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.