat once they continued rehearsing at Apple. But the idea of “putting on a show” for TV had fallen by the wayside. Let It Be director Michael Lindsay-Hogg still needed some sort of climactic sequence to end the film (assuming a film of the sessions would still be released), so he suggested a compromise of sorts, and a different kind of live concert performance: the Beatles would play on the roof, not so much in front of an audience, but above the crowds going about their daily activities on the streets below.

January 30 was a bitter cold day, and the group, accompanied on keyboards by friend Billy Preston, stepped onto the wooden planks of the roof to see the film crew, assorted wives, friends, and Apple employees, without anyone knowing how this would all work out.

They kicked off with Paul’s “Get Back,” a rocker that, as it echoed down through the narrow streets, caused those in the area to take notice that something was going on (the group ran through some songs twice, but these are the versions included in the Let It Be film and album). No doubt most who shopped and/or worked there knew of the group’s studio on Saville Row–a street which was, and still is, home to many upscale tailor

The crowded Apple roof at mid-concert.

shops and men’s clothing boutiques. But even Apple’s conservative neighbors, who presumably tolerated the group’s well-documented comings and goings, often cheered on by their “Apple Scruffs” (fans who would linger by the studio entrance to catch a glimpse of them arriving or departing), were not prepared for such a disturbance that day.

The Beatles continued with John’s “Don’t Let Me Down,” his latest tribute to Yoko. He blew one of his lines, turning it into gibberish, with smiles from the others, and himself.

Down below, the crowds grew bigger as people strained to find the source of the live music, and traffic grew thicker, as more and more pedestrians scurried to become part of whatever Beatles event was taking place, even in that unlikeliest of places. On the upper floors of the adjoining buildings, observers looked through their windows, and took to their own roofs to catch sight of the performance.

Paul then launched into “I’ve Got a Feeling,” a slower-paced rocker (a precursor of sorts to the throat-ripping “Oh! Darling”) in which John adds his own counterpoint lyrics before the band reaches its pounding  crescendo. Most people interviewed on the street were excited about the event, but someone was not taking kindly to all of the commotion and noise, and the police were called to investigate. At the risk of being a cynic, some of the Let It Be footage of the constables knock-knock-knocking on Apple’s door, with a full-size paddy wagon at the ready, looks a tad set-up. Would the most successful rock group in the world be arrested in mid-performance, on camera, for disturbing the peace? Not very likely.

Next came what is undoubtedly the peak of the show, as the group launched into a rollicking version of “One After 909,” which John and Paul wrote as teens, and which the Beatles recorded in 1963, but did not release (Paul is heard mocking the corny lyrics earlier in the Let it Be film). On the rooftop, they went all-out on this one, singing and playing to perfection–with George hitting some screaming notes during his solo–and with a collective energy their fans hadn’t seen or heard in years.

The curious crowds fill the sidewalks of Saville Row.

Following that euphoric moment, John’s “I Dig A Pony” came next, as police and Apple staff conferred about the noise complaint, and what was to be done about it. The coppers were escorted to the roof to see for themselves, as the group played on.

Once “I Dig A Pony” was done, a bit of defiance prompted Paul and his fellow Beatles to reprise “Get Back,” as their trusted assistant Mal Evans assured the cops, standing just a few feet behind the group, that the music would soon be over. The song almost broke down at one point, as John and George stood unsure if they should continue playing. As the police left, Paul ad-libbed his warning to the song’s character Loretta, not to play on the roofs

again, or her mother’s “gonna have you arrested!” Once the song was over, John concluded the 42-minute set with his classic line, “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition.”

Did they ever.

The Steinbergs’ First Christmas

The Steinbergs’ First Christmas

T’was the sixth night of Hanukka, and Christmas Eve to boot. The Steinberg family’s traditional holiday get-together was well underway.  Boxes of gifts wrapped in shiny paper sat patiently on the floor off to one side of the room, with a table of New York-style Sloppy Joes and potato pancakes on the other. Richard Steinberg lived snugly (some would say smugly) in Westchester, New York, with his wife Linda and their two children, Andy and Marcy. Richard enjoyed the idea of establishing a family tradition of inviting his brother Ken and his wife Barbara (whom Ken usually brought along just to fill out the foursome).

The family gathered around their menorah to light the candles and chant the holiday prayers. The brightly lit menorah reminded Andy and Marcy that there were only two more nights of this toy-cluttered frenzy to go. As they took turns lighting the candles, they glanced back and forth to each other and to the pile of goodies beside them, awaiting their zealous ravaging.  The adults chanted the holiday prayers with a reverence intended to outshine their off-key performance.

Suddenly, just as the family was reaching a full-throated crescendo, an odd sound emanated from the bowels of the dormant fireplace.  It was a scraping, rustling sound that got progressively louder, and decidedly menacing, with each passing second. The family members abruptly halted their singing and focused on the muffled commotion from inside the fireplace. Perhaps it was a wild animal, like a raccoon, making its way down. The idea was quickly dispelled when the noises culminated in something that sounded remarkably like “Ho, ho, ho.”

The Steinbergs stood aghast as a pair of black boots and red flannel trousers clumsily lowered themselves into view, to the accompaniment of still more ho-ho-hos. The owner of the stubby legs had apparently eased his way down the chimney backwards, and displayed some difficulty crouching down and backing his ample posterior out of the fireplace and into the room. He grunted and coughed, pulling with him a large, soot-covered sack, filled with unidentified contents. The sound of broken glass and loose bits of metal suggested that few items in the sack had survived the descent undamaged. All family members stood watching as the rotund man with a bushy, white, soot-speckled beard struggled to maintain his footing. He turned around, offering a hearty:

“Ho, ho, ho!  Merry Christmas, everybody!”

His greeting met with stunned silence.  Nobody moved. Nobody spoke.  It remained so for several torturous seconds, as the family remained slack-jawed at the sight. Finally, Marcy’s wonderment broke the silence.

“It’s Santa Clause!” she squealed.

“No it isn’t,” corrected Linda, pulling Marcy against her. “Richard, call the police.”

“It is Santa Clause!” confirmed Andy.

“No, there is no Santa Clause,” admonished Richard. “And even if there is, it’s not this guy.”

Santa cleared his throat and forged ahead with his prepared text. “It’s great to see you all on this wonderful night!  I must be a bit early.  I like to leave my gifts when everyone is already asleep.  But such adorable little children!  If you’ve been good this year, I have some toys for you!”

Richard’s primal instincts had him bounding in front of the kids and spreading his arms outward in a protective, if overly dramatic, gesture.  Ken, known to have a fuse shorter than that of a trick birthday candle, was having none of this.

“Listen, pal,” he snarled, clenching his fists,  “I don’t know who you are, but I suggest you get your butt out of here before we do it for you.”

Linda took a decidedly more diplomatic tact.

“Will you two calm down?  Listen, Santa, we appreciate the sentiment, but our name is Steinberg. We’re Jewish, and we’re celebrating Hanukka tonight. We don’t celebrate Christmas.”

Santa stood glass-eyed and flummoxed. He struggled to recapture a cheery expression despite his befuddlement. His reputation, after all, demanded that he maintain an unflappable jollity at all times, without exception.  He had to think fast.  Unfortunately, thinking fast was not one of his more finely-honed attributes.

“Well, uh, we all can celebrate Christmas in our own way!” he cackled. “Ho, ho, ho!”

“Well actually, no, we can’t, Santa,” Linda said, almost apologetically, “No offense intended.  We just don’t celebrate Christmas.”

Evidently, Santa was not very well-versed in adopting the proper protocol when inadvertently dropping in on Jewish households. He fumbled for a crumpled piece of paper in his pocket and reviewed its contents, but didn’t find anything of help for this current faux pas.

Richard again felt a need to gently–but firmly–set Santa straight on a few things.

“Well Santa, ya see, Christmas is historically the commemoration of the birth of Jesus, even though he wasn’t really born at this time of year anyway. But in any case, we’re Jewish, and therefore we don’t celebrate that event. I don’t deny that it’s a nice holiday, but going strictly by the numbers, most of the world’s population doesn’t celebrate it, either. Not just us, but your Muslims, your Hindus… I’m surprised you haven’t run into this situation before.”

Santa could only shrug his shoulders.  He didn’t want to admit as much, but he had no idea Christmas was a religious holiday.

“And as for delivering toys for my kids,” Richard continued, “I like to think I’m a good provider on that score, thank you, so you can save whatever you have for them and give them to children perhaps a bit more needy. I know for a fact that Ted Thornton down the block took a bad hit on Wall Street this year…”

Linda felt a need to come to Santa’s aid. “I think Santa is attempting to represent the more secular aspect of Christmas good will. Isn’t that right. Santa?”

Richard shared his brother’s skepticism, although with considerably less aggression.  “Well, that’s all well and good, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for him to–”

“Aw, let him stay, Daddy,” pleaded Marcy. “I want more toys.”

“What did I tell you about asking for toys? Always with the toys.”

Linda was not about to be deemed a poor host, regardless of the circumstances. “At least offer him a drink. Richard.  Santa, would you like something to drink?  We have hot, cold, and maybe a Sloppy Joe? We have brisket, turkey…”

Santa wasn’t sure how to respond. Being somewhat slow-witted by nature, he resorted to his increasingly tiresome ho-ho-hos in an effort to stall. Linda pressed on.

“Come on, you look like you could use a snack.”

“Are you kidding?” cackled Ken, “Another snack and he’ll pop like a tick.”

The obese Yuletide icon felt some relief  by Linda’s unexpected glimmer of hospitality.

“Yes, a drink will be fine, thank you. And perhaps a Messy Joe.”

“Sloppy Joe.”

“Yes, thank you.”

Linda gave Richard a firm don’t-forget-your-manners nudge. He picked up on it and attempted a friendlier disposition. He turned with a weak smile to the red-clad, soot-covered, chimney-spelunking intruder.

“Might as well have a seat, Santa.  It’s probably not healthy for a guy like you to eat standing up.”

“Thank you, don’t mind if I do.”

Santa eased himself into an easy chair—Richard’s easy chair—and let out a sigh of exhaustion.

Ken wanted some answers.

“Now let me get a few things straight, pal,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to know. Just what is your name, anyway?  Is it St. Nick? Santa Clause? Father Christmas?  And do you really visit every house in the world on this one night?  How do you pull that off, anyway?”

The chubby sleigh jockey wasn’t accustomed to such an interrogation, but at least nobody was phoning the police just yet, so he managed to blurt out his safely evasive reply:

“Oh, that’s a secret.  It’s magic.”

Barbara had almost grown accustomed to the embarrassment her spouse often provoked in social settings. She spoke up, partly because she hadn’t had any lines for a while.

“Kenny, don’t be rude. The man’s obviously confused.”

“I just want to know if he’s been to, say, Belgium already this evening, or maybe New Zealand.”

Santa valiantly pressed on.  “I bring gifts for good little boys and girls everywhere. Christmas is for everyone!” he sputtered, wiping visible flop sweat from his forehead.

“This guy’s smooth enough to run for Congress,” Ken muttered.  “And all those toys are from that one sack?”

“Uh, that’s magic too, my fine young man,” stammered the flustered, reindeer-herding oaf.  Feeling a touch of dry mouth, he leaned to the side to address Linda across the room. “Say, is that soda coming along all right, dear?”

Ken took his brother aside.

“Rich, we’re in the middle of everything here, lighting the menorah, exchanging the gifts, and if he ho-ho-hos one more time I’m gonna have to belt him one.”

“I’ll try to get him out of here as soon as I can.”

Linda and Barbara presented Santa with the meal of the evening.  He graciously accepted the plate and drink and immediately began his examination of the sandwich.

“And this is…?”

“A Sloppy Joe,” Richard said. “Roast beef, corned beef, turkey, slaw, and a pickle on rye bread.  We also have it on pumpernickel, if you prefer.”

“Very interesting!” nodded the corpulent party crasher.  “No ham?”

“No ham.”

“Still, it looks delicious.”

Linda needed to shift Santa’s bag on the floor to give herself room to sit beside him.

“Here, let me help you, dear,” offered the portly, wool-suited fashion disaster.

He grabbed his sack and heaved it over his shoulder. The shifting weight threw him off balance, causing him to lose his grip on the sack, as it sailed through empty air and head-on into the lit menorah.  Santa stumbled face-first into the wall as the menorah toppled onto the stack of the gift-wrapped presents, igniting the wrapping paper from the burning holiday candles.

“Fire!” shrieked Andy.

“Throw it in the fireplace!” somebody yelled.

“No! You’ll burn yourself!” somebody else yelled.  “Get the fire extinguisher!  It’s under the kitchen sink!”

Richard hurried to the kitchen and returned with the extinguisher, as the smoke alarm on the ceiling pierced the air with its ear-splitting chirping.  In his blind panic, he opened the nozzle in the general direction of the blaze. However, Santa found himself on the receiving end of most of the foam.  It was difficult to tell where his beard ended and the foam began. The kids hurried to rescue their presents as Linda and Barbara attended to the mealy-mouthed,  jackbooted vandal.

“This guy’s a menace!” Ken growled, now with an even better case than before.

“I’d have to agree,” nodded Richard as he turned to Santa. “Come on, Gramps, out you go.”

Santa was either not on the same page as the others, or was wizened to the ways of deflecting blame. “It probably isn’t safe to allow your darling children to play with matches and candles in the house,” he offered.  “It’s an accident waiting to happen.”

Linda turned to her husband with her eyebrows down-turned, at a well-practiced, disapproving angle. “Richard, he’s stunned.  He could be hurt.”  She and Barbara continued to wipe the foam off the portly, hirsute stumblebum.

“He brought it on himself.  I don’t mean to be unsympathetic, but we didn’t ask for him to disrupt our evening.”

“No, no, he’s right,” Santa conceded.  “I’m sorry. I’ve made a dreadful mistake.”  He then noticed how comforting Linda and Barbara’s warm, soft hands felt as they wiped away the extinguisher foam from his rosacea-afflicted cheeks.  “I should be on my way.”

“Are you sure you’re all right?”

“Yes, I’ll be fine. Perhaps, though, I’ll use the front door on my way out, if I may. I’ll arrange to meet with my reindeer elsewhere in town later this evening, after I’ve seen to all the good children here in your neighborhood.”

Andy had a special request on that issue.  “Please don’t go to Tommy Keegan’s house, Santa. He bit me in the head last week.”

“He really did,” Linda confirmed sadly.

Marcy, for her part, didn’t want the excitement to end, or see the cherry-nosed arsonist leave. “Let him stay!” she demanded. “He’s cool!”

“He’s not really,” snarled Richard. “And he’s here by mistake.  So come on, whoever you are, time to go.”

He helped Santa retrieve his battered, smoldering bag and showed him to the front door. “Start at that far end of the street down there, and keep going in that direction. That’ll keep ya busy.  And don’t forget Ted Thornton’s house.”

Linda brushed past her husband and escorted Santa outside into the crisp December air.  They stopped at the foot of the driveway. Once she was out of view from the others peering from the front window, she produced Santa’s share of the Sloppy Joe sandwich and slipped it into his coat pocket.

“A little something for the road tonight, Santa. Merry Christmas.”

“Thank you, young lady.  And happy Honolu—”

“Hanukka.  Don’t ask me how to spell it. There are about five different ways.”

“Yes, well, happy Hanukka to you and yours.”

And with a merry wave, Santa turned to continue his Christmas Eve mission.  Linda needed to assist him just one more time by turning him around and sending him off in the proper direction.  He smiled and was on his way again, heading toward the house he thought was Ted Thornton’s.

And to all a good night.

 

Comedians vs. technology, Pt. II : The radio stars

At the same time movie “talkies” were revolutionizing the industry, radio was becoming a viable mass medium, and by the early 1930s, both had become irresistible to many comedians, with radio attracting those who had more of a verbal act. What could be easier than to stand in front of a microphone and perform a well-rehearsed routine for millions of listeners, without the hassles of traveling from city to city all year long as a vaudevillian? As it turned out, it wasn’t so easy.

The first true radio comedy star was Eddie Cantor, who was popular in vaudeville for his seemingly boundless energy. He would sing and hop and clap his hands, tell stories and jokes, while going through a catalogue of facial expressions (his nickname was Banjo Eyes), whatever it took to get a reaction from the audience.

Cantor became the star of The Chase and Sanborn Hour in 1931, making him the first radio comedian not only to perform weekly in front of a live audience, but the first to encourage the audience to respond audibly while the show was on the air. At the time, studio audiences were invited to attend

radio broadcasts in person, but they were instructed to remain silent for the duration of the programs, and to even suppress their laughter during comedy segments. Performers would face the audience, but with a thick sheet of glass, or “glass curtain,” hanging between them. The logic behind this remains elusive, but broadcasters at the time apparently felt the distracting sound of audience laughter during a broadcast would confuse, even unnerve, those listening at home. George Burns said, “Keeping an audience under glass was one thing, but asking them not to react made working in front of them really tough. We would do great material, and these people would sit there smiling loudly.”

During one broadcast in his first season, Cantor included a spontaneous burst of slapstick during a sketch, that had the audience laughing uncontrollably. He was expecting a stern reprimand from the sponsor afterward, but instead, received praise for enlivening the show with the audience’s participation. So, the glass curtain’s days were numbered, and it soon disappeared, but then another issue came to light.

In the early ‘30s, verbal comedians like Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Burns & Allen, and Ed Wynn were all beginning their rookie seasons on radio. But some of them, like Cantor and Wynn, were still accustomed to going for laughs visually as well, for the benefit of the studio audiences. But they hadn’t considered how this would play on radio.

Wynn agreed to star as the Fire Chief for a new program sponsored by Texaco, as long as he could do so in front of a live audience that was permitted to laugh out loud during the broadcast, and  that he perform the show in costume– a fireman’s hat and coat, plus assorted accessories. He once explained,

“I can’t act funny unless I dress funny. I have to look the fool in order to play the fool.” But including visual bits of business created the risk of alienating radio listeners at home, who would often hear laughter without hearing any joke preceding it, thus shutting them out of some gags by catering primarily to the live audience in the auditorium. It took some time to break old habits. When Wynn was about to begin a new program in early 1937, he announced, as part of a New Year’s resolution, “I promise to remember I am performing for my listeners, not my studio audience.”

With millions of people across the country able to hear a comedian’s best material on a single night—material that may have taken months or years to perfect. But those same millions of listeners certainly didn’t want to hear the same material the following week. Quoting George Burns again, I guess the biggest adjustment we all had to make between vaudeville and radio was that in vaudeville seventeen minutes of good material could last for years, while on radio seventeen minutes of good material would last seventeen minutes.” A good number of talented vaudevillians soon found their creative wells running dry. Burns said, “I don’t think any of us realized how much material we would need…By the end of the third or fourth week we were out of new material. So we began hiring writers to work for us full-time.”

Thus, the creature known as the modern-day “comedy writer” was born.

Only Fred Allen and Ed Wynn were known to write most if not all of their weekly scripts themselves, and even they had assistants to look up old jokes that could be updated or adapted for the programs, because the workload of having new material ready each week was so great.

Even as radio’s popularity grew throughout the ‘30s, comedians were also considering the future of television. Some took part in early experimental broadcasts, and in 1936, Eddie Cantor announced his intentions to begin memorizing his lines for radio, rather than relying on reading his scripts in front of the microphone each week, in order to prepare himself for live TV.

In the years following the end of World War II, as television became more of a reality than a concept, a horde of radio comedians came to TV, in 1950 and ’51.  They realized how they had to learn new things such as how to stay in camera range. And, even more importantly, TV was live, so lines couldn’t simply be read off a sheet of paper–they’d have to be memorized. There were no chances for second takes, unlike in movies.

The Burns and Allen Show originally aired live from New York every other week for the first two seasons, beginning in 1950. Gracie struggled with memorizing a half-hour script. She said, “All I could think about was ‘What’s the next line?’ I haven’t memorized anything for twenty years…There may come a time when I forget, and I shudder at what I’ll do then.” Two years later, the show became a weekly series filmed in Los Angeles. Filming scenes out of sequence didn’t help Gracie’s memorization struggles, either.

Fred Allen, for one, was not happy with television, either as a performer or viewer. He didn’t like Milton Berle’s landmark show, He said, “Berle isn’t doing anything for television. He’s photographing a vaudeville act. That’s what they’re all doing.” He didn’t like how television took away the ability to use the imagination, saying, “In radio, even a moron could visualize things his way; an intelligent man, his way. It was a custom-made suit. Television is a ready-made suit. Everyone has to wear the same one…”

He also confessed, “We all have a great problem–Jack Benny, Bob Hope, all of us. We don’t know how to duplicate our success in radio. We found out how to cope with radio and, and after seventeen years, you know pretty well what effect you’re achieving. But those things won’t work in television. Jack Benny’s sound effects, Fibber’s McGee’s closet–they won’t be funny in television. We don’t know what will be funny, or even whether our looks are acceptable” (he most notably became a panelist on What’s My Line?).

As for Ed Wynn, he said, in the early days of his TV show, “I’m still figuring out how much I can talk, and how much time I can be permitted to walk around the stage, without slowing up the show.”

The vaudevillians-turned radio stars-turned TV stars still had a bit of on-the-job training to do, also they but managed to keep audiences in stitches while doing so.

Until next time…

 

A Couple of Film Classics For Summer

This is my 40th blog post since my very first entry this time last year. Simple math will tell you that my aim to post a fresh blog each week has fallen a bit short. It isn’t an easy task, although I do acknowledge that many bloggers, journalists, and columnists manage to do so each day, and I’d tip my hat to them, if I had a hat.

I’ve attempted to bring interesting and/or little known facts about entertainment history and pop culture to each of my entries, and I intend to continue doing so, but after a brief break to recharge my mental batteries. I’m also busy with other projects that will hopefully prove more generous to my wallet, if my patience pays off.

Just so I don’t take my break without leaving at least a few recommendations…

Two of my all-time favorite films happened to air on two different movie channels this past weekend. They couldn’t be further apart, no matter how you look at them, but they each stand out as stellar examples of their respective genres.

The first, 12 Angry Men, was written by Reginald Rose for the live drama series Studio One, airing on September 20, 1954. Henry Fonda was so impressed with the production that he bought the rights in order to adapt it to film, using his own money, and hiring some of the television cast to repeat their roles (Bob Cummings, known mostly for light comedic roles, played Fonda’s part in the TV production). The film was released in April of 1957.

Taking place almost entirely in a jury room, the story opens as the jurors in a New York City murder trial begin their debate as to the guilt or innocence of a young Hispanic man, probably not even out of his teens. There doesn’t seem to be much debate necessary, as it looks like an open and shut case, pointing to the young man’s guilt. In their initial vote, eleven of the twelve men vote for conviction, with a lone holdout (Henry Fonda), dissenting, arguing that the accused deserves a decent debate before being sentenced to the electric chair. He resists pressure from the

others to change his vote, and instead slowly begins to cast doubt about the circumstantial evidence in the case.  Locked in a spare, hot room on a rainy day, tempers flare, personal prejudices reveal themselves, and reasonable doubt grows stronger among the men. Eventually, one bitter juror (Lee J. Cobb) finds himself alone as he continues to insist on the boy’s guilt.

Rose’s writing is brilliant in its verbal economics, allowing us to learn just enough about each juror to understand why he has voted for conviction in the beginning, and then why he changes his vote as the deliberation proceeds. The cast, of course, consists of many of the finest actors of the 20th century, all of whom achieve sheer perfection here, and nothing less. The closing minutes in the jury room, and the brief final scene outside on the courthouse steps, are especially memorable. When my wife Karen asked me “Why are we watching this for the thousandth time?”  I simply answered, “Because it’s magnificent.”

If you happen to be among the disadvantaged few who have yet to immerse themselves in this lesson in truly great writing and acting, please don’t delay! Seek out this film!

Now, which film might be considered to be the cinematic polar opposite of  such a powerful drama? I submit my choice for the funniest comedy film ever made, The Return of the Pink Panther, which also graced one of the movie channels this past weekend. It is the third film in the Pink Panther series; the original, released in 1964 and starring, of course, Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau (and David Niven as the jewel thief Sir Charles Lytton), led to the sequel A Shot in the Dark, released later in ’64, and bringing Sellers front & center, rather than as more of a supporting character in the original.

Clouseau accosts a street beggar (John Bluthal).

A decade later, the often tempestuous working relationship between Sellers and writer/director Blake Edwards found the two reuniting for  1975’s The Return of the Pink Panther, with Christopher Plummer as the supposedly retired Sir Charles.

For anyone inclined to dismiss any of these films as little more than indulgences in silly slapstick, look a little more carefully. Edwards’ comedy techniques are easily identifiable, from having a character fall completely out of frame (instead of having us watch him fall), to bringing back a gag just when the viewer had nearly forgotten it (most brilliantly used in a sequence involving two small delivery trucks), to using

Catherine Schell caught laughing on camera in this scene. It was the only usable take after she had broken up so many times at Sellers’ antics.

slow-motion, instead of the more commonly used fast-motion, for some gags. And, of course, there is Sellers himself, the greatest and most versatile comic actor who ever lived, playing Clouseau as an earnest law enforcement agent who never doubts his own skills, even when he is wreaking havoc and destruction all around him.

Sellers is helped by a hilarious supporting cast including Herbert Lom as Clouseau’s boss, Chief Inspector Dreyfuss, Burt Kwouk as his servant Cato, and Graham Stark (another Edwards’ stalwart) as Pepe, a sniveling underling of a Sidney Greenstreet-style crime boss. The story meanders through France, Gstaad, and the fictional Middle-Eastern nation of Lugash, as Clouseau searches for his prime suspect.

Enough summarizing. This is a film created by masters of comedy, whose purpose was solely to entertain via hilarious characters, situations, dialogue, and unforgettable sight gags. Find this film, sit back, and laugh, as I’ve been doing since seeing it upon its premiere, with a theatre full of hysterical movie-goers, waaaay back when.

So, now begins my summer break, but please feel free to check out any or all of my previous blog postings, thanks to our newly-added button on my web site’s home page. It’s not too late to leave a comment or two, either!

Until next time…

 

Remembering the Birth of the Jet Age

Not long ago, I wrote about the sad passing of the 747, a magnificent airliner first flown for the public in 1970, whose manufacture has come to an end among all U.S. airlines. I haven’t been on a plane (747 or otherwise) in many years, but I still remember the excitement of taking a flight to a new destination, when getting there was half the fun. I do know that flying today isn’t what it used to be. In addition to extra fees for services that used to be free, seemingly excessive security probes, and smaller, more cramped seats for those on a budget, we hear stories almost daily about in-flight incidents with angry passengers, angry flight attendants, angry pets, and who knows what else. No doubt my rose-tinted memories will get a smack of reality the next time I fly.

But there was a time when it was all new, exciting, and life-changing. And it began sixty years ago, in 1958. The eventful arrival of passenger jets forever changed how we travel by air, by drastically cutting flight times–in effect shrinking the planet–and by offering more frills to a greater number of passengers on each flight.

It should come as little surprise that the jet engine—a faster, more powerful successor to the piston engine driving propeller planes—was first developed for Air Force use in the years immediately following the end of World War II.

The first commercial jet put into service by a civilian airline was the Comet 1, a 36-seat plane flown by British Overseas Airways (BOAC). It flew for the first time on July 27, 1949. Three years later, BOAC instituted a jet route from London to Johannesburg, South Africa, which included stops in Rome, Beirut, and several African cities. The most striking

aspect of the plane was its speed. While the common DC-3 prop plane achieved a cruising speed of about 180 mph, the Comet reached 480 mph, but was also quieter and relatively vibration free. However, after a series of accidents, the Comet was grounded, only two years after it began the London-Johannesburg route.

In the United States, a genuine competition between the two biggest aircraft manufacturers, Douglas and Boeing, resulted in both companies moving steadily closer to getting their respective first jets in the air. By the landmark year 1958, a new “first” in jet aviation occurred every few months:

May 31 — The Douglas DC-8 maiden flight (without passengers) took off from Long Beach, California and successfully landed at Edwards Air Force base.

August 24 –Pan Am’s Boeing 707 made its first test flight from San Juan, Puerto Rico to New York City.
October 4 — BOAC instituted the first transatlantic service from London to New York.

 

Juan Trippe’s second “Time” magazine cover, 1949

October 26 — Pan Am, under leadership of its founder and commercial aviation pioneer Juan Trippe, made the first transatlantic flight from New York to Paris (with a stop in Newfoundland for refueling), with a record 111 passengers. Pilot Samuel Miller became a celebrity.
December 10 — National Airlines was the first to offer domestic jet service, with leased 707s.
January 25, 1959 — American Airlines began domestic jet service, using its own aircraft.

August 26, 1959 — Flying a new Boeing 707-320, with a greater fuel capacity, Pan Am made the first non-stop New York – London flight, solidifying Pan Am as the American leader of international passenger jet flight. The airline had purchased jets both from Boeing and Douglas, although some airlines, such as United and Delta, opted for the Douglas DC-8.

The arrival and immediate popularity of jet service changed the world in countless ways. Long distance travel for tourists and business professionals had been made not only practical, but desirable.

Pan Am may have been the first American airline to offer 707 jets to the flying public, but it was TWA that was the first to treat passengers to in-flight movies. On July 19, 1961, after testing the feature earlier in the year to favorable responses from passengers, movies became standard on the airline’s New York-Los Angeles and New York-San Francisco routes, followed by their addition to international flights the following month.  Alas, only first class passengers were given the option to view movies at the time, which were shown on a screen suspended from the cabin ceiling, from a special lightweight 16mm projector set up further back in the first class section.  Audio was provided via individual headsets, which also became the standard.

The first film to be shown was the United Artists drama By Love Possessed, starring Lana Turner and Ephram Zimbalist, Jr.

But the first account of an in-flight movie can be traced back to April of 1925, as described in the British magazine Flight:  “An interesting experiment was carried out on April 7, when a Handley Page aeroplane ascended from Croydon aerodrome, with 12 passengers, and during a half-an-hour’s flight the film version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World was shown on a screen fitted up in the cabin of the machine.”

The TWA system remained the standard for in-flight entertainment for a quarter-century, until the mid-1980s, when wide body planes first offered seat-back video monitors, giving each passenger an individual screen with a multiple channel selections. Alas, with laptops, phones, and tablets now providing passengers with much of their own private means of entertainment throughout a flight, even seat-back screens are becoming a dying feature, and no newly-constructed airliners will be including them (not good news for those who own none of the above devices).

I’d better get back on a plane soon, before I feel like Rip van Winkle.

Until next time…

“We’re Going to See the Beatles!” 10th Anniversary

This month marks ten years since the release of my book “We’re Going to See the Beatles!” (Santa Monica Press). It’s an oral history of Beatlemania, as told by over forty fans from across the country whom I had the pleasure to interview, and hear their stories. I’ve always felt a little odd referring to myself as the “author” of this book, since most of the words are those of the interviewees, who told me of their first-hand experiences as teens during the Beatlemania era and the years beyond. They are the true stars of the book.

It’s not easy to come to grips with the fact that our collective, personal memories of the Beatles have surpassed the fifty-year mark. Ringo joined the group in 1962, Beatlemania hit the U.S. in early ’64, and the group’s astonishing evolution took place over the next six years. We’re even fast-approaching the 50th anniversary of Apple, the Beatles’ own recording label and studio. The famous address at 3 Savile Row in London  attracted loyal fans known as “Apple scruffs,” who lingered on the steps of the building to await the Beatles’ arrivals and departures–and who have been immortalized in a song by George.

I managed to find the contributors to “We’re Going to See the Beatles!” through a variety of means, and had a wonderful time hearing them relate their memories of what it was like to be young and delirious with excitement over the Beatles at that time. Some told me about the record parties they held in their basements, others recalled going to great lengths just to catch a glimpse of the group at airport terminals, hotel lobbies, or press conferences, or remembering they were and what they were doing when they heard “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on the radio.  And, of course, there were stories of the concerts themselves that Beatles performed across the country between 1964 and ’66. Those young fans, who were lucky enough to attend a Beatles concert, still consider it a highlight of their lives to this day.

The book was born out of an article I wrote for Beatlefan magazine in 2005, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the legendary Shea Stadium concert in New York. After finding a few attendees of that historic event in music history, I decided to keep going, with the hope of turning this into some sort of book, and I continued my search for others who had similar memories of being Beatles fans throughout the group’s existence. It wouldn’t have been possible without the Internet, that’s for sure. Web sites and message boards about the Beatles led me to many fascinating stories.

Displaying the scrapbook on TV for the CBS affiliate in Philadelphia, 2014.

I also found people by examining original newspaper articles from the height of Beatlemania, and managed to track down some the very same people who were who were interviewed and/or pictured at the time. I also have a “famous” scrapbook, kept by a teenage girl in the Boston area throughout the Beatlemania years. She managed cut and paste (the old-fashioned way) just about every newspaper and magazine clipping about the Beatles from the Boston and New York newspapers, and lovingly set them onto black construction paper pages. Sometime in the 1980s, my parents bought the scrapbook in an antique store in New York State, or Massachusetts, and brought it home.

Discussing the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

As I searched through the pages and pages of articles, I noticed that, in many instances, the stories in which the fans were interviewed actually included their full names and home addresses! I’ll never forget having the scrapbook sitting open on my lap, with the online white pages on my computer screen. More than once, I entered in the family name and address mentioned in the article, and found the same name at the same address in an online white pages listing, forty years after the fact. I sent out letters, asking the whereabouts of the person in the article, and managed to get in touch with one or two that way.

With hours and hours of phone interviews recorded, I transcribed each conversation virtually intact, and assembled them in the chronological order of the events and stories each participant had related to me.  The finished work, then, tells the story of the Beatles from the fans’ point of view, beginning with the first word about them reaching America, to their break-up, and the years afterward. Many of the participants sent me photos of themselves as teens, in the stands at the concerts, and/or beside their own beloved Beatles collections. Those are, of course, included in the book.

“We’re Going to See the Beatles!” had its debut of sorts at the 2008 Beatlefest in March of that year. I also arranged, with Fest promoter Mark Lapidos, to invite the contributors to the book to attend and take part in panel discussions, during which they could tell their stories in person to an audience. About a dozen of the contributors were able to make the journey from near and far, and took part

in two panels throughout the weekend. Even though they hadn’t met each other before, their common love for the Beatles, and the accompanying memories of the Fab Four, made them fast friends. And, a decade later, I still keep in touch with several of them fairly regularly.

There have been times in the past ten years when I’d try to think of a possible new book I might be able to write about the Beatles, only to see an ongoing flow of Beatles-related books continuing to land on the bookstore shelves and online retailers, focusing on just about every possible aspect of the group’s existence, no matter how narrow the topic as it might relate to their career. Obviously, the well has yet to run dry, but to me, it’s getting pretty close. I’m glad I managed to find the right approach to the Beatles’ unique career in a way that suited me, and, it seems, a good number of their lifelong fans.

If you’d like a chance to win a signed copy of We’re Going to See the Beatles! just leave your favorite Beatles memory in the comment section here. One entry per person. Contest ends at 11:59 p.m. on March 11. Winners will be announced in next Monday’s blog!

The 747: When Getting There Was Half The Fun

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.

No, not my photo, but an appealing representation.

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

These lucky passengers got orange juice!

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…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy 50th Birthday, Laugh-In!

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

George Schlatter.

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…