Category Archives: Media

Hollywood Cat Call — 1961

Open casting call for black cats for the Roger Corman movie Tales of Terror (1962), starring Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Basil Rathbone. Plaid was apparently quite popular at the time. (Life magazine photos by Ralph Crane / Nov. 1, 1961.)

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Yes, Flannery O’Connor DID Teach Her Chicken To Walk Backwards!

Today I learned that Flannery O’Connor had her first brush with fame at the age of 6 because she had taught one of her chickens to walk backwards. The Pathé newsreel people somehow heard about this, and they rushed to Georgia to film her. That short was screened all over the world. She joked that “When I was six I had a chicken that walked backward and was in the Pathé News. I was in it, too, with the chicken. I was just there to assist the chicken, but it was the high point in my life. Everything since has been anticlimax.”

It took a while, but after a lot of dead-ends, I finally found the film online. (Glory hallelujah, there is now a Pathé archive online!) Click here to watch “Do You Reverse?” (1932).

Sadly, O’Connor died at 39 from lupus. I don’t believe she ever saw the film.

Oh! And tomorrow would have been Flannery O’Connor’s 85th birthday. Happy Birthday, Chicken Whisperer!


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High Grade: The Beer That’s Liquid Food!

I have a bunch of stuff crammed into boxes. I don’t even know what’s actually IN some of the boxes. There are books and papers and documents and potentially collectible stuff that I’ve acquired over the years, most of it coming from the bowels of my father’s book store. Sometimes I see stuff I don’t remember ever having seen before. Like yesterday, when I saw a postcard lying on the floor, near a box ominously labeled “eBay.” This was the postcard (right click for a larger image):

I have to admit I’ve never heard of High Grade Beer, “The Beer That’s Liquid Food,” but, damn, that’s a cool-looking brewery. I investigated further.

According to The Handbook of Texas, “The Galveston Brewing Company (1895-1918) was one of the few regional breweries that survived Prohibition. Adolphus Busch and William J. Lemp of St. Louis were both major stockholders of the corporation that raised $400,000 to found the Galveston Brewing Company in 1895. The brewery formally began operations on February 3, 1896. The pre-Prohibition physical plant consisted of a large ice plant that could produce seventy-five tons of ice, and a modern brewery that could produce 75,000 barrels of beer a year. The plant also had cold-storage rooms and railroad tracks on two sides of the building. The company dug several wells that gave a water supply of two million gallons a day. The Galveston brewery was so well constructed that it survived the Galveston hurricane of 1900 with only minor damage. The major product of the Galveston brewery before Prohibition was a beer called High Grade.”

Sounds like a pretty amazing operation (I’m not sure about post-Ike, but I think the building still stands).

I found a couple of amusing ads for the beer that appeared in the Galveston Daily News. These two ads appeared in 1908 and 1909, and this campaign featuring the annoying “Otto” seems to have gone on for quite some time. The first one, from 1908, is my favorite:

The kids … they love the beer.

The second one, from 1909, isn’t as “enlightening” as the first, but it gives a nice nod to the hard-working (and always sober) Galveston brewery workers:

More successful, I think, (and certainly less didactic) is this typically lovely example of early-20th century advertising art, featuring beer-loving mermaids prettily washed up on the rocks below the Galveston seawall:

I am endlessly fascinated by the weirdness of advertising.

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It’s One O’Clock and Here Is Mary Margaret McBride

Having discussed my impressions of watching an interview with a heretofore unknown (to me) Mary Margaret McBride in my previous post, I felt I needed to learn more about a woman who had been so important in the daily lives of so many people at one time but who is now almost completely forgotten. I was happy to see that there is a fairly recently published biography of her called It’s One O’Clock and Here Is Mary Margaret McBride: A Radio Biography by Susan Ware. I read the book yesterday — the whole thing in one day, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I was fascinated by MMM when I watched her on the the Mike Wallace Interview show, and I wanted to find out more about her, so I was happy to see that there was a biography of this woman I knew nothing about — I ordered it on Monday, it arrived on Thursday, and I read it Saturday. And I’m proud to say that I now know a LOT about MMM. That she has drifted into obscurity is a crime. She was a pioneering broadcaster in the 1930s through the 1950s, and she was one of the best-known and most-loved radio personalities of her era. I have a feeling that she WOULD be remembered were it not for the fact that she was a woman whose audience was primarily women (although her show was not a “women’s show”).

I wish I had known her. I also wish I had been able to listen to her daily 45-minute interview show. I’m sure I would have a learned a lot about the world, the arts, and about MMM herself. And, like all of her listeners, I’m sure I would have felt that I was listening to a gentle and soft-spoken friend who would ask her guests all the questions I would want to ask myself. Now I know why Mike Wallace, of all people, spoke to her with such warmth and respect. Every woman now toiling in the broadcast industry owes her a great debt. If only more of them possessed her charm and genuine curiosity.

Susan Ware is interviewed about the book on NPR here.

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Elsa Maxwell vs. Mary Margaret McBride

The Mike Wallace Interview I watched a couple more programs from The Mike Wallace Interview program (several of the shows are archived online by the University of Texas here). I watched the interview with Elsa Maxwell (recorded November 1957) and the interview with Mary Margaret McBride (June 1957).

I was familiar with Maxwell, having seen any number of clips of her on the Jack Paar show and on panel shows from the ’50s. She was, basically, kind of famous for being famous. Her claim to fame was throwing parties for the sophisticated set (she also wrote a column about the sophisticated set for the sophisticated set). I always thought she was supposed to be something of a wit, but having watched the Mike Wallace interview, she strikes me as kind of an intolerant, name-dropping gasbag. I see little charm there at all. It was amusing that she had recently said that her idea of a “nightmare party” guestlist would include Elvis Presley (“an utterly unattractive man with no talent”), Jayne Mansfield, and Nikita Khrushchev. You might not be a fan of these people, Elsa, but, let’s face it, that would have been a GREAT party! She comes off as a mean-spirited snob who seems to have wafted through life from feud to feud. She insists in the interview that she is loved by well over 20 million people. I’m wondering if she was loved by TWENTY people.

Mary Margaret McBride, on the other hand, was actually loved by millions upon millions of people. Beloved, even. Basically, I’d only ever heard of MMM in off-hand references to her in a couple of episodes of I Love Lucy, and I guess I assumed that she was a sort of early TV host of a program geared to women — a Martha Stewart type. What I learned from the Mike Wallace interview (which is much, MUCH more bearable than the Elsa Maxwell interview) is that MMM was an early female radio pioneer. She was one of the most popular personalities on radio, and she had a very strong, emotional bond with her mostly-female listening audience in the ’30s and ’40s. She’s often described as being the Oprah of her day. She interviewed movers and shakers and spoke in a folksy manner that is extremely comforting. I love this woman! In fact, I just ordered a biography of her that came out in 2005.

Although both Maxwell and McBride hail from humble mid-western backgrounds (Maxwell from Iowa and McBride from Missouri), they couldn’t have turned out more differently. You get the feeling that Maxwell wouldn’t be caught DEAD back in Keokuk but that McBride would be the first to turn up with a fresh-baked apple pie for a community picnic back in Paris, Missouri.

Interestingly, the two had something else in common. At first it struck me as annoying when Wallace asked both extremely successful women if they ever regretted not marrying — he tried his best to get them both to admit to loneliness and a lack of fulfillment. (I don’t think he would have pursued this line of questioning with a man.) But, in listening to the way the women answered the “spinsterhood” question, one is able to read between the lines — they were both lesbians.* Even though she had lived with her companion for over fifty years, Maxwell is on record with her hypocritical views on homosexuality (which I saw quoted here in an interesting blog that came up on a Google search). McBride, whose companion of over twenty years had died just a couple of months before the Mike Wallace interview, seems heartbroken and lost, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to have heard her talk about their life together in a down-home way that wouldn’t have sounded all that shocking (much like her admission to Wallace that she had once considered marrying a man in Italy only to leave him as soon as she got pregnant).

One woman immersed herself in vacuousness and was hateful and boastful and wouldn’t consider inviting people to her parties who weren’t beautiful. The other was down-to-earth and curious, and she connected with her audience on a human level. Maxwell described homosexuality as a “disease” and a “perversion,” and she suggested people ostracize gay men and women and maybe they’d just go away (while she herself was spending her days and nights rubbing her own less-than-beautiful shoulders with “depraved” celebrities like Noel Coward and Cole Porter). Maxwell was all about exclusion. McBride talked to her audience and to her interviewees as if they were friends — she had a wide variety of people on her show, including black guests, which, at the time, was a very unusual occurence. McBride was all about INclusion. Guess which of the two women had a sparsely-attended funeral? Guess which one is considered one of the most effective spokespersons of the modern advertising era?

La Maxwell and Mary Margaret

Two of the most famous women of their day — and hardly anyone has heard of them today.

(Interestingly, MMM, queen of the pitchwomen, would never hawk anything she didn’t believe in — including cigarettes. Wallace’s show was sponsored by Philip Morris cigarettes, and he’s shilling for them throughout the show as if there’s no tomorrow. During the Maxwell interview he does a couple of live commercials, intoning: “It’s a man’s kind of mildness: no filter … no foolin’.” During the MMM interview — in which his tone is uncharacteristically friendly and concerned — his cigarette proselytizing is kept at a minimum. MMM probably appreciated it.)

* Edit 6/29/08: Having just read It’s One O’Clock and Here Is Mary Margaret McBride, a biography of MMM by Susan Ware (and written about it here), I’m not so sure about MMM being gay. She had an intense relationship with Stella Karn her closest friend, her business partner and her radio producer, but it’s unclear whether they had a lesbian relationship. One comes away from the book feeling that maybe MMM was asexual. MMM’s life was, in many ways, an open book that she shared freely with her listeners, but this part of her life still seems to be something of a mystery.

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A few days ago I went to see an advance screening of a movie I’d seen a trailer for a month or two ago, and, quite honestly, I would never have gone to see this movie unless a friend had said how much a friend of hers had loved it at an L.A. film festival last year. The movie is called Young@Heart, a British-made documentary about a Massachusetts chorus made up of elderly men and women who cover songs by a lot of surprising bands (The Ramones, Sonic Youth, Jimi Hendrix, Talking Heads, The Clash, The Bee Gees, David Bowie, etc.). Sounded quirkily tedious, but I decided to give it a shot.

And I’m so glad I did, because it’s one of the best films I’ve seen in years. I love this film so much that I feel a little embarrassed that I want absolutely everyone I know to go see it.

It’s very, very funny, and it’s very, very sad, and it’s very, very moving, and it’s better paced and more emotionally satisfying than most movies ever seem to be.

There are hilarious scenes with the men and women (average age about 80) attempting to learn Allen Toussaint’s Yes, We Can Can (in which the narrator tells us the word “can” shows up 71 times and is an almost impossible-to-learn tongue-twister for them). Tension mounts as Bob, the hip young chorus director, wonders if they’ll master it in time for their show and worldwide tour. It’s also amusing to watch them as they hear the songs they’ll be working on for the first time — there are many pained expressions as the group first hears Sonic Youth’s Schizophrenia. But it’s also suprising how easily they take to certain songs — there’s a wonderful moment when they completely nail Life During Wartime.

Rehearsing James Brown’s I Feel Good.

The sad moments inevitably come when the group talks about and is faced with mortality and the need to carry on, regardless of roadblocks along the way.

There are two scenes so moving that I wonder if Hollywood writers could come up with anything more powerful. In one scene, the group has learned of some bad news on the way to a performance they are to do at a local prison, but they insist on doing their show, despite the news. The reaction of the mostly young prisoners to this group of elderly men and women singing for them is incredible. There’s no way any person could watch this and not tear up. (There was a teenage boy sitting next to me with his girlfriend, and he was sniffling throughout the entire scene.)

Performing at the prison.

But the moment of moments comes at the end, when Fred Knittle (who is the funniest person in the movie) sings a song I’d never heard before but which, I assume, must be an anthemic super-hit from Coldplay (a band I’ve managed to avoid thus far) — Fix You. I won’t spoil the moment for those of you who might go see it (and EVERYONE should go see it), but listening to this man sing this song (which, in the context of this documentary, has a whole different meaning than Chris Martin probably intended), accompanied by the sound of his oxygen tank … it is powerful and sweet and staggering and life-affirming and just absolutely perfect.

Fred Knittle singing Fix You.

Go see this film.

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Subliminal Oprah

Flipping around the channels this afternoon, I came across a commercial for Lime A-way that caught my attention. A nice housewife in a red top is telling us how wonderful Lime A-way is for all her bathroom cleaning needs when suddenly we see a rubber-gloved hand holding a bottle of Lime A-way pointed at a bathroom wall. As the bottle sprays the product onto the tile, it quite clearly spells out OPRAH. It’s weird that I saw it — I rarely pay much attention to commercials, and it flashed by pretty quickly. But I jumped back with the DVR, and several times I watched the Lime A-way spray spell out OPRAH. This can’t be a coincidence (a Jesus on a tortilla “miracle”). What it IS, though, is absolutely brilliant subliminal advertising. My guess is that the ad wizards figure Oprah is the holy grail of celebrity endorsers and a targeted icon of the Lime A-way buying public. If they can’t get Oprah herself, they can at least use her name spelled out in bathroom cleanser. It’s so classy! (Somehow I’m thinking Harpo Productions hasn’t given its blessing to this.)

“Lime A-way? No, I haven’t tried it yet, but I think I heard somewhere that Oprah LOVES it! Thanks for reminding me — I’m gonna get some NOW!”

I wish I had a screen shot of that plain-as-day OPRAH spelled out on that bathroom wall.


Has anyone else even noticed this? Google says no.

Edit: Thanks to reader “Shenanigans” we now have a short clip of the infamous commercial here:

Lime A-way Subliminal

Here’s a screenshot I made from the video (not the highest quality, I admit, but you get the idea):

What do you think?

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