Monday, December 26, 2011

BAD OLD ADS: Masterpiece Theatre?

   From the November 9-15, 1963 edition of TV Guide, Minneapolis-St. Paul edition: Would you believe the 1954 sci-fi/horror movie about giant mutant ants called "Them!" was shown on Masterpiece Theatre? How did the highly cultured Alistair Cooke introduce that one?

   In all fairness, this Masterpiece Theatre was not the long-running PBS show produced by WGBH Boston that primarily featured British drama and premiered in 1971, but was simply the name given by then-ABC affiliate KMSP-TV Channel 9 to their late night movie.

   While most probably wouldn't consider "Them!" to be a masterpiece, critic and movie guide author Leonard Maltin gives the thriller three and a half (out of four) stars, praising it for an "intelligent script" and being "extremely well directed." This particular masterpiece featured James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, a pre-Gunsmoke James Arness and a pre-Davy Crockett Fess Parker.


Saturday, November 26, 2011

Smoking Santa Claus, or: Give the Gift of Cigarettes

   The first time I saw a picture of Santa Claus with a cigarette in hand was in a Mad magazine satire of Christmas commercialism. At 12 years old I thought it was the funniest thing I ever saw. I couldn't stop laughing.

   But then, looking at some December issues of old mainstream magazines such as Life, Saturday Evening Post and Collier's, I found all the big cigarette makers at one time utilized Santa to endorse their products in one way or another and suggest that cartons of cigarettes make really swell Christmas gifts.

   "There's no more acceptable gift in Santa's whole bag than a carton of Camel Cigarettes," claimed a 1936 advertisement. "Here's the happy solution to your gift problems. Camels are sure to be appreciated. And enjoyed! With mild, fine-tasting Camels, you keep in tune with the cheery spirit of Christmas-tide." The ad goes on to suggest smoking Camels while eating aids digestion, and they give you an "invigorating lift."

   The idea of Santa being a smoker wasn't entirely strange. Up until the 1980s or so Santa Claus was often depicted in everything from Christmas cards to children's books to advertising smoking a pipe. Even the famous poem dating back to 1822 "A Visit From St. Nicholas" ("'Twas the night before Christmas") by Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863) includes the lines, "The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth/And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath."

   Today the depiction of any character, particularly one that appeals to children, as a smoker of any kind would be shocking and horrifying to politically correct adults and traumatic to their overly-protected children. But back in the Analog Age pipe smoking just seemed like a nice, warm thing that friendly grandfatherly types like Santa did, and nobody worried about the bad influence on children or his second-hand smoke causing sickness in them.

   Pipe smoking was one thing, but the idea of Santa Claus smoking cigarettes seems hilariously absurd, even to those of us who grew up with his pipe smoking image. And it was only in ads (or parodies of ads), not on Christmas cards or in children's books that he was ever depicted smoking cigarettes.


   The oldest and most bizarre cigarette ad with Santa I've come across is one from 1919 for a long-gone brand, Murad Turkish Cigarettes. A scary, sinister-looking Santa smokes one through a long holder and claims that the "grown-ups" all wanted Murads for a present.


   Alan Hale, Sr. (the Skipper's dad) played a smoking Santa (also using a cigarette holder) in a Chesterfield ad from 1947, offering "lots more smoking pleasure" and "A Hale and Hearty Good wish." Note the nice Christmas cigarette cartons featuring Santa.

   And jolly old Santa himself exhales that smooth, unfiltered smoke from a Pall Mall without bothering with a cigarette holder, guarding against throat-scratch, in a 1950 magazine ad.


Sunday, November 13, 2011

More from '64: Bad Holiday Hints, A Teenybopper's Wrath, Penny's Supermarket

   A look at some editions of the old Minneapolis Star evening newspaper from the fall of 1964 on microfilm finds a few odd tidbits among the news stories of the Johnson-Goldwater presidential campaign, house fires and car crashes that dominated the pages.

   From September 18, 1964, Minneapolis Fire Department officials warned that a homemaking hint published in a magazine distributed by Red Owl food stores to its customers was not such a good idea:

   "For added sparkle and a really finished holiday touch, spray the Christmas tree lightly with a fast drying lacquer or your favorite hair spray and then lightly sprinkle on gold or silver glitter." Minneapolis fire marshal Kenneth Welch called that idea "extremely dangerous."

   "It's dangerous to spray a tree with lacquer or hair preparations because the vapors given off while spraying are highly flammable. If a person sprayed a good sized tree, there would be a tremendous amount of vapor in the room" which could easily be ignited by the flipping of a light switch, a lit cigarette or flame from a pilot light. The tree would also become more flammable and would burn faster with those chemicals sprayed on it.

   A Red Owl Stores official explained that the editorial content of the magazine came from "a homemaking service in Chicago" and that the company was in the process of contacting the editor to see what can be done, such as running a retraction. The magazine was said to have been distributed to some 2,000,000 homes in Red Owl's eight-state marketing area.

   Also commenting in the article was Dr. David Tenenbaum, a process research director for Toni Company, a manufacturer of hair spray and other hair products. He concurred that "Hair sprays are not intended for spraying on Christmas trees," adding, "Bourbon will burn if you throw it on a Christmas tree too."

   From October 9, 1964, TV-radio columnist Forrest Powers had reported in a previous week's column that British singer and Brian Epstein protege Cilla Black would not be appearing as scheduled on ABC-TV's pop music show Shindig. The item was reported without any editorial comment but an anonymous "teen-age Minneapolis girl" bent on shooting the messenger because she didn't like the message wrote a nasty letter to the incredulous columnist.

   "I know we teen-ager's [sic] don't rate much with you old fogies, but I am completely burned up! When I read about Cilla Black not being on 'Shindig' Wednesday night I was so mad I could have blown the roof off.

   "I know that you adults think you are pretty big in this world because you are older and have more experience, but believe me teen-agers are important, too, whether you want, or even care, to realize it or not. Cilla happens to be one of my favorite singers and I do not know why she is not appearing on the program, but there had better be a good reason!

    "...People are always taking advantage of us because we are young and inexperienced and this is not the first time that I, along with other kids my age, have been disappointed. But I am not going to stand for it any longer. Something had better be done in the future to correct these downright cruel doings to us kids."

   Powers responded in his column that "Cilla Black will appear on a future segment of 'Shindig,' the network says, and I hope the news will help the young letter writer feel a little more kindly to 'old fogies.'"

   And there was this rather bizarre cartoon ad illustration involving farm animals for Penny's supermarkets (not to be confused with Piggly Wiggly, which also had a cartoon pig mascot).

   Penny pig runs after a frightened three-legged hen with a net, apparently for butchering so it can be sold as a "delicious cut up whole fryer" (with three legs!) at Penny's supermarket. Presumably Penny's also had great deals on pork chops.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

1964: When Violence Was Fun

   There are those who would assert that in modern, Digital Age America, there is a serious problem with depictions of violent acts on the many action-adventure shows, realistic dramas, crime and mystery programs, gory occult melodramas, and uncut movies on the hundreds of channels available to television viewers via satellite and cable, not to mention Netflix. But the culture of violence today is apparently nothing like it was back in 1964. This according to a recently discovered article that ran in the November 1964 issue of the Ladies’ Home Journal (also reprinted in the February 1965 Reader’s Digest) titled “We’re Teaching Our Children That Violence Is Fun” by Eve Merriam. 

   In that supposedly more innocent era when most television sets were black and white, the picture quality was awful, the choices were limited to three network affiliates and maybe one or two local independent stations (and only if you lived near a major city), and all broadcasting was over the air, blood, gore, guts, mayhem, and other horrible things were being depicted all over the place to the amusement of viewers young and old, or at least that’s the impression one gets from reading this particular article. It knocks the idea people have of early 1960s television being all cute family comedies and the Ed Sullivan Show right on the head.

   “A report to the Federal Communications Commission states that between the ages of five and 14 the average American child witnesses the violent destruction of 13,000 human beings on television,” the article claimed alarmingly, adding that children spend more time watching television than any other activity outside of sleep and school.

   The 1964 article goes on to summarize a survey of one week’s programming on four commercial television stations “in a major U.S. city” conducted by researchers at Stanford University:

   “In a five-day period, Monday-Friday, programs showed a stabbing in the back, four attempted suicides (three successful), four people falling or pushed over cliffs, two cars rolling over cliffs, two attempts to run cars over persons on the sidewalk, a raving psychotic loose in a flying airliner, two mob scenes (in one of which the mob hangs the wrong man), a horse grinding a man under its hooves, 12 murders, 16 major gunfights, 21 persons shot (apparently not fatally), 21 other violent incidents with guns (ranging from near-misses to shooting up a town), 37 hand-to-hand fights, an attempted murder with a pitchfork, two stranglings, a fight in the water, a woman being gagged and tied to a bed, and a great deal of miscellaneous violence, including a hired killer stalking his prey, two robberies, a pickpocket working, a woman killed by falling from a train, a tidal wave and a guillotining.” No specific programs or networks were named in this summary.

   The report went on to say, according to the article, “The picture of the adult world presented on the children’s hour (defined as “between four and nine PM when young people do most of their watching”) is heavy in physical violence, light in intellectual interchange, and deeply concerned with crime.”

   While the article cited numerous supposed examples of violent content on television, particularly on westerns, crime and adventure shows, few actual shows were named, beyond passing mentions of Gunsmoke, The Untouchables (which had ended its run the previous year) and Combat, a World War II drama specifically called out in the article for all its licensed merchandise, presumably for children.

   “A child can be in a state of total combat from morning until night. He can wear an official Combat uniform and helmet…wind a Combat watch…read a Combat comic book…play a Combat board game…carry a Combat field medical kit complete with bandages and stretcher…throw a rubber Combat grenade (10 points for knocking out infantry, 100 for a tank)…and he can sport several different kinds of Combat guns.”

   [Ironically one of the stars of Combat, Vic Morrow, met a violent demise in real life in 1982, when he was struck and decapitated by a helicopter’s rotor blade in an accident during the filming of a Twilight Zone movie.]

   While the article primarily railed against violence-saturated television programs, it cited other examples of how our culture was “teaching our children that violence is fun” such as movies, comic books and toys for small children. “(M)ake-believe weapons for children are part of the daily scene, ranging all the way from bomber models to gun-shaped teething rings,” the article claimed. “On Christmas and birthdays, doting grandparents give toddlers the latest mock-up missile. This year, toy grenades are popular.” At least there weren’t any video games to bitch about back then.

   The consequences of all of this, the article contended, were dire. Juvenile delinquency was said to be on the increase, as well as disrespect for fellow human beings and lack of empathy, although the article makes no actual link to TV and other entertainment violence, it merely suggests that they must be related in some way, and damnit, something has got to be done about it!

   And in any event, the westerns, crime and adventure shows of the era never showed blood, no humans or animals were actually harmed and the good guys always prevailed in the end. The lesson was always crime in fact does not pay, so to say that such programs were inspiring juvenile or other crime was patently absurd. There might have been a problem, or maybe it wasn’t nearly as bad as the pundits claimed, but then as now, these pundits, activists and others with (excuse the expression) axes to grind were always great for finger pointing and simplistic solutions that never do a thing to actually solve whatever the problem might be.

   In the ensuing years of the 1960s after the article was published, actual violence, mayhem and bloody gore were seen on television sets nightly across the country, during the dinner hour when the whole family was watching, on the Huntley-Brinkley Report and the Cronkite News. Color film footage of battlefield scenes and street executions in Vietnam, club-wielding police clashing with protesters in the United States and elsewhere, Soviet tanks rolling over citizen resistance. It was enough to make Combat, The Untouchables and Gunsmoke look downright tame.


Monday, August 22, 2011

Storz-ette "The Original Beer for Women"

   In the early 1950s, the Storz Brewing Company of Omaha, Nebraska, which had been brewing beer for much of the western United States since the late 19th Century, decided its biggest potential growth market was women. Women were traditionally not big beer drinkers, many saying that the swill was too bitter and too fattening, and Storz advertising and packaging was decidedly on the masculine side. Tobacco companies had successfully convinced women in droves to smoke cigarettes in the previous couple of decades, a habit once deemed as strictly a male pleasure, so why not get them into the beer-drinking habit with a brew marketed especially for them.

   In 1953-54, Storz-ette was test marketed in San Diego, California. Looking at the way it was sold, one gets the impression that the whole thing was concocted by some male "mad men" making assumptions of what appealed to women with little input from actual women, except maybe passing comments from their wives.

   Storz-ette was sold in just one type of package, 8-ounce "queen size" cans that were a little smaller than the standard 12-ounce beer can. The reason behind the smaller cans was because "women have felt standard sizes too large for a serving," according to a company representative quoted in the trade magazine Modern Packaging from December 1953.

   These petite beer cans featured a pink orchid lithographed on the label and on the lid (which was a plain flat lid that had to be opened with a special punch-type opener, before the advent of the tab-top), a pattern of small orange dots over a clean-looking white background, the name "Storz-ette" in green script, and the slogan "The original beer for women." The beer also claimed to be "calorie controlled," although light beer as we know it today hadn't yet been invented, and that it was less bitter than regular beer, most likely achieved with more water and less hops. The overall can design was very fifties-fashionable.

   The 8-ounce "queen size" cans came in a 4-can "Princess Pak" paperboard carton that had a similar design plus a printed red ribbon going around it so it looked like a gift. The "Princess Paks" were jumble displayed in small shopping carts in stores, with attached full-color placards featuring gossipy-looking ladies saying "It's NEW and strictly for the GIRLS."

   Storz also merchandised for women drinkers small packets of flat sheets of tissue that could be used to wipe off some of the layers of lipstick that fifties ladies wore so thickly, before they sank their lips into a beer glass (and left a disgusting greasy imprint that would be difficult to wash off).

   Storz-ette proved to be a bomb and according to sources, the one San Diego-based Storz distributor that handled the product dumped the remaining stock into the ocean. The Storz Brewing Company would eventually merge with Minneapolis-based Grain Belt Breweries, Inc. in 1967, and the Omaha brewery would finally close for good in 1972.


Thursday, August 18, 2011

Alex Bennett in the Sixties

   Alex Bennett, an icon of progressive music and talk radio for over four decades currently hosts a weekday talk show over Sirius Satellite Radio (Sirius Left 146) and XM Radio's America Left. Mixing left-wing politics with humor, he is something of a "Groucho Marxist" of talk radio.

   He built a respectable, if often controversial broadcast career doing both talk and album rock formats in places such as New York, Miami and his native San Francisco through the years. And in talk radio he was a true pioneer, hosting political and current events-driven call-in shows in Houston and Minneapolis-St. Paul going back to the early days of the format in the 1960s.

   A found article in the Minneapolis Tribune from January 29, 1968 profiled the then 28-year-old radio host, described as having a "lean and hungry look" with "extended sideburns and a walrus mustache," offering a glimpse into the early stages of his career and the early days of talk radio, which, contrary to popular belief, did not start with Rush Limbaugh in the late 1980s.

   According to the 1968 profile, Alex Bennett began his radio career as a top-40 disc jockey but decided to become a talk man "when he realized he was going off his turntable playing rock 'n' roll for teenyboppers." He started out doing talk radio at KILT in Houston, Texas, moving on to WLOL-AM in St. Paul, Minnesota in late 1967. On his Houston show, "I had John Scopes on, the monkey trial guy. We found him in Shreveport, Louisiana. What a wonderful guy. He's over 60 now and still a rebel," he told the Minneapolis Tribune.

   "Then I had Tim Leary on to discuss LSD. He's one of the few people I just couldn't argue with. I don't agree with him, but he's an absolutely charming guy."

   He also claimed that while doing talk radio in Houston, he conducted a seance on the air, and that he was frequently threatened both on air and off. When an on-air caller threatened to punch him in the nose, Bennett told him, "I'll tell you what, you come down here at ten tomorrow night and we'll go off in a corner and let another announcer give a blow-by-blow description."

   The man who made the threat didn't show up "but 500 other guys came down to the station all claiming to be the guy who called," Bennett told the Tribune.

   In Minneapolis, working at the legendary WLOL Radio, Bennett found callers to be a little less volatile. "I've been on the air [here] six weeks now," he said in January 1968, "and there haven't been any bomb threats or people following me or dirty phone calls."

   But it wasn't all "Minnesota Nice." He said that Twin Cities callers were better educated and at the same time more racially prejudiced than those who called in to his Houston show. "The level of our conversations is higher here, but we also get more hate callers. In the South they still have segregation as an outlet for their hatred of Negroes, but here their hates have been suppressed because segregation isn't the socially accepted behavior."

   Bennett acknowledged that even back then, "A majority of callers on any talk show are conservative." His own views, as he described them at the time, were more moderate liberal than radical Left. "I am basically against the war in Vietnam and I suppose you could call me a pacifist...As a nation which has led others to improvements in standard of living and human rights, it's about time we set the pace for peace."

   Houston and Minneapolis were mere stepping stones for a man destined for the big markets. In 1969 he went to WMCA in New York City as it transitioned from top-40 to talk. While there, among other things, he went to London to investigate the Paul McCartney death rumors (and would later become a close friend to John Lennon and Yoko Ono). But his stated views were becoming more radical, at least for the station and its sponsors.

   In a May 1971 follow-up, the Minneapolis Tribune reported, via the trade paper Variety, "Bennett, one of the early noisemakers and boat rockers in 'LOL's talky format, was fired recently from his reported $35,000-a-year nightly show on WMCA...supposedly for his 'anti-establishment preachments' in favor of legal marijuana and in disfavor of President Nixon and associates.

   "One sponsor, Coca-Cola, which reportedly had told its agencies to avoid such 'controversial' shows as 'All In The Family,' the Smothers Brothers and 'Laugh-In,' dropped out of Bennett's show after one on-air program with the Yippie party, Variety related."

   But Alex Bennett was quickly snatched up by another New York station, WPLJ, and he later moved on to his native San Francisco, Miami, and back to San Francisco, doing both talk and album rock.

   If anyone thought his career would be over after getting fired from WMCA, a career that has lasted over forty years has proved them wrong. He may not be as well known as some of the conservatives of talk radio, but he's been around a hell of a lot longer.