Friday, May 31, 2013

Photo Friday: The Frozen Cumberland River Edition (1940)

Good morning! 

It's Friday, and you know what that means...vintage photographs! Here's a fun one from my own family photos in Nashville, year of our Lord 1940. My dad's dad and his brothers are the protagonists in this nail-biting tale of adventure on the frozen tundra! (Kind of.)

My fourteen year old granddad, his twelve year old brother George, and his eight year old brother James did not heed the Nashville Banner headline "Don't Risk Your Life on the River!" from the January 27th, 1940 edition of that local paper. What kind of 1940's kids would they be! I'm glad they didn't so I could bring this pair of pictures from seventy-three years ago, chronicling the last time the river upon which the city of Nashville was founded in the 1700's was frozen solid. Is it not kind of amazing that they're just standing there, looking cool, a couple hundred feet out from the shore? I would have been scared to death of plummeting to my icy demise underneath, but they look nonplussed about their winter walk on the water. I love the clothes and hats on both boys (my grandad and James) here, and my dad's dad's incredible height. I think I was my full height by this age, but was girls grow quicker than boys, my granddad still had a couple more inches to go before reaching his adult stature of 6'2''.

Here's George in short pants and a coat that would still be fashionable today. What I love about photos of my great-uncle George is how he always has the snazziest vêtements out of everyone in whatever photo he appears. His brothers and dad were no slouches when it came to dress, but if there was a bowtie to be worn or a foulard to be knotted at one's neck, you'd better believe George was taking advantage of the occasion to don said neckwear. He had the good looks and height, not to mention panache, to pull this off as an adult, as well, but doesn't he look confident and awesome in his river walk photo. I also love how some stranger's kid (who looks uncannily like some crowd scene extra in a Frank Capra movie) has photo bombed George's big moment on ice. "Say, what's goin' on here?" his face says, and then click! Captured forever on film.

These two photos are from the Banner and The Tennessean, respectively, from that year. You can see my family wasn't alone in throwing caution to the January wind and running out on the ice! I keep thinking of the first person that morning of the four-day-freeze who went "Ma! Grab the kids! The Cumberland's froze-over! No foolin', it's rock solid! Let's go!" as well as the last person who went "Ah, we'll go on Thursday when I get out of work" and missed his once in a lifetime chance to walk on water.

Did you ever read George Zepp's write-in answers column about Nashville history in the Tennessean? I don't know if he still does it or not, but this was definitely a mainstay of weekly weekend newspaper reading for my dad and me when I still lived with my parents in high school. An excerpt from the collected columns in Zepp's book The Hidden History of Nashville (click the link to see more preview pages), details the freeze and the Cumberland's history of freezing over:

How do you like that! It's possible the city itself was founded due to a freeze exactly like this one, enabling settlers to clamber across the water towards the banks of what would be Music City, U.S. of A. Here's another clipping from The Nashville Banner, circa I think the 1990's. Click for a closeup view.

So! What do you think? Do you have any neat photos of relatives in amazing weather conditions that bore out taking a picture for historical purposes? Have you ever been secretly delighted to see how grown-up clothes and children's clothes were so similar back in the day? What's the neatest winter photo taken of you or your family? Let's talk!

That's all for today, kids! Have a great weekend! Wish me luck at the sales, and I'll see you on Monday! Til then.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Real Talk: Awkward Thrift Store Encounters Edition

Good morning!

I was brainstorming what to tell you guys about today, out of the breadth of my human experience, and the first thing that came to mind was the weekend before last's Friday shopping excursion. As a library employee, I am mercifully allotted every other weekend a Friday off for the Friday half-day and Sunday day-shift I worked the previous week. This means, as you may well have guessed as even a casual reader of this blog, more time to hit estate sales or the thrift stores. I was at Southern Thrift out in Donelson two weeks ago as of tomorrow. A wonderful location, btw! Huge, huge place with lots of wingding, miscellaneous things you never knew you needed. Conveniently located in Donelson Plaza , a little to the far left of where this photo was taken:

So I was trying on dresses there the other day, and had the good fortune to find three different vintage dresses (I find vintage inspired department store dresses often enough, but very rarely old things). The cobbled-together-from-Gmail-chat version of the story I told Kelsey and Sus the other day went like this:

"Imagine me trying to go around in the world, shopping at the Southern Thrift. No dressing room mirrors at this location, you have to go outside the room to get a look at your prospective duds. So I find a couple actually really old fifties' dresses and I'm trying them on, trying not to look conspicuous...because you don't know once you've stepped out there if they're like, completely too short or too small or whatever else...So I come out in my little black hat and my black tights and this fifties' dress and I'm looking at it trying to see if it's too short mainly--when I hear somebody go, "You'd be a fool not to get that one! You look absolutely stunning in that!"

I turn around and there's this tv preacher/guy in a car lot dude. Not particularly creepy, just like somebody you'd see at bible study, in a double breasted blazer. About fifty, blond. Looks a lot like John Tesh.

Me: Um, well, wow! Thanks! I was just--

Guy: You should get that. You really look gorgeous in it. And that hat, too. Was it the dress or the hat you were trying on?

Me: Uh, the dress.

Guy ((earnestly)): Well that hat is great. That's a really great look, all of it.

Me: Oh, thanks! I appreciate that, man. Thanks.

((scurries back into dressing room))

And your mystery date is...John Tesh!
So I try on my other stuff without leaving the dressing room, and then I kind of walk around the store and try and avoid him (I'm not trying to be weird, but this is feeling weird! And I'm by myself, and I have no cell phone)

Finally, I'm like, all right, let's bounce.Go up to the cash register. Stand in line.While I'm in line, the guy comes up in the same blazer he was trying on like 10 minutes earlier

Guy: "Excuse me, miss, but since you got my opinion earlier, I was wondering if I could trouble you for yours. What do you think about this blazer?"

Me: "Um, that's nice! And it looks like it fits you pretty well."

Guy: "You think so? Really?" ((kind of preening, arms out a little bit))

Me: "Yeah! And it's $4.99? I'd get that."

Guy: "And these pants are on sale for $2!" ((gestures at the khakis he is wearing))

Me: "Yeah....uh....yeah!" ((trying to be cheerful))

((he retreats))

The cashier woman: Did you know that guy?

Me: No. No I did not.

Cashier woman: I think he came all the way up here to talk to you. Must have been checkin' you out or somethin' when you were walkin' around the store!

Me: Uh, maybe. Sure. Yeah.

Cashier: And you're probably not even interested, you're like, I'm WAY TOO YOUNG FOR YOU!

Me: Um, I guess?

me: ((pays, takes bag, walks purposefully but does not quite run to car))"

I got my stuff, but I was still left with this lingering feeling of "How could I have done that less awkwardly? Was there something I did to make this dude make my shopping experience THAT weird?"

What the movie of my life would be called, minus the implicit sauciness of some interpretations. Or maybe "She Could Say No, But People Wouldn't Take a Hint, Either!"

Now, this story is not meant to illustrate some kind of Valley Girl horror at the idea that a fifty year old man would be trying his luck on a stork-like librarian in her late twenties' (I'm flattered!), nor, if the guy was reading this, would it be meant to embarrass him. My thoughts here are-- what is it that makes people think it's reasonable to go up to a complete stranger and initiate conversation? Especially the kind of awkward, insistent conversation that often take place in thrift stores? I've never had an Ethan Hawke circa 1995 lookalike wander up to me over the electronics and ask me for about my taste in coffeemakers, but I can't TELL you how many times I've had weird, uncomfortable tête à tête's with just random people while hot on the track of my vintage treasures.

And I'm not even unfriendly! In true Southern form, I would honest-to-God rather chop off my own hand than make somebody feel uncomfortable-- my problem is that the reverse is almost never true of other people! There's something about someone walking into your space and demanding your attention, or an interaction, that bothers me, especially if you politely try to intimate that you're just there to look for clothes and 1960's bullfighting paintings. Remember in reading pre-1920's literature or in watching Masterpiece Theater where people would not dare APPROACH a person without an introduction? I'm not a dowager empress, but I would really appreciate it if total strangers didn't have an open option on my time the way some people feel that they do.

I don't envy them their life-expectancy/likelihood-to-die-of-cholera-or-in-childbirth, but the manners! The manners, people! (source)

Am I awful? Have you been in a retail situation lately where you've felt like, come ON, PLEASE leave me alone, but didn't have the heart to tell your hapless interloper that their continued attentions were unwanted? Am I just a wimp for not turning on my heel and ignoring the mannerless? What's your go-to strategy in unwanted conversations? Any weird encounters in thrift stores lately? Let's talk!

That's all for today. I'll see you guys back here tomorrow for Photo Friday! Til then.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Weekend Finds 2: Clothes of Antiquity

Good morning!

The flea market finds continue with my clothing scores from last weekend. My favorite, favorite dealers were here again this month! I started my shed expedition by dutifully digging through the linens tables of the Andy Devine character (see my former haul from said dealer) whose scratchy, booming voice is audible from the moment you round the corner. My dad was interested in a WWII German rifle he had one table, but the $500 price tag (and the cut down barrel someone had modified post-bellum for hunting-- good eye, Pappy!) cooled his ardor for the firearm significantly. I dug but was disappointed to see a lot of the significantly damaged pieces I'd passed up last month, and left with a single black bolero jacket ($5, not pictured) to show for my trouble.

Better luck at the next dealer, however!

I love how long the skirt is on me!

The same friendly faced, chain smoking clothes seller that sold me this yellow gingham dress and the black ballroom dress that got me hooked on flea-markets-every-month in the first place had a hanging rack of maybe 30 dresses and a booth full of trinkets and baubles, from purses to repro Civil war caps to photographs. "Look!" I said to my dad, gesturing at the bounty of pre-1950's fabulousness. "This is my problem....this is what I'd like my house to look like! Just piles and piles of old handbags and crocodile wallets and recipe pamphlets!" He chided kindly against  my vacant dream-gaze, reminding me that I had recently successfully undertaken a pretty serious closet-cleanout that had left my house looking the most BREATHABLE it has looked in my adult life, to which I rejoined: "The heart wants what the heart wants!" In this case, though, I managed a modicum of self-restraint and only picked up this black taffeta and lace whirl of a dress, a blue fifties' formal, and the surprise at the end of this post.

And that the skirt has a swing circumference of like 120''!

I had a very serious "OH MY GOD" moment when I found the tiny, tiny jacket you see in the photo below:

A hunter green Victorian jacket with slightly puffed up sleeves, all military-style construction? Every one of the buttons laid out in a phalanx down the front of the piece, not a single one unaccounted for? OH. MY GOD. I think I might have mentioned before when I was talking about finding that Edwardian romper-set in the same post as the ballroom gown or when I got that gorgeous Victorian satin jacket for a song--it has only been in the last year or so that the possibility of owning clothes 100 plus years old has occurred to me. Not because I didn't think they existed, but the scant examples I've seen in vintage stores or on Ebay or in an antique mall have been three figure price tagged and in a state of delicacy comparable to butterfly wings or onion skin. Wearable but for their tiny sizes Victorian clothes? No way! Maybe in a museum, or Courtney Love's closet (she has Theda Bara grade authentic flapper clothing that makes me actually cry salt tears to think of owning), but not in my hot little hands. 

But think again!

Did I mention there are TWO SMALL, INEXPLICABLE FUR PUFF BALLS as decoration on the back of the jacket? Well, I should. I am still a terrible blog photographer and dependent on the good graces of an iPhone to show you what I see, but imagine the color is somewhere in between these photos, a true hunter green, though the construction is far more visible in the washed out photos below. Imagine a sweeping matching skirt and maybe a fur cap to match the trimmings in the back. I can't, I might faint from the glamour of it all, but you go on and think on it.

I wanna be with you, coat! The dealer quoted thirty on the jacket and ten apiece on the dresses, but I managed to piteously haggle him down to twenty on the jacket and...fine, ten apiece on the dresses. I'm poor! I think he could see that I might actually die if I didn't get the coat, but also that I did not have that much money to blow (especially at this point in my shopping excursion) on the lovely things clutched to my chest. A merciful merchant! I told him I planned on wearing the two dresses, but maybe hanging the coat on the wall in my office. "Yeah, it's tiny, but I figured someone might want it for display, like you said. How old do you think it is? Edwardian? Maybe Victorian?" I breathed a sigh of wonder. "No idea. Probably older rather than newer, if you ask me. I was thinking 1880's. It's in great shape, too!" We chatted amiably for a minute as the items were bagged and I pretty much skipped away from the booth, unable to conceal a mile-wide grin.

Neither of us was kidding about the diminutive size of this guy, either! The waist at its smallest point measures 20 inches, and you have to think of this as being OUTERWEAR (the inside is even fleece), meaning the person inside would have to be maybe 18-inches in waist circumference to even be comfortable. We're talking Gone With the Wind measurements! I think about the teeny, teeny sizings of more petite starlets in the day (Bette Davis, 21'' waist; Veronica Lake, same) and then plus a corset, and a 18'' waist doesn't seem that far off! From them, that is.

Best part? I spent $40 on all three pieces (I know, I know-- but my entertainment budget is nil, and this makes up for it once a month), and each garment still had the tag from the antique dealer my guy had wholesale purchased the clothes from. Wanna see what retail on just the two items pictured is?

Two hundred and five smackeroos, folks! Now, for something I love as much as I love these two pieces, PLUS getting them for $30...the best feeling! Simply the best feeling.

How about you? Do you have any truly antique clothes or items in your collection? What's the best you've made out at an estate sale or in a flea market setting lately, when you knew an item was worth x but only had to pay y for it? Let's talk our successes, folks!

That's all for today, I've gotta get back to work! Have a great Wednesday and I'll see you tomorrow. Til then!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Weekend Finds 1: Your Picture on My Wall Edition

Good morning!

Well, if it wasn't a whale of a weekend! The flea market was everything we expected AND MORE, PEOPLE. My dad and I were almost giddy with excitement about an hour into shopping, as we clutched bulging plastic bags of goodies and wondered whether a trip to the car to free our hands was necessitated by the sheer VOLUME of things we'd managed to procure up to that point. We practiced some measure of control and left before we'd quite spent ALL our money, but boy, the little gems we brought home with us! I've divided this into two posts, because the objects I bought fell so neatly into two categories that it seemed a shame to mix them all up. Part the first: photos I bought.

Yeeeeeah, I know. Should I start building an addition out into the backyard simply so's that I have walls to hang all the fabulous pictures I have on them? I had beaten my framed-items addiction back from full-blown junkiehood ("Look at this forties' guy doing a handstand! I HAVE TO HAVE THIS!") into mild preference-over-other-knickknacks ("Wellll....between the framed poodle print and the poodle figurine....I'll take the print."). This weekend proved not-so-pretty, however-- I was head over heels for some of these prints and their low, low prices flicked me over the edge from considering to consummating the purchase. Photo number one is particularly nice:

This was hanging in one of the stalls in the swine barn at the very back of the fairgrounds. I particularly like those two locations (even though "Antique Alley" is usually where I find the most clothes) for their good bargains and miles of tchotchkes and deals. Example, this photo, which really should have been in the $35-$45 range at bare minimum retail in an antique store, was $20. Curved glass gilt frame, about fifteen inches tall, and interesting subjects...come on, people!

Subject one's Barton Fink hair was really the first thing that drew me to the photograph. Upon further inspection, his sister is also completely adorable. I was telling Matthew this weekend that it's funny to think that the people in this photo were once just "Oh, that picture? that's Bud and Annie! You know, Louise's kids." and there was someone who you could ask and who could probably tell you a lot about the kids in the picture. In present time, whoever knew the provenance of these photos is probably long gone or forgotten. The subjects of the photo, and anyone who knew them when they were this age, are most likely extinct in year of our Lord 2013, and isn't that weird to think about? The photo goes from being a photo of two people, as a record of their images more than a picture unto itself, to being a historical article, with two anonymous figures in it. Remind me to date and caption any extant photos of myself in print!

I guess the feet didn't come out or were blurred in the original image, because when the photo was hand tinted, the artist did a pretty good job of drawing in stockings and shoes on both children (sorry for the reflection, the light was not cooperating this morning):

After watching Hemingway and Gellhorn, I secretly became interested in the machismo-fueled sport of fishing for enormous, sea-bound prey. I know, bad vegan, but how crazy is it that there are these prehistoric-sized creatures swimming around out in the middle of the ocean, and you can take one on! This looks to be a souvenir photo taken on board during one such fishing expedition at the moment the prey was triumphantly hauled up onto the deck. I love the fish-eye lens effect of the picture, as well as the man's face being completely in shadow while fish stares bleakly into the camera. Wild! Poor guy. This was $2 at one of the outdoor stalls near the food pavilion. How could I say no?

Last but not least, this was in the same booth as the Bud and Annie photo. I spotted it just as I was buying the other photo, and added it as a last minute, "You're spending money, so why not spend more money!" addition to my purchase. GROUP. PHOTOS. ARE. SO. COOL:

This looks to me like sometime in the thirties', though there's not a social club insignia or name of a building anywhere in the picture to clarify what the occasion was or where this sitting took place. I am getting a little a lightheaded looking at all the gorgeous women's outerwear in the below closeup:

The sporty berets and enormous fur collars of the women's clothing is really what seals this as more thirties' than forties' to my  eye. Do you think they're all employees of that same business? I wouldn't say graduating class, as there are both older and younger people in the photo, nor would I call it a social organization because there are both men and women in the picture, and those are usually gender specific. What do you think? (PS: the belted overcoat on the guy, second from the right in the below photo. How snazzy!)

Well, that's part one of the spoils of this weekend. Which photo do you think is the most interesting? Did you hit the flea market or any good sales this weekend? If you collect photos, where do you find your most rare and beloved specimens? Let's talk!

That's all for today, kiddos. See you back here tomorrow for more finds! Til then.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Happy Memorial Day!

Good morning!

It's Memorial Day, yesssss! Any paid holiday is a good holiday for me. I'm about to sit back and drink some coffee while working through this book of Victorian ghost stories in my idle moments before we head out to a friend's baby shower, but I didn't forget about you, dear readers! Here are some gorgeous old greeting cards from the turn of the century and a little before. You can read more about Memorial Day (including its history under its past moniker, "Decoration Day"...note how a few of these cards are specifically about decorating the graves of the fallen dead, which speaks to the actual roots of the holiday) history here. Have a good day off, and I'll talk to you tomorrow!


Friday, May 24, 2013

Photo Friday: Yours Truly Edition

Good morning!

Well, we made it to Friday again, and I'm pumped! My sister and I are going to try to catch an afternoon showing of Gatsby, Anna's in town and ready to go do karaoke, it's a flea market weekend, AND my future mother-in-law Deb is having a little lunch for me tomorrow to celebrate my GRADUATION OMFG IT'S OFFICIAL, I HAVE A MASTER'S. Call me, people-with-better-paying-jobs-open. Call me!

For Photo Friday this week, I thought I might take a break from scrutinizing other members of my family tree, and turn the spotlight on myself for once. People, in all my glory-- 1980's me.

Cue Jay-Z's "The Takeover" here...rockafella y'all...

My sweet dad has undertaken the mammoth project of digitally scanning, a few by a couple, the thousands upon thousands of photos in our own collection as well as those of my grandma. I was born in 1985, so I think some of my best photos are probably circa 1988 or 1989, and boy, do they feature me-me-ME. As the first born, I was the subject of many the impromptu photo session. In the above tableau, you can see me in media res, standing on the chair of the Fisher Price table-and-chairs set in my bedroom, doing who knows what. On the table, there's a Fisher Price grocery cash register that was one of my favorite toys because it includes, among its features, a motorized belts for moving the tiny groceries along to be scanned, and a scanner, which bleeped and blooped more or less successfully, depending on how the batteries were doing. In the background, a Radio-Flyer wagon full of stuffed animals-- poor Kermit has been plucked from the bunch, as he was easily my favorite, and is being held upside down as I demonstrate whatever it is I'm demonstrating here. What an outfit, by the way! Mickey Mouse leotard from the Sears catalog? Check. Coordinating tights and turtleneck? Check. I love how my face has changed precious little since I was a little gal.

Here I am in front of a tree in the front yard of the house I still live in! One of the weirdest feelings when I'm going through a lot of these is pointing out to Matthew, "Hey, see? This is in the kitchen! That's in the backyard before my dad planted that pine tree! That's me on the front step!" of the house in say 1986, while we're IN said house in 2013. Spooky. I loved the red Mary Janes in this photo so much that my mom, after much protestation on my part that I hadn't outgrown them, that I could still squeeze my little feet into them, sliced down the back of heel so I could continue wearing them as ad hoc clogs around the house long after they were too small. I'm still resentful of my Uma-Thurman-grade-big-feet, but it's funny to think of me as a little kid going, "NO! I CAN STILL WEAR THESE! THEY LOOK FINE!" much as I try to squeeze into size 10 shoes at the present day. Some struggles are lifelong. That puppy dog doll I'm carrying was named Sunny, and was apparently part of a tie-in to a cartoon called Fluppy Dogs (you had me at "Fluppy", Fluppy Dogs). I lost Sunny I at the K-mart on Gallatin Road by accidentally leaving it in the shopping basket,. This created a situation that should hence be known as Fluppygate '88, in which I was inconsolable in the back of our family's Monte Carlo as my dad and a Kmart service representative tried to figure out where the doll in question had ended up. Spoiled thing that I was, we ended up buying Sunny II at that same K-mart, after an APB on the missing dog had turned up nothing, but it was never the same.

One of my favorite places to go as a kid in Nashville was the Cumberland Science Center. Pre-renovation in the late 90's, this place was a bizarre hodgepodge of natural science and historic long-term exhibits (an underground animal burrow, a 1900's general store, a Japanese tea was all over the place!), and a series of traveling exhibits  The best of these were always the dinosaur-themed ones, the most memorable of which included robotic, Showbiz Pizza style life-size models of the prehistoric creatures. The first dream I can ever remember having had to do with sleeping in my parents' bed, and waking up to discover that the wall behind the headboard opened up to reveal hissing smoke and fog and the robotic dinosaurs from the traveling exhibit. When I woke up in real life, I was adamant that there really was some kind of hidden panel behind the wall, and kept looking for it with both my little palms outstretched to plaster, ear flat to its surface, listening for dinosaurs like a tiny safecracker. In the above photo, I love how I'm trying to put my head inside the T-rex's maw. Nice one, kid. Good survival instincts.

Last but not least, here's me in the back of my mom's tan 1989 Nissan Sentra. What a car! If the transmission hasn't gone out on it in late high school, I would probably be driving that little piece of heaven right now. Those sunglasses were promotional items from Crest toothpaste, which my Procter and Gamble employed uncle got for me, along with a telephone shaped like the Crest mascot. Note that the sparkly blue is meant to evoke a connection between it and the consistency/color of the toothpaste, but these shades were way cooler than the product itself, obviously. I was trying to figure out if I could tell where this was by the background, but I have no idea.

So! Do you have any sweet photos of yourself being a little crazy bab back in the day? What makes your most memorable childhood photos the most memorable? Do you have any that you look back on and go "WHAT. AM I DOING. IN THIS PICTURE." ? Let us know!

Have a great weekend, and I'll see you on the other side! Til then.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Plotto (William Wallace Cook, 1928)

Good morning!

I came across this book, Plotto, on the "new arrivals" shelf catty-corner from the nonfiction desk. Usually, this shelf is piteously stocked with titles like How to Manage Your Security Bonds Investment or What Doctors Won't Tell You About Hyperthyroidism, but last month's batch included both Plotto AND a book called Liberace Extravaganza, and act like I wasn't on those like a duck on a june bug. 

This brightly colored edition is a reprint of the 1928 text by dime novel virtuoso William Wallace Cook. Cook, with extensive experience in cranking out stories for popular publication, improved upon French critic Georges Poulti's declaration that there are thirty-six essential dramatic situations by doing him 1,426 better. Yes, there are one thousand, four hundred and sixty two different plots in Plotto, and the literary aspirant can avail himself to all of them between the orange covers of this book. Stuck for ideas? Take a thumb through this tome and profit from Cook's vast wealth of knowledge on what makes the plot wheels spin. In 1910 alone, he wrote 56 novels. FIFTY SIX. NOVELS. That's more than one a week!

Some plots from Plotto:
  • A, of a proud old Southern family, impoverished in fortune, feels that he cannot ask wealthy B, with whom he is in love, to marry him.
  • A, in one pair of shoes, is meek and circumspect in his behavior when wearing another pair, he is wild and profligate.
  • A finds a note, somewhat ambiguously worded, which leads him to a wrong conclusion regarding the conduct of his wife, B 381 
  •  B is mysteriously murdered and A, innocent, is suspected of the crime 
  • A finds B dead, slain by the gift he had presented to her
  • A, through mistaken judgment, becomes estranged from his loving wife, B
  • A, struggling to overtake the fleeing apparition of his dead wife, B, falls from a cliff and meets his death 

This is just a random sampling-- according to author Paul Collins, who wrote the preface to the new edition and was interviewed about Plotto and Cook for All Things Considered in February of last year, there's a  plot involving a ventriloquist who is saved from cannibals by throwing his voice and making it appear that an animal is speaking to the tribe and advising them to spare his life, and something about an inflatable suit that allows a robber to leap over high fences in making good his getaway. Don't think I won't read this entire book to find out if those are actually in there. Collins says that many of Cook's ideas came from meticulously archived newspaper clippings-- and what a good idea! Reading turn of the century newspapers can yield b-i-z-a-r-r-e bylines from bygone times (reference my Chronicling America website readings on a previous blog post here...some doozys!), and I can just imagine a writer living in some garrett with a kerosene lamp and a battered Underwood trying to find a way to turn a newspaper headline into a paycheck endorsed by Crime Magazine Monthly.

Publisher Tin House's posthumous "interview" with author William Wallace Cook was interesting-- as he died in 1933 (probably from carpal tunnel), the responses are culled from biographical sources and Plotto itself. From that interview:

TH: Do you think the rules in Plotto could stifle originality? 
WWC: Plotto merely suggests, does away with rules and ask you to follow the bent of your own individual imagination, rightly controlled.All this may seem very simple to some of you, but nevertheless it is training your imagination along inventive lines. You are drilling yourself in the art of explaining circumstances in original terms. Not alone in story writing, but in every field of human endeavor, the highest success comes to those with an imagination highly developed and rightly controlled. That is, with an imagination that exercises taste and discrimination in dealing with suggestion. And note, please, that discrimination includes good judgment. Remember that originality is the soul of creative art, and to become a writer of truly creative fiction you must develop a facility in applying originality to your plot construction.When writing a story, you will invent circumstances in interpreting a suggestion and these circumstances will be original with you, and the story will flow easily along familiar lines of experience. We work originally, and we work best, with materials of our own. The suggestion alone is Plotto’s—the working out of the suggestion is original with you and is yours alone.

With a typewriter, Plotto, and a certain amount of pluck, your writing career is well on its way! (source)
I seem to remember at one point in an antique store seeing a Plotto wheel, or maybe a rip off of Plotto in the form of a wheel, that was a writer's aid. You would advance the little round pieces to contrive plot, character, setting, and obstacles. I wish I'd gotten it, because darned if I can't find a single thing about one online! Silent screenwriter Wynclffe Hall (below) wasn't satisfied to just be the author of Ten Million Photoplay Plots: The Master Key to All Dramatic Plots...oh no. He created "Plot Robot", an indexed chart for creating a multitude of variants based on eight basic plots. Look at his glasses! Look how much his robot looks like him! I wish I could find more about this, but the Corbis image below, this Slate article, and another article from Popular Mechanics seems to be about it.

What interests me about Plotto and other vintage how-to writing books is the instruction manual aspect of it all. When people wistfully chide, "Ah, they just don't make 'em like they used to!", my thought is that, with enough spark and attention to detail and the tools in your own hands, such as these texts, you CAN make them like they used to. All you need is the willingness to do so and the books themselves. Hostess manuals and home economics books and sewing pamphlets from the sixties' won't make you an actual, bonafide member of the Eisenhower era, but the very same maraschino cherry bedecked cake or highball cocktail or children's games or nipped waist gown can be had in your own home with proper scholarship and effort.  Disappointed that you've run out of potboiler pulp fiction to read? Here, you have at your command the very tools and knowledge of a turn of the century dime novelist, the benefit of all his experience and the breadth of his understanding, in handsomely bound volume! Something about that is incredibly appealing to me.

So! What do you think? If you're a writer, do you think you could use a book like Plotto to put some steam behind your typing? What farfetched plots from movies or books from this time period really get your imagination going? Let's talk!

If you're interested in taking a glance at Plotto without committing to its purchase or running out to the library to grab a copy, the text of the book in its entirety is on Internet Archive. You're welcome! :)

That's all for today, but I'll see ou guys right back here tomorrow for Photo Friday. Til then!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

J. Fred Muggs (Today Show Mascot, 1953-1957)

Good morning!

Well, I had a whole post planned out to the letter about a vintage conversational manual, but wouldn't you know it, another passing fancy has grabbed my attention. I'm going to have to put the art of 1960's small talk on the back burner and follow my heart. Folks, meet J. Fred Muggs. Yes, that is his actual name. I LOVE J. FRED MUGGS.

The Today Show debuted as NBC's daily morning show in 1952. Network president Pat Weaver, who also created The Tonight Show (see? See what he did there?), envisioned the program as a daily live broadcast that would cover pretty much the same ground it does today-- interviews, news stories, banter, antics, etc. It was the first program of its kind (followed by similar format morning shows with CBS's The Early Show and ABC's Good Morning America) and, believe it or not, it took a little convincing to get early television viewers to tune in first thing in the morning. Faced with a ratings slump in Today's second year, Weaver decided to pump up viewership in the way any red blooded entertainment mogul in 1953 would-- by adding a chimpanzee co-host.

This is big, folks! Weaver had spotted a baby chimpanzee on The Perry Como Show and decided simian co-anchorship was EXACTLY what the program needed to create early-morning network loyalty in prospective viewers. With a ruggedly handsome little face that bears more than a little resemblance to Jock Ewing, the puckishly named J. Fred Muggs went over like gangbusters. He wears human clothes, partial to suspenders and ties. He patiently sits in on guest interviews. Later, a female chimp was introduced as his girlfriend. If you thought "J. Fred Muggs" was a hilarious name for a chimpanzee, how about "Phoebe B. Beebe"? Say it outloud. Feebee Bee BeeBee. Genius. People could hardly wait to tune in and see what Muggs did next! He was a sensation in his day.

Muggs was featured on a number of products by the height of his popularity in 1955. He had a lookalike doll and puppet, was the subject of a Golden Book, and featured prominently in this Baker's Coconut ad. Dig those amorphous but adorable ice cream blobs to his right.

Several articles reference rumors of Muggs having bit Martha Raye during a filming of The Today Show, to the point that in a quoted interview, trainer Gerald Preis actually speaks out denouncing the veracity of such an appalling mistruth (with bad language, too!). However! I found this picture from a May 1954 issue of Life magazine, from a feature on the life of Raye as a busy comedienne-about-town, which ACTUALLY shows her being bit in the arm by the little devil. Who do we believe now?!

I love that he's just this mean-spirited, freewilled, anarchic little beast! I couldn't find any clips of him on The Today Show, but if you want more misbehavior, not to worry. In this 1955 episode of Make the Connection, Muggs is supposed to be the co-contestant on the show, in which the panel has to deduce, through a series of yes or no questions, what connection exists between the two guests. Unfortunately, from the moment he's brought onto the soundstage, Muggs is NOT. HAVING. IT. He's running around the front of the desk at a fast clip, then streaking behind the background set, with his trainer in hot pursuit.  He briefly clambers onto the desk to drink water from a glass (cute!) before resuming his laps around the set. Host Gene Rayburn (later of Match Game fame) makes a valiant effort to keep the show together, but his calm is pretty well nigh completely undermined by Muggs's persistent "acting out". This is live tv at its best!

 Facepalming up and coming starlet Kim Novak at a press conference. Shame on you, Muggs!

In 1957, possibly due to network pressure from anchor Dave Garroway to either "pick the monkey or me", Muggs retired from The Today Show, replaced by a more docile chimp, Kokomo Jr , who continued to cohost with poor Garroway until his retirement from the show in 1961.

Muggs had another brush with fame however-- in 1958, he did a fingerpainting that featured on the cover of Mad #38 (below). He also had TV Guide's yearly "J. Fred Muggs Award for Distinguished Foolishness" named after him.

What amazed me most about this whole story? I assumed Muggs probably went into some other form of less-prominent entertainment, maybe working as a show monkey in nondescript tv appearances, and then quietly passed away in obscurity. BUT NO! MUGGS LIVES! He's still alive and presumably biting at the age of 61, living in Florida with long-time love Phoebe. A happy ending for this adorable pioneer of chimps-on-tv.

So! Had you heard of J. Fred Muggs before? What do you think about using chimpanzees and other creatures as live hosts on early television? Did you have a simian celebrity you were particularly attached to as a child? Is even this little guy more likable as a morning host than meanie Matt Lauer? Let's talk!

That's all for today, kids! I'll see you back here tomorrow for more vintage nonsense. Til then!


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