Memories of a first-generation “Star Wars” fan

I’m an original Star Wars geek, and I’ve just seen the latest chapter, The Last Jedi, on its opening weekend.  It’s spectacular, as I knew it would be.

But my story as a Star Wars fan begins a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to be exact.

I was there with my parents for winter vacation in December of 1977. School was out between Christmas and New Year’s. We spent several such vacations in Florida; a tropical escape, adorned with beautiful palm trees, as relief from the winter doldrums. This time–it may even have been early on New Year’s Eve–we decided to go to the megaplex or the whateverplex movie theatre in town. My parents opted to see one movie, while I decided to finally see Star Wars, the film the entire world had been talking about.

I sat down, got comfortable in my seat, and almost immediately my senses were under attack, as the huge STAR WARS graphic hit me in the face, to the accompaniment of the dramatic musical fanfare. After the set-up for the story scrolled up the screen and faded, I saw the most unforgettable shot I’ve ever seen in a film: the long, slow progress of a starship, shot from underneath, as it enveloped the screen

…and kept going…and going… and going. I had never experienced such a sense of sheer size so graphically and mesmerizingly shot for a film. My popcorn spilled out of my mouth as my jaw hit the floor. And that was just the opening shot. Watching the rest of the film, I saw jumps into hyperspace, duels with light sabers, a truly frightening villain with deadly powers–well, you know. At 16, it was nothing less than a transformative experience for me. I mean that–and it’s sort of my job to choose my words very carefully.

Afterwards, I met my parents in the lobby, with a gushing review and probably a great deal of nonsense syllables (I wasn’t choosing my words quite as carefully at that moment). I was hooked. I don’t know how many more times I saw it in the theatres, before it ever reached TV screens or video. In 1980 came The Empire Strikes Back, considered by many critics and movie mavens to be one of the greatest film sequels ever. The crowds were enormous. I saw it at the Stanley Warner theatre on Rt. 4 in Paramus,

The exterior and lobby of the fondly-remembered Stanley Warner theatre.

New Jersey. Back then, it was one giant theatre, with 2,000 seats. Watching the room lights dim, hearing the crowd go crazy, and then seeing the STAR WARS logo again, with the same fanfare, and adrenaline-fueled cheer from the audience, was amazing. And so was the film, offering the ice planet Hoth, huge Imperial Walkers, a small, green Jedi master named Yoda, city in the clouds, freezing one of the heroes in carbonite, and a surprise revelation that I actually didn’t believe at first.

The film ended with an implied message from George Lucas to the effect, “see you in another three years with the next one, everybody.” It was to be a long three years.

Opening day for The Return of the Jedi in 1983 was memorable in its own way, as my friend Jody and I returned to the Stanley Warner, to witness a line of people totally encircling the entire building, waiting as long as necessary to get in for the next available showing. Some had brought lawn chairs, others said they had just seen the film and immediately returned to the end of the line to see it again. I never had so much fun waiting three hours in line to see a movie. Again, the anticipation reached delirious levels, and was rewarded with another fantastic trip into the galaxy, highlighted by more space battles, a super high-speed chase through the forest planet of Endor, perhaps the most famous bikini in movie history, and the destruction of the Death Star.

We all thought this was the end of the story, tied up in a neat little bow in its closing moments, to the admittedly corny song stylings of the planet’s diminutive Ewok population.

Then came the long, long period of Star Wars dormancy. Little did we know that the famous trilogy of films would become episodes 4,5, and 6 in a still more expansive saga. Lucas originally described a nine-film series, but later dropped the idea, partly due to exhaustion from supervising the first three installments. But further advances in movie-making techniques encouraged him to return.

In 1999, The Phantom Menace (Episode 1)brought long lines back to the cinemas. Many fans were disappointed, however, by the complicated political story, and felt a seething hatred of the goofy Jar Jar Binks character, for which Lucas got fairly well skewered in the press and elsewhere. I had mixed feelings. The follow-up, Attack of the Clones in 2002, often gets dismissed or overlooked completely, despite many breathtaking

Attack of the Clones.

visuals and exciting sequences, especially one in which we see dozens of Jedi knights battle against the bad guys (to this point, we had seen only one or two Jedi at any one time). Unfortunately, the wooden dialogue, and even woodier acting, especially by Hayden Christiansen as Anakin Skywalker, received still more vitriol from diehard fans.

(Just as a grammatical side note, I happened to observe that the stiffness of the dialogue throughout the second trilogy was often due to the fact that, unlike the original trilogy, the characters were no longer using contractions, saying words like “cannot” instead of “can’t.” To me, this gives the dialogue a more formal, less colloquial rhythm than that of the earlier films. It’s been corrected in the current trilogy.)

Lucas redeemed himself greatly with Revenge of the Sith,   in which we witness Anakin Skywalker’s descent into evil, as he is coerced to join the Dark Side of the Force. An epic duel with his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, on a river of molten lava, provides an intense climax to this second trilogy, ending with the birth of Luke and Leia. I still like these films, but I’m in the minority.

In 2012, Lucas sold Lucasfilms to Disney for a cool four billion dollars. His own ideas for the third trilogy were largely abandoned, as J.J. Abrams took the creative helm. The 2015 release of The Force Awakens, picked up thirty

years after Return of the Jedi, introduced to us a new group of lead characters, especially the strong, appealing heroine Rey, while bringing back the original lead trio (and killing off one of them!). Rogue One, released in late 2016, follows a group of rebels plotting to destroy the Death Star, then still under construction. This film is sort of a Star Wars movie without actually being one, but it is nonetheless thoroughly entertaining.

Which brings us to The Last Jedi, with its breathtaking action, and a story that continues to interweave the old, familiar characters with the new heroes and villains. And, oh, that Daisy Ridley as Rey!

And so my longstanding love of this saga remains intact, with more to come, and not too far, far from now.

Until next week…

 

 

Happy 50th Birthday, “Magical Mystery Tour”!

Photo by David Magnus / Rex Features The Beatles at Abbey Road Studios for the ‘Our World’ live television broadcast, London, Britain – 1967

Earlier this year, on  June 1, Beatles fans around the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, arguably the Fab Four’s masterpiece. The album created a seismic shake-up in the music world, and its release day is credited for launching the “Summer of Love,” highlighted by the live worldwide TV special “Our World” on July 25th, for which the Beatles premiered yet another instant classic “All You Need Is Love.”

Brian Epstein and Paul in the studio.

But that summer ended in tragedy for the group. On August 27, their legendary manager, Brian Epstein, died of what was determined to be an accidental drug overdose. He was only thirty-two years old. His main duties as their manager had been arranging their countless personal appearances and concert tours around the world, but in August of ’66 the group decided to end touring forever. Epstein’s responsibilities were drastically diminished, but he was not out of the picture. Even before Sgt. Pepper was released, Paul came to him with an idea for the group, by which they would create and direct their own film, exactly as they wished, without outside interference from a film studio. Paul had become interested in the current trend of  avant-garde filmmaking by somewhat pretentious young artistes, and was dabbling in making short films himself at the time.

He presented his vague film idea of a magical mystery tour to Epstein. Such coach tours were common then, promising a fun, event-filled day or two for the passengers, without giving too much away as to the destinations on the itinerary. Paul’s film version would, of course, allow for several musical sequences, presenting a new batch of songs for the fans. Contrary to a common assumption that Epstein probably wouldn’t have approved of the film, especially had he lived to see its final form, he encouraged Paul to pursue it, and had other top Beatles employees, such as Alastair Taylor and publicist Tony Barrow, lend a hand with the logistics.

George and John speak shortly after hearing of Epstein’s death.

Upon Epstein’s sudden death in August, the Beatles found themselves shocked, confused, and fairly directionless. Paul in particular felt a sense of panic accompanying his grief, fearing the others might begin to drift and eventually dissolve the group altogether. It was then that he stepped up the effort to get the filming underway, even as Epstein’s death was still so fresh on their minds.

So, in mid-September, with a couple of busloads of friends, assistants, music hall entertainers, and other assorted individuals–plus a small film crew–the “Magical Mystery Tour” began filming, mostly in Devon and Cornwall. Any ideas to produce it with little notice from the general public were quickly foiled, as large crowds followed the coach busses to and from each filming locale. Many who were present never really knew if a particular stop was simply to have a meal, film a scene, or both. It was, by all accounts (including those by the Beatles themselves), a mostly

 

unplanned two-week excursion. There was some preparation involved, for costumes, signs, and building the few makeshift sets needed for certain scenes, filmed at the decommissioned West Malling military airfield.

“Your Mother Should Know” and other indoor scenes were filmed in this West Malling hangar.

After filming, the Beatles spent the next several weeks taking turns editing the footage–sometimes undoing each other’s editing decisions from the previous day–and the one-hour Magical Mystery Tour aired on BBC-1 on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas). However, at that point in BBC history, only the lesser-watched BBC-2 had begun broadcasting in color. So, the British public first saw the Beatles’ new, splashy, colorful film broadcast in drab black & white, severely hurting the overall effect (Tony Barrow still argues that the initial, black & white airing hurt its impact greatly, from which it never recovered). Plus, the thin, disjointed plot–not really a plot at all–made little sense. The dialogue was mostly improvised, and mostly not very good. The saving grace for Beatles fans, however, were the six new songs themselves:

“I Am The Walrus.”

“Magical Mystery Tour,” “Fool on the Hill,” “Flying,” “Blue Jay Way,” “I Am The Walrus,” and “Your Mother Should Know.” But even most these self-contained musical sequences were somewhat surreal in nature, no doubt catching a great many viewers off-guard.

After its first broadcast on Boxing Day, the film was widely criticized in the press. It was re-broadcast later on the color BBC-2 channel, which didn’t help. The six new songs were released as a double EP in the U.K. (an EP,

or Extra-Play record, is a 45 single with either one or two songs on each side). In the U.S., Capital Records released the film’s songs in late November, with additional Beatles songs from earlier in the  year: “Strawberry Fields Forever,” Penny Lane,” “Hello, Goodbye,” “All You Need Is Love,” and “Baby You’re A Rich Man.”

The film, to this very day, has never been broadcast in its entirety on a major American TV network. The American album version was released with a 16-page booklet of stills from the movie, but Americans could make no sense of them, without having seen the film itself.

Magical Mystery Tour has suffered for decades as the most glaring of the Beatles’ few creative failures, but it can be argued that it has also received a bad rap. For its day, it was very much in keeping with the sensibilities of a great many young, creative musicians and filmmakers. Psychedelia was in, remember?

I first saw Magical Mystery Tour at the Beatlefest convention many years ago, and I hated it too–loved the songs, hated everything in between.           It was always saved as the last item on the convention schedule, usually shown at 10:00 p.m. on Sunday night, presumably to clear out the last remaining attendees. Few people stayed to watch it all the way through,  and it felt like a depressing end to an otherwise festive weekend.

But my opinion has changed greatly since then. I now see it as a strange, nonsensical, goofy, but fun film with classic songs. In case you’ve ever seen it and hated it, your opinion might change too. Why not give Magical Mystery Tour another chance sometime? Fifty years is long enough to hold a grudge, especially where the Beatles are concerned!

Until next time…

“The Curse of Oak Island”

Television today is populated with reality shows of various types, including those featuring (mostly wealthy) people who, for reasons most of us simply cannot fathom, get to star in their own weekly TV series, for which camera crews follow them in their daily lives as they indulge in prepared, yet still inane conversations, manufactured crises, uneventful shopping sprees, etc. Most of what is presented as “reality” in these programs is not nearly what it seems. In any case, I don’t watch them. The 30-second promos for this sub-genre of programs are enough to keep me from wasting my time following these nobodies pretending to be somebodies–or, “celebrities without portfolio,” if you will.

However, there is one reality program that my wife Karen and I have been following devotedly for the past few years that is unlike the others. It is compelling, dramatic, educational, and actually real!  It’s The Curse of Oak Island, airing Tuesdays at 9:00p.m. Eastern time, on the History Channel (episodes from the previous two weeks air earlier in the evening, leading up to each week’s newest episode).

Marty and Rick.

The series has been following brothers Rick and Marty Lagina, of Michigan, as they lead the latest, most thorough, and most expensive project ever in search for the legendary treasure buried on Oak Island in Nova Scotia. As the story goes, a mysterious treasure of possibly untold wealth and/or historical importance has been buried on the island for hundreds of years, possibly since the mid-1600s. Theories have speculated that it could be either a trove of gold from the Aztec civilization, the original works of Shakespeare, the Holy Grail, or even the Ark of the Covenant. Some say the Knights of Templar sailed from Scotland to the island with the treasure or artifact in order to hide it and protect it. Others speculate Spanish pirates were responsible, or even Captain Kidd himself.

The Oak Island story is a long one. Several major undertakings to find the treasure have been made in the past 220 years. The first explorations led to the discovery of a series of underground wooden log platforms, spaced about 10 feet apart, descending over 100 feet into the Earth. But expansive flood tunnels were also constructed, to serve as a booby traps designed to flood the “Money Pit,” as it is known, with sea water, thus preventing attempts

Diagram of the Money Pit’s wooden platforms and flood tunnel that has frustrated so many expeditions.

to reach whatever lay at the bottom. Six men have died in the past century during expeditions to find the treasure, four of whom were overcome by carbon monoxide fumes from a gasoline engine used at the Money Pit during a 1965 excavation. It has led some to conclude that there is a curse on the island, and legend has it that a seventh person must die attempting to recover the treasure before it will actually be found.

As kids, Rick and Marty Lagina first read about Oak Island in the January, 1965 issue of  Reader’s Digest, and became obsessed with the legend and the attempts to retrieve whatever might be hiding in the Money Pit, or elsewhere on the island. They eventually bought controlling interest in Oak Island Tours, which owned most of the island, and began their efforts to uncover the mystery. With a team of partners, the approval of the Canadian government, and a considerable budget (they’ve spent over 2 million dollars so far), the brothers have been calling upon a variety of hi-tech equipment and industrial-sized drilling and earth-moving vehicles to try to literally get to the bottom of the mystery.

The Money Pit, with its state-of-the-art equipment at the ready.

Prometheus Entertainment has been recording the project on film for airing on the History Channel every step of the way, as a population of historians, archeologists, geologists, divers, and metal detection experts have passed through to lend their knowledge and specialties to the cause. Setbacks have occurred, of course, at each of the major locations deemed vital to the search, but each has been met with even greater determination by the brothers and their partners to continue on. Several intriguing clues have indeed been found, ranging from English and Spanish coins hundreds of years old, to a small gold chain, to various organic samples that seem out of place for the island’s geography, to man-made crawlspaces, and boulders with strange carvings on them, located on and near the island.

The Laginas have often expressed their deference to those Oak Island explorers who have come before them, and in some cases lost their lives, to solve the mystery. Even in these times, when it is so easy to allow cynicism to cast doubt on the motives of people striving to achieve a goal, these brothers have kept their laser focus on the mission at hand, knowing that both their own money, and the historical record of this mystery, is at stake.

If you’re interested in tuning in, but might be wary that you’ve missed too much of the story so far, it is briefly recapped at the opening of each episode, with other reminders and flashbacks provided throughout as necessary, to keep new viewers up to date (this is done via voice-overs brilliantly read by narrator Robert Clotworthy).

So, you can keep your wealthy, pampered, self-indulgent egomaniacs who have somehow had their own TV series handed to them, and who don’t seem to know how to live without a camera following their every move, no matter how pointless their self-absorbed frolics may be. I’ll continue to follow the Laginas and their crew in their treasure-hunting quest, as long as it takes. Take a tip from me and join the search on Tuesday nights, even if it’s from the comfort of your TV room sofa.

Until next time…

The Rise and Fall and Rise of the LP — Part 2

As we continue our look at the current revival of vinyl LP records, a brief review…

The many formats with which the public has listened to music have gone through a fascinating progression in the past century. Edison’s popular wax cylinders eventually gave way to the 78 rpm record platters, which in turn led to 33 1/3 LPs, and 45 singles (in addition to reel-to-reel, 8-track, and cassette tapes). Between 1948 and 1958–the year stereo recordings were first ready for mass consumption–sales of records increased 20 to 25 per cent every year. Not least among the factors was the rock & roll revolution, which led millions of teenagers to seek out their favorite songs in record stores, after hearing the latest hits on radio.

However, it took a full decade for stereo records to secure their place in the recording world, before surpassing mono (except for classical music, 90 per cent of which was being recorded in stereo by 1967). Not every consumer was willing to run out and purchase a new stereo system to replace their trusty hi-fi set. And, not every recording artist placed a priority on stereo recording right away. The Beatles famously mixed their landmark 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album in mono first, taking great care in doing so, along with their producer George Martin. But when it came time to work on the stereo version, the group wasn’t as interested, leaving that work to Martin, who devoted to it a fraction of the time he had to the stereo mix.

Interestingly, in an August, 1967 issue of Saturday Review, George R. Marek predicted the arrival of a new medium for playing music, in a piece he wrote regarding what records might be like in 1987: “The physical characteristics of a record may be further improved…It may be possible to stamp them from material which cannot be scratched or warped. An electronic device or a laser beam may scan the grooves to assure listeners of getting records without any ‘typographical errors,’ meaning ticks and pops…Perhaps there will be no needle, no mechanical contact of any kind, the sound being picked up by a light beam.”

In hindsight, Marek’s accuracy was astounding, especially considering that research and development of the CD didn’t even begin in earnest until the mid-1970s, when audio engineers for both the Philips Corporation in the Netherlands, and Sony in Japan, began designing working prototypes for a laser-read audio disk.  In 1979, the companies joined forces, pooling their respective resources and advances in development of the technology, and arrived at a standardized set of specifications, including disk size, which were initially approved by the International Electrotechnical Commission in 1980 (and, at some point during the birth of the CD, the spelling of “disk” mysteriously became “disc”).

Meanwhile, audiophiles continued searching for still greater improvements to the sonic quality of their vinyl records. In America, imported pressings and premium Original Master recordings issued on high-quality vinyl had mavens salivating. As for stereo equipment, a myriad of high-end turntables, speakers, equalizers, and other components, when used in the right combination, did the best they could to heighten the aural experience for those seeking perfection.

But the hype, interest, and genuine excitement preceding the arrival of CDs in American music retail stores gained momentum leading to the first releases. The first test CD, pressed at the world’s first CD pressing plant (owned by Polydor at the time) near Hannover, Germany, was Richard Strauss’s Enie Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony), performed by the Berlin Philharmonic.

In August of 1982, the factory was ready to begin mass production. The first CD to be manufactured there was the 1981 ABBA album The Visitors. However, the first album to be commercially released on CD was Billy Joel’s 52nd Street. It was released–initially in Japan only–on October 1, 1982.

 

Of course, a CD would be useless without something to play it on. Accompanying the release of 52nd Street was Sony’s CDP-101 player, as unveiled for the public in this ad. Six months later, on March 2, 1983, CBS records released 16 titles on CD in the U.S. and elsewhere, essentially opening the floodgates for the new format. By the end of the year, over a thousand different titles were available.

 

In the next few years, improved availability across all musical genres allowed CD prices to drop. The first to sell one million copies was the Dire Straits album Brothers In Arms, while another major event took place in 1987, with the release of the Beatles’ catalogue of albums.

What did this mean for the LP? The vinyl platter wasn’t in danger of obsolescence just yet, but record stores had already been clearing room in their bins, originally designed for 12″ albums, to make way for CDs (conveniently enough, the packaging for discs in those days was deliberately sized so that 2 units could fit neatly across a bin already sized for LPs).

The pristine sound of the CD proved too-tough competition for vinyl records, which had always been susceptible to scratches, ticks, pops, and skipping needles. There were diehards, however, who preferred what was often described as the “warmer” sound of LPs, and who resisted the cold perfection of the CD sound.

In recent years, even the CD has shown to be vulnerable, in the digital age of downloading and streaming music from various ethereal sources online. Still, the satisfaction of actually holding an artist’s creative work, complete with cover art and liner notes, has persisted among many listeners throughout the past few decades (myself included).

Which brings us to 2017. This past June, Sony Music Entertainment announced that it will begin pressing vinyl records again in March 2018, for the first time in nearly three decades. A factory near Tokyo is being fitted with new record-cutting and pressing machines. CNN reports that this is a direct reaction to the growing demand for LPs, from both older and younger generations–some of whom have grown up never having used records. Vinyl now comprises about 18% of all “physical music revenue,” which might not sound like much, but the number is growing.

So, feel free to indulge here in any number of clichés…Past is present, everything old is new again, Viva la Vinyl, etc.!

Until next time…

 

The Rise and Fall and Rise of the LP

The music aficionados among you may have noticed how the LP record has been making a comeback of sorts in recent years. I’ve personally seen evidence of this at my local Barnes & Noble music department, which has cleared out rows of CD shelves to make room for new pressings of both classic LPs and new recordings by top artists. How ironic: a slice of our popular culture is taking a deliberate technological step backwards, forsaking mp3 players and CDs, in favor of the humble, grooved (and groovy) LP record.

It behooves us, therefore (or, at least, it behooves me), to review the history of the LP. Here then, is a very truncated version:

Like most modern inventions, the long-playing record is part of an evolution, in which improvements, both big and small, took place as part of an ongoing timeline.  We’ve all been taught since childhood to look to Thomas Edison and his 1877 invention. By the early 1880s, Edison had hit upon the idea of using hard wax cylinders to record and play sounds, voices, and music. The cylinders, played at 160 rpm, had their limitations–not the least of which was their short playing time of about two minutes–but proved popular with the public.

Edison was not without his competitors. Other inventors began introducing their own formats of playing back sound and music, including on disk records. “Gramophone” was actually the name given to the first flat recording disks, invented by Emile Berliner in 1889, and necessary improvements led to the formation of the Victor Talking Machine Company. A decade later, 10-inch and 12-inch discs appeared on the market, with the 12-inch records still only able to play about four minutes of music. Edison responded with a new, improved cylinder that could play for about the same time.

Disks that could play longer, at 78 rpm, were initially developed to accompany motion picture films, serving as a their soundtracks, before sound was integrated onto the film itself. When music 78s were sold to the public, longer classical pieces and pop song collections had to be sold as multi-disk packages, with the record sleeves bound together to create a book-like “album”–a term that we still use today.

In September of 1931, RCA Victor introduced the first long-laying 33 1/3 records for home use,  as described in this ad for a disk-changing player. Both 10-inch and 12-inch records were offered, usually for light classical and popular music, and the 12-inch disks boasted a 15-minute capacity on each side (the first release was Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, performed by the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra).

But there was a catch. Turntables that accommodated both the 78 and 33 1/3 playing speeds, or special adaptors offered for other players, were expensive, especially during the Depression. Record sales began plunging. RCA was also sluggish in producing and marketing new titles, and ceased production of the LP format altogether before mid-decade.

Now comes the part of the story that you probably haven’t heard. One of the greatest of modern day inventors, who has been relegated to virtual obscurity for the past 70 years, can be credited with inventing stereo for records and films in the 1930s. His name was Alan Blumlein, a London-born audio engineer who, while working for EMI in 1931, first proposed and developed a “binaural” recording system for records and film , in which sound could be separated into two distinct audio channels. In 1933, he cut the first stereo disk, containing two such channels, and received its patent that year. The following year, working at the brand new EMI studios on Abbey Road in London, Blumlein and his team continued their experimental work.

Blumlein’s team demonstrates stereo’s potential for films (you can see this clip on YouTube).

By the following year, however, EMI shelved further work on stereo, citing its limited commercial potential(!). Blumlein, being the genius he was, then went to work on the fledgling medium of television. In 1936, EMI presented the world’s first electronic TV system, which was chosen by the BBC over the groundbreaking but inferior mechanical system developed by the legendary John Logie Baird.

At the outbreak of World War II, Blumlein turned his attention to the highly secret development of radar for the RAF, where he pioneered a technology called H2S, enabling bombers to find their targets through thick cloud cover. Unfortunately, during a 1942 flight intended to continue testing the H2S system, Blumlein’s plane crashed in Scotland, killing all onboard. The top secret nature of his work even prevented his own obituary from being printed in newspapers at the time. He was only 38.

The war years saw continued of dominance by 78 rpm records, but in June of 1948, Columbia records held a well-publicized press conference in New York to announce the new long-playing, 33 1/3 rpm record, capable of holding over twenty minutes of music on each side. This new, improved version of the original LP helped spur a tremendous resurgence of record sales throughout he U.S. between 1948 and 1958.  And, Blumlein’s invention of stereo was revived in the mid-’50s in the U.K. and U.S., by both big American record companies (RCA), and small (Remington Records), and Decca Records in the U.K.  Ironically, these companies began to record high-end music, such as classical symphonies, on stereo tape. Before long, it was stereo reel-to-reel tapes, first released by RCA in 1954, that began to attract the attention of audiophiles. For some time, it looked as if stereo tapes would be the next Big Thing. It would be another three years before stereo records would finally hit the mass market.

In December of 1957, the first public demonstration of a stereo record for consumers took place, at the Times Auditorium in New York City. The disk, produced by Audio Fidelity Records, presented the Dukes of Dixieland on side A, while side B offered railroad sound effects. The accompanying publicity campaign spurred other labels to play catch-up in their pursuit of mass producing their own stereo releases.  March of 1958 saw the first major stereo releases on records, including Johnny Puleo and his Harmonica Gang, Vol. 1, and Lionel Hampton and his Orchestra.

And, yes, that’s the short version. We haven’t even gotten to the arrival of the CD, which we will…soon!

 

 

Halloween with Abbott & Costello

In honor of Halloween and all things spooky, I thought I’d pay tribute to a pair of classic Abbott & Costello films that combine fright and laughter with great results: Hold That Ghost and Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello enjoyed tremendous popularity throughout the 1940s, especially during the war years. They first teamed in 1936, and quickly made their presence known in burlesque (using only clean material, of course), and then on radio, where they gained nationwide fame in 1938 as regulars on The Kate Smith Hour. By 1940, they had signed with Universal Studios, first as supporting players in the comedy One Night in the Tropics (starring Bob Cummings and Alan Jones). Their career skyrocketed the following year with their first, and probably best, film, Buck Privates. In fact, they made no fewer than four films in 1941, with Hold That Ghost filmed immediately after Buck Privates. However, the success of Buck Privates prompted Universal to order a second military-themed feature, In The Navy, as a follow-up. Bud and Lou also took on the Air Force later in the year with Keep ‘Em Flying (by the way, it’s interesting that they added their hand and foot prints to the cement in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on December 8 of that year, the day after the Pearl Harbor attack!)

Hold That Ghost, directed by Arthur Lubin and released on August 6, gives us Bud and Lou maintaining a high level of energy throughout, but also features the wonderful Joan Davis as Lou’s comic foil. This was her first film as a freelancer after spending time under contract to Fox, and it’s a shame that she and Lou didn’t appear together again on film. Here, she plays Camille Brewster, a radio actress specializing in opening a murder mystery series with her blood-curdling scream each week.

The bulk of Hold That Ghost has Bud, Lou, and Davis–along with Richard Carlson and Evelyn Ankers, in fine supporting roles–stranded in an old, dilapidated inn overnight, due to a rainstorm. The inn was left to Chuck (Bud) and Ferdie (Lou) in the will of a gangster (long story, don’t ask), who had also hid a fortune in cash somewhere on the premises. Rival bad guys also enter the picture in search of the loot, and one of them is found murdered, as if the guests weren’t jittery enough. Just about every room of the building gives Lou and/or Davis cause for fright, screams, and fainting.

Highlights include a hilarious comic tango between the two of them to keep the others entertained over dinner. The sight of tall, lanky Davis and pudgy Costello mixing it up on their impromptu dance floor is priceless. At one point, Lou sends her falling butt-first into a wash bucket on the floor. The bucket was specially built to suit her measurements, enabling it to firmly stay put after she got up and continued her dance.

The two also share the “candle scene,” in which a horrified and speechless Lou watches a candle glide on its own across their table and float upwards as Davis fails to see a thing.

 

In 1948, Bud & Lou again mixed laughs with frights in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, directed by Charles Barton. Universal Studios owned the film rights not only to Frankenstein, but also to Dracula and the Wolfman. So, why not have all three monsters in one film to terrify the comic duo? That’s just what

happened, with Bela Lugosi playing Dracula for the first time on film since his 1931 starring role in the original Dracula. Lon Chaney reprised his most famous role, as the troubled Lawrence Talbot, a.k.a. the Wolfman. And Glenn Strange, who had stepped into the Frankenstein monster’s oversized shoes before, was signed to repeat the role here as well. Add a couple of beautiful women — one innocent (Joan an insurance investigator), one sinister (Sandra, in cohoots with the Count, who puts her under his spell)–and all of the elements are present to create a clever mix of comedy and horror. One reason why the film works so well is that the monsters are played straight (and scary), not as comic parodies of themselves. The laughs are wisely left to Bud and Lou.

The plot has the team as shipping clerks in Florida, who receive crates containing the remains of both the original Dracula and the Frankenstein monster, destined for display at a wax museum, McDougal’s House of Horrors. Lawrence Talbot phones them from London, warning them not to open the crates, which would allow Dracula to revive the monster. But during his call to Lou, a full moon sends Talbot into his tortuous transformation into the growling Wolfman, causing Lou to hang up.

Plot machinations have them all converging on Dracula’s castle, where the Count and Sandra plan to put Lou’s brain into the monster’s head. At one point, Lou pleads to the monster, “Don’t let ’em do it to you, Frankie. I’ve had this brain for thirty years and it hasn’t worked right yet!”

Glenn Strange required several retakes due to his laughing as Lou discovers a third hand.

Bud and Talbot’s attempt to rescue Lou culminate in a frantic chase through the castle–at which point, of course, Talbot succumbs once again to the full moon. The team soon find themselves opening one door to find Frankenstein headed their way, and then running to open another door to witness Dracula and the Wolfman engaged in hand-to-hand combat with each other.

The boys look cornered, until…?

The stirring, urgent music score enhances the mood, as the team eventually receive help in vanquishing all of the monsters for good. Rowing away from the castle dock to safety, they hear a disembodied voice (Vincent Price) say, “I was hoping to get in on the excitement. Allow me to introduce myself, I’m the Invisible Man.” Bud and Lou dive into the water and let their fight-or-flight responses opt for flight!

Other comedians of classic-era Hollywood made efforts to combine horror and comedy; Bud and Lou themselves later starred in Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, but these films don’t measure up to the two we’re honoring today. If you’ve somehow managed to miss either Hold That Ghost or Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, seek them out, even after Halloween has come and gone.

Thanks to David C. Tucker, author of Joan Davis: America’s Queen of Film, Radio, and Television Comedy for his help with today’s blog.

Until next week…

 

 

 

Little-known Britcoms Worth Seeking Out

Anyone who knows me is familiar with my fondness for British sitcoms. The genre inspired me to write Best of the Britcoms, which was originally published in 1999. Several years later, I updated portions of the text and added seven new chapters, covering programs I had discovered since the original edition hit the bookstore shelves. The revised edition was published in 2010.

There have been still more terrific sitcoms to cross the Atlantic since then, so I’d like to offer a new list of favorites that I’ve discovered since that revised edition (plus one or two that I found just before it went to print). Unfortunately, the flow of high-quality Britcoms on PBS and cable networks has slowed to a trickle in recent years, so I’d advise seeking out these shows on YouTube, Netflix, or any number of other sources–not to mention a good ol’ DVD box set. You may not even need to purchase it–check your local library, which just might have several series on disc waiting for you.

l. to r. : Dougal, Ted, Mrs. Doyle, Father Jack (who can walk, but is usually too inebriated to do so, and prefers being pushed around in a wheelchair).

Father Ted (1995-1998)- A daringly irreverent sitcom by American standards (it was literally “banned in Boston” by the local PBS station, due to protests by Catholic groups), Father Ted features a trio of Irish priests: Father Ted Crilly (Dermot Morgan), his cheerfully imbecilic young colleague Father Dougal McGuire (Ardal O’Hanlon), and the elderly, perpetually inebriated, foul-mouthed Father Jack Hackett (Frank Kelly). They have been exiled to remote Craggy Island, but where they have a knack for indulging in various schemes that can be decidedly less than holy, and which tend to result in the priests inadvertently humiliating themselves in front of their parishoners.

Dougal and Ted rehearse their awful song, “My Lovely Horse,” for entry in the Eurovision Song Contest.

They also have an accident-prone housekeeper, Mrs. Doyle (Pauline McLynn) whose personal mission in life is to serve tea to the residents and their visitors at every opportunity, even after their repeated refusals. The series boasts surreal blackout gags, ludicrous dialogue, and an anything-goes comic sensibility that treats many sacred institutions as fair game. But the comedy here is too absurd to cause real offense to anyone with a sense of humor.

The Kumars at No. 42 (2001-2006)- A brilliantly inventive combination of sitcom and talk show, each episode opens in the suburban home of the (fictional) wealthy Indian immigrant Kumar family. The parents have had a full-size TV studio built in their backyard to accommodate adult son Sanjeev’s desire to host his own talk show. In a typical episode, a real-life

Mr. and Mrs. Kumar, Sanjeev, and feisty grandmother Ummi.

British or American celebrity enters the front door of the house, meets the family, and chats for a while before being whisked into the adjoining studio, where an audience of 300 awaits the talk show to begin (guests have included Minnie Driver, Chevy Chase, Donny Osmond, Twiggy, Daniel Radcliffe, and Boy George).

With guest Tom Jones.

The episode continues with Sanjeev interviewing the guest as the Kumar family sits on the studio sofa, peppering the guest with off-the-wall questions, while occasionally tossing casual insults at Sanjeev. This show is a hoot!

Outnumbered (2007-2014)- This series, a sort of Modern Family before Modern Family, follows the day-to-day life of an average married couple, Pete and Sue Brockman (Hugh Dennis, Claire Skinner) and their young children. It is a single-camera, fly-on-the-wall comedy of amazing realism, due mostly to the fact that the child actors were encouraged to improvise much of their dialogue, rather than follow the script word for word. The three kids, Jake (Tyger Drew-Honey), Ben (Daniel Roche), and Karen (scene-stealer Ramona Marquez), range in ages 6-12 as the series opens, and keep their chronically exhausted parents forever on their toes with an onslaught of embarrassing or hard-to-answer questions, and frequent refusals to eat their dinner. Their rapport with each other is so natural, you’d swear that you’re eavesdropping on a real (and very funny) family.

This sequential series of cast photos (left to right) shows how the children grew into young adults in the seven years between the series first season and its last. There was sometimes a gap of two years in between seasons (punctuated by Christmas specials), and some fans of the show were shocked, and not especially pleased, to see the precocious kids all grown up in the later seasons.

The IT Crowd (2006-2010)- Just as The Big Bang Theory in the U.S. made science geeks lovable, The IT Crowd did so in the U.K. But the members of this tech support team, whose office is relegated to the basement of a large London corporate headquarters, spend as little time troubleshooting computer problems as possible.

Katherine Parkinson, Richard Ayoade, Chris O’Dowd.

Roy (Chris O’Dowd) answers most phone inquiries with his standard reply, “Did you try turning the computer on and off again?” in hopes of dismissing confused office workers. Moss (Richard Ayoade) has a twisted sense of logic that can be interpreted as either brilliance or stupidity (usually stupidity).  Jen (Katherine Parkinson) is their boss, but spends more time trying to avert or solve crises among them and the rest of the employees, as well as dealing with the company’s insane CEO.

Moss somehow fails to notice an office fire.

And when they do try to solve problems, things always go from bad to worse, proving that they’re not nearly as brilliant as their job description implies. Graham Linehan, co-creator of Father Ted, again gives us characters who manage to get themselves deeper and deeper into absurd situations–both at work and elsewhere–that never end well.

Miranda (2009-2013)- Comedian Miranda Hart plays a more socially and physically awkward version of herself in this daffy sitcom, which she created and co-wrote. She runs a gift shop cluttered with novelty items

l. to r.: Sarah Hadland, Patricia Hodge, Miranda Hart, Tom Ellis.

that amuse her to no end, even if most of her customers leave empty-handed. Her best friend/employee, Stevie (Sarah Hadland), is a petite blonde who shares the same warped, childlike wavelength as Miranda, and, despite their frequent spats, the two remain loyal to each other above all else.

Mother is not known for her subtlety.

Miranda’s meddlesome mother (Patricia Hodge) is forever trying to find her a potential husband, even though Miranda has a hopeless crush on Gary (Tom Ellis), the owner of the restaurant next door. In time, their friendship blossoms into a romantic relationship. In each Miranda episode, Hart breaks the “fourth wall” (a topic of one of my earlier blogs) to speak directly to us, nearly as much as she speaks to the other characters within the scene.  And, best of all, her propensity for taking pratfalls and indulging in other bits of physical comedy–including untold instances in which she embarrasses herself in public at the worst possible moment– keep the show energetic and hilariously funny.

So, do yourself a favor and look for these programs. You won’t be disappointed.

Until next week…

The Funniest Writer You’ve Never Heard Of

I haven’t come across a great many writers in my life who actually make me laugh out loud when I read their work, although I’m sure there are several I just haven’t read yet who would send me into fits of laughter with their words.

I’ve already singled out Neil Simon in a previous post as my comedy writing hero, but his work is really meant to be performed, and his words spoken aloud, rather than read (although the comic brilliance of his dialogue can also be appreciated when seen on the printed page, which is how I first became familiar with many of his plays).

Another favorite is S.J. Perelman, whose comic essays and short stories in The New Yorker and other magazines throughout the 1930s and ’40s have been collected and published in book form for decades. His absurdist puns and wordplay can also be found in the screenplays he co-wrote for two Marx Brothers films, Monkey Business and Horsefeathers.

S.J. Perelman

Having already committed every line of those films to memory, I searched for and found a collection of Perelman’s written pieces in my high school library during my senior year. I sat down and was soon cackling loudly like an idiot as I read. I almost got thrown out for disturbing my fellow students, who were desperately trying to sleep.

So, as a writer myself, I’ve always aspired to write dialogue like Neil Simon, and prose like S.J. Perelman. Not much to ask, is it? I’ve got such a long way to go, and I’ll likely never get there, but I haven’t given up yet. The joy (and frustration) lies in the effort.

I now add to this short list the name Stephen Leacock. Why doesn’t that name ring a bell, you wonder? Why haven’t you seen him interviewed on TV, perhaps as a guest on a late-night talk show? To begin with, he died in 1944. And, he was Canadian (not that either factor is reason to relegate him to obscurity).

Leacock was born in England in 1869, but his family moved to Ontario when he was six. He spent much of his adult life as an academic, receiving a doctorate in political science and political economy at the University of Chicago, and spent many years as chair of the Department of Economic and Political Science at McGill University in Montreal. He began writing humorous fiction pieces to supplement his income, and in the early 20th century, became one of the most popular humorists in the English-speaking world.

I first became aware of his existence as I read an interview with Jack Benny for The Marx Brothers Scrapbook in the early 1970s, back when I was trying to satisfy my voracious appetite for all things Marx Brothers. While reminiscing about briefly touring with the brothers during their vaudeville days, Benny included this story:

“I would often pass Groucho’s dressing room. Sometimes I’d hear him laughing so I assumed he had company. Well, each time I passed I would hear him laugh and this went on in a couple of cities but I recall it started in Winnipeg. I became curious and the next time I passed and heard him laughing I knocked on his door. I figured that if he was laughing he couldn’t have a dame in there. So I go in and there he is alone reading a book. So I said, ‘How can you sit here alone and laugh at a book?’ ‘Well, Jack,’ he said, ‘I’m reading one of the funniest humorists I have ever come across. A fellow named Stephen Leacock. I’ve got with me the first book he wrote, titled Nonsense Novels, which you should read because once you do you’ll never stop wanting to read Leacock.’ I read the book and from then on I read every humorous book Leacock ever wrote. Groucho was right. He is the funniest humorist I have ever read. Sure there are others, Twain, Benchley, Perelman. But whoever I’ve liked they have always been second to Leacock. Groucho didn’t realize it but he made a big contribution to my life because ever since that time in his dressing room I’ve been reading Leacock. It’s a shame more people don’t know of him.”

For some reason, even I failed to pursue this writer, who had received such praise from two of the world’s greatest comedians. But his name stayed with me, if only in the deepest recesses of my mind.

Recently, while at my local library’s book sale, what did I happen to find but a 2005 reprinting of Nonsense Novels (originally published in 1911). It’s a collection of ten short stories, each story parodying a different style of fiction: the ghost story, detective story, shipwreck story, etc. and I couldn’t wait to read it.

My verdict? Groucho was right. Jack Benny was right. Leacock’s absurdly comical stories, his wordplay, and his talent for leading the reader to think a sentence is going one way before suddenly jumping in another direction–much like Perelman–had me nearly choking with laughter (and in public, too). Sure, there are a few words and phrases referring to everyday life of over a hundred years ago that aren’t as familiar to us now, but other than that, the book could have been written in the present day, by a writer who doesn’t pull his comedic punches. He demonstrates how you have to be quite clever to write something quite silly, which he does with wonderful consistency (I won’t attempt to quote just a sentence or two here, out of context; that wouldn’t do his writing justice).

Leacock isn’t easy to find on library or store bookshelves these days, but I did find a few collections of his work listed on Amazon.com.  Nonsense Novels was actually his second publication, the first being Literary Lapses in 1910, a collection of pieces he had written for various Canadian and American magazines. There is still a lot of his comic genius to discover–for me, and I hope for you too!

Until next week…

From The Goldbergs to The Goldbergs

Yes, it’s true, many television viewers of the Jewish persuasion tend to partake in the curious pastime of gleefully identifying the actors on any given program who happen to be Jewish; pointing them out, and beaming with pride, as if we had some influence on their success. I don’t know where all of this pride comes from. Personally, I’m more interested in looking at the history of Jewish TV characters, because in doing so, we can see their existence as a deliberate creative decision by a writer, rather than celebrating an actor’s ethnic identity by mere chance of birth or upbringing.

So, for no compelling reason, I recently began going through my mental Rolodex (or, for you younger readers, my mental data base), expecting to recall a pitifully small number of Jewish characters–i.e. lead or supporting regular characters–scattered throughout the TV dramas and comedies of the past 70 years. After all, Jews make up only about 2% of the U.S. population, so why expect any higher proportion of them in our TV shows? It could be argued that, because of the preponderance of Jewish writers, directors, and producers working in television, we’d see far more Jewish characters than we do. That’s never been the case, however, for a myriad of reasons I won’t go into here.

But I’ve managed to remember several characters who may have slipped through the cracks; some wore their ethnic identity on their sleeves, while others pretty much just happened to be Jewish, and never made much mention or fuss about it–just like in real life. So, here’s the list (you’ll notice I’m deliberately leaving out people like Jerry Seinfeld, who played himself on his show. What was he going to do, suddenly portray himself as a Mormon?).

The Goldbergs – This light comedy series, featuring a Jewish family living in a Bronx tenement, had been a radio favorite for twenty years before making the move to TV in 1949. Star Gertrude Berg wrote every episode herself, totaling about 10,000 scripts in all.

Room 222 -Principal Seymour Kaufman (Michael Constantine), the harried principal of L.A.’s fictional Walt Whitman High School, oversaw the various crises among students and teachers from his somewhat world-weary perspective.

Bridget Loves Bernie – Most critics and viewers hated the stereotypical portrayals of Irish (Bridget’s) and Jewish (Bernie’s) families, despite the strong cast. It was a product of its time, premiering shortly after Norman Lear’s All in the Family changed sitcom history forever.

Valerie Harper as Rhoda Morgenstern.
  • Rhoda – Mary Richards’ friend on The Mary Tyler Moore Show got her own spinoff in 1974, becoming the first Jewish lead character since Molly Goldberg herself.

Barney Miller – The even-tempered Barney (Hal Linden) and his aging colleague, Detective Phil Fish (Abe Vigoda), added a subtle dash of Jewish attitude to the detective squad of New York’s 13th precinct.

The Wonder Years – WASPy Kevin Arnold had a best friend in Paul, who sometimes had to opt out of play time to do his Hebrew school homework, and whose bar mitzvah was the focal point of one episode.

Hill Street Blues – Down & dirty undercover cop Mick Belker (Bruce Weitz), known to subdue fleeing suspects by biting them into submission, often had to interrupt his arrests and paperwork to field phone calls from his complaining and protective mother. On the other end of the spectrum, Lt. Henry Goldblume (Joe Spano) specialized in hostage negotiation.

Cagney & Lacey – Television’s first female detective team worked under their boss, Lt. Samuels (Al Waxman) and alongside Desk Sgt. Coleman (Harvey Atkin). In one curious but amusing scene during the show’s run, Samuels and Coleman are seen having a brief chat solely in Yiddish, without the benefit of translation.

L.A. Law – In a season 2 episode, Stuart Markowitz (Michael Tucker)  overhears the hostess of a party spewing anti-Semitic remarks about him and Jews in general. He interrupts to ask, “Has a Jew ever done anything to you personally to fill you with such hatred? When the woman says no, he walks over to her china cabinet and topples it to the floor, replying, “Now one has.”

Brooklyn Bridge – A multi-generational Brooklyn family in the 1950s sought to balance Old-World and contemporary American lifestyles in this series by Gary David Goldberg (Family Ties).

Taxi – Judd Hirsch basically plays Judd Hirsch in just about everything he does; here in the guise of New York cab driver Alex Rieger.

Northern Exposure – Young New York doctor Joel Fleishman (Rob Morrow) was “sentenced” to serve as town doctor in remote Cicely, Alaska, to pay off the state’s student loan for his med school tuition. His fish-out-of-water experience included cultural clashes of various kinds with the locals.

The Nanny – Oy, vey, talk about brash, loud, clichéd New York Jews, i.e. nanny Fran Fine and her frequently visiting–and kibitzing– mother and grandmother. But it was co-created by its star, Fran Drescher, who knew of what she spoke.

Law & Order – Grouchy District Attorney Adam Schiff (Steven Hill, who refused to stay late on the set when the Sabbath approached on Friday nights) spent his brief scenes with his subordinates grousing about avoiding negative headlines and striking plea deals.

The West Wing – Toby Ziegler (Richard Schiff) and Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) often offered their perspectives on past atrocities and current world events, as only they could.

Will & Grace – Returning to the air after eleven years, neurotic Jewish New Yorker Grace Adler (Debra Messing) was/is prone to wondering if her upbringing was responsible for some of her issues in adulthood.

Warehouse 13 – This engaging and quirky sci-fi series featured Artie Nielsen (Saul Rubinek), as caretaker of historic artifacts with supernatural powers, and who had earlier in life as a spy changed his name from Weisfelt.

The Goldbergs – Coming full-circle in a way, this is a different Goldberg family than that of the early days of network TV, this sitcom wanders back and forth throughout the 1980s in suburban Philadelphia, as seen through the eyes of the youngest family member, Adam (Sean Giambrone), who must deal with a mom who literally, and physically, suffocates him and his siblings with love.

What is the point of this list? I’ve been wondering that myself. But I’m a pop culture historian (it says so on my homepage), and I thought, with the new TV season here, it would be a good time to take a look at this ever-so-thin slice of television history.

Until next week…

 

The Father of Television

The new TV season is finally here. Once again, it’s time to welcome new episodes of returning favorites, and mercilessly judge the worthiness of new programs scrambling for our attention. In my mind, it’s also a good time to honor the Father of Television, Scotsman John Logie Baird.

While several key individuals can be credited for contributing their genius to help make TV a reality, Baird was the first to successfully send live, recognizable images through the air from a transmitter to a receiver. He gave the first of his public demonstrations in March and April of 1925, in London’s Selfridges department store. The images were merely moving silhouettes (generated mechanically by what was known as a Nipkow disk, the technical details of which we won’t get into here), but they captivated the public and made headlines around the world.

A few months later, as Baird continued his experiments, using ventriloquist dummies (his favorite was named Stooky Bill) to act as his subjects in front of his “televisor,” he decided that he wanted to see a live person’s image on the receiver. Working in an upstairs loft on Frith Street in the Soho section of London, he stopped downstairs to ask a young office clerk, William Taynton, to take part in the experiment. Taynton readily agreed, and, sitting at the televisor, became the first person ever to appear on a TV screen–even though his image only traveled the length of Baird’s laboratory.

Baird’s business partner, Oliver Hutchinson, in the first-known photo of a televised moving image.

By early 1926, word of Baird’s successful experiments spread around the world. In January of that year, the New York Times announced, “John L. Baird, who has perfected television after years of research, has been giving practical demonstrations here [in London].” A few days later, he demonstrated his apparatus for members of the Royal Institution, and for the press.

Baird continued with his work, even as others, mostly in the U.S. and Germany, did the same to improve on the basic workings of the Nipkow disk. For every advancement achieved by others, Baird raised the stakes still higher.

Secretary of Commerce (and future President) Herbert Hoover takes part in the famous experiment.

A landmark television transmission via telephone lines between Washington, D.C. and New York on April 27, 1927, covered a 230-mile distance. Only a month later, Baird successfully sent a television signal (also via phone lines) from London to Glasgow, Scotland, a distance of 438 miles.  In February of 1928, Baird even set up and successfully achieved the world’s first overseas television transmission, from the London area to Hartsdale, New York, with several witnesses and reporters present on both sides of the Atlantic. The images were fuzzy, of course, but the experiment was nonetheless a success, thirty-four years before the launch of the Telstar communications satellite.

Baird’s achievements continued. In July of 1928, he unveiled perhaps the most astounding of his many innovations of the time, when he demonstrated what we would today refer to as a video disc. His creation involved creating a double groove in a phonograph record; one to reproduce sound, and another to carry moving images in synchronization with that sound. He dubbed the invention “phonovision,” but didn’t pursue it to any great degree at the time. Some fifty years later, video discs became commercially available and actually played in a manner similar to phonograph records, before laser technology made compact discs and digital video discs possible.

Meanwhile, American inventor Philo Farnsworth demonstrated his own apparatus for the public in 1928, which incorporated an electronic means of transmitting TV images. He continued refining it and eliminating the  motor generator, thus creating the first all-electronic TV camera. This would eventually render the Nipkow disc, even with ongoing modifications, obsolete.

In 1936, the BBC, after several rounds of comparison between an electronic system developed by EMI, and Baird’s mechanical system, chose the advanced EMI system. The same year, Germany debuted its own electronic TV system in time for the notorious Berlin Olympic Games.

There’s more to Baird’s story, of course, and it’s worth exploring further. You can read more details about Baird’s “firsts” in my book For the First Time on Television, available on Amazon.com.

Enjoy the new TV season!